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Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 22 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.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur continues to be of great concern? Does he also concur that the agreement brokered by the UN in Addis Ababa last Friday is the positive way forward, and that we must do all that we can to ensure that the Government of Sudan abides by that agreement?

First, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the agreement of 17 November last week is obviously the right way forward for Sudan. It would involve a cessation of violence, but, most importantly, the force of the African Union and the United Nations coming into Sudan. It is important that we keep up the pressure on the Government of Sudan, and I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has done a superb job. We will need to keep up the pressure on the Sudanese Government, and I will have an opportunity to speak to President Bashir later today. This is a very serious situation, and it has been so for some time. We have the prospect of a way forward, but we need to take it.

The Prime Minister has recently seen for himself the incredibly brave work that our troops are doing in Afghanistan. Anyone who has visited Helmand is struck immediately by the vital role played by helicopters. Is he convinced that all our NATO partners are doing everything that they can to maximise the number of helicopters in Afghanistan? Will he push that point as hard as he can at the NATO summit at Riga next week?

We certainly will do so in relation to any of the issues that our forces on the ground raise with us. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, our work in Helmand is of tremendous importance. I found that both our troops in Helmand province and those who are working on reconstruction were in very good heart at the prospects of success in what they are doing. It is true that at next week’s NATO summit, we must make sure that not just the United Kingdom but all our NATO partners are doing their utmost to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan and to give that Government the prospect of success that they and the Afghan people deserve.

I agree with what the Prime Minister says about the morale of our troops. It is also incredibly welcome that 37 NATO countries are represented in Afghanistan. But does he agree that far too many restrictions—the so-called national caveats—are still imposed on how those troops can operate? Will he press at Riga to have those caveats reduced, so that NATO is not fighting with one arm tied behind its back?

We raise the issue of the caveats the entire time, but several countries, for reasons related to their own politics, are reluctant to remove them. We will say to those countries, however, that even if they retain some caveats on the deployment of their forces, particularly in a fighting situation, much more could be done none the less to support reconstruction and development, for example. The truth is that British troops are doing a fantastic job, and as I saw myself the other day, they have troops of other countries working alongside them. In particular, the Americans and Canadians, who, sadly, have also lost troops in defence of the Afghan mission, are working extremely well with our forces. However, it is important for NATO to recognise that not just the security of our world and the prospects for Afghanistan, but its own credibility, rests on our doing everything we can to help the people of Afghanistan in their search away from the Taliban and in favour of democracy.

May I turn to the issue raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell)? In Darfur more than 200,000 people have been murdered, while probably more than 2 million have been driven out of their homes and are living in refugee camps. Anyone who goes to listen to their stories cannot fail to be horrified by what they see and hear. Is the Prime Minister aware that while six months ago all of Darfur was open to the aid agencies, today large parts of the area cannot be accessed? What will the Government do to ensure that aid can reach the people who need it?

The only solution is to ensure that the agreement brokered last week in Addis Ababa is implemented. What that involves, essentially, is a United Nations-African Union force of far greater numbers—some 17,300 troops, I believe, and 3,000 police; the United Nations giving logistic support; and the Sudanese Government participating not just in the ceasefire, but in re-engaging with the rebel forces. All that must be done.

It is also important for us to look at the prospect of a no-fly zone. That could play a part as well. However, the difficulty that we face is very simple. It is clear that it is not UK or American forces that can carry out this particular mission. That is clear because it is not just our will, but the will of the African countries that are there. The absolute key is to put significantly larger numbers of troops on the ground, backed by the proper logistics and support, and that is what we will be working to achieve.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman went to Darfur. He is absolutely right—it is a terrible situation—but the only solution is the one that we have put forward. It is worth emphasising from the outset that the UK, along with the United States and other allies, has been at the forefront of attempts to get the situation resolved.

The Prime Minister mentioned the peacekeeping force. He is absolutely right: unless it is hugely enlarged, the people in the camps simply will not leave to go back to their homes. Will he ensure that in the negotiations—which are vital—the Government do not give ground and that the force is larger, has better logistics, is better equipped and, vitally, has the link to the UN without which it will not be able to do its job properly?

I think that that is important, and that is why what Kofi Annan agreed last week with the Sudanese Government is extremely important. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been to Sudan some six times, and has been immensely active. We have the outlines of an agreement; the point is to get it implemented. All I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that we will be working very closely with our allies, particularly the United States, to ensure that that is done.

The Sudanese Government should recognise that if they do not seize this opportunity, it will raised in the United Nations and the pressure will grow for strong measures against them. I urge the African Union nations to get behind the concept of a hybrid force involving the African Union and the United Nations. It is the only prospect that we have of succeeding, and we must seize it now.

Clearly, in the long term neither aid nor enlarging the force in Darfur will do the trick. We need a political solution.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the last town attacked by Sudanese forces, Birmaza, was the place where the ceasefire talks with the rebel groups were to take place? Does he believe that that shows a complete lack of commitment to the peace process by the Sudanese Government? What steps will he take to maximise the pressure on them and ensure that they see no alternative to stopping the killing and no alternative to a fundamental peace agreement in Darfur?

We will do what we have been doing up to now and ensure that we have the broadest possible support and agreement, and not just for the hybrid force. We must also ensure that we get the Sudanese Government to re-engage with the rebel groups that are still fighting. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, some of the rebel groups accepted the Darfur peace plan and some did not. Some are continuing to fight. The problem arises when the Government of Sudan then use the militia to try to defeat the rebel groups. It is not just a question of the African Union force going in; it is also a question of the Sudanese Government calling a ceasefire and then re-engaging with the rebel groups. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will do everything we can to make that happen.

We raise this issue on every possible occasion—in the European Union, in the United Nations and in the course of our relations with other African countries. I had a meeting with the vice-president of Sudan just a short time ago, and, as I said earlier, I will be speaking to the President later today. Ultimately the situation must lie there, but I think that it is clear from the work we have done, and from statements by the United States of America, that if the Government of Sudan do not seize this opportunity, we will have to consider tougher measures against them.

My right hon. Friend leads a Government who have a proud record in compensating our miners and their widows and families for the suffering that the boys endured in Britain’s pits. The one area that is not resolved is compensation for surface workers. Some in the Department of Trade and Industry are scheming to prevent surface workers from pursuing their claims. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet with colleagues and myself to discuss that, so that we can prevent a scar from growing on the reputation of his Government and a shame descending on the Labour Benches, which will happen if we allow this injustice?

As my right hon. Friend implied, we have paid out more than £3 billion in compensation. Literally thousands upon thousands of miners have had compensation that I do not believe they ever would have got except under a Labour Government. However, my right hon. Friend is also right to raise the surface workers issue, and we are looking into that very closely. I can assure him that the DTI will co-operate fully with those running the scheme in order to see what can be done, and I am perfectly happy to meet him on that issue.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the White Paper on nuclear deterrence and the future of Trident will definitely be published before the end of the year?

Can the Prime Minister also confirm that the House of Commons will be given the opportunity to vote on the options available, not just the principle? On an issue as significant as the future of Trident, should not the whole House of Commons determine Britain’s future?

I am sure that there will be an opportunity to vote on the issue—I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is discussing that with the usual channels—and, of course, there should be. However, I suspect that, in the end, this issue will be less about process and more about where we stand on it. I believe that it is important that we maintain the independent nuclear deterrent. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has a position on that, or not.

Q2. Local government workers are today lobbying Parliament about their pension scheme. Will the Prime Minister use his influence to try to secure a settlement that is broadly in agreement with the agreements reached last October with other public sector workers? Some say that they support public servants, but is not the way to show support for public servants to make sure that their pensions are secure for the long term? (101590)

My hon. Friend is right that trade unions and local government employers have been working hard to reach agreement on this issue. The Government will soon be in a position to consult on the new pension scheme for local government. It will be fully consistent with the agreement that we reached some time ago. The new pension scheme will reward local government workers with the benefits that they deserve, while ensuring that the costs of it are fair to employees, employers and taxpayers. We will certainly abide by the agreement that we entered into. It protects public service pensions, while making sure that for new claimants we move to a different, more sustainable basis for the long term.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep concern that is felt in the boroughs of London about yesterday’s announcement by the Culture Secretary on the Olympic levy? Does he understand that the hard-pressed council tax payers of boroughs such as Bexley already have to contend with the drunken-sailor spending attitude of Mayor Livingstone, and that now they will also have to contend with the untrammelled pressure that will come from the Olympic levy? Will the Prime Minister look again at putting a cap on what that levy should be for London?

We have already outlined our proposals for funding the Olympics, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that winning the Olympics was fantastic for Britain—not only for London, but for the whole country. I think that this country will benefit enormously from hosting the Olympics in 2012.

Q3. Is the Prime Minister aware that Cancer Research UK will this afternoon deliver a petition with a quarter of a million signatures? It asks the Government to build on the current NHS cancer plan and to commit to updating it beyond 2010. Does he agree that although cancer services have been transformed, it is absolutely vital to keep planning for the future, to keep up the momentum so that we can meet the cancer challenge that still lies ahead? (101591)

My hon. Friend is right in saying that there has been tremendous progress in the past few years. When we came to office, just over 60 per cent. of suspected cancer patients were seen within two weeks; the figure is now almost 100 per cent. That is a big change and thousands of lives are now being saved every year as a result of improvements in cancer treatment. However, my hon. Friend is also right to indicate that we are six years through the 10-year cancer plan—there are another four years to go—and I know that the head of cancer services in the NHS is looking carefully at whether we need to publish an update of that plan. But it is right to say that cancer services, like cardiac care, is an area in which massive improvements have been made as a result of the investment and reform of the past few years.

Q4. The Prime Minister will be aware that Airbus is a great British and European success story, employing thousands of my constituents and those of other Members. He will also know that the sale of the remaining British shares in Airbus has cast a shadow over the long-term future of those high-quality manufacturing jobs. What are the British Government doing actively to ensure that those excellent and vital jobs have a long-term future? (101592)

What we are doing is making a huge investment in Airbus, which has paid off for the taxpayer because Airbus has been a tremendous success story. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—thousands of people are employed on the Airbus programme doing fantastic work. These are high-skill jobs, and I can assure him that we will continue to be fully committed to the Airbus programme. Indeed, I think that I am right in saying that it has orders for more than 2,000 aircraft, representing some five years work, or more. It is an investment about which we feel very strongly and we will continue to do all that we can to support Airbus.

The Prime Minister may be aware that over the past decade some 14,500 teenagers have been seriously injured at work. Shockingly, 66 of them died. Will he join me in congratulating the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the Health and Safety Executive on preparing a workplace hazards course for year 10 pupils, and will he ask the Education Secretary to consider making that course mandatory throughout the curriculum?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has just said. The HSE and the IOSH are absolutely right to bring forward a plan that will help to make young people more aware of the potential hazards in the workplace. However, as a result of legislation passed over many years, I am pleased to say that we have an immensely improved record on health and safety in the workplace.

Q5. Is the Prime Minister aware that consultants at Worthing hospital, which is threatened with downgrading because it is in a Conservative area, have been told that they must not see their patients before eight weeks, even if their patients’ conditions deteriorate? Those consultants believe that it is unethical for them not to continue to see their patients and they do not want to spend their time sitting around twiddling their stethoscopes, even if it means that the hospital does not get paid. Who is acting in the best interests of those patients—the consultants or the failed accountants at the strategic health authority sorting out the financial mess in the NHS? (101593)

Of course, the consultants in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere should do what is ethical and what is right for their patients. The decisions are taken, obviously, by the local primary care trust and the strategic health authority, but let me point out two things to the hon. Gentleman. As a result of the investment that we have made in the national health service, which he opposed, there are 4,500 more nurses in his strategic health authority and almost 600 more consultants. Let me tell the Conservatives something. They talk about the inequality or inadequacy of the health funding and its disbursement, but their policy is to ensure that

“NHS resource allocation…reflects more accurately the fact that most NHS resources should be given to those areas where the disease burden is highest.”

That is his policy. If we did that, we would have to reduce health service spending in his area. [Interruption.] Yes, I am afraid that he is wrong and I am right, and what is more, as a result of this Government’s policy we have increased investment in his area by more than 30 per cent. That is what a Labour Government do after the Tories years of neglect.

This August, I visited a hostel in Wakefield for women fleeing domestic violence. There, I met a woman who had had to leave her home because of violence from her own son. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to help people meet the challenges of parenting out-of-control children, whether they are tackling toddler tantrums or teenage tearaways?

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. The announcement yesterday of additional funding and help for parents is an important part of ensuring that people get the help that they need. Where children may be going off the rails and getting into difficulty, it is especially important that parents get the support and intervention to help them. My hon. Friend is right: this is not about telling people how to run their families or interfering with their family life, but about supporting people who are in need. That helps the families and the children, and it also helps communities that face antisocial behaviour from children who are not behaving.

Will the Prime Minister undertake to stay out of the clutches of the Metropolitan police until the end of the week, because we are looking forward enormously to his visit to the Scottish Labour conference on Friday? Is he aware that every time he attacks the SNP, support for Scottish independence soars to new, unprecedented levels? Will he promise to launch another furious assault on us this coming Friday?

Yes, I will and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. It is because by ripping Scotland out of the UK we would damage the economy, living standards, health service and education in Scotland. He has no positive proposals for Scotland because the only policy that he has has been rejected twice before and will be rejected a third time.

Has my right hon. Friend found time to read an article by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian yesterday, which said that a proposal by the NHS to move out-patient facilities into a brand- new building, yet to be opened, and to build a brand- new local care hospital in my constituency is being cynically portrayed as a hospital closure by Wandsworth council? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) that council would do better to take its social policy advice from Polly Toynbee?

Well, Polly Toynbee has not always been fully in accordance with our policy, but my hon. Friend is right to say that those changes are necessary. As for those who go on about the need to tackle poverty in this country, some of us remember when, under the last Conservative Government, child poverty increased year on year and there were 3 million unemployed. As a result of the policies of this Government, we have taken 700,000 children out of poverty and 2.5 million pensioners out of acute hardship, and the new deal has taken 1.6 million people off benefit and into work. Every single bit of that was opposed by the Conservatives.

Q6. Last week, Milton Keynes hospital announced the closure of its surgical assessment unit with the loss of some 23 beds—the first cuts of some £18 million savings that need to be found by March. Can the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why, at a time when the Government are forcing Milton Keynes to expand, they are forcing our health service to contract? (101594)

When the hon. Gentleman talks about the health service contracting overall, it simply is not right to give the example that he gives without putting the other side of the picture, because it is also true that we have funded a £130 million scheme to concentrate all clinical services on one site and provided a new angiography treatment unit, a new GP practice, 5,500 more nurses and almost 800 more consultants in his area. Yes, there will be changes in any health service—there should be changes as the changing pattern of health care demands them. In the past few years, we have increased the number of people working in the health service, cut the waiting times and lists dramatically—[Interruption.] Yes, we have. We have the largest hospital building programme ever under way and the fact is that the hon. Gentleman’s party, having first opposed the extra money for the health service, is now opposing the reform. That is why, whatever campaign he runs, when people look at which party really cares about the health service they will realise that it is the party that invests in it and is prepared to take the difficult challenges seriously to make it fit for the 21st century.

Q7. My right hon. Friend had the chance to hear directly from Hackney residents, when he visited my constituency earlier this year, how much they welcome the Government’s investment in regeneration, housing and education. We had a second city academy open this year and our first city academy, Mossbourne, received an outstanding Ofsted report only last month. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that they will continue to receive that level of investment, especially in education and the much-needed affordable family housing? (101595)

My hon. Friend is right to say that Hackney has undergone huge changes in the past few years. I used to live in Hackney—opposite the Holly street housing estate, which has been changed significantly in the past few years. She is particularly right to draw attention to the success of the city academy programme, of which Mossbourne is a very good example. It is literally transforming educational opportunities for some of the poorest children in one of the poorest boroughs in the country. That is why, again, we must keep the money going in, accompanied by the reform.

Q8. The Prime Minister is well aware that our armed forces in Helmand province in Afghanistan are involved in a desperately dangerous mission, and are putting their lives on the line every hour of every day. Apparently, Brigadier Lorimer, who takes command of British forces next spring, has said that he will need more soldiers, Warrior armoured vehicles, tanks, artillery pieces and helicopters. Will the Prime Minister honour the commitment that he gave to the people of this country in a television interview, when he said that the Army will get whatever it needs to ensure a successful outcome to its mission? (101596)

Yes, of course I will honour that. All the time, we keep under review what we need in the Helmand province and elsewhere. I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that I am conscious of our responsibility to our forces out there, who are doing immensely difficult work in very challenging circumstances. Of course we will listen carefully to any requests that are made to us.

Let me also point out that the work that the forces are doing in that area is quite extraordinary. I met the Governor of Helmand province when I was there, and the work that they are doing not only in fighting the Taliban, but with reconstruction and development, is quite remarkable. There is a paradigm that can help us to succeed in Afghanistan, which is to do with marrying together the elements of security and force with those of reconstruction and development. I assure the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) that in relation to our armed forces and boosting the development effort, we will do whatever is necessary to succeed.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that some madrassahs in Pakistan call themselves religious schools, but are actually centres for training al-Qaeda terrorists. When he meets the President of Pakistan, will he try to persuade him to close down the madrassahs that are funded by al-Qaeda supporters in the middle east?

As my hon. Friend would expect, I raised those issues with both President Musharraf and Prime Minister Aziz. We are doubling our aid to Pakistan in the next few years, and some of that additional money will go precisely to support education, which helps to deal with some of the causes of extremism in some of the madrassahs. Not all madrassahs are as my hon. Friend describes, but it is important that those that are potential breeding grounds for terrorism are dealt with. One of the most hopeful signs that I got from my visit to Pakistan was the sense that it understood that anything that supports extremism there, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, is a strategic threat not just to Afghanistan and the rest of the world, but specifically to Pakistan.

Q9. The Prime Minister may be aware of the budgetary deficit facing North Wales police, which has already led to the redundancies of 120 civilian staff— No it has not. The deficit has also led to a standstill in the recruitment of uniformed officers for the past 15 months. Is the Prime Minister therefore prepared to meet me and members of the North Wales police authority to discuss this financial crisis that threatens the future of effective policing in north Wales? (101597)

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that as far as I understand it, there are actually more police officers—indeed, record numbers of police officers—in Wales. It is partly as a result of that, and the measures that we have introduced, that crime is down. Of course, I know that there will be concerns about any changes that are made, but I have to say to him that if he looks back over the past few years, he will see that not just on crime, but on education and health, there have been tremendous improvements in Wales, and the numbers of people working in those public services are at record levels.

Will my right hon. Friend urge retailers, the stock exchange and those with huge city bonuses to contribute to the Farepak fund, and will he use the new Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill to legislate so that the situation never arises again?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Department of Trade and Industry has launched an investigation to see what lessons can be learned from Farepak’s collapse, and whether we need to change the law to give consumers additional protection. The Government will work very closely with the administrators, the family fund people and all of those who are trying to deal with a very difficult situation, and I totally sympathise with all those people who are caught up in it. We will do our best not merely to mitigate the effects of Farepak’s collapse, but to learn the lessons and ensure that it does not happen again in future.

Q10. After the conflict ended, cluster bombs used in Lebanon by Israel had resulted in 159 casualties, including 23 deaths so far. In Geneva last week, why did the UK not support calls from the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 27 nations for urgent action? In Oslo next year, will the Prime Minister push for a ban on those indiscriminate bombs, or does he agree with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, and who strongly advocates the use of such bombs? (101598)

We are working hard with our other allies to deal with that issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that, in the end, the only way that we will deal with it effectively is to make sure that we deal with the root causes of conflict in the middle east—that means Israel and Palestine, and it means Lebanon. It means making sure that, across the middle east, the cause of extremism is put on the back foot. I believe that it is important always to make sure that we realise that the reason why the conflict exists is deep-rooted, and if we want to deal with the situation, we have to pull it up by the roots.