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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 449: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2006

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—


On 28 November 2004, I was in Sydney on official business to discuss the legacy of the Olympic games and the regeneration of the former Olympic sites. I visited the Star City casino, which is part of a major waterfront regeneration scheme in the city that I discussed with the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr. I was accompanied by a number of officials, including my permanent secretary and the chief executive of English Partnerships. I have not visited any other casinos.

By giving such privileged access to one of the bidders, has not the Deputy Prime Minister seriously compromised the whole process of bidding for Britain’s only regional casino?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has been reading too many press cuttings. Let us be clear, as I have been: I was not associated in any way with the planning or sale of the dome. The decisions were made in the Department by other Ministers, and I informed the House about them. As for my meeting with Mr. Anschutz, I promised when I first met him that we would meet regularly to ensure that he was fulfilling the obligations involved in the development of the dome—which meant 10,000 new homes, 24,000 jobs and £5 billion of private investment. I am quite prepared to meet people who provide jobs and investment of that kind, and it was quite right.

The Deputy Prime Minister rightly says that he had no influence in relation to the dome and the establishment of a casino there, but may I ask him to use his influence in relation to the one casino for this country? May I ask him to support the siting of the casino in Lancashire, where it will regenerate the area and bring many thousands of jobs? Such an establishment is greatly needed in Lancashire.

I understand why my hon. Friend advocates placing a casino in Lancashire, but I assure him that I am not involved in any such decisions. The House decided that there would be an independent commission to decide how many casinos there should be and where they should be placed. The commission will report to the Secretary of State, who will come here and present recommendations to the House. Every Member will then be able to make his or her own decision on which recommendation to support. That is what the House decided, and every one of us will be involved in the subsequent decision.

During his various discussions with Mr. Anschutz and the Attorney-General, was the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the potential value of a dome casino licence was about £250 million? In view of the large sums involved, was his primary duty to avoid discussing the matter because of conflicts of interest, or to discuss it in order to secure a better deal on the dome site?

I was not involved in any discussions with Mr. Anschutz about the casino. As for the amount and the value, I saw in Australia that there are major regeneration benefits—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) has referred—but I have not been involved in any decisions on the casino, and I think that my action was right and proper.

2. What role he has in the effective development of Government policy on planning in relation to gambling facilities. (86190)

As a Minister, I have no specific role in relation to gambling or planning, but as a parliamentarian I have exactly the same say as Opposition Members, because—as I have explained—in this House Members will have the final say on the location of any casinos. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for gambling policy, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is responsible for planning policy.

Given the responsibilities that the Deputy Prime Minister used to exercise in the office of Deputy Prime Minister, will he take legal advice on whether he is in breach of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916 and report back to the House, in the light of that Act’s provisions, on how Government lawyers view his receipt of gifts and hospitality from Mr. Philip Anschutz?

That is typical of the wild charges that the hon. Gentleman used to make when he wrote his articles in The Times. Let me make it clear that I do not believe that any act of corruption has been committed. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence he should provide it, rather than just making the allegations here.

The Deputy Prime Minister is a man of influence within Government. Will he take it from me that there is deep concern about the impact of gambling on indebtedness, which is increasing in this country? Will he ensure that all individuals and organisations making a bid for regional gambling centres are organisations and individuals of the very highest integrity?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that in discussions on the Gambling Bill—there was also pre-legislative scrutiny—a lot of consultation and debate took place, as the legislation was controversial. All views were expressed in the House, which finally came to a decision. I think that that decision was right and we must wait and see how it develops.

I am not an enthusiast for gambling, grand casinos or anything of that kind, as I have made clear previously, but is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour Members totally reject all the innuendos to the effect that he is somehow corrupt or dishonest? Whatever mistakes may have been made here or there, we know about the great contribution that he has made to the Government and to the Labour party and movement over many years.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support, though I do not expect it from Conservative Members. However, when it comes to accusations of corruption, Members must make a serious judgment. There is no corruption here and those charges should not be thrown around lightly in the House—however easily done in the press. I totally reject that and I hope that people will take my contribution over 35 years in Parliament into account, whether or not they agree with what I have done. I might add that over those 35 years I have never been employed in any other job; I have never received any payment from other bodies; I have simply carried out my job as a Member of Parliament. Can they say that on the other side of the Chamber?

chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Children in Care

3. What progress has been made in developing a coherent strategy for alleviating the social exclusion likely to be suffered by children in care. (86191)

The Government have made tackling social exclusion in respect of children in care a priority and have improved standards for fostering services and children’s care homes, put new duties on local authorities to promote the education of looked-after children and strengthened the rights and financial support for those leaving care.

We are also publishing our social exclusion action plan in the autumn, which will frame our cross-government approach to tackling the social exclusion of vulnerable groups, including looked-after children. The action plan will closely co-ordinate with the forthcoming Department for Education and Skills consultation on proposals to transform the outcomes of looked-after children, with all of those issues considered in the light of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but will she tell the House whether there has been any attempt to study examples of good practice from other European countries?

Yes. On appointment, I looked into various examples of good practice elsewhere and I was particularly impressed with what looked like very good outcomes in Germany and Denmark. I visited Germany two weeks ago and found that there, as in many other European countries, children’s work force professionals—called social pedagogues—commonly look after children living away from home. The principles that they use to educate, challenge and engage with children seem extremely valuable and effective. The approach is focused on emphasising each child’s individual potential in a holistic way, involving education in health and overall child development. We will look very carefully to establish whether we can incorporate such principles in our children’s services.

Given that there are approximately 44,000 looked-after children in this country and that only about 8 per cent. currently obtain five A to C grade GCSEs and a mere 1 per cent. secure access to university, what discussions has the Minister had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about the need to ensure that most vulnerable children are granted a legal entitlement to personalised learning?

That is an issue that we all take extremely seriously. I have had discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills. Actually, the figures suggest that about 11 per cent. now gain five GCSEs. I accept that that is not good enough, but it is more than double the number in 1997. We are not satisfied and we want to do whatever we can to enhance learning and opportunities for looked-after children. Both I and the DFES are looking into that matter extremely carefully at the moment.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that in the London borough of Ealing, which for 12 years enjoyed the wise and sagacious leadership of a Labour council and is now temporarily in the hands of the Tories, 10 per cent. of the looked-after children go on to university—the highest level anywhere in England and Wales? May I invite her to visit Ealing, despite its current political complexion, to see how we have achieved that excellent result?

I congratulate Ealing, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has been keeping his eye on what has been going on and ensuring that, indeed, best practice is implemented. He understands that we are looking at tackling social exclusion very much by learning from what is working best, so I will be delighted to join him in looking at Ealing’s success.

Is the Minister aware of the activities of some private providers—noticeably, Greencorns—that move children around the country and provide homes not close to their family ties? When those children get into trouble, as they often do, they do not get the support that they need to help them.

I am concerned about too much movement of looked-after children. We are concerned to ensure not only that they have a stable experience, but that we do as much as possible to encourage contact with their own families. So I will take into account what the hon. Gentleman has said in relation to my discussions with the DFES and the proposals that it will produce later this year.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Climate Change

During my visit to China in February this year, I discussed China’s engagement on climate change and sustainable development with Premier Wen and other senior members of the Chinese Government, including State Councillor Tang. Together, we chair the UK-China taskforce. I also held discussions with Mayor Han of Shanghai to discuss the Dontang eco-city project, which is a new concept in building sustainable cities in which British companies are involved.

The UK is leading the way internationally on city regeneration and sustainability, proving that it is possible to support jobs and economic growth in an environmentally responsible way. We are now sharing that knowledge and enterprise with other countries.

With the Chinese economy growing by 13 per cent. a year and reports that a new coal-fired power station is being opened every fortnight in China, it is a major source of carbon pollution. How confident is the Deputy Prime Minister about involving China in a successful outcome post-Kyoto?

I have absolutely no doubt that China is a pretty active player in the desire to get a climate change programme, and the Prime Minister’s effort at the G8 to include China and India is a major step forward in achieving an agreement that was not readily available to involve China and India in the Kyoto agreement. So I am absolutely convinced of that, and my hon. Friend will know that I discussed the issue on my last visit, last February, but he may also like to know that I opened the Ningbo campus of Nottingham university, which is a very important part of the education contacts between our two countries and, indeed, deals effectively with climate change studies, too.

Why does the Deputy Prime Minister feel he could give useful advice about Kyoto to the Chinese, given his own failed environmental policies at home: his failed pledge to ensure that fewer car journeys take place, his failed integrated transport system, and his Strategic Rail Authority that was so bad that it was immediately scrapped by his successor? Everything that he does goes wrong. Does not China deserve better?

Good comment; no truth. In reality, I made a successful contribution to Kyoto: we did get an agreement. On the environmental targets, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that we are the only country in Europe to achieve double the target level in the reduction of greenhouse gases. No other country in Europe has been able to achieve that. If I look at the Opposition’s environmental and transport policies, although I am not sure what they are at the moment, I think that rail privatisation has been rejected. The 10-year plan that I introduced is being continued. More people are travelling on public transport than ever before. That sounds like success, not failure.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that despite the chaff from the Opposition, his well known and highly regarded leadership internationally on this issue is well respected? Does he also accept that if he can advise China on how to achieve a balance between economic growth and sustainable environmental policies, it would be a major step forward and one that Labour Members would really appreciate?

Anyone who has experience of travelling abroad, as the deputy Leader of the Opposition has, will be aware that one of things that is admired about Britain is that we have been able to achieve economic growth in a sustainable way, while at the same time achieving our climate targets. There are very few countries that have achieved that, and it is because of the success of this Labour Government’s policies.

When the Deputy Prime Minister met his Chinese opposite number, did he advocate adoption of the concept of contraction and convergence? What is his view of that concept?


5. What discussions he has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government in relation to casino bids. (86193)

How can the Deputy Prime Minister not have had any discussions, given that Office of the Deputy Prime Minister civil servants, attending a Thames Gateway meeting in February, stated that Ministers would appreciate some joined-up thinking and would like a single bid for the Thames Gateway? Are those the same ODPM officials who received briefings from the Deputy Prime Minister following his meeting with the dome’s owner?

The hon. Gentleman has made accusations in the press and in the Chamber about the feeling in his constituency about whether we interfered with its application for a casino. The former Tory mayor said that we had: the present Tory mayor has made it clear that that was not true—

I shall quote what the Tory leader of Southend says—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) cannot shout after he has asked his question. He may not be happy with the answer, but he should not shout.

The Tory leader in Southend said:

“There wasn’t any pressure put on us”.

I accept that man’s statement and that is exactly what happened. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in casino policy. I understand that his constituency party in Rochford and Southend, East receives funding from a company that wants to build a £15 million casino and hotel complex in Southend.

It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is a busted flush—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”]

Order. It is difficult for me to be fair if I cannot hear what is going on. I shall take advice on what has just been said and make a ruling—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) should be quiet. I understand that he is a Whip and I do not want Whips shouting from the Back Benches. The Deputy Prime Minister has made an allegation, but allegations have come from both sides of the House. The best thing to do is to ask questions and hear the answers without any allegations being made. That includes replies, which should not incorporate any allegations.

Whether there will be a casino at the dome or not, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he is doing to bring about the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula. I take the same view as the former Conservative mayoral candidate for London who, when asked on Radio 5 whether my right hon. Friend should have met with Anschutz, said that if he had not he would not have been doing his job properly. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to bring about the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula and the job opportunities for my constituents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is the overwhelming view in London, where people want more jobs and investment. To be fair to the Opposition, the development of the site was begun by Lord Heseltine. He wanted regeneration to take place, and we have carried on the process. To a certain extent, I am surprised that people attack the idea that houses, development, jobs and investment should not follow naturally. If that is not what the Opposition intended, it is certainly what the Government intended, and we have carried it out.

Given the latest questions about the Deputy Prime Minister’s compliance with the ministerial code and his actions in respect of casinos, and all the acknowledged breaches by a succession of Ministers who have now departed the Government, does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Government have lived up to their commitment to be purer than pure?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has the direct responsibility to implement the ministerial code. In his considerations, he has made it clear when he thinks that the code has been breached, and when it has not. He made it clear at the weekend that I had not done so.

I think that that means no—that the right hon. Gentleman does not think that the Government have been purer than pure. However, although he has been stripped of his Department, he still costs £2 million a year. Is it not time for him to recognise that that is neither comfortable for him nor acceptable to the country? Does not the idea that he cannot have a Department but can be left in charge of the country defy credibility? He mentioned that he has been in the House for 35 years, and I respect that, but I am someone who once resigned from office and I know that sometimes we all have to judge whether we are doing any favours for our party, our country or our own reputations. Is it not time for him to exercise that judgment?

I like the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that he resigned from Government. Did that not happen after a general election, when there was going to be a fresh start—with policies that the present Leader of the Opposition is rejecting every day? The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) says that he believes in consistent policies, but the country’s rejection of the policies of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was shown by the fact that he won only one extra seat in that election. He did not resign: the electorate rejected Tory party policy and accepted what Labour believed in.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Voluntary Sector (Regulation)

The Government are taking forward a range of measures to reduce regulatory burdens on the third sector, including through the Charities Bill, which has completed its Committee stage in this House, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is being considered in another place.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill offers an approach to the repeal of unnecessary regulation, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be much better to go forward with an all-party consensus on the matter? If so, what is he doing to achieve that?

I agree very much that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is an extremely important measure. It introduces risk-based regulation, including for the Charity Commission, which has a lot of dealings with the voluntary sector, and it also allows us to repeal unnecessary regulations. The Opposition talk a lot about the need for reform and getting rid of unnecessary regulation. It is time for them to vote accordingly and support the Bill when it comes back to this House.

The citizens advice bureau in Rushden, the second town in the Wellingborough constituency, was forced to close recently, which meant that people in desperate need of advice were left without an advice centre. It appears that the Government make no contribution to local citizens advice bureaux, but will they look at that again?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and I am happy to look into that specific case. On the basis of my local experience, I think that I am right in saying that citizens advice bureaux are generally funded by local authorities. However, I shall be happy to look into the matter that he raises.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—


7. What oversight and co-ordination he has undertaken of the Government’s policy on ageing; and if he will make a statement. (86195)

My hon. Friend will be aware that I chair the Cabinet Committee looking at these important issues. The next meeting is scheduled to take place very shortly. The Committee’s terms of reference are

“to develop and monitor the delivery of policy affecting older people”.

We have already made excellent progress over the past nine years, with 2 million pensioners lifted out of poverty, free eye tests for the over 60s and free TV licences. However, there remains more to do, and I am working to ensure that action is taken coherently across Departments to tackle the key issues facing the older generation.

That is an excellent record. As one of the big beasts of the Government and, in this instance, as the Minister with responsibility for the Government’s policies on ageing, will the Deputy Prime Minister have a word with another big beast, the Chancellor, to facilitate the 1 million-plus additional jobs that are needed—including with flexible working arrangements—for the over-55s? Will he also say whether more legislation is being considered to remove the barriers to people working longer, if they wish to?

I certainly will take up with the Chancellor, as another big beast, the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the House will be very happy at the fact that the Chancellor’s wife has given birth to a baby boy.

The Government are clearly committed to doing a lot more on this issue. Our measures will prohibit the unjustified direct age discrimination that many in this House have complained about, and all harassment and victimisation on the ground of age, of people young and old. It is important to keep more people in work, because doing so makes an important contribution to maintaining increases in what are record levels of employment. That aim has a major part to play, and I am attempting to co-ordinate across government in order to achieve it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the House will join me in mourning the loss of our late colleague, Kevin Hughes, who died on Sunday from motor neurone disease. We will remember Kevin as a thoroughly decent human being: loyal, immensely likeable—a man who showed the same high courage as he approached the end as he had shown throughout his life in politics. We send our deepest sympathy to Lynda and her family.

I am also sure that the House will join me in offering our condolences to the family of Corporal John Cosby, who died in Iraq at the weekend. Our sympathy and prayers are with them at this difficult time. In the last 24 hours, we have once again had reason to be grateful for the professionalism of our forces, as we have seen HMS Gloucester evacuate British citizens from Beirut.

Mr. Speaker, this morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and I join in his condolences, particularly in respect of Kevin Hughes, who was a very decent man. Will the Prime Minister find time in his busy schedule to meet a broadly based cross-party delegation from Eastbourne, made up of people who are desperately concerned about financial pressures, job cuts and the loss of core services such as maternity from our local district general hospital?

I am perfectly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any delegation. However, I have to say to him that it is important to recognise that the deficit in his trust area must be dealt with, and that, at the same time as they deal with that trust, hospitals in his area will still be cutting their waiting times and waiting lists. In that area they have had, for example, some 4,500 more nurses since 1997, so we have put a substantial amount of investment into Eastbourne. I entirely understand the concerns that arise as the trust makes sure that it comes into financial balance, but it does have to come into financial balance.

My right hon. Friend will know that the 135th open golf championship is due to start in my constituency tomorrow. This is the first time in nearly 40 years that the championship has taken place at Hoylake. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the partners who brought that about—the Royal and Ancient and Royal Liverpool golf clubs, and the Labour-led Wirral borough council? Will he also—

Yes, I certainly give my congratulations to everyone at Hoylake on all that they have done to bring the open there. I wish everyone the best of luck.

May I join the Prime Minister in what he said about Kevin Hughes? He was a man who believed in plain speaking and hard working, and many colleagues will have fond memories of him in this House. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal John Cosby, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. He died serving his country, and our thoughts should be with his family, too.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that this week, the key part of the home information packs is being ditched?

As a result of representations made by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, it will not be possible to proceed with the mandatory home condition report. However, we will of course have to proceed with the energy performance certificate, as that is now required by European Union legislation. We will obviously wait until the pilots have reported to see what more we can do to make sure that we do not end up in a situation—this is the reason for the home improvement packs—of spending round about £1 million a day, as ordinary consumers are at the moment, on abortive house sales. It was entirely sensible, because of the energy performance certificate, to go down this route, but as a result of the representations of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, we are going to have to change that.

I think that the Prime Minister needs to mug up on this area; after all, he will be moving house soon.

The fact is that the Minister for Housing and Planning said that introducing home condition reports would have “significant risks” and “potential disadvantages”. For months we were told about the benefits of the reports, and now we are being told about the disadvantages. Why did Ministers get it so wrong?

There would be tremendous benefits from the home condition reports—[Laughter.] Of course there would: people waste a lot of money acquiring reports, then losing that money if the sale does not go through. That is the very reason for doing this. Alongside that is the fact that, irrespective of what happens, we will have to have the energy performance certificate. If the Council of Mortgage Lenders, having consulted its members, says that that will not be enough for people to get a mortgage, because lenders will ask for an additional report, it is of course sensible to make it voluntary rather than mandatory.

If the Prime Minister is worried about people wasting money when they move house, he should have stopped the Chancellor clobbering everyone with extra stamp duty.

Let us look at another tax: will the Prime Minister confirm that the planning gain supplement tax, which the Chancellor announced in his Budget as a key reform to pay for local infrastructure, is also being ditched?

I will not confirm that at all. It is extremely important to make sure that we extract the maximum gain we can when planning goes through because it is important that we be able to invest the maximum amount of money in housing.

As we are talking about housing, the most important thing for home owners in this country is that interest rates are half what they were in the Tory years. As he is someone who worked at the Treasury when mortgage repossession was going on, I do not think we will take lessons on housing from the right hon. Gentleman.

The Prime Minister needs to get with the programme. The fact is that the Planning Minister has met a Treasury Minister, and that tax has been shelved.

Let us take another example of a simple reform that is being dropped: the Government promised at the election “tougher sentences” for those who assault public servants. Why have the Government neutered the Bill that would bring that about in law?

We do not neuter any proposals—[Interruption.] We do not. There should be the strongest possible penalties for people who assault public servants. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that when we introduced tougher penalties in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, he voted against.

We need a tougher penalty in law, and the Prime Minister neutered the Bill. There is a clear pattern: police mergers, dropped; ID cards, dropped; home information packs, dropped; planning reforms, dropped; laws to protect public servants, dropped. Given the Government’s complete inability to implement their programme, how can he possibly believe that the right thing to do is to put the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the country?

Let me explain: we most certainly are not dropping proposals for identity cards, or tougher penalties regarding public servants, or planning reforms. If we want to talk about policy making, I have calculated that the right hon. Gentleman has had four since becoming Leader of the Opposition. The first was a new British Bill of Rights, which was denounced by the chairman of his democracy commission as nonsense. The second was English votes for English MPs, described as a constitutional abortion by a senior Back-Bench Tory MP. Then came his law and order policy—hug a hoodie. We have not heard much about that. Finally, his flagship European policy was to leave the European People’s party, which was first to be done immediately, then within months and now not until 2009. Before he criticises our policy-making skills, he should acquire some of his own.

These sessions are about the Prime Minister answering questions on behalf of the Government. I know that he does not like being interrogated, but with the way things are going at Scotland Yard, he had better get used to it. For the purposes of the tape, Mr. Speaker, I am interviewing the Prime Minister.

Does not the Prime Minister’s complete lack of judgment in trusting the Deputy Prime Minister show that it is high time that he and his deputy saddled up and rode off into the sunset?

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not want to ask me about any of his policy positions. We could take another one, actually: let us look at his policy on nuclear power—

Order. I gave the Prime Minister a good innings for the last set of policies, so perhaps we could be brief this time.

Mr. Speaker, you are absolutely right; it is best not to talk about Opposition policies because they are better for an Opposition than a Government. But let me just tell the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that we will continue with policies for a strong economy, not the boom and bust of the Tory years, and for investment in our health service and education, and with family-friendly policies, and investment in Sure Start, the new deal and lifting pensioners out of poverty. We will continue with the policies that have made this country stronger, fairer and better—not those that brought us 18 years of Conservative misrule.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are still clearing up the mess of the Tory years? Although they have acknowledged that privatisation of the railways was a mistake, that does not help to make stations safer, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that the new franchises will be awarded only to companies that put safety first and people before profit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for drawing my attention to what is actually another Tory policy—[Laughter.] Sorry. My hon. Friend is right: the Tory policy under the previous Government was disastrous, but fortunately it has been turned around under this Government.

I begin by associating my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we heard from the Prime Minister a moment or two ago.

Yesterday, the House joined the Prime Minister in condemning Hezbollah’s bombardment of Israel, but how can we be even-handed if we are not willing to condemn Israel’s disproportionate response, which the Prime Minister of Lebanon has described as cutting his country to pieces?

Let me repeat what I said yesterday. It is important that Israel’s response is proportionate and does its best to minimise civilian casualties, but it would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped—wrongly, when Hezbollah crossed the United Nations blue line—were released. It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happened, I promise the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I would be the first to say that Israel should halt its operations.

I am not sure that that squares with the Prime Minister’s conversations with President Bush. In the course of those conversations, did he understand that it was America’s policy to allow Israel a further period for military action? Is that why the UK is not calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is seriously saying that I should call for an unconditional ceasefire by Israel now—[Hon. Members: “Both sides.”] I should call for both sides to do it? May I just point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our influence with Hezbollah has been somewhat limited? It would not be possible. Does he not understand that Hezbollah fired somewhere in the region of 1,600 rockets into northern Israel? I agree that what is happening in Lebanon is tragic and terrible, not least for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese Government—a Government who have brought their country out of the dark days into democracy—[Interruption.] Yes, but if this is to stop, it has to stop by undoing how it started, and it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel. If we want this to stop, that has to stop.

Q2. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that Members on the Labour Benches are thirsty to discuss the equal rights of Scottish and Welsh MPs, the priority of parliamentary sovereignty over a Bill of Rights and exactly what it means to hug a hoodie? Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to secure a debate on those issues in the House, as the Leader of the Opposition is clearly frit about doing so? (86175)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to put forward policies that allow us to have one class of Member of Parliament in this House. Anything else would do deep damage to the British constitution.

Can the Prime Minister explain why it is that since the Labour Government took over, Ireland has grown four times as quickly as Scotland? Does that not mean that there is not only a problem of disloyalty in No. 11, but a problem of incompetence?

If the right hon. Gentleman compares the Scottish economy today with the Scottish economy 10 years ago, he will find it much stronger. There are more people in work and fewer people are unemployed. That is a good record under this Government.

Q3. If my right hon. Friend has a space in his diary tomorrow lunchtime, may I invite him to join me at Charlton Athletic’s training ground in Eltham to celebrate the opening of their community centre for skills, supported by Charlton’s charitable trust, Barclays Spaces for Sports and the Football Foundation? From my constituency, Charlton run one of the biggest community action programmes in Europe, possibly even in the world. They engage with young people and provide educational opportunities and employment opportunities for them. If he cannot join us tomorrow, will he send a message of congratulations to Charlton for the work that they do? (86176)

I am very happy to send a message of congratulations to Charlton on their wonderful new sporting facility, which will do so much for young people. I congratulate the Football Foundation and Barclays bank, which I think are the other partners, and I also congratulate Charlton on the wise re-signing of Darren Bent.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister please help to expedite the approval of the new private finance initiative hospital at Pembury in my constituency? (86177)

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that question, so that I could learn the details of the matter, which is helpful. All major PFI schemes are being taken forward, and the Department of Health asked Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in January to reappraise its proposals for the Maidstone and Pembury hospital sites to make sure that they could demonstrate long-term affordability. I am glad to inform the hon. Gentleman that the reappraisal report for that scheme has been completed and we are aiming to announce decisions from the reappraisal exercise, including that for the trust, shortly. Therefore, we will be in touch with him shortly. As he knows, the capital value of the scheme is almost £300 million.

Whatever the proximate causes of the current middle east crisis, is it not clear that there will be no solution while Muslims believe that the political route to a viable and sustainable Palestinian state is blocked and at the same time Israel believes that it can get more by the use of military force and annexation of large tracts of Palestinian land than by seriously negotiating the Quartet road map? In those circumstances, should we not only be calling on the EU to demand a very clear and unambiguous statement of a ceasefire but, more important, more vigorously confronting the United States that, if it does not put considerably more pressure on Israel for a—

There is a problem with the negotiated solution to this. After all, it is now clear that everyone wants a two-state solution, and the road map is there and agreed by the whole of the Quartet, including the European Union, the UN, Russia and America, obviously. This problem is not being held back by America or by anyone's intransigence and refusal to negotiate; it is being held back by the fact that we cannot even begin the essential preconditions for the road map to exist properly. Those essential preconditions are about security and about ensuring that, for example, the thing that sparked everything on Gaza, which was to do with the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, and other such things stop.

I share my right hon. Friend’s concern. I pushed for the adoption of the road map. I pushed for a two-state solution. But in the end the only negotiated way through this is by everyone committing themselves to exclusively peaceful, democratic means, and that has to hold on both sides of the border—not just on the Israeli side, but on the Palestinian side.

Human Trafficking

Q5. For what reasons the Government has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention against human trafficking. (86178)

The UK Government are currently considering the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking agreed last year. At present only one country, Moldova, has ratified that convention, but let me be clear that we are determined to tackle human trafficking. The police have set up the UK human trafficking centre to continue the fight against that crime, and Operation Pentameter resulted in over 150 arrests and the rescue of 75 trafficking victims.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister. Thirty of the 45 Council of Europe countries have signed the convention, but we have not done so. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and his officials said in the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the fear of “a pull factor” was preventing the UK Government from signing the convention. But is the Prime Minister aware that in Italy there is no evidence of a pull factor, and a hundred times as many women have been saved and there have been a hundred times as many prosecutions? Will he reflect again for the sake of the victims of trafficking, and allow the UK to sign the convention?

I will reflect again. The hon. Gentleman rightly puts his finger on the reason for our refusal to sign and ratify the convention so far. An absolute 30-day reflection period is required for victims who are here without leave, to enable them to recover from the experience that they have been through. Our worry is that, unless we are very careful about the way in which that is implemented, it will cause a major problem with people who come here under the auspices of organised crime and are not proper asylum seekers, as we would be obliged to keep them for a fixed period. I am afraid we have to examine what that means in practice for our system before we can agree the convention.

Last week, the Prime Minister agreed to meet a delegation led by myself on the issue. There is widespread support in the House for the signing—not ratification, which is different—of the convention, as well as widespread support among the police, Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International. I would rather not meet him, because I do not want to discuss a problem. I would rather that the Home Office provided a solution without too much time passing.

I entirely understand what my right hon. Friend is saying, and he made his point in a very reasonable way. I will look at the issue again, but we need an answer on that point. It is not only Britain that has not signed the convention—countries such as Spain have not done so because they, too, are worried about the same problem. However, if we can find a way around it—and we may be able to do so—that would obviously allow us to sign.


Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware that the British Sugar factory in York will close in January or February next year, leading to a large number of job losses in the city? More particularly, it will cause a loss of earnings for farmers in North Yorkshire. Will he agree to meet some of the sugar beet growers in North Yorkshire to see whether there is a way forward, perhaps by developing sugar beet into bioethanol? He will appreciate that sugar beet has had a great influence as a rotation crop and on the environment, so it would be a body blow to local farmers to lose it. (86179)

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. I am aware of the fact that there is an important potential for sugar beet and biofuel, but I cannot offer any assurances. I obviously sympathise with her constituents’ plight, but I would have to see whether there is anything that Government can do, and there may not be.

What advice would my right hon. Friend give a Member of Parliament who voted against the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave, who voted against extending maternity leave to 26 weeks, and who voted against the request for flexible working? Would that advice include the words, “On your bike, Dave”?

I think that, if that was not just one offence but a serial offence of changing one’s mind, I would advise them not to open their leadership campaign by saying that consistency is a vital thing in politics.

Q7. May I urge the Prime Minister to find time in his busy day to rethink his holiday plans? I do not know which Italian palazzo he has lined up this year, but may I commend to him the benefits of a holiday in the United Kingdom? One of the benefits for the rest of us, of course, is the fact that he would not have to leave the Deputy Prime Minister in charge. If the Italian palazzo has a croquet lawn and a diary secretary, however, perhaps they could cut a deal. (86180)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of our policy on the renewable transport fuels obligation, which will ensure that 5 per cent. of fuels are biofuels. A million tonnes of carbon will be prevented from entering the atmosphere every year, which is the equivalent of a million cars coming off the road. Is it not true that the Government have done a tremendous amount on climate change, and will continue to do so in future?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have done a great deal to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, we need to do a lot more, which was the purpose of the energy review. One vital part of reducing carbon output is the climate change levy, which has been and will be responsible for carbon emissions into our atmosphere being reduced by millions of tonnes. The energy review gives us a sound way forward—a proper policy basis for planning for the future of this country. The interesting thing about the G8 summit is that what we had in the British energy review is four-square behind the thinking of the leading countries of the world.

Q8. I know that the Prime Minister is a big supporter of the tourist industry. Has he considered taking his holiday this year in Scarborough? I am sure that he will be interested to know that many people who visit Scarborough as tourists subsequently decide to make it their permanent retirement home. (86181)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful suggestion. One of the advantages would be bumping into him in the course of my holiday. I intend to have a good holiday, and I wish him one too.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Blyth Valley council’s excellent antisocial behaviour team, which is led by Ian Johnson and supported by the local police? Although the people responsible for antisocial behaviour are only a small minority in Blyth Valley, we do not hug them. We deal with them. (86182)

I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend was about to add to the holiday suggestions. He is right. Although there is a great deal more to do on antisocial behaviour, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will say, none the less antisocial behaviour legislation, where used by local authorities and the police, has had a major impact in local communities and we will strengthen the law still further. There are those who used to describe it as a gimmick, but it is not a gimmick. It is a vital part of making our communities safer.

The Prime Minister will know of the widespread disappointment at the failure of the United Nations review conference in New York a fortnight ago to agree principles on the transfer of light weapons and arms, even though 150 countries supported that. Can we rely on the UK Government to adhere to their manifesto commitment to challenge the few Governments who continue to block the process?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have pushed the matter very hard for a considerable time, but as his question implies, it is not simply us—it is the whole of the international community that must agree the process. We fully support it and will continue to encourage others to support it.

Q10. My two Sure Start schemes and my two children’s centres are transforming the lives of the most vulnerable children in my constituency, but can my right hon. Friend give me assurances about their future funding? (86184)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to fund Sure Start and children’s centres. She is right to say that they perform a vital task in many communities. I know that the Sure Starts in my own community have been immensely popular. About 800,000 people are benefiting from the programmes, and the great thing about Sure Start is not merely the help that it gives to the children, but the help that it gives to the parents. It has had a very great benefit in many constituencies, and we will certainly continue to support it.

Q11. Local people in my area want to know what they have done to deserve Government-appointed trust members and managers who are slashing services, sacking staff, closing wards and compromising clinical safety. As the Prime Minister is in a meeting mood, will he agree to meet a delegation of patients and clinicians from my constituency to explore the serious challenges behind an extremely serious situation? (86185)

I know the hon. Gentleman will continue to make representations on the matter, but I point out to him that it is not a question of management and people being appointed to the board; it is a question of ensuring that however much money we put into the national health service—we have put in vast additional sums that have reduced waiting times, reduced waiting lists, reduced waits for treatment such as cardiac care, and made sure that we are cutting the number of people dying from diseases such as cancer and heart disease—and although it has had a huge impact, every single trust has to live within its means. Sometimes trusts have to reconfigure services, but I do not believe that they will do so to the detriment of clinical management, clinical care or patient care in communities.

Q12. My right hon. Friend has often said that it is essential to be at the centre of decision making in Europe. Will he tell me his assessment of the effectiveness of the current political groupings in representing Britain’s interests in Europe? (86186)

We will, of course, remain as part of the grouping of the centre left parties, and it is extremely important that the Conservative party also remains part of its grouping. I have a feeling that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has changed the Conservative party’s position, on which I congratulate him.