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—
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.