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Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2006

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.