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Volume 456: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2007

Q4. The multinational company GKN recently announced its proposal to close a factory in Chesterfield, the GKN Sheepbridge Stokes plant. As a result, 420 engineering workers based in a modern efficient factory face losing their jobs to Asia or Latin America. What hope or support can the Prime Minister offer to those 420 skilled workers, given that unemployment is now at its highest since 1997, inflation is at its highest since 1992, and interest rates are going up as the Chancellor’s policies fail? (112447)

First, let me say that I am of course very sorry, and I extend my sympathy to any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have lost, or are likely to lose, their jobs. I can assure him that the local Jobcentre Plus and the Government will do everything that we can, as we have done in other situations, to put a support mechanism in place to ensure that they get alternative employment. I have to say, however, that Chesterfield’s economy, like that of the rest of the country, is infinitely stronger than it was in 1997: employment is up and unemployment is down. Yes, it is true that there have been a quarter of a per cent. rises in interest rates recently, but the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will remember when interest rates were 10 per cent. for four years, and 15 per cent. for months at a time. One reason why we can confidently expect people to get alternative employment is precisely the strength of the economy.

Following the report of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on state collusion and murder in Northern Ireland, has the Prime Minister been made aware of the statement last Sunday by a former assistant chief constable, who said that MI5 had made, and continued to make, payments out of its own funding to informers who were involved in at least 10 murders? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the ombudsman’s report on that collusion dealt only with part of Belfast city and one unit of the loyalist paramilitary organisation, and that much, much more was happening throughout Northern Ireland? Does he not think that this warrants a statement to the House—

First of all, let me say to my hon. Friend that any form of collusion or improper activity by any part of the police or security services would be completely wrong, and would of course be deeply to be regretted. We are looking carefully at the report that has been published recently and we will take whatever action is appropriate. It is, however, important to emphasise—as I think the report itself did—that this concerns a minority of people, who obviously should not have been engaged in the activities that they were engaged in. But that should not take away from most of the work that officers did, in both the police and the Security Service, which was of enormous benefit to the local community. So it is important, while we deal with the wrongdoing, not to have a completely unbalanced picture of how the police and MI5 operated in Northern Ireland.

Q5. The German presidency of the EU is attempting to revive the failed European constitution. Why is the Prime Minister colluding in that by appointing two officials to negotiate the process in private, in clear breach of all his assurances about openness and the need to involve Parliament and the public? If the constitution is revived in any form, will he keep his promise to allow the British people a vote on the matter in a national referendum? (112448)

First of all, let me explain to the hon. Gentleman that there is no question—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman; my apologies. There is no question of our agreeing to anything behind closed doors with the German presidency, or anyone else. Last year we agreed that we would take stock following the French and Dutch no votes in the referendums. The German presidency is therefore obliged to take forward proposals for the Council later this year. Of course we are in discussions with the German Government as to what those proposals will be; it would be bizarre if we said, “We’re not prepared to talk to you about it.” Let us wait and see what the German presidency comes up with. Our position on the referendum and the constitutional treaty remains unchanged. But I really do believe, particularly in the light of the strong bilateral relationship that we have with the German Government today, and of the importance of Europe to this country, that it would be a wonderful thing for the politics of this country if people such as the right hon. Gentleman could liberate themselves from this absurd and antiquated view of Europe.

Q6. North Yorkshire primary care trust is restricting access to some non-emergency treatments in order to reduce its deficit, and local GPs say that that could put patients at risk. Will the Prime Minister ask the strategic health authority to broker a meeting between the PCT and the GPs as a matter of urgency, in order to ensure that they work together to protect patients, to balance the budget and to safeguard access to the same range of NHS services in North Yorkshire that can be accessed in other parts of the country? (112449)

I would certainly be happy to do so, in arranging such a meeting. My hon. Friend puts his case in exactly the right way. It is clear that the PCT has to deal with the deficit, because, despite the very large additional investment, that deficit is still there. Of course, as a result of the new system—payment by results, practice-based commissioning and patient choice—hard adjustments will have to be made in some of the PCTs, but I agree that it is important that they be done in such a way that the huge improvements in the NHS’s performance continue to be safeguarded for patients.

Q7. Six years ago Kirsty Jones, a near neighbour of mine, was brutally raped and murdered in Thailand. Her murderer is still at large. Indeed, the Royal Thai police at one time closed the file. Because of the persistence of the Dyfed-Powys police, and especially her parents, the Thai Government have now referred the case to the special investigation branch. However, several of us are still concerned by the lack of progress and the failure to follow up certain lines of inquiry. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me, and Kirsty’s parents, to ensure that the case receives fresh impetus in Thailand, that justice is delivered for the parents and that Thailand is a safer place for young people to visit? (112450)

Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Gentleman on the possibility of a meeting. I wish to express my condolences—as I am sure does the whole House—to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s family on the loss of their daughter. As he knows, the issue has been raised by Foreign Office Ministers over a long period, and we have been closely involved with the authorities in Bangkok in trying to make progress on that case. I know that Foreign Office officials continue to meet the family—weekly, I think—and we will try to do everything we can to bring it to a proper conclusion. I am happy to try to arrange some form of meeting, but I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman about whether it is appropriate that it should be with me.

Q8. May I ask my right hon. Friend about workers’ rights? There is more to do on the question of trade union collective rights, but much has already been done on individual rights and health and safety issues. That has been done by enshrining in UK law many of the principles of the European social charter. As I go round Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney telling people why they should vote Labour in the Assembly elections, may I have two assurances from my right hon. Friend? One is that the good work set out in the Warwick agreement about collective activity will be taken forward in this Parliament, and the second is that any siren voices calling for a withdrawal from the European social chapter will be soundly rejected, whether they come from the Tory toffocracy or dysfunctional policy wonks at No. 10. (112451)

I was with my hon. Friend until the last bit of his question. I do not think that anyone has suggested that we withdraw from the social chapter. It is worth pointing out three things that have happened as a result of the changes that we have made. First, we have a minimum wage that helps millions of workers in this country get a decent living wage. Secondly, issues to do with parental leave, and maternity pay and leave, have seen huge advances, including a doubling of maternity leave and maternity pay. Thirdly, as a result of signing the social chapter, which was so bitterly opposed by the Conservatives, we have paid holiday leave for the first time, which is fantastically important for hundreds of thousands of some of the lowest paid workers in the country. I cannot believe that any party, other than one looking at the past rather than the future, could possibly agree to withdraw from the European social chapter.

The Prime Minister is known for his close association with President George W. Bush—but given all that has befallen the Prime Minister’s men and women in recent days, is not now the more relevant association one with President Richard Millhouse Nixon? Is there a cover-up in Downing street?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise that question when we are just about to have a Scottish election campaign. Why does he not put to me his case for independence and separation in Scotland? I will tell him why. It is because he knows that that policy would be a disaster for the Scottish economy and for living standards in Scotland. The reason why he cannot raise a Scottish question with me is because he does not dare.

Q9. Last year the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds purchased 170 hectares of land at Hesketh Outmarsh in the Ribble estuary in my constituency—land that was rescued from the sea 20 years ago. In a few months’ time, breaches will be made in the sea wall to allow that land to return to salt marsh, which will allow a nature reserve to develop. More importantly, it will ensure that the coast of Lancashire is protected from flooding as a result of climate change. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the RSPB on that initiative—[Interruption.] (112453)

Yes, I think that I can. I do congratulate the RSPB, and I want to point out that some of the £2.5 million being devoted to the project comes from the Environment Agency. The project will be a major advance for the local environment and habitat, and it underlines the importance of having an environment policy that is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our natural environment in the proper way.

According to the Treasury’s public service agreements, the Home Office is ahead of schedule for meeting its targets for increasing public confidence in the criminal justice system. Does the Prime Minister agree?

It could be ahead of that schedule, of course, because crime has fallen—[Interruption.] The chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest for 25 years. We have record numbers of police, more offences are being brought to justice, and there has been an enormous reduction in ineffective trials. For all those reasons, I think that the assessment is correct.

Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that Wigan has a four-star council, a three-star primary care trust and a three-star hospital trust. He may not be aware that we also have the best performing LIFT—local improvement finance trust—in the country. The Boston house centre opened recently, bringing renal dialysis to people in Wigan for the first time. May I invite my right hon. Friend to come to Wigan to open the centre, and see how that magnificent facility is bringing health care closer to patients? I can also promise him that he will be able to meet Billy Boston, the greatest player ever to don the cherry-and-white Wigan rugby league strip. (112454)

I thank my hon. Friend for that invitation. The £30 million Boston house centre will bring services closer to patients, but the same thing is happening all over the country. For all the challenges arising from financial deficits, it is worth pointing out that waiting lists are coming down, more people are getting treatment closer to home, and they are getting it more quickly. Indeed, the GP services report showed that people are getting better access to the system than ever before. The fact that renal dialysis is being delivered closer to people means that they have far more control over their circumstances. It also reduces the pressure on hospitals; that is why investment and reform have to go together.

Q11. Successive Home Secretaries have produced about 3,000 new criminal offences—at the rate of about one a day for 10 years—but they have not delivered enough prison places to prevent another crisis. Does the Prime Minister believe that the one prisoner in 10 who is assessed as functionally psychotic should be in a prison, or in a secure mental unit? (112455)

Of course I believe that it is important to ensure that prisoners are in the appropriate setting—but it is odd for a Liberal Democrat to accuse us of not building enough prison places. The hon. Gentleman says that 3,000 new offences have been introduced, but they have one thing in common: his party has voted against them all, even the most serious and violent ones. We know that Liberal Democrat prison policy would mean that no one would go to prison, because there would be no tough laws to make sure that they did. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the more that his party raises the issues of prison and law and order, the happier I am.

Q12. Can it be true that we had to pay GPs a lot more money to do a lot less work, and that now we have to pay them a lot more money to take on the work that we paid them to stop doing? (112457)

I do not always do this, but in this instance I will stick up for the GPs. In fact, they are doing a lot more work as a result of the national service programmes—[Interruption.] The report published on Monday showed that 90 per cent. of people now gain access to a GP within 48 hours, as opposed to just 50 per cent. when we came to office, and that is due in part to the enhanced provisions in the GP contract. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is committed to renegotiating that contract, but there is nothing wrong with our GPs being the best paid in Europe, provided that they deliver a better service. I believe that they are doing that.

In 1998, the Prime Minister was warned by President Clinton’s Secretary of State not to agree at St. Malo an autonomous defence capability for the EU that would duplicate and compete with NATO. Is he aware that the NATO Secretary-General warned yesterday that the EU and NATO would be unable to work together in a global crisis and that the distance between them is “astounding”, or does the Secretary-General—a Dutchman, incidentally—just believe in an antiquated and absurd view of Europe?

As I recall, in his previous incarnation he supported European defence—but let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I disagree so much with him over European defence. Of course it is important for Britain to maintain its strong relationship in NATO and many operations, as in Afghanistan, will be conducted with NATO; but in circumstances where, for example, the Americans do not want to be engaged, it makes sense—

I wish the hon. Gentleman would not shake his head before I have given him the answer—he might at least have something of an open mind.

The fact is that there are operations that we need to carry out with other European countries where the US is not engaged, so it makes perfect sense to do that as part of a European mission. There are somewhere in the region of 10 or 11 such missions around the world. They operate perfectly well, and are not in conflict with NATO.