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Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the two servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the Christmas recess. They were Lance Bombardier James Dwyer of 29 Commando Regiment and Sergeant Graham Hesketh from 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. We also send our profound sympathy to the family and friends of Sergeant Wayne Rees, of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died at the weekend while on patrol in Iraq. They were performing vital roles in working for the security of our country and the wider world, and we send our sympathy and our prayers to their families.

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.

Traditionally when a Government Back Bencher refuses to toe the line, they are invited to a little interview without coffee with the Government Chief Whip, but what does the Prime Minister do when collective responsibility has effectively collapsed and his Chief Whip, aided and abetted by the Home Secretary and his party chairman, has become a rebel on national health service cuts, in defiance of his health policy?

Unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. MPs who are Ministers are perfectly entitled to take part in local consultations—it is not even a local decision that has been made in my right hon. Friends’ constituencies. What is utterly absurd is to be in the Conservative party’s position: having opposed all the additional investment in the national health service, the Conservatives now oppose each and every change in principle.

Q2. There was much speculation last week about the future size of the Royal Navy surface fleet. That has caused concern in my constituency—Portsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navy—coming as it does on the back of the naval base review. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending our national security, and that it should have the resources necessary to perform the vital tasks that we ask it to do? (113124)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why, in terms of investment in new ships, we have the largest warship building programme that we have had for many years in this country, and why, as opposed to the position under the Conservative Government, we are increasing defence spending in real terms year on year. Let me say to my hon. Friend that I understand that 17,000 people are employed in the Portsmouth naval base, including 8,800 civilians, and that there are a further 26,000 jobs in the wider defence industries in the region. It therefore performs a vital task, not only for Portsmouth and the region, but for our country’s security.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Bombardier James Dwyer, Sergeant Graham Hesketh and Sergeant Wayne Rees. They died serving their country and we honour their memory.

Yesterday, the police revealed that details of British criminals, including rapists and murderers, who have committed offences abroad were sitting in boxes in the Home Office and that nothing had been done. Can the Prime Minister at least reassure us that all their details have now been entered on the police national computer and, where appropriate, the sex offenders register?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary will make a statement immediately after I sit down, but I can tell him that the Home Secretary has been informed this morning by the Association of Chief Police Officers that every one of the most serious offenders that it has identified—on whom there is sufficient detail to be put on the police national computer—have now been entered on the system. Let me make one thing clear: until May of last year, there was no proper system, not merely in this country but elsewhere in Europe, for the details of people who have committed offences in other countries to be given to Britain, or indeed to other Europe countries, as may be. The situation changed as a result of the decision taken by the November 2005 Justice and Home Affairs Council. Since May 2006, ACPO has been working through all the cases to make sure that there is proper protection for the public.

Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister has just said: the names of those people have been sitting in box files and he is admitting today that not all their details have been put on the police national computer. The Prime Minister has confirmed that yet again the Government have failed in their central duty to protect the public. Let us also be clear: of the 525 serious criminals, there are 25 rapists, 29 paedophiles and five murderers. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that none of those very dangerous people has been working with children since their conviction?

The Home Secretary will make a statement in a moment that covers precisely that point. However, let me just make one thing clear. Before May 2006, there were no proper details; indeed, before 1999, no details of any sort whatever were kept. Between 1999 and May 2006, details were sent under the old voluntary system that used to apply in Europe. Very often, however, those details were not sufficient to allow us to identify people properly. That is why I said that those on whom proper information was sent to us by other European countries have been entered on the police national computer. In so far as insufficient details have not been sent to us, that is not, with respect, the fault of the Home Office but of those people who have been sending the details from other countries. All the way through there was, of course, an attempt to improve the system; however, it was only when Europe took a decision to make compulsory what had previously been voluntary that we were able to deal with the backlog satisfactorily.

Let us be clear: I asked the Prime Minister for a guarantee and he simply cannot give one. His answer underlines just how serious this is. There are rapists, murderers and paedophiles at large in Britain who could have got through the net and could have been working with children in the NHS, in social services or in our schools. The Prime Minister says that the Home Secretary will give a statement, but is not it the fact that the Home Office is part of the problem? Last night, the Home Office said that details of the serious offenders had all been entered into the computer—that is what it said. This morning, a Home Office Minister said that they had not all been entered. Why does the Home Office keep giving such misleading information about such an important matter?

It is not giving misleading information—[Interruption.] As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman beforehand, while the system was voluntary in the rest of Europe, when details were provided on a voluntary basis, there were often not sufficient details to allow people to be put on the police national computer. Now that we have a compulsory requirement, all those for whom there is sufficient detail are, as I understand it, now on the police national computer. It is correct that it is important that we make sure that from now on—now there is a compulsory system in place—all the information is entered properly; but before that decision was taken in Europe, some countries, despite the fact that obviously we wanted greater amounts of information, did not provide it. As a result of the decision taken in December 2005, as I explained to the right hon. Gentleman, that information is now given on a compulsory basis.

The Prime Minister has completely failed to answer the question. Why is it that last night the Home Office said one thing, but this morning the junior Minister said something completely different? On taking office, the Home Secretary said that he would have a fundamental review of his Department. A hundred days later, he said, “Job done”, yet we now know that 500 criminals are on the loose and his Department did virtually nothing about it. Is not it the case that if one of those dangerous criminals is found to have been working with vulnerable adults or with children, the Home Secretary will not be able to run away from responsibility for it?

No one is seeking to do that. I thought that I had explained the position to the right hon. Gentleman, but let me explain it again to him. All the people for whom there is sufficient information are on the police national computer, but as for those who are part of the backlog of cases, and where the information was delivered to us when doing so was only voluntary, not compulsory, there may be some of those for whom there is insufficient information. That is not the fault of the Home Office. In respect of those for whom there is sufficient information, they, I am now informed, are all on the police national computer.

Does not this go to a much bigger problem about the Home Office? We have had illegal immigrants working in the Home Office, endless escapes from open prisons, and foreign prisoners released and not deported, and now there is this latest fiasco. Let me make a constructive suggestion to the Prime Minister. The Home Office is a huge Department, covering prisons, probation, immigration, criminal justice and terrorism. Will the Prime Minister take up my suggestion that there should now be a separate Home Office Minister responsible for terrorism, who sits in the Cabinet alongside the Home Secretary? We are on our fourth failing Home Secretary; would not that suggestion at least give him some chance of doing his job properly?

No, I am afraid that I do not think that that is the right way to proceed on security. Let me just make one thing clear in relation to absconds, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. Absconds from open conditions are at their lowest level since we came to office, and absconds from closed conditions are at their lowest level. [Interruption.] Let me give him the facts. The facts are that, prior to 1997, some 1,300 prisoners escaped. For the 10 years since 1997, the figure is 137. There have, of course, been several category A escapes, including when he was at the Home Office as an adviser, but there have been no category A escapes since we came to power.

Last year, I had the good fortune to be operated on by Mr. Aung Oo, who leads an excellent surgical team at the Liverpool Broadgreen cardiothoracic centre. I would like the Prime Minister to offer reassurances to people in centres of excellence such as that centre and the Walton centre for neurology and neurosurgery that the funding and support that has been given hitherto, and that has gained such marvellous results, will be maintained in future.

I am sure that we will continue to make strong investment in the health service in my hon. Friend’s area, as in others, and may I say that I am delighted to see him back and well in the House—[Interruption.]—so that he can continue that vociferous support that he has given over the years. His example shows—and this is worth emphasising, as we get a lot of negative stories about the health service—that there is fantastic work done by the national health service, day in, day out, in this country. The national health service is an improving service; it is improving as a result of investment, but also as the result of the dedicated staff whom he mentioned.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. Given that the Prime Minister and President Bush are in agreement about strategy in Iraq, and that later today President Bush will announce the deployment of 22,000 additional American troops to Iraq, how many British troops is the Prime Minister considering sending?

President Bush, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman just indicated, will set out the policy for the United States forces, in particular in respect of Baghdad, later today. Let me just make one thing very clear, however: in relation to Basra, the situation is different in some very critical respects.

First of all, in respect of Basra, we do not have the same Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence, we do not have al-Qaeda operating in the same way, and we do not have the Sunni insurgency operating in the same way. As he knows, there has been an operation that the British have been conducting in Basra over the past few months, which will be completed in the next few weeks. That operation, I am pleased to say, has been successful up to now. That will allow the Iraqis to take over more and more control of their own policing and security in Basra. The purpose of the American plan—and it is for President Bush to announce it—will be precisely the same: it is in order to allow the Iraqi capability to take over security progressively, over time. The situation in Baghdad is different from the situation in Basra.

The assumption behind that answer is that there will be no displacement of terrorist activity from Baghdad to Basra, but it is difficult to make such an assumption at this stage. At the weekend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that he favours an independent foreign policy. Do we have to wait for the resignation of the Prime Minister before we get one?

In my view, the alliance of Britain with the United States of America—I assume that that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is attacking—is in the British national interest, and it is an important part of our foreign policy. Britain has two great relationships in the world—one with America and the other with Europe—and we should maintain both and keep them strong.

2007 heralds a new year—[Interruption.] It does to us. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement to the House about whether we will see a new, improved policy in Iraq?

In respect of British policy in Iraq, it remains as we set it out in the weeks leading up to today. However, once the operation in Basra is properly concluded, yes, it would be appropriate to report to the House. I am very happy to do so, but it is right that that takes place when the operation in Basra has concluded.

Q3. Many welcome the introduction of police community support officers. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, 539 CSOs were planned and funding promised, but only 333 will be in place as a result of recent Government cutbacks. Why are the Government rowing back on the Prime Minister’s promise to tackle antisocial behaviour, and is not this just another broken promise? (113126)

Just occasionally, the Liberal Democrats’ nerve takes even me by surprise. I would point out to the hon. Lady that they opposed all our antisocial behaviour measures. I cannot recall offhand, but I think that they even opposed community support officers at the time. At the request of local police chiefs, we have said that it is for them to decide the best way to deliver neighbourhood policing, but we are going to deliver neighbourhood policing in every part of the country. In the hon. Lady’s area, like others, there has been a massive increase in the amount of investment that we put into the police.

As we have embarked on the German presidency of the European Union, will the Prime Minister tell the House what discussions he has had or proposes to have with the German Chancellor about relaunching the Quartet discussions on the middle east peace process, building on his own recent visit to the area?

I have discussed that at length with the German Chancellor, and I hope that there will be a meeting of the Quartet in the next few weeks. It is now very important to create a situation in which we build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority; we ensure that the suffering of the Palestinian people is alleviated and that proper money gets through to the Palestinians for the basic services that they need; if at all possible we get the release not just of Corporal Shalit but of the Palestinian prisoners likewise; and we set out a framework for political negotiation leading to a negotiated solution between Israel and Palestine.

I hope very much that in the next few weeks we will be able to announce some progress on that issue which, of course, is an important part of the wider picture in the middle east, affecting discussions in relation to Iraq as well. I said that I would report back on the situation in respect of British forces in Iraq, and I hope that I will also be able to say something about the middle east at that time.

Q4. In the past 40 years, housing stock in Cornwall has more than doubled—in fact, it has grown faster than almost anywhere else in the country—yet local people’s housing problems have worsened dramatically. Last year in my constituency, five times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. When will the Government give areas such as Cornwall planning and other powers to make sure that families stand a chance of securing even a modest affordable home of their own? (113127)

That is a serious problem in Cornwall and elsewhere. We have significantly increased the amount of funding that we have given for social rented accommodation and social housing. We have increased the funding dramatically and also the number of homes, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly implies, the need is increasing. That is why we are looking, for example, at shared equity schemes. I had a meeting yesterday with those engaged in providing social housing about how we can increase the ability of the arm’s length management organisations and the tenant management associations to take on more of the burden of providing new social housing. We must keep up the investment—by 2010 we will have put in about £20 billion. We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways in which we can increase social rented accommodation, but we must do that within the budgetary constraints within which we operate.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware of Age Concern’s Fight the Freeze campaign, which includes a call for the Government’s excellent winter fuel payments to be protected and extended to help tackle excess winter debts among the elderly. The campaign was taken up by the Leicester Mercury, with an amazing response of over 1,000 readers backing it within the first week. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the campaign, and will he discuss with his colleagues ways of safeguarding the future of winter fuel payments and making sure that they match rising fuel prices? (113128)

I understand the importance of the Leicester Mercury campaign. As my hon. Friend indicated, we have provided an immense amount of additional help to pensioners—the £200 winter fuel allowance, with a further £100 for those over 80, the free TV licence for the over-75s, and the additional money through the pension credit, which has lifted some 2 million pensioners out of acute hardship over the past 10 years—but we constantly look to see what more we can do. I know that the campaign to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention will form an important part of our considerations.

If budget deficits, ward closures, redundancies and cuts in patient care constitute the best ever year for the NHS in 2006, will 2007 be just as successful?

First, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that last Friday we had the lowest figures for waiting lists since we have had waiting lists—400,000 down from what we inherited. We had a report on heart disease which shows that we are saving tens of thousands of lives a year. We have the best cancer provision that we have had for years. In relation to the work force, we have 300,000 extra people, including 85,000 extra nurses, in the national health service. Finally, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that his policy is to oppose the investment in the national health service. Having opposed the investment, the Conservative party opposes any change that will deliver better services for patients.

Q6. Conservative Barnet council has obtained only a tiny number of antisocial behaviour orders—a very poor record compared with other authorities. Residents are frustrated by the council’s timid approach, and the police are concerned about delays and adjournments at the magistrates court. What can my right hon. Friend do to achieve greater consistency in ASBO applications and results, to ensure that everyone has the same protection from the yobs who make their lives a misery? (113129)

It is a shame if local authorities such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency are not using the powers that are available. Those powers in relation to antisocial behaviour orders have made a dramatic difference in various parts of the country where those orders are being used. Recent publicity was given to the fact that 50 per cent. of them are breached, but that means that 50 per cent. are working. That is a massive achievement in respect of this type of punishment. Of the orders that are breached, more than half of those people go to prison, so there is a tremendous amount that can now be done in local areas through the new antisocial behaviour legislation and through the new powers that have been given to the police. My hon. Friend is right. Those powers should be used in future by local authorities, and if they are not being used by local authorities, local people know what to do, which is to vote Labour.

Q7. The Prime Minister is making a statement today about national security in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House that the measures that he is announcing will not in any way compromise national security or undermine the capacity of our security services to combat terrorism, whether domestic or international? (113130)

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is in the interests of our security services and in the interests of local civic policing that we make it clear that MI5 is not going to have anything to do with local civic policing—that is a matter for the local policing authorities—but we will of course do nothing that compromises the security of this country.

Does the Prime Minister share the widespread concern around the world at the unilateral action of the United States in bombing Somalia a couple of days ago and again yesterday? Does not he think that that bombardment will merely intensify the already desperate situation for the people of Somalia, when what is required is not foreign intervention but a peace process in Somalia?

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent: of course what is in the interests of everyone in Somalia is to have a peace process that works properly. He will be aware, however, that some of the extremists who have been using methods of violence to get their way in Somalia pose a threat not just to the outside world but to people in Somalia as well. When we look around different parts of the world today, we can see this global terrorism. It is a clear ideology and a clear strategy, and it is right that wherever it is attempting to warp local decision making and to prevent people from getting the type of life they want, we should be there standing up and supporting those who are combating that terrorism and giving people the chance to live in better circumstances.

Q8. Last month, the Government made two announcements affecting Hertfordshire: first, that we should build houses to accommodate another 190,000 people; and secondly, that we should cut our health services and close hospital wards. Could the Prime Minister tell me whether that brilliant combination was deliberate or just the usual ministerial incompetence? (113131)

Let me again point out the facts to the hon. Gentleman. In fact, as he knows, there has been an immense amount of additional funding into his local health service—[Interruption.] The funding increase has been somewhere in the region of 30 per cent., and the new primary care trust will have increases of more than £100 million. In any health service, there will be changes that are necessary to give us the best type of services for the future; that applies in his constituency as elsewhere. Whatever short-term campaign the Conservatives may mount, they are losing all credibility by ending up opposing in principle any changes in the health service at all—[Interruption.]

As for housing, whereas the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members oppose any extension of housing, the shadow Chancellor made the position absolutely clear when he said, in effect, that we need a supply of new housing, but not in his area. I do not think that that is very practical.

In Wakefield, we have seen the number of students getting five good GCSE passes increase from 37 per cent. in 1997 to 57 per cent. recently. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating students on that great achievement, as well as their teachers and parents and, of course, the schools in Wakefield, which were among the first in the country all to achieve specialist status?

I am delighted to give my congratulations to the schools in Wakefield and to all those who have worked so hard to raise standards. Whereas in 1997 fewer than half—45 per cent.—of pupils got five good GCSEs, the figure is almost 60 per cent. today. If we include English and maths, the figure used to be 35 per cent., whereas it is now over 45 per cent. The most remarkable fact is this: when we came to power in 1997, there were more than 600 schools where fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils got five good GCSEs and just 80 schools in the whole country—[Hon. Members: “What about the next question?”] I am going to finish in plenty of time. Today, there are 47 schools with fewer than 25 per cent. getting five good GCSEs and more than 600 schools with a rate of over 70 per cent.—a dramatic reversal under this Labour Government.

Q9. Not wishing to be cheeky, I thank the House for being so happy that I am so lucky. I should point out that the other sister is still single. On the more serious matter of motor neurone disease, the Prime Minister has received hundreds of letters praising his vision and that of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) to cure MND. Does the Prime Minister know that Britain spends more than £241 million a year on treating those with MND? A cure is therefore also a prudent financial investment, saving literally billions of pounds as well as thousands of lives. When will the Government decide whether to match fund the £7.5 million that the Motor Neurone Disease Association is raising to help cure the deadly disease and create a world free of MND? (113132)

The Minister is considering the proposal that the Motor Neurone Disease Association submitted on funding, and I hope that we can respond as soon as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his extraordinary work for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and I hope that he continues with it.

This Sunday, Mr. Putin shut off all the oil supplies to several countries in Europe, thus seriously threatening their energy and fuel supplies. Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to tell me what we will do in this country to ensure that we are not dependent on individuals who would try to blackmail us on energy and that we become energy proficient and productive?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am delighted that the European Commission, following on from the discussions at the Hampton Court informal summit in October 2005, has today put forward important proposals on climate change and protecting the environment, and on energy security and supply. It is important that we as a country ensure that our energy supply is secure for the long term. In my view, that requires a diverse supply of energy and the decisions that we will have to make when the energy White Paper is published in March are, therefore, very important. I say again that we need to ensure that replacing our nuclear power stations is one important part of the deal. In the past few months, we have signed contracts with, for example, Norway to guarantee 30 per cent. of our gas from it in the next few years. We are in the process of replacing our nuclear power stations, but energy security for this country will be as important in the next decade as many of the crucial security issues of past years. If we do not get the decisions right quickly, we will pay a heavy price in future.