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Volume 451: debated on Wednesday 1 November 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.

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in condemning the incendiary bomb attacks in Belfast last night. The republican terrorists behind those attacks have nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland. As the Democratic Unionist party continues to consult widely on the St. Andrews agreement, will the Prime Minister once and for all confirm that the Government will not grant an amnesty to IRA terrorists who are on the run, and will not reintroduce the deeply offensive legislation that was previously brought before the House or seek to achieve the same objective by any other means?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already made it clear to the House that there will be no amnesty for on-the-runs, and that we have no intention of bringing back legislation on the issue. On the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes, I entirely share his condemnation of the attacks last night. He is also right to point out why they are taking place—because people do not want the prospect of agreement that was offered at St. Andrews. They are trying to disrupt it and change the stated desire of people in Northern Ireland to live together in peace. The best response to such acts of violence is to make sure that the St. Andrews agreement is fully implemented, that we get the institutions back up and running, and that the peace process thrives and moves Northern Ireland forward. If we can do so, that is the best response to those who use violence.

Apropos the St. Andrews agreement, does the Prime Minister agree that secret side deals can frustrate even the most creditable agreement? As the parties have very many difficult points further to negotiate, will he lift the veil, so to speak, from these side deals so that we have a better relationship, as was said before, and no further side deals can be done? For example, does he agree that the question of education by academic selection or otherwise in Northern Ireland is not for one party alone, but for the entire community?

The most important thing is that the decisions on matters such as education are taken by the directly elected politicians in Northern Ireland. That is one reason why we want the St. Andrews agreement to succeed. The agreement is very open about what is necessary. We need to resolve the issues in relation to policing, but there is a tremendous desire right across the political parties in Northern Ireland for the St. Andrews agreement to be implemented. The basic deal that has been at the heart of it since the outset has been peace in return for exclusively democratic means being used in order to further people’s political objectives. If everyone can get behind that essential position in Northern Ireland, the St. Andrews agreement will be implemented and the peace process will move forward.

Today hundreds of health workers will be lobbying Parliament worried about deficits, cuts and low morale in our health service. The Government’s chief medical officer—[Interruption.]

Members do not like hearing about Labour cuts in our NHS. The Government’s chief medical officer has said that evidence

“from within the NHS…tells a consistent story for public health of poor morale, declining numbers, inadequate recruitment and budgets being raided to solve financial deficits.”

Was the chief medical officer speaking for the Government?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening within the national health service. There are 400,000 fewer people on waiting lists than there were in 1997, waiting times for cataracts and heart operations are down, people now get their cancer treatment on time, and there are 300,000 more staff in the NHS. If he wants the best evidence of improvement in the NHS, someone said this morning:

“if you were to say to me is the NHS better now than it was in 1997, I think there have been improvements”.

Who was that? The shadow health spokesman.

What about the chief medical officer, who advises the Government? As ever, the Prime Minister never answers the question. Let us hear from someone else in the NHS. The chairman of the British Medical Association says:

“This year has seen vitally needed healthcare professionals losing their jobs.”

He says that he is “dismayed” by what he calls

“the incoherence of current government policies and the damage they have caused to the NHS”.

Did the Prime Minister ever think that, after nine years of Labour Government, morale would be so low in the NHS?

The comprehensive report on the health service was published by the Healthcare Commission just a few days ago. This is what it says:

“There are real improvements to applaud and celebrate.”

Patients are seeing real improvements to health care services in England and Wales. They are waiting less time for treatments. There are now more doctors, more nurses and more health care professionals. Of course changes are taking place in the NHS—and rightly, because more cases are being dealt with as day cases, new technology is shortening waiting times, specialist care is being developed, and more is being done in primary care settings now. All that is part of necessary change. The Conservative party, having first opposed all the investment in the NHS, now apparently also opposes reform. The only way in which the NHS will improve is if we keep the money coming in, not cut it back, which is his policy, and make sure that we make the reforms to get value for money.

The health service professionals are not here protesting about our policies; they are protesting about his cuts. If the Prime Minister will not listen to people within the health service, will he listen to his own health guru, Sir Derek Wanless? Derek Wanless told the Chancellor that the money could have been better spent. We now have an account of how the conversation went. Sir Derek said to the Chancellor that the Government’s policies since 1997 had made the NHS worse. There was then

“an uncomfortable silence… Brown was no longer interested in the conversation.”

Does that sound at all familiar to the Prime Minister?

There is one issue: whether the NHS has got better since 1997 as a result of the investment and reform. Now, even the right hon. Gentleman’s own shadow health spokesman admits that it has. It has got better because we got the largest ever hospital building programme under way. It has got better because there are more staff in the NHS. It has got better because the very targets that he wants to scrap are resulting in reduced waiting times and reduced waiting lists. Yes, it is true that there are real difficulties in the NHS—of course there are. There are bound to be when we undergo a process of change. The right hon. Gentleman says that staff are protesting about our policy, not his, but that is hardly surprising when we look at what his policy is. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] I was just about to indicate why we would not follow it.

For once, the Prime Minister admits that there are real difficulties in the NHS. Are not the real failings in the NHS due to bungled contracts, endless reorganisations and top-down targets? Are not those the hallmarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The reason why we have managed to get waiting times and waiting lists down, why people are being treated for cancer far quicker and why we have 150,000 fewer deaths from heart disease since 1997 is precisely that we have laid down targets for minimum treatment. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he is going to get rid of targets inside the NHS, that will mean that those patients who are currently guaranteed proper waiting times and treatment, or who are guaranteed that when they go to accident and emergency departments, for example, they can be seen quickly, will no longer have those standards. If that is his policy, he is not merely committed to cutting the investment in the health service, but to taking away the very minimum standards that have delivered the improvements that his own health spokesman admits to.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the Chancellor—he cannot even mention his name—but let us just spend a moment on the subject. Let me put the question that I put to him three weeks ago. In January, the Prime Minister said:

“I'm absolutely happy that Gordon Brown will be my successor.”

Does the Prime Minister—

Order. I allowed the right hon. Gentleman to get away with that before. I will not labour the point—the Prime Minister is here to talk about the business of the Government. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling on an important point. Questions should be about the business of the Government. The issue of who will be the next leader of the Labour party is for the Labour party to talk about and decide. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling. Ultimately, that leader may become the Prime Minister, but I am telling the right hon. Gentleman that it is not a matter for the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not keep interrupting me, or I will suspend the sitting and the Leader of the Opposition will not be able to speak. I am making it clear that it is not a matter for the Prime Minister, who is responsible for Government business.

Are you honestly saying, Mr. Speaker, that we cannot ask the Prime Minister of the country—[Interruption.]

Order. May we have some calm? Of course, anything that I say from the Chair is said honestly, and I tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has no right to ask, on the Floor of the House, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, who the Prime Minister is supporting for an office within the Labour party.

Perhaps with my last question I can ask the Prime Minister who he would like to see as the next Prime Minister of this country. [Interruption.]

I was simply going to say—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am about to answer. The Chancellor’s record of having delivered the lowest inflation, lowest unemployment, and lowest interest rates in this country’s history, and of having managed the strongest growth of any major industrial economy, which, as a result, has delivered record investment in the national health service, is a rather better recommendation than having spent some time advising Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Turner and Newall is in liquidation, which means that there is very little money available for compensation for people suffering from mesothelioma. Will he join me in congratulations, as last Thursday it was announced that benefits previously paid will not have to be deducted from compensation, following the campaign that I conducted with Amicus? Will he confirm that that could only happen under a Labour Government?

I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done in campaigning on the issue, to the Amicus union, and to all the others who have taken up the cause of that particular group of employees. As a result of that successful campaign, about 4,000 people will each receive about £6,000 in compensation. That, along with all the money paid out in miners’ compensation, is an indication of the profound difference in values that the Labour Government bring to the government of this country.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary declined to commit the Government to an inquiry into Iraq, but later the Defence Secretary said that there would be such an inquiry. Which is it?

The Foreign Secretary stated the position very clearly in yesterday’s debate. We certainly do not rule out such an inquiry, and our motion stated that lessons must, of course, be learned, which is always important, but this is not the time for such decisions. Had that motion gone through last night, it would have sent a signal that would have dismayed our coalition allies and the Iraqi Government and heartened all those who are fighting us in Iraq. That is why we opposed the motion and why it is important that we stand up and fight those in Iraq who are trying to prevent the democratic process from taking root.

With regard to an inquiry, is it not now time for a British strategy based on British priorities, and not one that depends upon the outcome of the American elections? And should that strategy not be phased withdrawal sooner rather than later?

Let me explain something to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. British troops have been in Iraq for three and a half years with a United Nations resolution. When British forces are trying to help those who want democracy to function in Iraq, and when American forces are trying to make sure that that democratic process is secured, they are not simply acting on behalf of America or Britain; they are acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution and with the full support of the Iraqi Government. The trouble with Liberal Democrat Members is that they want to pray the United Nations in aid when it suits them, but when it does not suit them, they ignore it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of bus deregulation outside London. He may not be aware that in south Yorkshire for every three people who rode on a bus in 1986, there is now one passenger and two empty seats. Will he accept that bus deregulation for most areas has been a failed Thatcherite experiment? Will he back the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport not to turn the clock back to 1986, but to give real powers to passenger transport authorities to ensure that our constituents outside London have the same access to decent public transport as is currently available to people in the capital?

I fully understand why the Secretary of State for Transport has said that, and I fully support it. My hon. Friend has made his point in relation to Sheffield, and I have heard it in many different parts of the country. In London, where there has been a tougher system of regulation, some of the same problems have not appeared. Without in any sense turning the clock back, it is entirely right to look at the issue again.

Q2. What requests for Warrior armoured vehicles have been received from commanders in Afghanistan to help make good the currently inadequate protection available to our troops? (98426)

I think that the Defence Secretary has just indicated that there have not been any such requests. In any event, if there were such requests, or indeed requests for any type of equipment whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, it would be a duty to meet those requests. The work that we are doing in Afghanistan is extremely important, and, yes, it has proved to be very tough in the south of Afghanistan. When our forces begin operating in an area such as Helmand, they adjust their tactics and strategy, which is perfectly natural. They may well ask for more forces, troops or whatever they think necessary to accomplish the mission, which is entirely natural. What is happening down in the south is a remarkable tribute to what British troops are doing. It is absolutely vital to support the democratic process in Afghanistan. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us be clear that the very people who are disrupting the democratic process are the same people whom we are fighting world wide in this battle against terrorism, so we should support our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in taking them on.

Q3. Warrington borough council has just said that it is minded to approve plans for the Omega development, which is the largest industrial development site in the north-west, but it cannot make the final decision because the Government office for the north-west has issued an article 14 direction. In view of the strategic importance of the site, will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in ensuring that the planning process is completed as soon as possible? Will he also assure me that Warrington will get the investment in education and skills to enable local people, particularly those in the most deprived areas, to take advantage of the 12,000 highly skilled jobs that will be created by the development? (98427)

I know something about the project, and I am very happy to follow its progress, because it is an extremely big development that involves a lot of potential jobs in the area. As my hon. Friend will know, Warrington Collegiate, for example, has a major £27 million project. In her constituency, there is about £1,000 a year per pupil in extra funding. We want to keep that funding going. It is important that the Government’s position in respect of education and health remain that we do nothing that interrupts the flow of investment that is delivering real results on the ground.

Q4. I sincerely thank the Prime Minister for his considerable support for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and its quest to cure that debilitating, and sadly invariably fatal, disease. Is he aware of the continuing negotiations with the Department of Health on matched funding towards our £15 million research target? Will he join me in inviting colleagues to spend a few minutes at the launch of the MNDA’s research foundation in Strangers Dining Room today between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock to advance our vision of a world free of MND? (98428)

I look forward to meeting the chief executive of the MNDA foundation shortly. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will attend the reception, and I hope that as many other hon. Members attend as possible. We are not yet at the stage of being able to respond to specific proposals from the foundation, but we will do so when we get them.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on behalf of the foundation. MND is a very serious condition. The people who campaign on it are often incredibly brave and committed people who, unfortunately, know that they will die as a result of having the disease, and we would like to support them in any way we can.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister recall the Bill that I introduced last year, the Age of Sale of Tobacco Bill, which proposed to raise the age for the sale of tobacco from 16 to 18 to bring it into line with alcohol? Is he aware of the recent report by the Government’s advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which fully backs my Bill? Does he agree that the time is right to introduce this measure in the next Queen’s Speech? (98429)

We will strongly consider what my hon. Friend says. There was virtually unanimous support for raising the age for the sale of tobacco to 18 from health groups, retailers, the tobacco industry, parents, schools and young people. We hope shortly to put measures before Parliament to bring that into force, and we are looking carefully at my hon. Friend’s proposals.

Q6. When the Prime Minister promoted the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) to be Secretary of State for Europe, and then demoted him hours later to Minister of State, did he anticipate that his Foreign Secretary would have to answer all questions on Europe at Foreign Office questions yesterday? Does he have any other odd job in mind for the right hon. Gentleman? (98430)

What my right hon. Friend is doing on behalf of this country in Europe is absolutely excellent. For example, we are able as a result to negotiate difficult matters on behalf of this country in the European Union. That, I may say, is a rather better position than that of the hon. Gentleman’s party, which is to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the European Union and to separate itself out even from other conservative parties in Europe.

Q7. While it is vital that the UK play its role in reducing domestic carbon emissions to fight global warming, does my right hon. Friend agree that the real prize lies with an international solution? Can he tell the House what he is doing to encourage greater commitment from our international partners? (98431)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that although it is important that we exercise leadership here in relation to climate change, the solution to this, given that Britain accounts for some 2 per cent. of worldwide emissions, must lie at an international level. That is why in the European Union we are working with partners to extend the European trading system, and why, in the G8 plus 5 dialogue that was started at Gleneagles last year and which includes not only G8 members but India, Brazil and China, we are trying to secure a framework agreement whereby, when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, we will have a binding set of commitments on behalf of the international community. That will send the right signal not only to countries but to business and industry to invest. In the end, that is the only way in which we will tackle and defeat climate change.

Q8. In his letter to me about the decision to single out chaplaincy for dramatic cuts in Worcestershire’s hospitals, the Prime Minister rightly underlined the NHS’s commitment to providing holistic care. He said“Patients’ religious and spiritual needs have to be addressed as part of an overall care package.”Does he realise that the cuts are not compatible with that principle, and that a dangerous precedent is being set which other trusts under financial pressure will have to follow? (98432)

I do of course recall the correspondence, and I have corresponded with the priest who has been leading the campaign. I entirely understand the concerns that people have, but I think that such decisions must be taken at local level.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the past few years there has been a major expansion in the number of people working in the national health service in Worcestershire. Nevertheless, when trusts balance their books and make changes for the future, they must also make those decisions. I hope that they make them sensitively, recognising the tremendous pastoral care that is given and its value to local patients; but I do not think it would be right for me to interfere directly in that process.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me—and with trade unions, business leaders, the people of Copeland and nuclear industry analysts—that a policy of nuclear generation as a last resort is really a policy of no nuclear generation at all?

I know that, for obvious reasons, my hon. Friend has a specific interest in this issue. If we do not make the decisions on nuclear power now, both our energy security and our effort to defeat climate change may be put at risk. The reason is simple: over the next 10 or 15 years, we will move from self-sufficiency in oil and gas to importing 80 or 90 per cent. of it. We will lose the existing nuclear power stations. We have already done an immense amount in terms of energy efficiency, renewables and so on, but without the component of nuclear power it is hard for me, at least, to see how we can both reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ensure that we are not dependent on foreign imports of oil and gas in the future.

Q9. This week the Select Committee on Trade and Industry made it clear that if the Government are to achieve their goal of social and financial inclusion, they will have to maintain the post office network at a level above that which is commercially viable for the Post Office. Does the Prime Minister accept the Committee’s recommendation that, in principle, the social network payment must continue beyond 2008? (98433)

What I do accept is that there is a role for public subsidy. Indeed, I believe that over the past few years we have put some £2 billion of subsidy into the post office network, precisely because we recognise that it has a social as well as a commercial purpose. Now we are thinking about how we can sustain that purpose. The trouble—as the hon. Gentleman will know—is this. I met the sub-postmasters, or their representatives, last week. They are people doing an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances, and providing a tremendous local service. However, we must ensure that that service is viable for the long term. We can support it, but it will still have to be viable—sufficiently viable, in fact, for people to volunteer to run the post offices.

We will make an announcement in response to the sub-postmasters’ campaign shortly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the network has a social purpose, but obviously it must be limited by the extent of the funds available to us to subsidise it. We should be considering whether post offices can provide other services that give them a different and more modern rationale.

Q10. Plymouth’s excellence cluster has cut fixed-term exclusions by three quarters in secondary schools and by almost 90 per cent. in primary schools in just one year, thus breaking cycles of disruptive behaviour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons learned from schemes of that kind, which tackle unacceptable behaviour head-on, should be applied more widely? (98434)

I certainly agree that the excellence cluster in Plymouth has worked very well. Similar things are happening in other parts of the country. In London, for example, as a result of targeted investment in education and action through the excellence in cities programmes, whereas in many boroughs 25 per cent. of kids or fewer would obtain good GCSEs, the figure is now no lower than 40 per cent. in any borough. In places such as Plymouth, results have improved dramatically over the past few years. I think that we should sometimes pay tribute not just to teachers and other school staff, but to the work that pupils and parents are doing throughout the country in giving us the best school results that we have ever had.

Q11. I hope the Prime Minister is aware that, as a result of ongoing co-operation between Conservative Members and Ministers—particularly in the Home Office—there has been considerable strengthening of the legislation dealing with paedophiles. Sadly, just as that is happening, the Met police, who have a tight budget, are about to cut large numbers of the men and women who work in child protection. May I ask the Prime Minister to talk to his namesake in the Met police and ask him to reconsider, so that children in London and elsewhere can be protected? (98435)

I met some child protection officers in Downing street the other day—although they were not from London, but from different parts of the country—and they do a superb job of work. I simply say that the Metropolitan police budget has increased significantly over the past few years. Such decisions are principally for the Met Police Commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated that he is very happy to raise this issue with the Met Police Commissioner. I am sure that he will be in touch with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about it.