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Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2006

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of the Royal Marine from 45 Commando who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. As I saw when I met the troops there some days ago, he was doing an extraordinary job and we can be very proud of him. In addition, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the two members of the East Sussex fire and rescue service, Brian Wembridge and Geoff Wicker, who were killed tackling the fire near Lewes on Sunday. They died protecting their community, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families at this time.

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 that we all join my right hon. Friend in the sentiments that he expresses. I am tempted to ask him whether he will bring the boys back home by Christmas—but even with his powers, I do not think that the English cricket team would agree to that. On a more serious note, last Thursday there was a large meeting of the all-party cancer group in the Queen Elizabeth hall, which was well attended. At that meeting, the Secretary of State for Health made everybody feel good about cancer treatments in this country for the future and announced a new cancer strategy, which was welcomed by patient groups, charities and clinicians. That is important. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving information to patients, from early diagnosis right through to palliative care, empowers them and gives them the choice that we desire them to have?

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of keeping patients fully informed, especially in the very difficult circumstances when they are diagnosed with cancer. He is right to point out that, over the past few years, there has been enormous progress. Not only are we spending about £600 million more, but there are 1,500 more consultant posts. Most importantly, almost 100 per cent. of people are now seen within two weeks by a consultant when they are suspected of having cancer—up from two thirds a few years back. As a result of the cancer strategy, which, as my hon. Friend indicates, we are now taking forward, about 50,000 lives have been saved—as a result of the improvements in treatment. That is a national health service that is getting better all the time.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the Royal Marine who was killed yesterday in Afghanistan, and I associate this side of the House with what he said about the East Sussex fire service and the two brave men who lost their lives.

Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing a heroic job in difficult circumstances, as I have seen for myself in both places. Yesterday, the new US Defence Secretary said that we were not winning the war in Iraq. Does the Prime Minister share that very serious assessment?

Of course: in July I said myself that the situation in Baghdad, with sectarian killing, was appalling and that the bloodshed was appalling. What is important, however, as the Defence Secretary went on to say, is that we go on to succeed in the mission that we have set ourselves. The most important thing is to understand why this problem has come about. It has come about because outside extremists are linking up with internal extremists to thwart the will of the Iraqi people, expressed in their election, for a non-sectarian Government and a non-sectarian future. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is important that we build the capability of those Governments in those countries to withstand the terrorists and make sure that democracy succeeds.

We had a candid assessment from the US Defence Secretary; my point is that we want equally candid assessments from the Prime Minister. It looks increasingly likely—[Interruption.] That is right: we should not just have to hear from other people; we should hear from the Prime Minister. It looks increasingly likely that the Baker-Hamilton report will lead to changes in US policy. Will the Prime Minister tell the House of Commons today what he thinks those changes should be?

Exactly as I described them last time I spoke to the House, after I gave evidence to the Baker-Hamilton inquiry. They fit into two categories. First, inside Iraq, it is important that we complete the building up of capability, especially that of the Iraqi army. For example, down in the south, the Iraqi army is now capable of taking on security in two out of the four provinces and it is increasingly doing so in Basra. We have to complete that process. We must also ensure that the governance and capability of the Iraqi Government are improved. That relates not only to the way in which the Government function, but to the disbursement of money in both Sunni and Shi’a areas. It is important that we make sure that the process of reconciliation that the Iraqi Prime Minister has outlined is carried through with greater effect than has been the case so far. Secondly, outside Iraq, as I said to the inquiry, and as I have said to the House on many occasions, we have to pursue a policy for the whole middle east, which means in particular—and starting with—finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. That will be absolutely essential if we are to put that region on a more stable footing.

Of course we should discuss the Baker-Hamilton recommendations with our allies and work with them as closely as possible. However, decisions on the future of British troops in Iraq must be taken by the British Government in the British national interest. Does the Prime Minister understand that the British public want to hear a reassurance from him on that vital point?

Of course we have got to decide this policy on the basis of the British national interest. It has always been my view that it was in the British national interest to remove Saddam Hussein and to stand shoulder to shoulder after 9/11 with our American allies. At the moment, it is important that we complete the mission that we have set for ourselves in the south of the country. Thanks to the work that British troops have been doing, the operation that has been going on bit by bit in Basra to turn over control of security to Iraqi forces has been completed in about half the city. Reconstruction and development projects are going in behind that. I am pleased to say that the process has been relatively successful, and if it is successful, of course it diminishes the need for British troops to patrol in Basra. Our strategy is absolutely clear: to make sure that we build up the Iraqi capability, but to do so in a way that makes it absolutely clear to the people fighting us in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that we stand on the side of people who support democracy, and that we stand up to terrorists and are prepared to fight them and take them on, wherever they may be.

The Prime Minister will know that I argued for 30 years for the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, which killed so many of my friends. When my right hon. Friend meets President Bush later today, will he make it clear that despite all the setbacks, we will continue to be committed to ending tyranny and upholding justice, whether that is in Iraq, Palestine, or elsewhere in the world?

I certainly will. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s steadfast support of those who favour democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. As she rightly implies, it is important to emphasise that the people whom we are fighting are al-Qaeda linking up with Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed elements linking up with Shi’a militia. Those are the self-same forces that we are fighting in Afghanistan and different parts of the world. As we build up the capability of the Iraqi and Afghan Governments, it is important that we send a very clear signal that our mission is to support those who are in favour of democracy, and that we will continue to do so.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. The new American Defence Secretary also said that all options were on the table. Among those options, is there phased withdrawal on the part of British forces?

Let me explain again to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is our strategy to withdraw as the Iraqis become capable of taking on their security. That has been our strategy from the beginning and it remains our strategy now—I assume that he agrees with it.

Let me say this to the Prime Minister: is it not clear that the British Government have no policy of their own in relation to Iraq and that we are wholly dependent on decisions taken in Washington? What sort of strategy, and what sort of legacy, is that?

It is precisely because we believe in supporting the Iraqi Government, who have asked for our presence in the south of the country to ensure that we protect Iraqi people until the Iraqis have the capability to do so, that we remain in Iraq. As, progressively, the Iraqis become capable of taking on their security, which they are doing in two out of the four provinces and in one half of Basra—we are now completing the mission in the other half of Basra—the need for British troops diminishes. That is our strategy. I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is very important, especially at this moment when British troops are doing an extraordinary job in the most difficult circumstances, that we make it clear that the people fighting us down in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, are people whom we will take on, fight and defeat anywhere that they are.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 140, in my name, which is supported by Members from all parties, regarding the treatment of the Hindu community in Kazakhstan? Only two weeks ago, 60 families were attacked and their homes were destroyed by riot police. Most of them are homeless now, and they face a terrible, cold winter. Will my right hon. Friend talk to his friend the President of Kazakhstan to see what he can do for those victims, who are suffering and whose only crime was to hold the Hindu faith?

We have made our concerns clear to the Kazakhstan Government. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is important to make sure, whether in Almaty or anywhere else, that people are free to practise their religious faith. I assure him that we will do all we can, on our own behalf and through the non-governmental organisations with which we are co-operating there, to make sure that Hindus who have been discriminated against in that way are properly protected.

One in five children leaving primary school cannot read properly. Will the Prime Minister confirm that this year the national reading tests results have got worse?

It is correct that the figure is at 83 per cent., rather than 84 per cent., but let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that that is a huge improvement on the situation that we inherited in 1997. Let me say one other thing that I think will be of interest to the House: although it is correct that, at level 4, overall there is a 1 per cent. fall to 83 per cent., the number of children within that who are now attaining level 5, which is over and above what they are required to achieve, has more than doubled since 1997. I am grateful for the opportunity to point that out. For the first time, in reading and in science, the percentage of children within the cohort getting to level 5 at age 11 is now almost 50 per cent. I agree that we still have a lot more to do, but thanks to investment and reform under this Government, much progress has been made.

Yesterday, the new head of Ofsted said that the number of 11-year-olds who cannot read was a national disaster. One fifth of school children cannot find Great Britain on the map. The Prime Minister may be spending extra money, but he is not getting the basics right. Now let us turn to secondary school education. Yesterday the Treasury, the home of the clunking fist—[Interruption. ] But the Chancellor is not much of a clunking fist; he cannot even get rid of a lame duck. Yesterday the Treasury said that more than one in six young people leave school unable to read, write or add up properly. Given that young people leaving school today have spent almost all their schooling under a Labour Government, does that not show the extent of the failure?

The right hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening to a word that I said in my initial reply. The fact is that the results are hugely up since 1997; those are the facts. What is more, as I have just indicated, half of those kids who attain the right grades aged 11 are now getting to level 5, and that is a huge improvement since 1997. In addition to that, the number of computers in the classroom has doubled. In addition to that, for those aged 14 the results are up, as they are for those aged 16 and 18. As for what the right hon. Gentleman said about the chairman of Ofsted, she actually said that things had considerably improved over the last few years. I agree entirely that there is a long way to go—of course there is. It is not acceptable that any child aged 11 does not achieve the requisite literacy and numeracy, but the situation is a darned sight better than what we had under his party.

What she said was that it was a national disaster. Why not look at the five core subjects, and how children are doing in those? If we look at who is gaining five decent GCSEs in English, maths, science and modern languages, we see that the figures have fallen since 1997. Let us look at school leavers. In spite of the new deal, all the money and all the pre-Budget reports, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in employment, training or education has gone up by 40 per cent. since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister. Why?

Because the proportion of children going through the system has risen at the same rate. It is not acceptable or right that any young person should leave school without going on to education or training, but that is the very reason why we have the new deal, which helps young people into a job—and which the right hon. Gentleman opposes. That is the very reason why we want to increase investment—but he has pledged to cut that investment. He talked about five good GCSEs, but whether we take that as five good GCSEs overall or including English and maths, again, the results are hugely up since 1997. We are very happy to debate education policy in this country. Yes, there is still a lot more to do, but it we look back over the last 10 years, results are up, investment is up, schools are getting better, and anyone who goes into any school in any constituency can see the changes and improvements. We are committed to increasing that investment still further—but the right hon. Gentleman now has a fiscal rule that would chop that investment by sharing the proceeds with tax cuts. Let us not forget what the system was in 1997, how much improvement there has been in10 years, and what a disaster it would be if the Opposition ever got their hands on it again.

Is the Prime Minister aware that last week, the former employees of Chiltons of Girvan in my constituency were the first to receive payments from the Pension Protection Fund, signifying that thanks to the Labour Government, never again will people be left with next to no pension when their company goes bust? Will he look again at the financial assistance scheme for people who lost their pensions before the fund was introduced, to see whether they can receive the same benefits?

We certainly keep the provisions under close review, but as my hon. Friend will know, the difficulty is that there is a limit to the amount of money that we can put through the scheme. By pledging hundreds of millions of pounds to help people who have lost their pensions through no fault of their own, the Government have, for the first time in this country, provided at least some support, particularly for older people of working age who are approaching retirement, as they sometimes find that all the money that they have put in over 30 years of service is suddenly lost. I agree that it is important to keep the terms of the scheme under review, but my hon. Friend is right to say that for the first time people receive protection under the Government.

Q2. Can the Prime Minister explain why, under the Chancellor, economic growth has been three times higher in the Republic of Ireland than in our own country? (107801)

I do not know about the comparison with the Republic of Ireland, but let me give the hon. Gentleman a comparison between this Government and the previous Government. [Interruption.] I know that Tories do not want to hear this, but it is more relevant to compare rates of economic growth in this country. Under the Chancellor, we have the strongest economic growth of any comparable country. Interest rates are not 10 per cent., as they were when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, but average half that figure. We have the lowest inflation and unemployment for decades. Once again, I should like to thank the Conservative party for pointing out our record.

Last week we celebrated the fifth anniversary of free museum admissions, including at the Royal Air Force museum in my constituency, where there has been a 50 per cent. increase in visitors, including people who would never have visited it before. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to encourage even more people to visit the RAF museum? Perhaps he would like to visit it himself—and the invitation includes you, too, Mr. Speaker.

Will he ensure—[Hon. Members: “Wait!”]—that they receive the resources that they need to continue that highly successful policy?

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend in mid-flow. I think I am right in saying that there have been around 5 million extra visits to museums since we introduced the policy. Opposition Members may try to disparage it, but it has been a major change which has allowed low income families, particularly youngsters, to gain access to our museums. The fact that millions of people are visiting and using museums is a wonderful thing for our country, and we should be very proud of it.

Q3. When the Prime Minister visited the biofuel company Regenatec in my constituency last month, he received a pretty convincing presentation showing that the high level of duty on biofuels is discouraging their use. Given the huge impact that the increased use of biofuels could have on CO2 emissions, has the Prime Minister reflected on that presentation, and has he any proposals or ideas to increase their use? (107802)

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Budget for that. However, the presentation was excellent. In order to encourage biofuels, it is important that we continue, as the Chancellor has been doing over the past few years, to make sure that the system incentivises the use of clean energy. It is important that we recognise that biofuels, particularly engineered as the company suggests, give us the opportunity of reducing CO2 emissions considerably.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are in the middle of the16 days of action against domestic violence? Women who are repeatedly beaten and repeatedly asked to go to court to achieve an injunction say thank you—thank you for the extra £8 million that the Government have given to increase their safety. Will my right hon. Friend do more to increase the safety of survivors of domestic violence by ensuring that Supporting People funds are sufficient to end the refuge postcode lottery, so that survivors have adequate protection when they need it?

My hon. Friend is right in describing the progress that has been made and the challenge that lies ahead. The remaining provisions of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 will be implemented in the middle of next year. We have invested an extra £70 million to tackle domestic violence, and on the latest figures that we have, domestic homicides are down, the number of guilty pleas is up significantly, and convictions at court have quadrupled. One of the reasons why that is happening is that there is far greater co-operation across the agencies, and a far greater willingness in our court system and among the police to take domestic violence far more seriously.

Q4. Sixteen years ago the son of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Carrickfergus was murdered by a car bomb at Newry checkpoint as he rescued a man who had been strapped into that van by the IRA. The families of those victims were told that the mastermind behind the bomb was a very senior Sinn Fein politician who was also an intelligence source for MI5. The historic inquiries team has now reopened the case. Will the Prime Minister first ascertain whether any intelligence exists as to the mastermind behind that bomb, and secondly, give the House the assurance that no intelligence will be held back to protect a senior politician or an intelligence source? (107803)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no information whatever, whether intelligence or otherwise, will be held back from the proper authorities. I obviously cannot comment on the particular case of his constituent, however.

Will the Prime Minister warmly welcome, as I do, the significant report by Lord Leitch yesterday on the skills challenge facing the country? One of the aspects that Lord Leitch highlights is a focus on adult skills, which is significant in constituencies such as mine. Will that be given adequate representation in funding for education over the next five years?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. There has been a massive investment in our school system, with the results that I pointed out earlier. He is right to say that skills are an important part of the challenge that we face. Already we have given hundreds of thousands more people—over a million more people—access to skills and qualifications, but we need to do far more. About7 million adults in this country still have not attained the right literacy or numeracy grade, so it is important that we go further. Further education colleges will be an important part of that. My hon. Friend may hear something to that effect later.

Q5. The Prime Minister is the only Briton apart from Winston Churchill to have been awarded the US congressional gold medal—but he seems strangely reluctant to go and pick it up. Why does not he do so tomorrow when he is over there meeting members of Congress, before the new Congress changes its mind? (107804)

I am afraid that even at the risk of such an event, I have other things to do in my time in Washington.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will remember the meeting that we had with him in connection with the high cost of energy as regards firms in my constituency. Will he congratulate Caledonian Paper on its announcement yesterday on changing its energy needs? Will he join me in condemning Scottish Power, npower and Powergen on the use of backdating and back-paying customers who use tokens to fulfil their energy needs? (107805)

I know that my hon. Friend has tabled an early-day motion on this subject. Ofgem is engaged in extensive discussions with suppliers as part of the supplier licence review on how to tackle the problem while replacement of meters takes place. I understand that from 1 December British Gas has stopped backdating prices for token users. My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I am sure that a way round this can be found, and I hope that the discussions between Ofgem and suppliers will yield the results that he indicates.

At last night’s meeting of the all-party group on AIDS, Martin Narey of Barnardo’s explained that 250 children in this country are kept alive by NHS AIDS drugs, and that those children are due to be sent back to their country of origin. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet a small delegation to find a way of ensuring that the life of every child matters?

I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend and any delegation of his on that subject. In the meantime, I will look into the case and correspond with him.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance to my constituents that there will be no cuts at King George or Whipps Cross hospitals? (107807)

First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I know that there is a consultation on health provision in his area. I would point out that funding for his primary care trust has increased by some 30 per cent. over the past three years. In his health authority, whereas when we came to power there were 50,000 people waiting for more than 26 weeks, there are now only two. Health care in his constituency has improved in every single aspect. The Conservatives opposed the investment that we put in; they are now opposed to the reform too. His party, above all other parties, has no credibility on this issue at all.

Will the Prime Minister discuss with his Cabinet colleagues how we can help elderly people to pay their heating bills this year, given the unprecedented rise in energy bills? Will he consider having a windfall tax on the companies that have made these profits?

Of course my hon. Friend will know of the £200 winter fuel allowance—£300 for those over 80. We will continue to do everything that we can to support the poorest pensioners. I very much hope that the companies that are supplying those pensioners take account of the fact that the elderly, particularly those who are living in poverty, have special and particular needs.

Q9. The Prime Minister will know that the Department of Trade and Industry will make a major announcement next week on the future of the Post Office network, including the potential closure of many offices. Why does he prefer to invest millions of pounds in reducing the size of the best retail network in the country to investing in new products and Government services, which would ensure that the post offices would be open next Christmas? (107808)

May I just point out to thehon. Gentleman that we have invested approximately£2 billion in post offices in the past few years? For obvious reasons—the way patterns of behaviour change, especially in respect of pensioners and bank accounts—post offices face a challenge. We are sitting down with them and trying to work out the right way forward, but it is unreasonable to say that we have been cutting support for post offices. On the contrary, we have been increasing the investment dramatically, precisely to protect post offices.