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Prime Minister

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

The Prime Minister was asked—

Injured Soldiers

1. On which dates since 21June 2006 he has visited British soldiers injured in Iraq or Afghanistan; and which locations were visited. (104553)

As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Riga at the NATO summit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is accompanying the Prime Minister, will make a statement to the House tomorrow.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear on several occasions that any contact with injured soldiers is a private matter and should remain so. In addition, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Hollingsworth, who was killed in Iraq last Friday. The whole House will be very proud of and grateful for the difficult and dangerous job he and others were doing on behalf of this country.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply and my colleagues and I join him in sending our condolences to Sergeant Hollingsworth’s family. The Prime Minister has refused to answer my question when I have tabled it in writing. Indeed, it is extraordinary the lengths to which he will go to avoid answering it on the Floor of the House. The Secretary of State for Defence is prepared to answer the question, not about individual soldiers, but about when and where he has visited them. Why will not the Prime Minister be as open and frank as the Secretary of State for Defence? What has the Prime Minister got to hide?

On every occasion, the Prime Minister has made it clear that those are private matters. That is still his position and I repeat it for him.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) in paying tribute to Sergeant Jonathan Hollingsworth and sending our deepest condolences to his family.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I returned from Baghdad this morning, having visited injured soldiers in Basra. We returned full of admiration for the incredible robustness and courage of our troops. It is clear that the situation they face is not getting any easier, with tens of thousands of roadside bombs this year and increasing sectarian violence. Will the Deputy Prime Minister spell out how the Government will encourage the Iraqi Government urgently to achieve an internal political settlement in Iraq?

The House will be pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has visited our troops, who are working in the most difficult circumstances. We all wish to express our appreciation of the bravery of their operations. However, from the right hon. Gentleman’s discussions with our troops, they will have made it clear that we are working hard with the Iraqi Government and the authorities to bring about a peaceful solution to the situation in Basra.

The politicians we met in Baghdad were adamant that only through a rapid improvement in the security situation could anything else be achieved. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that any future internal agreement could be reinforced by the early creation of an international contact group, formed initially by members of the United Nations Security Council and some neighbouring states? Is that something that the Government would support and recommend to the US Administration?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has mentioned to the House on several occasions that he would like to encourage neighbouring countries to participate in such agreements. It is not easy: it is difficult. Some of those countries are playing a difficult role and encouraging the assaults and injuries that are taking place, and they could do much more to prevent them. If the right hon. Gentleman’s discussions with those people are encouraging such developments, I am sure that we would welcome them.

Finally on Iraq, the Secretary of State for Defence said on Monday that he expected that British forces there would be reduced by a matter of thousands by the end of next year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether that will depend on the security situation? If so, by what criteria will the security situation be judged?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know from his discussions while he was in Iraq, we have made it clear that security is the most important consideration there. We are negotiating to ensure that a stable situation is achieved by military and police forces, and it is not our intention to withdraw from the country entirely. We will continue to give our support, but he will know from his discussions that a lot of good work has been done. We have achieved some stability in the area, and will continue our efforts to that end.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that carers, whose earnings are limited because they have to look after people who are elderly, disabled or terminally ill, lose all of their £46 carers allowance if their earnings rise even marginally above £84 a week? Is he further aware that the latest increase in the minimum wage has put many carers in just that position, and that those people are now thousands of pounds a year worse off? Does he agree that the minimum wage was never intended to cause that problem, and will he look into it as a matter of urgency, so that carers are given a fair deal?

This Government can claim to be concerned about giving carers a fair deal, as we were the first to introduce a payment for them. The minimum wage has played an important part, but my hon. Friend refers to the difficulties experienced by people on the margins. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will take note of what he has said and that the matter will be discussed further.

May I add my tribute to Sergeant Hollingsworth of the Parachute Regiment?

Can the Deputy Prime Minister help us to interpret the comments made to regional journalists by the Prime Minister on Monday? He said that people in the north should worry less about the north-south divide and regional inequalities, even though evidence from the Treasury suggests that regional inequalities in growth remain as significant as ever.

I am not so sure that the hon. Gentleman’s analysis is correct. I recognise that he spends an awful lot of time looking at economic data, but the latest report that I have seen—[Hon. Members: “We can’t hear.”] I am sorry. I was just recognising the hon. Gentleman’s ability to contribute a great deal of information to our economic debates. However, the latest analysis that I have seen suggests that the differential between north and south has been reduced, thanks to work of the regional development agencies—[Interruption.] I appreciate that the RDAs were opposed by the Opposition, but they have played their part in a very successful economic policy that has led to a narrowing of the gap between north and south.

I have the benefit of the Prime Minister’s comments, as well as of the pithy summary by the Daily Mirror—“Blair Raps Northern Moaners”. I think that he was trying to make the more subtle point that it is the differences within regions that really matter, rather than the differences between them. On that measure, can the Deputy Prime Minister explain how income and wealth inequalities have become worse under a Labour Government than they were after 17 years of Tory Government?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are 2.5 million more people in work now, that the differential has been reduced, and that everyone is enjoying a considerably better standard of living than was the case when we came to power in 1997. The hon. Gentleman has expressed different views about these matters at different times. I have been doing some research into his record, and have discovered that both his arguments and his politics have moved about a bit. He stood for Labour in Glasgow in 1970, for the Social Democratic party in York in 1983, and for the Liberal Democrats in Twickenham in 1992. With such nimble feet, it is no wonder that he lists ballroom dancing as a hobby.

The Prime Minister’s recent statement on slavery has been widely welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister support an international remembrance day for slavery and does he back the new Liverpool slavery museum, which looks at the implications of slavery at present and in the future as well as at slavery in the past?

It is a very important occasion. As we approach 2007, the House should commemorate the piece of legislation that abolished slavery. We are all proud that the House was able to do that 200 years ago, but slavery has not gone away; trafficking and modern slavery are very much with us, as has been said from time to time, and I certainly support what my hon. Friend said about Liverpool. The commemoration is not only national; it is also international. Indeed, today I am going to New York to talk with the UN Secretary-General about yesterday’s resolution and about how we can make the commemoration international. It is not only about slavery 200 years ago; we have to stop the terrible trade in modern slavery. I am delighted that the man who moved that legislation 200 years ago was the MP for Hull.

Engagements

2. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 November. Three years ago, my constituent James Wollacott contracted MRSA in hospital following successful surgery on his knee. Since then he has suffered significant problems with mobility and is in constant pain. He has had five corrective operations and will require further surgery in the new year. He is only 23 years old. What assurance can the Deputy Prime Minister give him and other victims of MRSA that combating hospital-acquired infections will not be compromised by the current financial pressures in the national health service? (104555)

The Government’s record on the NHS is very good and is there for all to see. We should be proud of the amount of resources we have put into the NHS. We created the NHS and we have sustained it. Every time we try to bring in resources to make improvements, it is always opposed by the Conservatives. Make no mistake about it: we will proudly defend the NHS. It is our creation. Millions of people in this country are totally dependent on it and we shall continue to provide a high-quality national health service.

3. Is it not nonsense to call for a crackdown on illegal immigration without investing in the necessary identity technology to tell us who is moving in and out of the country and who should and should not be here? Is not it hypocrisy to talk about greater protection from criminals and terrorists without giving our police the powers they ask for to do the job we want them to do? (104556)

That is precisely what the Government are doing, as the Home Secretary made clear and as other people said in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Security is at the heart of what the Government are bringing about, but we are concerned about the rights of citizens and the ID card is a very important part of that. On identity technology, I note that the former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee said that there is a case for ID cards. She is now chair of the Conservative security policy group. The Tories voted against ID cards but perhaps when the group reports they will listen to her advice about ID cards.

4. A scheduled British Airways flight from London to Turkey costs £161. The new standard-class rail fare from London to Torquay costs a staggering £184. How does that fit into the Government’s plan to encourage people to use the train and how does it fit in with the Government’s oft-repeated claim that they support the British tourism industry, which is so important to Torquay and other seaside resorts? (104557)

However the question is posed, the reality is that more people are travelling on public transport than for decades. More people are travelling by rail than for 40 years and more people are travelling on buses. I said in 1997 that I wanted to see more people using public transport. That has been achieved—another Labour promise delivered.

My right hon. Friend’s commitment to tackling the problems of global warming and climate change is well known. Does he agree that local authorities have a vital role in taking this matter forward, and will he ensure that local authorities have the advice, the resources and the motivation to tackle climate change at a local level?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I have to say that when I was at this Dispatch Box nearly 10 years ago talking about Kyoto and the environment, we got no support whatever from the Opposition. This country led the way on climate change and the Kyoto agreement, and in those negotiations, and it is the only country, apart from Sweden, to more than achieve its Kyoto targets.

We are now on the second stage. The Stern report points the way forward. The local authorities are extremely important in that and we will see that they have the resources and the back-up to make the changes necessary to bring about the climate change that we all know is required. We will be consistent in our policy—unlike the sudden change that we find now among the Opposition, who have discovered climate change 10 years too late.

Q5. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that lung cancer accounts for more than one in five cancer deaths. As we approach the end of lung cancer awareness month—[Interruption.] (104558)

As we approach the end of lung cancer awareness month, will the Deputy Prime Minister commit the Government to support urgent research into the value of lung cancer screening, which is looking very promising in major research in the USA, so that we are equipped to deliver a national lung cancer screening programme once the techniques are fully appraised?

I know that there is a great deal in what the hon. Gentleman says. I think what the Government have done in the health service, particularly in regard to cancer treatment, is a very good process and has done very well, and we should be particularly proud of it. If he looks at his own area, he will find that the amount of nurses, doctors and hospital investment has improved considerably—[Interruption.] Well, every constituency has benefited from those resources. The difference between the Opposition and ourselves—

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to congratulate the dedicated staff who work at Chorley and Preston hospitals and the quality of service that is provided. Will he ensure that work will not be transferred into the private sector, and ensure that all referrals from GPs will go to the hospitals and not to independent treatment centres? Let us keep those dedicated staff in employment at both hospitals.

My hon. Friend must recognise that in all these cases, first—[Hon. Members: “Speak into the microphone.”] Well, I am talking to somebody who is sympathetic to the health service, not somebody who is against it. I do not wish to ignore the Speaker and I am sorry if I have done, Mr. Speaker. It is quite clear, as I said, on our investment in our national health service we are creating additional services, both in the public and private sectors and in the public-private partnerships, and I think the guaranteeing of the workers in those industries, as well as the services, will be maintained. I am sure we will be keeping on board the point that my hon. Friend has made.

In the Chancellor's first Budget he took billions of pounds a year out of pension funds. What now, after nine years, is the total cumulative amount taken out of people’s pension funds—straight into the microphone, please?

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will tell me in his second question.

The right hon. Gentleman is going to have to wait for the third for that. Why does the taxpayer spend £2 million a year keeping him in what one of his colleagues calls a non-job, when he cannot even answer a simple question at the Dispatch Box? There should be a number in that folder for the biggest destruction of savings by any Government in the history of this country. Surely he knows the figure for how much the pension funds have been robbed by the Chancellor. So let us ask him again: what is the figure, including all the interest and dividends that they would have earned in the meantime?

We will take no lectures from the Tories about pensions. They were the ones who ran down the pensions system; they were the ones who have opposed our new pensions Bill, which is intended to strengthen the pensions system so that the people of this country get a far better pension deal. Pensioners already do in respect of private and public pensions. Instead of talking about whether we have robbed the pension fund, which I totally reject, as does the Chancellor, the right hon. Gentleman should tell us what he thinks the figure is.

Could the right hon. Gentleman get a little less excited? We do not take any lectures from a party, one of whose members brought in the biggest pension fraud in history when Robert Maxwell was sitting on those Benches. It is no good the Deputy Prime Minister saying that we oppose the pensions Bill—it was only published today and we have not done anything to oppose it in the last few hours.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out that when the Government came to power they had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe, and now they have some of the weakest. Some 60,000 occupational pension schemes have shut down; 120,000 people have lost some or all of their pensions; and, according to independent experts, £100 billion has been wiped off pension funds. Was not the right hon. Member for Birkenhead absolutely right?

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has still not given us the figure that he says we robbed from pension funds. On the Maxwell pension fund that he talked about, let me tell him that it took this Government to bring in legislation to correct that abuse and that it was the previous Government who allowed pension holidays—[Interruption.] Yes, the previous Tory Administration allowed those pension holidays, which have caused many of the problems in our pensions today. I have to tell him, for all the clever remarks that he might make about these matters, he is certainly not convincing the electorate. If we look at the polls today, it is clear that the honeymoon for the right hon. Gentleman and his friend is over. I notice from the papers and on television today that the Tories have now brought in a new person to get people to vote Tory, and I could not help noticing that the person is named, as I saw on the website, “Mr. Tosser”. I do not know which person on the Front Bench this man is modelled on, but let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that I always thought that his party was full of them, and that is why they have lost three elections.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening next weekend of the critical care unit at Christie hospital? A further welcome development at the Christie is a young adult oncology unit. Patients and former patients of the unit are visiting Parliament today. Will my right hon. Gentleman congratulate the patients and staff of the unit on their ID card scheme? They have funding nationwide to launch the scheme, which will help young patients whose appearance is altered by their treatment and ensure that door staff of public houses do not turn them away because of their dress code.

The House should welcome the fact that the Christie hospital, a specialist cancer hospital, remains open, despite what was said during the election campaign by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), who campaigned together with the Tories on the basis that this facility would close down or not be opened. It has, in fact, been opened this week and is now serving the people of Manchester. If the hon. Gentleman had been a bit more honest, he would have thanked the Labour Government not only for the continuing promise to keep the facility, but for the 11,000 more nurses, 1,000 more consultants and 600 more GPs that are serving his area and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). That is a Labour Government in action. We are delivering, and the people in this country are grateful for it.

Q6. In an age when employees of our national airline cannot even display a Christian cross without being suspended from their employment, is there not a case for saying that Christians in this country find themselves increasingly under pressure? With the sexual orientation regulations, many Christian leaders are speaking out against what the Government are doing in putting the Christian Church under pressure. In Northern Ireland, those regulations are being imposed against the wishes of the vast majority of people in that part of the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the Government caught themselves on and started to listen to the majority in this country, who are fed up with being discriminated against as Christians? (104559)

I am not a religious man, but I always understood that religion was about tolerance. There is not much tolerance being shown in what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is a pity that we do not show more tolerance to different cultures and different religions. We would be a lot better off for it.

Has my friend had the opportunity to read early-day motion 327 on the Government’s consultation on Trident? Will he give an undertaking, as Deputy Prime Minister and deputy leader, that he will use his best offices to persuade the national executive committee to consult Labour party members and publish the results—

Q7. Following a positive and helpful meeting—for which I am extremely grateful—with the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), concerning the Broomfield hospital private finance initiative scheme, and given that the conclusion is so tantalisingly close, can the Government do anything to get a decision, one way or another, before Christmas? (104560)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that question. I think that he understands that some issues have been identified in relation to the financing of the scheme. Following the meeting last week that I think he attended with the trust, it has now submitted its final report to the strategic health authority for endorsement, as I think he is aware. The trust, the strategic health authority and the Department of Health will meet again in early December and there will be a final decision before the end of the year, for which I know he has been pressing for some time. I also thank him for his support for the PFI. Since 1997, more than £9 billion has been allocated through PFI schemes, helping us to undertake the largest hospital-building programme in our country’s history. That must be welcome.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for those on low incomes, credit unions provide a safe way of saving regularly and borrowing at a low interest rate? Will he join me in condemning companies such as Provident Personal Credit, which have offered loans at 177 per cent. interest to my constituents who have lost all their Christmas savings with the collapse of Farepak? At those rates, £300 is paid back at £495. (104561)

The point made by my hon. Friend causes many of us great concern. Those loans are made to desperate people at very high interest rates. Often they are not well aware of that. The Farepak situation has brought that to our attention. There are people who are driven into poverty and that makes the circumstances more difficult. The investigation into Farepak being run by the Department of Trade and Industry will hopefully give us some indication of changes that might help in those situations. The Treasury Committee, which is looking at the matter, has also made certain recommendations. It is undoubtedly true that those people in the most unfortunate circumstances, suffering great deprivation, should not be exploited in such a way.

Q9. The flooded homes in Malton and Norton in my constituency, which the Deputy Prime Minister kindly visited during the October 2000 floods, now have the benefit of good flood defences, but there are communities the length and breadth of Britain, including in my constituency, that still do not have the protection that they need. They are exposed to a serious flood risk. He will know that the Stern review has predicted that river and sea levels will rise. In those circumstances, does he not think that the cut in Environment Agency funding for flood defences was a mistake and should be reversed, and that funding should be increased in the comprehensive spending review so that communities have the protection that they need and deserve? (104562)

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when I visited his constituency there was extreme concern about the amount of resources going into flood protection—and rightly so. Following those meetings, we have put in record amounts, with an increase of something like 35 per cent. in real terms from the level in 1996-97 to £600 million in 2005-06—[Interruption.] The cutting to which he refers—we are being reminded about that in a sedentary intervention—comes on top of that tremendous increase. We inherited a reduced budget for flood control in 1997 and we increased it by 35 per cent. One or two changes have been made at the margins, but, as can be seen in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the investment in flood control has undoubtedly been to the benefit of people who suffered from floods for so long. There is still a lot to do, but we are putting record investment into these areas.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concerns about the desperate plight of those people who have been ripped off in the Farepak scandal? Given that the family fund closes today and is very far short of the amount needed, will he use his good offices to persuade his colleagues in the Cabinet that the Government should top up that family fund a bit further to ensure that those people are not left without a Christmas?

I note the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I think that £5 million has been raised so far and further calls have gone out to some of the companies involved to make a greater contribution. I understand that the debt is in the region of £35 million, which is an awful lot of money. I hope that the inquiry that is being conducted by the DTI will give us some idea of how we can avoid such a thing in the future. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about whether the Government can give any more in such circumstances.