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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2006

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Antisocial Behaviour

Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I am sure that the House will join me in remembering the 144 people, including 116 children, who lost their lives in the horrific Aberfan disaster 40 years ago this Saturday. Our thoughts will be with the relatives, the survivors, and indeed the whole community on this difficult occasion.

We take the problem of antisocial behaviour more seriously than any previous Government. The tough measures that we have introduced are stamping out this blight on our communities.

Antisocial behaviour has reduced in my constituency, but there are problems with local authorities not using the powers we have given them. The police have powers, but will my right hon. Friend use his influence to ensure that local authorities in Wales use the powers we have given them—for example, the provision of alley gates—to reduce antisocial behaviour,?

I agree that the antisocial behaviour legislation is not being applied with the vigour that we expect right across Wales, and it should be, both by the police, but particularly by local authorities, as my hon. Friend says. I saw a very good example of it being applied when I visited Llandudno Junction the other Friday, where a crack house has been closed down. While it was operating it was causing absolute devastation, blight and misery to neighbours in the area, many of whom were thinking of leaving their homes because they could not go out at night, their cars were being vandalised and their children were being threatened. That sort of thing must stop and we expect everybody to clamp down on it, as North Wales police and local councillors did so successfully there.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the success of community support officers as the visible sign of authority in some communities. Will he make representations to the Home Office and to the Assembly to ensure that there is a roll out of community support officers, who have been so successful in Llandrindod Wells in tackling this terrible problem but do not yet operate in Ystradgynlais, from where I receive a continuous stream of complaints about the quality of life being disrupted by antisocial behaviour?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of community support officers. That is why we have recruited 271 in Wales alone over the past few years, rising to 740 by next April and to 1,100 the year after, so a tremendous stream of important community support is becoming available. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will not only back the Government on the issue, but support us on antisocial behaviour measures, which they have voted against every time they have been brought before the House. They say a different thing locally, but we are used to that with the Liberal Democrats, are we not?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of countering antisocial behaviour is to celebrate the achievements of young people? Yesterday, I was at the Royal Albert hall where three of my young constituents, Leah Young, James Taylor and Anthony Llewellyn of Glanafan comprehensive school, were finalists in the Young Brits at Art awards. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating them and their excellent school on this achievement, and the Commission for Racial Equality on this fine initiative, which will help to build social cohesion and citizenship in our communities?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Glanafan school, which is indeed a fine school, among many others across Wales under our Labour Government, and the Commission for Racial Equality on this important initiative. Antisocial behaviour involves a tiny minority of young people. They are incredibly disruptive and they have to be dealt with, but the great majority of young people in Wales make us proud.

As you can see, Mr. Speaker, I am here in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who unfortunately is ill and in hospital. However, I am glad to say that I have spoken to her today; she is on the mend and she hopes to be here this time next month.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the probation service is one of the many agencies involved in dealing with antisocial behaviour and its associated crimes. Does he agree that since such offences are of an inherently localised nature, it is important that the probation service in Wales should continue to be organised on a localised basis? Will he resist proposals that might result in the administration of the service being organised from across the English border?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and express my sympathy for the hon. Lady. I phoned her yesterday to speak to her in hospital, and I, along with all hon. Members, wish her all the best.

On probation officers, we must ensure that we get the changes right, and we will do so. On antisocial behaviour, which is the subject of the question, the Conservatives voted against our policies to crack down on disorderly drinking and to introduce new powers for local authorities.

Aid to Africa

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on co-operation with the Welsh Assembly Government on aid to Africa. (93417)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are pleased to have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues, including co-operation with the Welsh Assembly Government.

My hon. Friend is well aware of the strong links between Wales and Africa, particularly among schools, hospitals and voluntary bodies. In my constituency, there are links between Cathays high school and Lesotho and Whitchurch high school and South Africa. Does my hon. Friend agree that such links contribute greatly to the professional development of teachers, broaden children’s horizons and benefit everybody involved?

Yes, I do. The Welsh Assembly Government launched their international sustainable development framework two weeks ago, and the launch was attended by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who said that UK aid now helps to lift more than 5,000 people a day out of poverty. My right hon. Friend also welcomed the Welsh Assembly Government’s announcement that they are strengthening their contribution to reducing poverty in Africa by providing support in humanitarian emergencies and by encouraging the exchange of skills between hospitals and schools, to which my hon. Friend has referred, in Wales and Africa—an initiative that makes a real difference to the lives of poor families. It is worth noting that by next year the UK aid budget will have tripled. We have led the campaign across the world on debt relief and debt cancellation, and this is part of that package. That contrasts greatly with the cuts made by the Conservative Government in their 18 years in power, when they effectively halved the aid budget in real terms.

Manufacturing

Despite the fact that manufacturing in Wales, as elsewhere, continues to face huge competitive threats from low-cost countries, it accounts for some 20 per cent. of total Welsh economic output, and we continue to attract high-level investment.

Given this Government’s appallingly dismal record on defending the Welsh manufacturing sector, including the loss of another 3,000 jobs in the past six months alone, is the Secretary of State concerned to read the report by Morgan Stanley that Tata Steel, which yesterday announced its bid for Corus, plans to shift the production of steel slab from Port Talbot to India with the potential loss of thousands of jobs in south Wales?

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman describes our record on the Welsh economy as “dismal”, when there are record numbers of jobs and when Welsh manufacturing is doing better than manufacturing elsewhere in the United Kingdom. New companies are coming in—for example, G24 Innovations has announced that it will create 300 jobs in Cardiff through its £60 million investment—and more jobs are being created in high-tech manufacturing all the time. Yes, low-cost manufacturing is disappearing to low-cost countries. Tata Steel is a huge Indian conglomerate, and the implications of its bid are not clear. I understand that it wants to invest in steel in the United Kingdom and to take advantage of the enormous growth in India by producing steel, including in Wales.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2775, which has been signed by many Labour Members and which acknowledges the importance of Airbus to the UK economy? Airbus provides high quality employment in Wales: will my right hon. Friend work with Department of Trade and Industry Ministers to ensure that the next generation of composite wings are designed and built in the UK and not in Germany or Spain?

We will work tirelessly with my hon. Friend to ensure that that is achieved. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to his continued work and effort on behalf of Airbus, which is an excellent company that has a site at Broughton in his constituency. There are now 20,000 highly skilled jobs in the aerospace industry in Wales. They contribute £1 billion to the Welsh economy, the great bulk of which comes from Airbus at Broughton. The Prime Minister has visited Broughton, and we will continue to support Airbus.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Wales could lead the world in environmentally sustainable manufacturing jobs through technologies such as geothermal, wind, tidal, hydrogen and solar power? Does he join me in applauding firms such as Dulas in Machynlleth and G24 Innovations, which he mentioned, in Cardiff, which will lead the way in clean energy for homes and businesses? Will he agree to meet a cross-sector delegation to hear manufacturers’ proposals for an eco-strategy to make Wales a global leader in green and renewable technologies?

I, or my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, will certainly be pleased to receive a delegation, because this is a vital subject. My hon. Friend visited Dulas and was hugely impressed with the company. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, as does Andrew Davies, the Minister with responsibility for economic development. Wales is a centre of clean, green energy production, as well as use.

I very much welcome the creation of 300 jobs near Cardiff in a very exciting new solar energy product, but what discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government about the use of initiatives such as Technium in Llanelli to ensure that investment in quality jobs reaches west Wales?

It is imperative that the enormous growth and prosperity that has been generated in south-east Wales, especially in Cardiff and Newport, spreads westward, including to Neath, but not least to Llanelli. There have been big examples of that happening recently. The Technium innovation is hugely successful in Swansea, and it will be in Llanelli, too, with the Government’s support.

The Secretary of State says that we should be happy about the fact that there is a higher percentage of manufacturing jobs in Wales than in the rest of the UK, yet that has always been the case, although the percentage was a lot higher nine years ago than it is today. How many more manufacturing jobs are going to be lost in Wales before the Government finally get a strategy to protect them?

The fact that high-tech manufacturing jobs are coming in, and the fact that companies I have visited such as Sharp in Wrexham and International Rectifier in Newport are investing more and have high-quality, long-term jobs, shows that there is an enormous strength in manufacturing. It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to complain about changes in manufacturing jobs given that 100,000 of them were murdered under the Conservative Government whom he supported.

It goes without saying that a strong, modern manufacturing industry in Wales requires a high-quality skills base. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in bringing the defence training academy—a skills training academy—to St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan?

The Government expect to make an announcement on that in the near future. St. Athan’s proposal for a world-class, state-of-the-art training centre for the Ministry of Defence has enormous merit, but the MOD must take the decision in the proper way.

The Secretary of State will be aware that last July his colleague, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said that on the sale of BAE Systems’ interest in Airbus the Government would be given a guarantee that Britain would have a role in future aircraft development. Given that last Friday BAE disposed of its interest in Airbus, can the Secretary of State confirm that under the terms of that guarantee Britain’s place in the future of Airbus and the 6,000 jobs at Broughton are secure?

In fact, there are more high-quality jobs at Broughton. The Broughton centre is the biggest and most successful manufacturing centre anywhere in the European Union, let alone in the United Kingdom. We believe that its future will be secure under a Labour Government—who knows what it will be under a Tory Government?

The Secretary of State has not replied to my question about the guarantee. Is it not expressly subject to overriding shareholder interest? In those circumstances, what weight can be given to it; and is it not in truth virtually worthless?

No, I do not accept that. Airbus in Broughton has expanded year after year under our Government. It is a world centre for wing production that cannot be equalled anywhere in the world, including by Boeing in the United States, and its future is secure.

EU Structural Funds

4. What progress is being made in drawing up plans for the allocation of EU structural funds in west Wales and the valleys. (93419)

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that the objective 1 programme for west Wales and the valleys has been successful, drawing praise from the European Commission and others. However, does he also agree that, when we look to the future and the convergence programme, we need a strategic approach to the allocation of funds to have the greatest possible effect?

I agree. Wales’s objective 1 programme has been rated the best in Europe and we need to ensure that it continues to have that effect. It is interesting that increases in earnings and jobs since its operation in west Wales and the valleys are greater than the Welsh and English averages. That is an incredible achievement for areas that suffered such blight and were devastated under the Tories. Objective 1 funding has brought growth, prosperity and hope to west Wales and the valleys.

May I press the Secretary of State a little more on the timetable for the new round of convergence funding? He knows that the Welsh European Funding Office is currently giving advice to prospective applicants, but cannot give a precise date,

“as this is subject to the negotiation process with the EU Commission in late 2006, which may run into early 2007.”

Does he agree that there is a healthy impatience to get the matter resolved, not least because many projects are waiting in the pipeline? They include the development of renewable energies and energy efficiency, which fulfil some of the Lisbon criteria, and many small-scale community projects that do not. None the less, they all need the green light and cannot wait indefinitely.

We shall continue to take that forward as effectively as possible. We have shown in the past that we always deliver under objective 1, despite whingeing and sniping by Opposition Members. The Labour Government have delivered in Cardiff and Westminster. The proof is that, whereas the gross value added per head in west Wales and the valleys was falling before 2000 and the objective 1 programme, it now consistently keeps pace with the UK average. That is a genuine tribute to the effectiveness of our policies.

Will EU structural funds be used to protect jobs in the Rhondda? Two weeks ago, Burberry announced that it intends to close its factory in Treorchy just after Christmas. Yet only last week, it announced a record increase in retail sales of 27 per cent. in the past few months. Does the Secretary of State worry that British brands, which trade on their Britishness, undermine that brand by outsourcing to other countries and stopping their production in Britain?

I acknowledge the valiant fight that my hon. Friend, along with Leighton Andrews, Assembly Member for Rhondda, has put up on behalf of the Burberry workers. We shall continue to support their efforts to try to ensure that there is a future for the factory. However, competition and management decisions have clearly affected that. It is therefore important to continue to work together to ascertain what can be done.

Perinatal Care

5. Pursuant to the answer of 3 May 2006, Official Report, column 954, on tourist medical facilities, what recent discussions he has had with the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services on the provision of perinatal care. (93420)

The Under-Secretary knows that the maternity wards at Llanidloes, Machynlleth, Tywyn, Newtown and Dolgellau are currently mothballed. Does he know that, at Bronglais district general hospital in Aberystwyth, there are moves not to provide 24/7 paediatric consultant cover? If that goes ahead, it means that Welsh babies will be born in Shrewsbury—we need Welsh babas to be born in Wales. Will the Under-Secretary therefore give me, the people of mid-Wales and visitors from Lichfield to mid-Wales an assurance that Bronglais will continue with 24/7 cover?

As a grandfather for the first time a year and a day ago, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and appreciate the need for specialist baby care units that are consultant led. A review is taking place and no decisions have yet been made. Indeed, a member of the review team has said that people should not assume that the consultant-led obstetric department will be removed from Bronglais hospital. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members some assurance.

I hear what the Minister says about the presumption that the consultant-led service will not, after all, be moved from Aberystwyth. Does he realise, however, how vital that service is to the whole of mid-Wales? Tywyn hospital, for example, utterly depends on that outreach consultancy service. Will the Minister redouble his efforts, together with his colleagues in Cardiff, to ensure that the service continues, in the interest of the whole of mid-Wales, including south Meirionnydd?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that the service covers an area far wider than just Aberystwyth. I recognise personally the importance of having consultant-led specialist baby care units to cover rural areas. We all recognise how difficult it is to provide such services, but the consultant-led service in Aberystwyth covers a very large rural area. I shall make the views of hon. Members on this matter known to Dr. Brian Gibbons.

Police

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on police performance in Wales. (93421)

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he agree, however, that the money wasted on trying to merge the four Welsh police forces would have been better spent trying to recruit more police officers?

We have recruited 1,000 extra police officers in Wales under our Labour Government; there were cuts in real terms to police resources in Wales when the Conservatives were last in power. It was right that we tried to identify the gap in protective services in Wales and elsewhere in order to fight terrorism, serious organised crime and drug dealing, and I had a very productive meeting with the Welsh police authorities only the other week in north Wales to try to take things further.

Community policing in Wrexham has improved markedly as a result of neighbourhood wardens, community support officers and police officers working together. Will my hon. Friend therefore please explain what on earth possessed the Lib Dem-led council in Wrexham to propose the scrapping of neighbourhood wardens? That proposal is being vehemently opposed by my constituents.

I never know what possesses Lib Dem councils anywhere, including Wrexham. They often cut services, including vital ones such as neighbourhood wardens, and thereby lose the respect that local people might otherwise have had for them. That is why we need a Labour council back in Wrexham as soon as possible.

Prisons

My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on all matters that affect Wales, and last week I had a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Before the Welsh Affairs Committee’s investigation takes place, will he look into the question of custody for 17 and 18-year-olds—given that there are only 36 places for them in Wales, none of which is in mid-Wales or north Wales—so that he will be able to respond properly to the Committee’s investigation later in the Session?

I had some difficulty hearing what the hon. Gentleman was saying, but I understand that he was expressing concern about young people in prison. That is an issue that needs to be addressed, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was listening to his question. I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the prison estate before and asked whether it would be possible to establish a prison in north Wales. Following my discussions with the Minister with responsibility for prisons, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, if a suitable site can be identified in north Wales, the Home Office will give the matter very serious consideration. Perhaps he would like to contact the Minister directly if he has any sites to promote.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Parc Supporting Family Forum, which works with prisoners in Parc prison in my constituency to roll out programmes to prevent reoffending and to ensure that family links with prisoners are maintained? Will he also urge Bridgend county borough council—

I congratulate the organisation that is working so hard in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is accepted that we need to maintain family links for prisoners, so that they improve their opportunities for rehabilitation and we prevent reoffending when they are discharged.

As the Minister is aware, all female Welsh prisoners are housed outside Wales. I have had a case recently of a female prisoner being held at Drake Hall—a great distance from her three children and her terminally ill husband. Given the importance of sustaining family relationships both to the successful reintegration of ex-offenders into our communities and to ensuring that children do not develop offending behaviour, what discussions has he had with the Home Office to improve the situation for female prisoners?

Again, that will be part of the review of new prison sites, and the Home Secretary announced a few days ago that 8,000 new places are to be created. The issue of women prisoners from Wales will form part of that review, as I understand it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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

My local health staff have ensured that all cancer patients are seen within two weeks, and 97 per cent. are treated within the target 62 days. Will the Prime Minister therefore guarantee that those health staff receive the training, pay and pensions they deserve, unlike the Conservative party, which attacked the pay—

First, I would like to congratulate the staff in my hon. Friend’s constituency on having met the target. Of course, when we came to office, only about 60 per cent. of cancer patients were seen by a specialist within two weeks. That figure is now 99.9 per cent. for the whole country. Now, for the whole country, 97 per cent. of cancer patients are then treated within the 62 days—100 per cent. in her own area.

That is why it is important that we keep those national standards and targets for things such as cancer and cardiac care so that we ensure that we continue with the record that, in cancer alone, has saved more than 50,000 lives since 1997. For all those targets, there is a patient who has been helped to get care in circumstances where, a few years ago, they were not getting that care.

Last week, the Chief of the General Staff said on Iraq that

“the original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy... I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition”.

The Prime Minister has never said that, so is it now Government policy?

No, our policy remains to ensure that Iraq continues as a democracy. We have a democracy in Iraq for the first time in that country’s history, and 70 per cent. of the people came out and voted in the election, which is an extraordinary achievement, despite all the terrorism and intimidation. What is more, they voted for a non-sectarian Government in which the Sunni, the Shi’a and the Kurds all work together. I believe that the maintenance of democracy is absolutely essential for us, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I know it is difficult, but our task is to stand with the moderates in those countries against the extremists.

We all support the elected Government of Iraq and we all want to get the job done, but when the Prime Minister says we are going to get the job done, we need to know what he means. It is no use having him say one thing and the Chief of the General Staff another. Let us look at something else the Chief of the General Staff said on the “Today” programme:

“The point that I am trying to make is that the mere fact we are in some places, our presence there, exacerbates violence”.

Again, this is something the Prime Minister has never said. Is that now his view?

It is our policy to withdraw progressively from Iraq as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking on the security task. That is why it is important, when we are able to hand over to them, that we do so; otherwise we are a provocation rather than a help to them. That is why, earlier this year, we ceded control of al-Muthanna province, as there are now 5,000 Iraqi forces there doing that job. We are just withdrawing, or the Italians are, almost 3,000 forces from Dhi Qar province, where the Iraqis again will come in and do the job. We have already reduced our forces significantly over the past few years but, for example, we are working with the Iraqi forces to go through Basra part by part, making sure that we clean out the militia, put in place proper Iraqi security forces and undertake reconstruction. That is vital work, and I do not want to dismay our allies or hearten our enemies by suggesting that we will do anything other than stay until the job is done. I believe that it is a strength that there has been a bipartisan policy on this, and I hope that that is maintained.

My party supports what the troops are doing in Iraq—[Interruption.] Yes. We have never backed a premature timetable for withdrawal, but we want the Prime Minister to give frank, candid answers about the situation in Iraq. The problem is that the situation on the ground is difficult and unstable, but the message given to the British people is quite different. Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that our objectives in Iraq, our troop numbers there and the progress that we are making—[Interruption.]

Order. Even though you are some distance away, Mr. Ian Austin, I can both hear and see you. I will ask you to leave the Chamber if you carry on like that.

We will have to get used to the Chancellor’s boot boys shouting in Prime Minister’s questions.

When it comes to our objectives and troop numbers in Iraq, as well as the progress that we are making, will the Prime Minister give a guarantee of frank, candid and honest answers from the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons?

I hope that I have just explained very clearly what our strategy is. It is to withdraw progressively as the Iraqi forces build up their capability. For example, in the south of Iraq for the first time, there are 10,000 Iraqi troops who are trained to the fullest extent. They are very capable, and are doing an excellent job under the command of the Iraqi Army—[Interruption.] Yes, of course it is. As we are able to cede control, we do so, but to withdraw prematurely before the job is done would be disastrous.

There is a sense, because of the discussion in the past few days, that we have been sitting in government saying that there is no way in which we are going to withdraw and that we are going to stay there for ever. That has never been the case. May I quote to the right hon. Gentleman what I told the Liaison Committee just a few months ago? I said:

“I suspect over the next 18 months there will obviously be opportunities to draw down significant numbers of British troops because the capacity of the Iraqi forces will build up.”

I said it then, and I say it now. General Casey, who is in charge of the whole multinational force in Iraq, said back in August:

“I don’t have a date, but I can see over the next 12-18 months the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country”.

That is the policy of ourselves and our allies—not just America, but the other 20 or so countries that are there. It is important that we send a signal to those people who are trying to wreck the chances of Iraqi democracy by killing innocent people. It is the self-same extremism that threatens our troops and Afghan civilians. There is terrorism in countries around the world, and the message that should go out from us and from this country is not just that we have enormous pride in our troops—we should have such pride in them—but that the policy of standing up and fighting those extremists abroad and at home is the right one, and there will be no quarter given to those who oppose us.

Recently, the British Nuclear Group was fined £500,000 after pleading guilty to the leak of 80,000 litres of spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield. Some 25 per cent. of British Energy’s share price was wiped out after it admitted to cracks in the boilers at Hunterston B and Hinkley Point, as well as underground leaks at Hartlepool. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if, after all that, someone comes forward with a plan for a new fleet of nuclear power stations, the Government’s policy remains that there will be no further subsidy from the taxpayer?

Our policy remains exactly as is, and it is important that it does so. My hon. Friend’s point, however, is a perfectly good one. There are all those issues to do with replacing the existing generation of nuclear power stations. The reason the issue is on the agenda, as we can tell clearly from the launch earlier in the week of the Norwegian-British pipeline, is that, over the next few years, this country will go from being 80 to 90 per cent. self-sufficient in oil and gas to importing 80 to 90 per cent. Obviously, those are fossil fuels, and there is a danger that we will become increasingly dependent on imported supplies of energy. It is therefore right that we replace existing nuclear power stations. But of course all the points that my hon. Friend raises must be taken into consideration.

I cannot help making the observation that complaints about the Government’s policy over Iraq would be more acceptable from those who had opposed the policy in the first place. The Prime Minister’s answers, however, give an impression that is not borne out by events on the ground. The United Nations calculates that 3,000 Iraqi civilians are being killed every month. In those circumstances, how can the Prime Minister maintain that our presence is not, as General Dannatt told us, exacerbating the security situation?

It is correct that innocent civilians are dying in Iraq. But they are not being killed by British soldiers. They are being killed by terrorists and those from the outside who are supporting them, in defiance of the United Nations resolution that says the future of Iraq should be determined democratically by the Iraqi people. Whatever disagreement people have with the original decision on Iraq, I would have thought that we should all now support the United Nations and Iraqi Government position that we should stand up against the extremists and in favour of the democrats.

But surely we are entitled to question the strategy to which the Government are committed. Is it not clear that the opinions expressed by General Dannatt, Brigadier Butler, Senator John Warner and now James Baker lead to only one conclusion—that the Government’s strategy has failed? In those circumstances, the choice is stark: change the strategy or else get out.

I suspect that the right hon. and learned Gentleman believes that we should simply leave Iraq. That would be a mistake. Let me explain to him again that it is important to understand that if we desert the Iraqi Government now, when they are building up the Iraqi forces to take over security, it would be a gross dereliction of our duty to them. Incidentally, our mission in Basra, where, as we speak, British soldiers working alongside Iraqi forces have already gone through four of the 16 areas that are part of the process, is vital in restoring proper law and order to that city. If we got out now, when the job was not done, and simply deserted the situation, what good would that do, other than to ensure that those who support the extremists around the world gained heart from it? Of course, we should all debate the strategy, but the strategy is clear: progressively to withdraw as the Iraqi capability is put in place, and not to desert the democrats but to support them.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the days when Dover was suffering great difficulties coping with large numbers of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers? Does he recall the setting up of an induction centre and a detention centre in the town, and does he recall writing to my constituents:

“I am well aware of the strain that has been put on Dover…and how well the town has dealt with this. I also accept that Dover has suffered an unfair burden”?

With the Home Office now threatening to burden us with an open prison, in the most inappropriate site in the land, can he understand why Dover feels dumped on, and will he meet me to talk about my grave concerns?

I recall my hon. Friend representing so strongly the issues in relation to migration in Dover, and we were able to deal with that problem. I am happy to meet him and to try to deal with the problem that he now has. I entirely understand that local feelings are strong. I know that he has already met the Home Secretary, and I would also be happy to meet him to discuss the matter.

Q2. The Prime Minister will be aware of the need to ensure that there is adequate support and recognition for the innocent victims of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland as we seek to move forward. The interim victims commissioner, Bertha McDougall, who is doing excellent work, has recently published a report that indicates the need to secure long-term funding for the victims sector. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to provide that long-term funding for those who have suffered so much? (94490)

I think I can give that commitment. We have already committed some £38 million to victims’ groups since 1998, and spending currently stands at £5 million a year. I am aware of the excellent work being done by Bertha McDougall as victims commissioner, and I look forward to her final report. We will look positively at her recommendations for future funding and her suggestions for spending the money more effectively.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for the constructive role that they played in the talks at St Andrews last week. I hope very much that the shared future of which I spoke from the Dispatch Box last week is somewhat further advanced now. I also hope that we can all continue to work closely to ensure that the institutions in Northern Ireland are up and running again, and that Northern Ireland’s future is secure.

Q3. Last Thursday, the British Board of Film Classification gave a 15 certificate to a video game formerly called “Bully”. The game contains scenes of violence, including scenes of players terrorising teachers and students, teachers being head-butted and the aggressive use of baseball bats. Currys has banned it. Given the link between video games and a propensity to encourage violence that some research has demonstrated, will the Prime Minister convene a meeting of stakeholders—including representatives of the industry and parents’ groups—to discuss the issue? Does he accept that this is not about adult censorship, but about protecting our children? (94491)

First, let me praise my right hon. Friend for his work in raising awareness of the issue. I have not seen the game myself, but I know that both my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for creative industries, and my hon. Friend who is responsible for the video industry, would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the issue. It is obviously important, and I know that there is a lot of concern about it.

I think it can be said that the video games industry, or at least a substantial section of it, has made significant advances over the past few years, but as my right hon. Friend says, it is important for that progress to be maintained.

Today thousands of postmasters and postmistresses are coming to London. Will the Prime Minister explain why we were promised a one-stop shop for Government services that was never introduced, why we were promised a Post Office card account which was introduced but is now under threat, and why the option of letting sub-post offices compete in new areas was never seriously considered? Will the Prime Minister guarantee that all those matters will be examined properly and urgently in the Government’s review?

We can certainly examine all the options. We should and we will. I hope, however, that the right hon. Gentleman will not tell post offices that he will spend even more money on Government subsidy than we are spending.

I might just point out that when we came to office nothing was really being done to support rural post offices. We have spent—[Interruption.] Let me give the facts; then I will explain what the difficulty is.

We have spent about £2 billion, and we are currently subsidising post offices to the tune of £150 million a year. I entirely understand why the issue is of concern to people—of course it is—but the reason there is a problem is that more and more people are using bank accounts rather than the post office. It is important to realise that there is a process of change that any Government would have to handle. Of course we will consider all the options, but what we will not be able to do is say that even more subsidy is available than the money that we are already putting in.

But the fact is that if decisions are not made urgently, there will be no post office network left to protect. Will the Prime Minister accept that 4 million people have card accounts, that they value those card accounts, and that those card accounts are a vital income stream for the Post Office? Does he not understand that scrapping them could be the last and a fatal blow to the post office network? Will he review the policy and keep the Post Office card account?

We are debating and considering the card account, but I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that some 98 per cent. of pensioners, and people who are becoming pensioners, choose payment into a bank account. The desire for the Post Office card account is actually declining. I am afraid that, on any basis, there is a limit to the amount of money that we can put in. That is particularly so on a day when, apparently, the shadow Chancellor is about to promise £4.7 billion worth of cuts in stamp duty on share dealing. He cannot promise to spend more money on the health service, more money on defence, more money on post offices and more money on rural services, and then promise tax cuts that simply cannot be affordable.

Q4. Thousands more criminals have been convicted as a result of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, allowing the police to take suspects’ DNA—a measure that Opposition Members oppose. Will my right hon. Friend reject any calls for a dumbing down or blunting of this important instrument in the fight against crime? (94492)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the DNA database. The police are now matching about 3,000 offences a month and literally hundreds of murders, manslaughters, rapes and other serious offences have been solved as a result of that database. The Conservative party was opposed to it on the basis that it transgressed people’s civil liberties, but it is important to build up the DNA database, which provides a vital way of fighting crime in the modern world. If people are serious about fighting crime, they cannot allege that we are not doing enough and then oppose the very measures necessary to do it.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the UK’s air ambulances, which help thousands of patients and save hundreds of lives? Does he realise that the service survives entirely on voluntary donations and that, unless we find a sponsor, the mid-Wales helicopter will be withdrawn for the winter? Is he aware that its ambulances are barred from applying for Big Lottery funds? Will he facilitate a meeting to resolve what amounts to an anomaly, so that the service can apply to the lottery fund in order to upgrade its aircraft and continue its life-saving services? (94493)

I am certainly happy to facilitate a meeting with the Minister with responsibility for air ambulances and I pay tribute, of course, to the work that they do. For the last four years or so, the NHS has reduced the burden on all air ambulance charities by meeting the cost of the paramedics who staff the ambulances. I have to say that I am not aware of any bar to the air ambulance services applying for funding and I am happy for the issue to be discussed. The lottery has awarded some £300,000 to mountain rescue and other services in previous years. I totally understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying and it is important to do our best for air ambulance services. If he has a meeting with the Minister, I will look carefully at its outcome myself.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware of the five good GCSE pass rates for Willowgarth high school in Grimethorpe, one of the most deprived parts of my constituency? I have served on the school’s governing body since 1979. The pass rate last year was 38 per cent. and this year it is 67 per cent. Furthermore, for the boys, it has gone up from 34 per cent. last year to 73 per cent. this year. Is that yet further evidence of what the Prime Minister meant when he said that the Government were making education their top priority? (94494)

Strangely enough, I am aware of the results in Grimethorpe and they are indeed excellent results. I congratulate all the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the local authority in Barnsley that has done such a superb job. That achievement has been repeated throughout the country, as we have seen the best ever school results. We have moved from a position in which many authorities had a 30 per cent. or lower average of five good GCSEs to one in which we are now ensuring that they are all above 40 per cent. Real improvements are happening in schools up and down the country. It is a wonderful tribute to teachers, staff, pupils and parents, and also to the record investment and reform that the Government have provided.

When the servicemen and women of other nations are exposed to injury, they are given the best possible medical treatment, often in military hospitals, whereas ours are handed over to the national health service. Does the Prime Minister recognise that moving Defence Medical Services to Birmingham has not worked and will not work in future? Will he yield to overwhelming pressure indicating that our only military hospital, the Haslar hospital in Gosport, should be retained?

I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. First, I pay tribute to the work that is done by Defence Medical Services and to the work that the NHS is doing in looking after those soldiers who are injured.

As there has been a lot of discussion about Selly Oak hospital in the news in the past few days, I should at least give it the chance to respond. It has issued a statement that has not been particularly well covered, but I would like to quote from two parts of it. It says:

“In the main, the articles”—

in the media—

“ are inaccurate, unbalanced, ill-informed and unsubstantiated.”

That is not exactly surprising, but it goes on to say:

“On no occasion has the Trust been approached to comment on any of the allegations. There have been reports of an alleged Muslim visitor verbally abusing a paratrooper at Selly Oak Hospital. Neither the Trust, nor the Ministry of Defence, has any formal or anecdotal reports or evidence that this alleged incident took place.”

The statement adds that patients are getting an excellent standard of care and there are no complaints either from the patients themselves or from those who are charged with looking after them.

I have said—I believe it is right—that it is important that our soldiers, particularly those who are wounded in battle, are looked after to the best possible extent. The use that is made of NHS specialist services is important in that. Those soldiers should be in an environment in which they feel comfortable, and we will look to make sure that that is the case. But I think that it would be quite wrong of people to criticise the national health service for the way in which it has looked after these people, because I know that the staff are doing their level best in difficult circumstances.

Q7. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in this year’s world league table for foreign investment Britain has come at the top? Not only has foreign investment been greater in Britain than in China, but it is greater in Britain than in the United States. Indeed, foreign investment in Britain is even greater this year than in China and the United States combined. Does that not show that, unlike the spokesmen for the Opposition, the international business community has real confidence in the strength of the British economy? (94495)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the latest figures show that £85 billion worth of direct foreign investment came into Britain last year, making it the most popular destination in the world ahead of both the United States and China. We have had the strongest economic growth, low inflation, high employment and low unemployment. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said:

“Macroeconomic performance”—

in Britain—

“over the last decade has been a paragon of stability.”

That is a Labour Government delivering a strong economy after the years of boom and bust and depression under the Tories.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the case of the Leeds man, Mirza Tahir Hussein, who is to be executed in Pakistan on 1 November following a legal process that can only be described as deeply flawed. The Prime Minister will also be aware of the proposed royal visit of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who will be in Pakistan at the same time. Does the Prime Minister agree that the royal visit should not go ahead if the Pakistani authorities intend to carry out this gross miscarriage of justice? Will he also tell the House what he intends to do before that time to persuade President Musharraf to use the powers he has to overturn and resolve this difficult situation?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not comment on the royal visit. However, I will say that we have raised this case constantly with the Pakistani authorities and I raised it personally with President Musharraf when he was here a couple of weeks ago. I hope, even at this stage, that there is an intervention to ensure that this does not take place; it would be very serious if it did. There is a limit to what the President can do, but I hope that he can use his powers, and we will continue to make representations right up until the last moment. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that, because we have raised the case on many occasions for all the reasons that are well known.

Q8. Given its potential to engage young people in politics, to teach respect and responsibility in communities and societies and to tackle disengagement and antisocial behaviour, does my right hon. Friend share my considerable disappointment at Ofsted’s reporting of poor standards of teaching in citizenship? Will he see that its recommendations are implemented comprehensively and swiftly? (94496)

The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right, and we will look at those recommendations—we are looking at them very carefully—and, obviously, we will want to implement them. Citizenship is relatively new; it has come on to the curriculum only over the past few years. But my hon. Friend is right to stress its importance, and in view of the debates that are happening at present about how people better integrate into our society and how people become more responsible citizens, citizenship is an absolutely central part of teaching in school. It is important that we improve the quality of it, and that we make sure that, where classes are inadequate, they are substantially improved.

Now that the National Audit Office has laid bare the chaos of the Rural Payments Agency, and given the potential fine of £141 million by the European Union because of the inaccuracies, plus the fact that the then Secretary of State was warned in June 2005 that the project was off course and yet did nothing, what sort of Government do we have that keep the then chief executive on full pay six months after he was sacked, and promote the responsible Minister to Foreign Secretary?

First, as we have said on many occasions, we are sorry for the delays that there have been. Now, 97 per cent. of farmers have received full or partial payments. The Rural Payments Agency is in contact with the remaining high-value cases, and it is working to pay the remaining claims as soon as possible.

Q9. In June, my right hon. Friend told me that the Government need to do more on social housing, yet in the forthcoming two years Birmingham city has so far been allocated less money for new social housing than in the previous two years. What sense does it make for housing benefit to have been paying, for the last 20 months, £635 a month for Mr. and Mrs. Garghen in my constituency and their five children to be accommodated in inadequate temporary accommodation, when had we had a decent council house-building programme, the rent would have been less than half that amount? (94497)

I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but it is just worth pointing out that we have substantially increased investment in social housing; not all of it is provided in the traditional way, but we will continue to do that. It is only as a result of this Government actually putting the money into social housing when we came to office that, for example, many elderly people—[Interruption.] Well, there was no support for elderly people in social housing before this Government came to power. We are now spending about £2 billion on that. That is investment that this Government put into social housing, and the Conservatives voted against.