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Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Private Michael Tench of A Company, 2nd Battalion the Light Infantry, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. He was only a very young man, but his country should be very proud of him and of the work that he and his colleagues have been doing in Iraq in the service of our country.

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.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments and send my own condolences to the family and friends of the soldier mentioned?

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating O2 on the work that it is doing in the United Kingdom by bringing a state of the art call centre to Glasgow, creating more than 1,500 jobs in that city? Does he also agree that it is important that companies such as O2—not only British companies, but foreign companies—invest in this country to ensure that growth in the economy continues, and that separation would stop that happening?

I congratulate O2 on the investment that it is making in Scotland; I welcome that investment very much. That should be set against the background of some 200,000 extra jobs in the Scottish economy, the unemployment claimant count the lowest for 30 years and a very strong Scottish economy. Separation would, of course, put all that at risk by undermining the stability of the economy. I believe that the Union is good for Scotland, but also that it is good for England; it is good for the whole of the United Kingdom. We have such a strong economy because the UK works well together.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Michael Tench, aged only 18, who was killed in southern Iraq on Sunday. He died serving his country, and we should be proud of him.

The latest crisis in the Home Office is that the Home Secretary is writing to courts up and down the country pleading with them not to send convicted criminals to prison. Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that he will not deal with this failure in prison planning by introducing yet another scheme to release criminals early?

First of all, I must correct the right hon. Gentleman on what the Home Secretary said; he is simply reminding the courts of existing sentencing policy as set out in legislation. Let me tell him one other thing: not only will there be 2,000 extra prison places in this country by the end of this year, but as a result of the investment in prison places there will be a further 8,000 on top of that. Might I also remind Members that every penny piece of that investment in prisons is investment that the right hon. Gentleman voted against?

Let us be absolutely clear that the Prime Minister’s answer gives no guarantee, so another early release scheme might well be on its way, with dangerous criminals being released on to our streets. Will he at least guarantee that all options, including emergency prison accommodation, prison ships and Army camps, will be considered before any early release scheme?

All options, of course, are kept under consideration all the time, but let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the very reason why we have an issue to do with prison places at the moment is that there are 40 per cent. more dangerous, violent and persistent offenders in prison than in 1997, despite crime having fallen rather than risen. One additional reason is that we now have 2,000 prisoners in prison with indeterminate sentences, precisely because of the seriousness of the offence. That was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which the right hon. Gentleman voted against.

Violent crime has doubled, and we have been telling the Prime Minister to build prisons for the last 10 years. Now, is it the Government’s policy to split the Home Office into two entirely separate Departments?

The issue about the future structure in the Home Office arises, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, from the review announced by the Home Secretary last October, which has to do with terrorism and security, not prison places. Let me just remind him that since 1997, 20,000 extra prison places have been created, which has required an investment running into billions of pounds. It is in part as a result of tougher sentencing that there are more people in prison, and I repeat: every single measure of tougher sentencing and extra investment he has opposed.

The Lord Chancellor said that splitting the Home Office in two was a “very, very serious proposal”, and indicated that he thought that it was time to do it. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer agrees with splitting the Home Office in two?

I have already explained that as a result—[Interruption.] As a result of the review that was announced by the Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

The review announced last October is about the structures of the Home Office to do with security and terrorism. There are proposals that the Home Secretary has made, and we will make an announcement on those in the next few weeks. However, whatever the different structures in the Home Office, there is only one way in which we shall be able to deal with the problems in our prisons—to build more prison places and make sure that we have violent, serious and persistent offenders behind bars. Let me repeat once again: all of that investment—all of it—has been opposed by the right hon. Gentleman. Incidentally, since we are talking about this Government’s record on crime, according to the British crime survey of all recorded crime, crime has fallen; it doubled under the Tories.

I think that the Prime Minister will find that the Chancellor does not want to break up the Home Office—he just wants to break up the Home Secretary. There is no point even considering this proposal unless the Chancellor has agreed it. The Prime Minister is not going to be here for very long, so let me ask him again—he can ask the Chancellor now—does the Chancellor back splitting the Home Office, yes or no?

As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, proposals were put forward by the Home Secretary. The Government will come to a view on those within the next few weeks, and we will make an announcement to the House in the normal way.

However, when the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the relationship between the Home Office, prisons and policing, let me make it clear that there is absolutely no way that we can deal with the current issues in respect of prison places unless we are going to build more. We are building 8,000 more prison places, but the investment necessary to do that is investment that he voted against, as he did the tougher sentences. So it is no use his coming to the Dispatch Box and saying, “Make sure that no serious or violent offenders are let out of prison.” They are in prison precisely because of this Government, and he opposed the measures.

It is a pretty simple question: does the Chancellor want to break up the Home Office—yes or no? [Interruption.] We have got prisoners on the run, weak borders—[Interruption.]

We have got overcrowded prisons, and all that the Government can do is float half-baked schemes for breaking up the Home Office that they cannot even agree about. Have not this Government now become like the ship stranded off the Devon coast? They are washed up and broken up, and they are just scrabbling over the wreckage.

I think that that probably sounded better in rehearsal than it did at the Dispatch Box. The truth of the matter is that we are building more prison places and people are staying in prison longer, and as a result of the legislation in 2003 we now have indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offenders. The fact is that crime has actually fallen, not risen, and we have extra numbers of police and community support officers. All of that has taken legislation and investment, and the right hon. Gentleman has voted against both. So the one person who has no credibility on this issue is the person who has opposed the very proposals that are necessary to deal with it. The truth is that the Tory party, which used to be the party of law and order, now votes against the tough measures and the investment.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the growing power of private equity companies? Increasingly, they are in pursuit of a quick buck and quick profit. They cut back on investment and the skills of workers, and they asset-strip rapidly. That is a worrying situation, because such companies now employ more than 3 million British workers. Does he share my concern, and can he do something about it?

Although I am sure that there are the situations of abuse to which my hon. Friend draws attention, I think that private equity companies in this country have provided a valuable basis of investment in British industry. The way of dealing with the issue that he outlines is to ensure that we have proper protections for the work force. In that regard, let me tell him that this Government will never withdraw from the European social charter, which has provided such excellent protection for our work force. That is in distinction to some other parties that I could mention.

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy and condolence that the Prime Minister made in relation to the young soldier who was killed? On this occasion, can we also remember those who have been wounded, some grievously, and whose lives have been deeply affected by that as a result of their service in Iraq?

General Dannatt has said that our presence in Iraq exacerbates the security situation. Later today, in the debate in Iraq, we will set out our proposals to bring the troops home by October. Should not the Prime Minister set out his proposals in that debate as well?

As I have already indicated, when the operation going on in Basra that allows us to reconsider the configuration and deployment of our forces is finished, I will of course come to the House and report on future strategy for British forces. I have to tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman, first, that he does not represent General Dannatt accurately: that is not his view. Secondly, let me tell him that for us to set an arbitrary timetable—that is what it is, and it is arbitrary because it is not attached to the conditions in Iraq and simply says that we will pull British troops out in October, come what may—would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq. It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible—which is probably why it is Liberal Democrat policy.

If the Prime Minister feels that strongly, he should come and debate the issues this afternoon. What can possibly be more important than that the Prime Minister should be here to debate the issue of Iraq at a time when the lives of British forces are at risk every day? Is not that the kind of leadership to which we are entitled?

I am debating the issue with the right hon. and learned Gentleman now. I entirely agree that British forces are doing a fantastic job in Iraq in circumstances of difficulty and danger, but let us remind ourselves of why they are there. They are there under a United Nations resolution with the full support of the Government of Iraq—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but let me remind him that in 2003, after the conflict and the invasion of Iraq, there was a United Nations resolution that specifically endorsed the multinational force. We are there with the agreement of the Government of Iraq. When I spoke to the vice-president of Iraq, himself a Sunni, just a few days ago, he made clear how disastrous it would be to set an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal. The very way that we can ensure that the sacrifice of our troops has not been in vain is to see the mission through and complete it successfully.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my home city of Brighton and Hove earlier this week to announce new local funds to tackle antisocial behaviour? Now Brighton and Hove is one of 40 respect programme areas, and we will be able both to set up parenting schemes and fight crime more effectively. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the money will not be a one-off, bringing hope for only one year, but will be repeated year on year?

Of course decisions about funding will be taken in the comprehensive spending review, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the Respect action areas and the funding that goes with them have made a real difference. I know that Opposition Members claim that it is all just a gimmick, but people can see that the new laws on antisocial behaviour are being used in many communities in this country. They can also see the new partnerships between the police and local communities that make sure that we deal with the menace of antisocial behaviour. Those who continue to oppose the measures on antisocial behaviour are completely out of touch with the majority of people in this country.

Q2. May I tell the Prime Minister that a Government decision to rob the prudently managed primary care trust in my constituency of £8 million to plug other deficits in the health service is resulting in damaging cuts for the mentally ill and people with a learning disability? Can he give a categorical assurance that the Health Secretary’s pledge to repay that and other top-sliced funding in three years will be fully honoured? (110675)

It is precisely for that reason that we are introducing the new financial measures that will mean that the situation about which the hon. Gentleman is complaining will not arise in the future. I might just point out that his party is opposed to those reforms, but I am sure that he will accept that his area has received an increase in funding of something like 30 per cent. I understand the challenges and difficulties that arise as we transit to a better financial system, but the one thing that the hon. Gentleman cannot complain about is the amount of money that the Government have put into primary care in his area.

The report from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland shows that a serial killer was protected by special branch and paid by the state for years. That would be a national scandal anywhere else. Does the Prime Minister accept that that collusion was a fact, not a myth? Is it not a disgrace that three former heads of special branch—Chris Albiston, Ray White and Freddie Hall—failed to co-operate with the police ombudsman’s investigation, although two of them have attacked her report and her office? Can Ronnie Flanagan, who presided over a culture of “anything goes, but nobody knows” be credible as chief inspector of constabulary? Will the Prime Minister rethink plans to install MI5 as continuity special branch in Northern Ireland, as that would put it beyond the reach of key powers of the police ombudsman?

First of all, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman about what has taken place, I completely disagree with his analysis of what MI5 is doing in Northern Ireland. It is simply not correct to say that it will have any role at all in civic policing. Secondly, we deeply and bitterly regret any collusion that has taken place, as we said at the time, and any impropriety on the part of anyone working for special branch throughout those years. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge that as a result of the changes made some years ago, that cannot happen any more, and it is precisely as a result of the additional scrutiny that we now have that this matter has been uncovered and laid bare. It is important that we make sure that such things can never happen again. We must deal with those responsible, and that is obviously what we are doing.

Q4. In view of the changed political circumstances in the US Congress and the fact that President Bush actually mentioned the words “climate change” in his “State of the Union” address last night, will the Prime Minister renew his efforts to persuade the US to follow the UK’s lead and sign up fully to international measures to combat climate change? (110677)

Yes, and I believe that this debate is moving in a completely different and more positive direction. First, we have to take measures here, and the climate change Bill that we will shortly publish will set out exactly what steps Government, business and individuals can take. Secondly, we need to make sure that the European emissions trading system is more effective. Thirdly, we need international agreement, through the G8 plus 5 dialogue that we established at the Gleneagles summit. I think that there is a different attitude around the world to this issue, and that the signs from the “State of the Union” address are positive. However, we must make sure that we get a binding international framework that allows us to tackle the problem at the only level, ultimately, where it can be tackled—by making sure that we have an agreement with all the major countries, including America, China and India. I am more positive and optimistic about that possibility than I have been for several years.

Q5. On the day that Howard Hunt, who organised the Watergate break-in, has died, will the Prime Minister confirm that if a close aide is charged, he will leave office? (110678)

Q6. Despite increased investment in public transport in recent years, the situation for my constituents who use First Group’s disastrous commuter trains and unreliable and expensive buses is dire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the abysmal state of public transport in the Greater Bristol area would be much improved by setting up an integrated transport system, such as is found in areas with a passenger transport executive? (110679)

I entirely understand why my hon. Friend raises those concerns, and obviously, as a result of what happened earlier in the week, there has been a great deal of debate about First services in Bristol. I am glad that the company has—I think—taken some measures to try to address those concerns. In respect of governance, the road transport Bill, which is due in draft later this year, will enable improvements to be made to transport governance arrangements in cities, including those involving passenger transport authorities. I think and hope that the point my hon. Friend raises may find some echo in the arrangements that we shall announce later this year.

Q7. My constituents in Cambridgeshire, and many others in the country, are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, so it is good that two weeks ago the Prime Minister personally attended the launch of the Just Ask campaign, to encourage consumers to ask where their food comes from—but why have his Ministers blocked four separate Bills that would require country of origin labelling? (110680)

I do not know the precise reasons regarding each of those measures, but obviously there has to be a balance. We need to make sure that people can ask, and indeed that they do ask, so that producers of goods in this country can benefit from people’s desire to eat produce from the UK. On the other hand, we have to balance that with making sure that we do not have bureaucracy that actually undermines—[Interruption.] I am sure that many Members on the Opposition Benches would be the first to take us to task if we were to enter into arrangements whereby rather than the Just Ask campaign, which is voluntary, we ended up with compulsory labelling.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that there is a need to change the law to ensure that there are positive obligations on company directors and their equivalents in public bodies requiring them to ensure that their organisations comply with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974? (110681)

I understand entirely both the point that my hon. Friend makes and why it is important to make it clear that large as well as small organisations will be caught by the legislation. Sometimes there can be greater practical difficulties in bringing prosecutions against those in larger organisations, because there is a different chain of command in bigger companies, but the basic provisions of the measure should apply to large and small alike. I shall come back to my hon. Friend specifically on the issue he raises.

Q9. In October my constituent, Mrs. Jeanette Crizzle, tragically died from leukaemia, having been unable to find a suitable bone marrow donor. This coming Monday, in Kettering, the Jeanette Crizzle trust will be launched by her husband Adam, with the shadow Secretary of State for Health. Its aim will be to monitor and promote more blood, organ and bone marrow donations across the country. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the House his Government’s commitment to launch a donation awareness campaign in all secondary schools in September? (110682)

I am sure that the whole House will want to send condolences to the family of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and to support the trust that has been set up in memory of Mrs. Jeanette Crizzle. We are indeed developing an education pack for schools to promote donation among 14 to 16-year-olds, and that pack will be offered to every school from this September onwards. In addition, we are looking at how we can build up our organ donation levels to those of other European countries. A taskforce is looking at recommendations and it will report shortly. I very much hope that that will align our thinking with that of the voluntary organisation that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. This is a serious question, particularly for people who suffer from leukaemia, as Mrs. Crizzle did; there is a real opportunity to make a difference in saving lives if we can extend the organ donation range.

Q10. We are all aware of the crimes and atrocities carried out by the IRA, which we obviously all deplore and fought against. However, arising from what was said earlier, should there not be a thorough investigation into the findings of the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, who referred to outright collusion between elements in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and loyalist organisations? She said that some 15 murders may be involved, so is not the reputation of our country at stake here? I hope that my right hon. Friend will look further into this. (110683)

May I reassure my hon. Friend that although the ombudsman said herself that she did not see the need for an inquiry, action will none the less be taken as a result of her report, which will make sure that those who are responsible are properly and rightly dealt with? It is also fair, as far as the reputation of our country is concerned, to make it clear that as a result of measures taken some years ago, this type of collusion has been stamped out; it does not happen and has not happened for several years. As for what happened before then, the ombudsman’s report provides the basis for us to act on it.

I also want to emphasise one thing implied by the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. While we are talking about the activities—the wrong activities—of a small number of people in the former Royal Ulster Constabulary, it is also right to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in withstanding terrorism. The main body of those officers were doing a difficult job in very difficult circumstances. I hope that, as a result of the measures that we now take, we can satisfy people that there is no possibility of this ever happening again.

Q11. I join the Prime Minister in the comments that he has just made, and let us not forget that more than 300 RUC officers lost their lives in Northern Ireland, in protecting the community from terrorism. Thousands of those officers, including those in special branch, saved countless lives in Northern Ireland through their actions. Will the Prime Minister join me in saying that the only way forward now is for all parties in Northern Ireland unequivocally to give their support to the police and the rule of law—without any conditions? (110684)

It is right that if we want a stable and lasting peace in Northern Ireland, it can only be on the basis of unequivocal support for the police, the rule of law and the system of criminal justice there. I also think that the one thing that is now very clear is that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the changes that we made over the past few years provide a completely different context in which policing can take place. That is why I think that there is now a possibility for moving forward on the basis of a power-sharing Executive on the one side, and full support for the police and the rule of law on the other.

Q12. This Government’s decision to overturn the stance of the previous Administration in respect of compensation for former miners has meant payments of more than £50 million to miners and their families in the Wigan borough. During the war, many men were conscripted into the pits and performed a vital role in the war effort. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that is recognised by the award of a medal for these Bevin boys—and as quickly as possible, so that they can wear it with deserved pride? (110685)

I can tell my hon. Friend that over the next few weeks we will be announcing proposals to give recognition to the Bevin boys and the extraordinary work that they did in service of their country in the second world war. They often worked in very dangerous and difficult conditions underground, and as a result of their work we were able to sustain our war effort, so it is entirely right to find an appropriate way of recognising their service.

Against the carefully chosen backdrop of HMS Albion, the Prime Minister promised to increase defence spending. That was taken by our beleaguered armed forces as a firm commitment, so what are they to make of the humiliating dismissal given by one of the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministers in the other place, who referred to the Prime Minister’s speech as merely one contribution to the debate, which

“will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords; 17 January 2007, Vol. 688, c. 647.]?

Is that not evidence that the Prime Minister’s authority is disappearing rapidly in our country?

Let me just point out to the hon. Gentleman that over the past few years we have, in fact, increased defence spending—after years of the Government whom he supported, who cut defence spending by a third. What is more, wholly contrary to what is put out by the Conservative party, defence spending—when we add in the additional money from Iraq and Afghanistan—has kept constant as a proportion of national income, despite a growing economy. In the 10 years before we came to office it was cut by about a third—again, as a proportion of gross domestic product. So let me tell the hon. Gentleman that I did indeed make the commitment that our armed forces would be properly supported. They will be properly supported. That is the commitment of this Government; it was a commitment never given or honoured by the previous Administration.

Q13. As secretary of the all-party mountain rescue and search teams group, may I make a plea to the Prime Minister? Those voluntary organisations receive little assistance from the Government in England and Wales—unlike in Scotland—and we need to help them to navigate their way through the morass of Departments. As the Prime Minister clears his desk to leave at the end of the financial year, will he please give some consideration to meeting representatives of the group and the organisations themselves? They help people who are lost and need to find a direction—and no better legacy could be achieved by anyone. (110686)

I would be delighted to meet the group that my hon. Friend draws attention to—although the timing may be another issue—but I can assure him that we are well aware of the fantastic work done by the volunteers who work in mountain rescue. Of course, the decision to support mountain rescue is made by chief constables in their local areas, but I can assure him that the Government will continue to do all that we can to support them.