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Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

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 Private Luke Simpson from the 1st Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, who died in Iraq during the parliamentary recess. He was a very professional soldier who was performing a vital role in working towards a safer and more secure world. We pay tribute to him today.

I have had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expression of condolences?

Does he recall the closure of Simclar Ayrshire recently, in which the work force was made redundant without notice? I thank my right hon. Friend for the speedy Government response and, in particular, for the extra funding and payment of redundancy to the work force. Will he meet Members of Parliament to discuss how we can stop employers behaving in that way and what further can be done to make full employment a reality in Ayrshire?

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, I met her over the closure in her constituency, and I again extend my sympathy to those in the work force and their families who were affected by it. As she rightly said, prompt action was taken by the Scottish Executive, the Government and the local jobcentre to ensure that we had the right measures in place to help those people find new jobs. She is also right to say that our task now is to build on the huge economic success that Scotland has had over the past few years, with 200,000 extra jobs, and ensure that we provide full employment, which she wants to see and I believe is now possible.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Luke Simpson, who died in Iraq 12 days ago. He died serving our country.

There are 125,000 people in our country who have paid into company pension schemes, seen them collapse, and been left with little or nothing. Today, the Government were defeated in the courts and ordered to look again at how they have responded to the real crisis at the heart of our pension system. Does the Prime Minister agree that there is real strength of feeling on both sides of the House that those people have not been treated fairly, and will he now look at working on a cross-party basis—[Interruption.] Yes, let us sort this out on an affordable and sustainable basis. Will he do that?

Of course I am happy to work on any basis with other parties in order to try to provide for pensioners. Indeed, in the past few years and for the very first time, we now have a compensation programme in place worth hundreds of millions of pounds for those who have lost their pensions, in addition to the considerable extra support given to pensioners. Of course we are still studying the exact terms of the judgment. As I understand it, although it found problems with some of the leaflets issued by both this Government and the previous Government, it did not actually find a causal link between those and the losses that were suffered. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a terrible situation for those people who have lost their pensions. However, we must ensure that any package that we put forward is affordable.

The Prime Minister talks specifically about the financial assistance scheme, but is it not becoming increasingly clear that it simply is not working properly? Of the 125,000 people who have been left with little or nothing, only 900 have received any money, a year after the ombudsman reported. Does not the Prime Minister agree that that is completely inadequate, and will he confirm those figures for us?

First, let me say that I think that the overall amount of money that will be in the scheme is somewhere in the region of £1.8 billion over the years to come. That is a huge commitment on the part of the Government. I would just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that absolutely nothing was in place before we did this. However, I agree that we have to see how we can help people in this situation. I assume that he is not saying that we can give a guarantee that the Government can stand behind the collapse of any pension scheme. That would be a huge commitment—billions and billions of pounds over the years. So, there is inevitably going to be a situation where the commitment that we give to people who lose their pensions is going to be limited, but I would point out that £1.8 billion is quite a generous commitment.

The point is that the money is not getting through to the people who need it. Given that the financial assistance scheme is not working and that an increasing number of pension experts recognise that, will the Prime Minister at least look at ideas that would not cost taxpayers money, such as pooling the scheme funds and rolling the administration of the financial assistance scheme, which is not working properly, into the Pension Protection Fund? Will he also look at unclaimed pension assets? The fact is that those pensioners lost their money on his watch and he has time now to do something about it. [Interruption.] Yes. So will he agree—[Interruption.] He shakes his head, but these people lost their pensions partly because of the £5 billion pension raid that the Chancellor has carried out every year. The Prime Minister can use his last few months in office to grandstand, or he can do something for those people. So, will he meet the pensioners and their representatives and, on a cross-party basis, sort this out?

We have just had a pretty good example of grandstanding, if I may say so. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman began this question not simply to make a political point of it, but the fact of the matter is that the pension mis-selling under the Conservative Government was absolutely legendary and the only compensation is the compensation that we have given. It is also not true to say that the assistance scheme is not working. It is of course for people who are going to become pensioners in the future. We are perfectly prepared to sit down and look at what more we can do, but in the end, it will come down to money. The other day, the shadow Chancellor was asked in specific terms whether he would commit more money to pensions. He said that there are people in the Conservative party who are asking them to

“put more money into the pensions”.

and that they have to resist those demands.

I am afraid that the House will have to settle for me.

In 2003, the Samjhauta or Friendship Express began to run again between Delhi and Lahore. On Sunday night, that train, symbolically painted in Hindu saffron and Muslim green, was passing Dewana, 50 miles north of Delhi, when crude kerosene-based bombs exploded and made a furnace of two carriages. Will the Prime Minister, on behalf I hope of the entire House, express his deep sympathy to the friends and families of the 68 people whose charred bodies now lie in a mortuary and to the injured, and will he associate himself with the calm and dignified response of Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh and President General Pervez Musharraf and agree with them that peace will prevail and that the ungodly ambitions of nihilist terrorism, in all its forms, will never, ever triumph?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, as I am sure that the whole House does. We expressed at the time our deep sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives. What is particularly interesting, as my hon. Friend showed, was that the train was a symbol of Hindus and Muslims working together, so it was a wicked act in itself, but it took on a particular proportion of tragedy and evil by the nature of the act and what it was directed towards. It shows, I am afraid, that, as he rightly said, this type of nihilistic terrorism is with us the world over, and the only response is to stand up to it and defeat it.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the number of families on waiting lists for social housing has risen from 1 million in 1997 to 1.6 million today?

I cannot confirm those precise figures, but I can say that investment in social housing has been vast over the past few years. As a result, we have been able to refurbish much of the council housing and, in particular, to provide better housing for pensioners and families on lower incomes. I do not know the precise figures for the waiting lists, but I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there has been huge investment in social housing.

Does the Prime Minister understand that the reality for many of these families is to live in appalling temporary accommodation with their children? When can they have the decent housing to which they are entitled?

Over the next few years, we will increase the £2 billion that has been put into social housing over the past few years still further. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on social housing. However, I have to say that it is also necessary to build more homes for both private ownership and social housing. Proposals both to increase the stock of housing and for social housing will be published shortly.

Q2. Is my right hon. Friend aware of a local campaign in Middlesbrough calling for a ban on the sale of bladed weapons? The campaign has been organised by Mothers Against Knives and has the support of 5,000 people, including the mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon, and the former leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Given that there is so much support, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to try to ensure that we ban the sale of bladed weapons? (121276)

First, let me pay tribute to the work of Middlesbrough Mothers Against Knives. Its members are part of the interesting phenomenon throughout the country of people and families getting together to try to do what they can in their local communities. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 raises the age at which a knife can be bought and makes sure that we take tougher action against those who are using bladed weapons. The use of knife amnesties has also played a part. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and we keep very closely under review both the legislation in respect of this and measures taken locally.

In recent weeks, members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet have called for curbs on City bonuses, a bigger role for trade unions and the abolition of some union ballots. Does he agree with any of those policies?

It is all part of a very interesting debate that will no doubt continue over the months to come. Actually, the most important thing for us, as a Government and a political party, is to keep up with the strongest economy, the massive reduction in waiting lists, the improvement in school results and falling crime, because I think that those things are, in the end, the things that will attract the country to vote for us in a fourth election.

So why does the Prime Minister think that all the people who want to be Deputy Prime Minister have to trash his record and lurch to the left?

I do not, as a matter of fact. I would just like to draw attention—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] Since we are discussing what members of our parties say their about their leaders, let me quote what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said last week:

“This is the year that Conservative spokesmen have adopted Aneurin Bevan as a role model…praised left-wing Polly Toynbee’s view of society; snubbed the CBI; pleaded understanding for marauding hoodies”.

When the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) cannot even make up his mind about whether his role model is Polly Toynbee or Margaret Thatcher, he should not be lecturing me—he should take some lessons himself.

The Prime Minister quotes a Back Bencher; let me quote someone in his own Cabinet, with whom I suspect that he might agree. His Environment Secretary says:

“in six months’…time, people will be saying, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that Blair back, because we can’t stand that Gordon Brown.’”

Does the Prime Minister think that that was an accurate forecast, or a bad career move—or maybe a bit of both?

I think what was also said was that we all remember, as an example of change, that it was our party that introduced Bank of England independence, opposed by the right hon. Gentleman; it was our party that introduced the minimum wage, opposed by him; and it was our party that introduced record investment in schools and hospitals, opposed by him. So it is not this side of the House that has had to change its mind; it is him.

Q3. My friend is a great champion of the private sector and wants to give it a much bigger role in the NHS in Lancashire and Cumbria, and the South African company, Netcare, is to carry out work in six specialties—gynaecology, urology, orthopaedics, rheumatology, ear, nose and throat, and general surgery. Will he explain to my constituents and to me why the contract is to be regarded as commercially confidential? How can that possibly be justified, and if it is secret, how will we know that we are not being ripped off? (121277)

The contracts that are entered into by the national health service with a range of different private contractors are commercially confidential. The reason why they have been introduced, and why we have got the independent sector working alongside the national health service, is that for many of the things that my hon. Friend lists, it is actually cutting waiting times, improving the quality of care, and giving us the possibility of creating a national health service that is fit for the early 21st century. The reason why, for example, in the past few months we have managed for the first time to get in-patient and out-patient average waiting times down to a few weeks is precisely that combination of investment and reform. It is creating the national health service that we want to see, so I suggest that my hon. Friend support it.

Q4. Nearly eight years after the intervention by NATO in Kosovo, the Prime Minister will be aware that there are still several hundreds of thousands of people frightened to return to their homes. Does he consider that situation acceptable in a modern Europe, and does he not agree that until those people have the confidence to return to their homes, we cannot consider that intervention a success? (121278)

I certainly agree with the first part of the question; it is important that those who are still in fear of returning to their homes are able to do so. Where I disagree with him profoundly is on any notion that the intervention in Kosovo was anything other than successful. Of course, we have still got to sort out the ongoing constitutional status of Kosovo, but as a result of what has happened in Kosovo, and as a result of that intervention, the whole of the Balkans is a changed region. We have proper democratic elections in Serbia, Croatia is now a candidate to become a member of the European Union, and for the first time in round about 100 years, there is the prospect of peace in the Balkans, with, of course, if his party does not mind me saying so, the prospect of future European Union membership as a tremendous bonus for the countries as they make progress. I totally agree that there are still many things to be done, in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, but I have to say that I believe that our intervention in Kosovo was necessary and right, and has given the Balkans the prospect of a decent future.

Q5. In light of the recent firearm murders in the capital, will the Prime Minister join me in condemning that evil, and in congratulating the Mayor of London on placing more police on the street? Will he ensure that the Government re-examine the real and entrenched poverty in London, so that we make sure that we remain tough on the causes of crime, as well as on crime itself? (121279)

First, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is a tribute to the Mayor—and, I think, to the Government as well—that there are extra police and community support officers patrolling the streets, and that there have been very significant falls in crime recently in London—despite, obviously, the recent terrible events. She is completely right, too, in saying that we have got to carry on reducing poverty in the country, but there are some 2.5 million fewer people in relative poverty than there were some years back, and the inner-city regeneration programmes in her communities and elsewhere are playing a real part in doing that. We have to continue with that, and we have to take the specific measures necessary, within specific criminal cultures, to deal with those who, as we have seen recently and all too tragically, are engaged in gun violence.

The Prime Minister’s recent decision to accede to the Council of Europe convention on trafficking will be widely welcomed. However, is he not aware that that additional signature will mean that there are 20 such Council of Europe conventions to which the United Kingdom has attached its signature, without having got round to ratifying them? Will he undertake to look into the situation and report back to the House?

I am happy to look into that and report back. Of course, there is a difference between signature and ratification, and I think that I am right in saying that that particular convention has probably not been ratified by a majority of European countries. However, it is extremely important that we make sure that we abide by its provisions and implement them here. As we said when we commemorated the abolition of the slave trade, there is a new form of slave trade in the world today—people trafficking, which is often linked to the most appalling forms of prostitution, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we should deal with it.

Q6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating everyone at the Camrose Sure Start centre in my constituency on an outstanding Ofsted report, which found children from a multiracial, disadvantaged estate showed outstanding academic achievement and outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development? Does he agree that that shows that investment by the Labour Government has improved the lives of children in disadvantaged areas? (121280)

I send my congratulations to the Camrose children’s centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Such centres will number roughly 2,500 nationwide by 2008, and a whole new frontier of the welfare state has been developed. They do a fantastic amount of work, not just for the children but often for their parents who, for the first time, have gained access to advice about skills and jobs. They are therefore a very worthwhile addition to the provision that the Government make for people in this country.

Can the Prime Minister explain why after increased investment in the NHS, my local NHS trust has to slash £24 million from its budget in the next 18 months, and has resorted to removing one in three light bulbs in St. Helier hospital to cut costs?

Whatever the level of investment, each trust—and this is the whole point about making sure that we have proper financial transparency in the health service—must live within its means. There has been a massive increase in investment, and as a result, waiting lists have fallen dramatically in the hon. Gentleman’s area, as in others. Cancer treatment has improved, cardiac treatment has improved, and accident and emergency treatment has improved. Despite all of that, it is correct that trusts must live within their financial means. I am afraid that that is the case, no matter what amount of money goes in, and it is a lesson that the Liberal Democrats must learn.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister make an ongoing commitment to the use of the Barnett formula, which has delivered substantial investment in public services in Scotland, and assure the people of Scotland that a Labour Government will not be tempted to create a massive financial deficit by pursuing proposals for tax autonomy, proposed by the London-based leader of the Scottish nationalist movement? (121281)

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we have no proposals at all to change the Barnett formula, which, as he rightly said, has delivered substantial investment for Scotland. The other reason why investment is going into Scotland is the strength of the economy, which, whatever the formula, allows an additional amount of money to go into health and education services, and provides help for people in Scotland, not least pensioners. I can assure him that the Barnett formula and the strong economy will continue under a Labour Government and a Labour Executive.

I wonder whether someone who has been put—I hope temporarily and certainly unwillingly—in the departure lounge can ask someone who already has his boarding ticket what he expects and hopes to be remembered for before he goes off on the lecture circuit.

Whatever the circuit, I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman on it. I hope that he recognises that one thing has changed. There has been a great deal of debate in the country about division, poverty and inequality over the past few years, but I hope that he recognises that as a result of the assistance given to families through the tax credit system, the minimum wage, investment in child benefit, and inner-city regeneration, the country is a fairer and stronger place than it was 10 years ago.

Q8. Bristol has the second highest number of drug addicts in treatment in the country, but in the past year was given only £639 per addict in treatment, compared with cities such as Birmingham, which got nearly three times as much. Can the Prime Minister assure me that the very welcome recent 40 per cent. increase in funding for next year will not be a one-off and that we can look forward to future increases, so that Bristol gets the funding that it deserves to treat the serious drug problem in the city? (121282)

Over the next couple of years there is something like a 70 per cent. increase in the budget in Bristol. We are doubling the amount of assistance given for drug treatment programmes. The important thing is to make sure that those who have a drug problem, particularly if they are connected with the criminal justice system, get the treatment that they need. If we do not treat that drug abuse problem, we are not likely to reduce their propensity to reoffend once released. I pay tribute to the work that I know is going on in Bristol among some of the drug action teams, which are doing superb work, and I hope that the additional funding will help them do even better.

Q9. Last summer a new mini hospital was completed to serve my constituents. There are no patient complaints, no delays, no operations cancelled. That is because the hospital has never opened. The only activity is the administration department paying bills to keep an empty hospital maintained. Is that not an episode straight out of “Yes Minister”? (121283)

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is also going on in his constituency. Whereas in 1997 over 30,000 people had to wait six months, the figure today is 90. There is a new radiotherapy building at Northampton general hospital, there is the new Oakley Vale dental practice, and there is a £10 million expansion project on its way in Northampton general hospital. As a result of that, waiting lists are down, cancer care is improving and heart disease care is improving. All that money was voted against by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister back the popular campaign to bring the Lindisfarne Gospels home to the north-east? He may recall that last time they were there, hundreds of thousands of people queued round the block to see them. With his backing, perhaps he and I could pop along to see these cultural icons together when they are back in our region. (121284)

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, it is for the British Library Board to decide where the gospels are located, but I share her desire to see them widely available in the north-east. I know that she recently met the Minister concerned in order to discuss the matter, and I am happy to give her any support I can to make sure that as many people as possible in the north-east get access to a huge cultural icon for people there.

In direct response to me during consideration of the Identity Cards Bill, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) gave me and all of us on the Committee an undertaking that the police would not be permitted to trawl through the national identity register. Yesterday the Prime Minister ripped up that undertaking. Why?

I do not believe that we have gone back on any of the undertakings that we have given. What is extremely important, however, is that we have such a register, because not only will it help us to tackle crime, terrorism and illegal immigration, but an identity card scheme, with the new technology available—and the vast bulk of the cost will be spent on passports, anyway—will allow consumers to access better private sector services as well. The Tory opposition to ID cards is regressive, old-fashioned and out of date.

Q11. My right hon. Friend knows that Hull has produced its share of great parliamentarians, most notably William Wilberforce. This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, which Wilberforce brought about. Will my right hon. Friend find time to visit Hull to celebrate Wilberforce 2007? (121285)

As my hon. Friend knows, there are a number of events, including a national memorial service at Westminster Abbey in March this year, which will commemorate the abolition of the slave trade. The most important thing, however, as I said in response to an earlier question, is that we recognise that we still have challenges ahead of us. I mentioned one, in respect of people trafficking. There is another, in respect of education for all in Africa. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development recently announced proposals that will give us the chance, if we are supported internationally—as I hope we will be at the G8 this year—to make sure that all children in Africa get the possibility of primary education, because at present there are still tens of millions of them who are unable to do so. Probably as much as any memorial service or commemoration, that would be the most fitting way to mark a huge and wonderful parliamentary campaign 200 years ago.

In my area there are now no antenatal classes, and £2.50 a day must be saved by staff who do not use dressings or offer blood tests. GPs in Dacorum have sent e-mails saying that they do not believe the proposals are fit for purpose, and an elderly person is mounting a legal challenge to the moving of all services to Watford. Does the Prime Minister agree that the health services provided in Hertfordshire are not fit for purpose?

Obviously I do not know enough about the individual circumstances in the hon. Lady’s constituency to respond now, but I shall be happy to look into the matter and correspond with her about it. I should say, however, that the changes in maternity services are being made so that people can be given a better service. It is a case of specialising and concentrating the most difficult cases on one site. The money that we are putting into maternity services, including antenatal services, is increasing, not diminishing, and we are also increasing the number of midwives in training.

I do not agree with the hon. Lady that change is necessarily a bad thing—in fact, I think it is a good thing—but I shall be happy to look into the specific matters that she has raised.

Q12. What is my right hon. Friend’s response to Mohamed el-Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said recently that Britain could not modernise its Trident missile system and then credibly tell countries such as Iran that they do not need nuclear weapons? (121286)

I should remind my hon. Friend of the non-proliferation treaty, which makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons. As Mohamed el-Baradei is the custodian of that treaty’s implementation, I think it would be a good idea for him to act accordingly.