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Commons Chamber

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 21 February 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

message from the queen

Electoral Commission

I have to inform the House that the Address of 16 January, praying that Her Majesty will reappoint James Samuel Younger to be the chairman of the Electoral Commission for the period ending on 31 December 2008 and further reappoint Pamela Joan Gordon to be an electoral commissioner for the period ending 30 June 2007, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request. The appointments became effective from 19 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

May I first pay tribute to the work of Peter Clarke, the first Children’s Commissioner for Wales—and, indeed, for the United Kingdom—who died recently? I offer our condolences to his family. He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children in Wales. The elimination of child poverty in Wales by 2020 is a key commitment for the Government and the Assembly Government, and will be incorporated into every aspect of policy.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the late Peter Clarke. Some seven years after the adoption of the target, Peter Clarke dubbed the fact that Welsh children still had the worst level of well-being in the United Kingdom a national disgrace. Will the Secretary of State commit the Government to redoubling their efforts and to working with the next First Minister in the National Assembly, of whichever party? The goal of making child poverty a thing of the past must surely be lifted above the level of mere party politics.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the absolute priority of tackling child poverty. We have a proud record of lifting some 50,000 children in Wales alone out of poverty, and our policies of increasing child benefit, child tax credit and the child trust funds will help with that. As the hon. Gentleman was talking about party politics, I assume that he agrees with Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Leanne Wood, who said recently that she believed that the only way of eradicating poverty in Wales was through independence. On that basis—

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to see last week’s damning UNICEF report, which showed that children growing up in the UK suffered greater deprivation, had worse relationships with their parents and were exposed to more risks from alcohol and drug abuse than children growing up in any other prosperous country on earth? Given that the rates of child deprivation are worse in Wales than the UK average, is there anything that the Secretary of State can say to convince Members that his party, either at Cardiff Bay or here in London, has a clear strategy to improve the conditions in which Welsh children are being raised?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman cites the UNICEF report; he must know that it contains data more than six years old. If he looks at the real picture, he will see that we have done an amazing amount to lift children out of poverty. Let me remind the House that 240 children are lifted out of poverty every day across the United Kingdom under this Labour Government. During the Tory years, 210 children went into poverty every day. That was the legacy that we inherited, and it is the legacy that we are putting right through our policies for tackling child poverty, which have already lifted 50,000 children in Wales out of poverty.

Ambulance Service

2. Whether he has discussed cross-border issues related to ambulance service provision in north and mid-Wales with Assembly members; and if he will make a statement. (121341)

I have regular meetings with the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services on a range of issues, including the provision of ambulance services in Wales.

The Minister will know that, a week ago last Monday, the ambulance service in Wales was so overstretched that it had to ask people not to dial 999. Last weekend, when someone was stabbed outside a pub in Maesteg, he had to be taken to hospital in a fire engine because no ambulance was available. Will not the threatened closure of out-patients departments such as those in Tywyn and other hospitals place an even greater strain on the Welsh ambulance service? What can the Minister do to assure people from Lichfield going to west Wales on holiday—and, indeed, the residents of west Wales—that the ambulance service there will not be weakened still further?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned two incidents. The first related to problems caused by the weather in some parts of Wales. The other, which related to the provision of ambulances in the south Wales valleys and their inability to answer a prompt call, is being investigated. The Welsh Assembly Government are taking decisive action to get the ambulance service back on track. The budget for this year has gone up to £109 million—a 35 per cent. increase in three years—and an extra £16 million capital is available this year to invest in 119 new ambulances. The underlying systemic problems are undoubtedly being tackled under the new chief executive, Alan Murray. They cannot be solved overnight, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will shortly meet Brian Gibbons, the Minister for Health and Social Services, and I will take up the points that he has raised. That level of investment can only be sustained, however, by a Labour Government—with a Labour Administration in Cardiff—investing in our health service at record levels.

Is the Minister aware that cross-border pressures will increase if Llanidloes hospital is closed, with an even greater burden placed on the ambulance service as a direct result of reduced health care in the Llanidloes area? Will he discuss with Assembly Ministers the consequences of such a closure, to avert those potentially devastating effects on health provision in south Montgomeryshire, which cannot simply be mitigated through alternative provision elsewhere in Powys or Shropshire?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation in relation to services at Llanidloes is ongoing, and my understanding is that no final decisions have been taken yet. As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I will meet Brian Gibbons in the near future, and I will take up the point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has made. Again, I emphasise that the solution to such problems is investment and reform in our health service. Reform is essential if we are to get the modern health service that we all want in Wales, and reconfiguration is part of that.

Is the Minister aware of a recent case in which a constituent waited four hours for an ambulance to arrive on a 999 call, and when it did arrive the ambulance crew expected her husband to go off with a jerry can and get some petrol, as they had run out while looking for the place? Does not that show that we need, first, a better triage system in the hospitals, secondly, a satnav system fitted in all ambulances, and thirdly, an end to the policy of withdrawing ambulances from rural areas and putting them into cities to try to meet the targets that his Government have set?

No, I do not accept that. As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield, massive investment is now going into the Welsh ambulance service. The problems that have been identified are true of the whole of Wales, because of the systemic failure in parts of the service. The only way to address those issues is to carry on with the record investment in our health service, including the extra £16 million invested in brand-new state-of-the-art ambulances. If the hon. Gentleman’s party, leading a rag, tag and bobtail coalition, ever won in Wales, we would not see that level of investment.

Police/Support Staff

3. How many (a) police civilian staff, (b) police officers and (c) community support officers there are in Wales. (121343)

At September 2006 there were 3,699 police support staff, 7,509 police officers and 384 community support officers in Wales.

That is a highly satisfactory situation, but is it not disturbing that the figures for Scotland are superior in every way to those for Wales and England? Of course, Scotland missed out, happily, on the chaotic futility and waste of the police reorganisations attempted last year. Should not the Secretary of State support the suggestion made by Rosemary Butler, the Assembly Member for Newport, West, that the Welsh police forces should come under the Welsh Assembly? Is not it discourteous of him to dismiss that suggestion with his fatwa?

I am not aware of having behaved in the way that my hon. Friend describes. Obviously Assembly Members, including the First Minister, are entitled to have as a personal aim or ambition the devolution of policing and law in Wales. But that is not Welsh Labour policy or this Government’s policy. As pro-devolutionists, he and I should wait for the consequences of the Government of Wales Act 2006 to bed down, which will take some years, and for the Assembly to be reconfigured appropriately, before we consider any further such moves.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will share my concern that the ability of North Wales police to retain adequate staffing levels at the port of Holyhead has been severely compromised by the cut of £100,000 in Home Office dedicated security posts funding for the coming financial year, which is equivalent to £200,000 when inflation is taken into account. Given that Holyhead is the busiest port of entry into Wales, and that protective services are supposed to be a priority for his Government, what representations is he making to the Home Secretary to ensure adequate security at Holyhead?

There is adequate security at Holyhead. I have discussed the matter with colleagues and obviously we will continue to monitor it, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that North Wales police authority has had record investment over the 10 years of our Labour Government, and has had more police officers than ever before, and more community support officers than ever before. It is one of the best performing police authorities anywhere in the United Kingdom. I would have thought that he would welcome that.

My right hon. Friend will understand why I have to declare an interest in this question. Can he confirm that there has been a 15 per cent. increase in the number of police officers in north Wales since 1997, and does he agree that that has led to detection rates improving year on year since 1997, especially in the western division, which is top of the league for the whole of England and Wales?

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose son is an excellent police officer in the North Wales police authority.

It is all down to his mum, as my hon. Friend says.

My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) is right. There are nearly 1,600 police officers—200 more than when we came to power. There are 76 extra community support officers. Detection rates are going up, sexual offences are down, total recorded crime is down, robbery is down and burglary is down. The North Wales police authority has also been active in applying antisocial behaviour orders. That is a very good record, which we need to build on.

Prison Places

4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales and his colleagues in the Home Department about the sufficiency of prison places in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (121344)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister and Home Office colleagues on matters affecting Wales, including prison places. The Government have announced plans to ensure that there are enough prison places across England and Wales.

The Minister will know that there has been a long-running campaign to have a prison facility to serve north and mid-Wales, because at any given time between 650 and 750 people are held elsewhere, in English jails. Will he please intervene as soon as possible, because there is some talk of putting yet another prison facility in Cwmbran, Gwent? The people of Cwmbran do not want it. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) does not want it. We desperately need a facility for north and mid-Wales. Will the Minister please intervene personally in this debate?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that when the Minister responsible for prisons came before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, he indicated that he would seriously consider any site that came forward in north Wales. I know that one has been proposed, but unfortunately it appears to be too small. We have to put prisons where the demand is, and unfortunately the demand is not only in north Wales but in south Wales. Therefore, sites have to be considered throughout Wales—in south Wales as well as north Wales. However, I will again speak to the prisons Minister. I realise that this is an important issue. If we can identify a site in north Wales, and if the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues on either side of the House are aware of any particular site, I will pursue that with the prisons Minister.

I support the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). It is extremely important that north Wales should have a prison if at all possible. Real progress has been made at Altcourse on Merseyside with the introduction of a Welsh unit within the prison, but it is important that individuals should be housed as close to their communities as possible if the rehabilitative effects of prison are to be maximised. Can we please have a prison in north Wales as soon as possible?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and all I can do in response is point to what I said to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). We must remember that there are currently more than 1,400 male prisoners and almost 200 female prisoners in England, and that the majority of those prisoners are from south Wales rather than north Wales. Therefore, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that although there is a case for building a prison in north Wales, there is also a case for building another prison in south Wales.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that even under the Home Office’s median projections for the growth in prison populations, between 2006 and 2013 the Government will have to spend more than £1 billion on building new prisons and housing prisoners in Wales. Does he agree that that is completely unsustainable, and that the money could be far better spent in Wales on effective forms of alternative punishment and rehabilitation that actually lower reoffending rates, such as the one2one mentoring scheme in Cardiff?

I take with a pinch of salt what the hon. Lady says, because I remember the criticism that came from the Opposition Benches a few weeks ago about a letter that was sent to the judiciary reminding them of the guidelines that had been set five years ago to try to encourage more community-based punishment rather than prison sentences. Opposition Members said that that was an outrage. However, I agree with what the hon. Lady says: yes, we should be using more community-based punishments, and that is what the Home Office and the Home Secretary are trying to persuade the judiciary and the magistrates to do.

May I start by associating Conservative Members with the remarks of the Secretary of State concerning the sad loss of Peter Clarke, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales?

Given the revelation that almost half the antisocial behaviour orders in Wales are being breached and 13 registered sex offenders are unaccounted for, there is an obvious failure in offender management. With dangerously overcrowded prisons in south Wales and no prisons in north Wales, and with that now coupled with changes to the probation service, does the Minister agree that the new offender managers will have increasing problems in managing Welsh offenders so as to ensure adequate public protection?

The hon. Lady claims that ASBOs are failing, but although 40-odd per cent. of the people who have been given them might end up reoffending, that means that they have proved effective for the majority of those given them. I do not know what her policy is, but is she proposing that we get rid of ASBOs? They have certainly received a lot of support in the community. I must say to the hon. Lady that the constant drip, drip, drip of criticism in relation to our judicial policy and our activities against criminals shows that although her party might have the rhetoric, when it comes to actual policy, nothing comes from the Opposition Benches.

Illegal Immigration

5. What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Home Office on illegal immigration in Wales. (121345)

I have regular discussions with Home Office colleagues. The Government’s policies to tackle illegal immigration are making a real impact.

I am interested not only in what the Secretary of State has just said, but also in his earlier reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), because when I recently visited Holyhead at a busy time of the day when immigrants were flowing into the port, there were no immigration and nationality directorate officers or Customs and Excise officers on duty, and only a handful of uniformed police were present. Amazingly, the special branch officers who were present were having to carry out Customs and Excise duties in the absence of anybody else. Surely that—

The hon. Gentleman speaks from the Conservative Benches, yet the Conservatives have consistently opposed every measure that this Government have introduced to clamp down on illegal asylum applications and illegal immigration. The latest figures show that every half hour—24 hours a day, 365 days a year—somebody is removed. When the Tory party starts supporting the Government in the action that we take to remove illegal immigrants, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be entitled to ask me such a question.

The Secretary of State should know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) not only speaks from the Conservative Benches, he speaks from personal experience, so the Secretary of State ought to listen. Is he aware—and if not, why not?—that police in north Wales have been arresting illegal immigrants, only to be told by Home Office officials to let them go, giving them instructions, and, I believe, a helpful map, on how to get to the immigration offices in Liverpool? They have been quoting paragraph 23.1 of the immigration and nationality directorate’s operational enforcement manual. Is this not just another farce being played out by the Home Office, but one that this time threatens the safety and security of people in Wales?

The farce is the hon. Lady’s party’s policies. The Conservatives have consistently opposed tough enforcement action on our borders and elsewhere to prevent illegal migration, and they have even voted against, and continue to argue against, the identity cards that will help to deal with this problem. When she comes forward with policies that seriously address the problem, she too will be entitled to ask us difficult questions.

Rural Post Office Network

In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set out the Government’s strategy to preserve a national post office network, putting it on a strong footing to deliver a better service today, and increasing its sustainability to ensure that it can meet the challenges of the future.

I also thank the Minister for giving a delegation of postmasters the opportunity to meet him. At that meeting, it emerged that individual postmasters and postmistresses have not been sent a copy of the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document that could so dramatically impact on their future. What discussions has the Minister had with the DTI to ensure that that situation is remedied, and that the views of those so drastically affected can be taken into consideration in the next two weeks?

The Government package, which is now £1.7 billion up to 2011, is there to sustain and rationalise the existing network and ensure that we have a network that serves its purpose. I have already raised the issue that he points out with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and I am awaiting a response concerning the distribution of that document.

Does my hon. Friend have views on the antics of Denbighshire county council, which criticises Government support for post offices, yet encourages council tax payers to desert post offices and switch to paying by direct debit?

Yes, I have seen those reports, and it is incumbent on the entire public sector to consider the issue of innovation and how they can use the post office network to ensure that a significant customer base is maintained. I am afraid that without that customer base, the network is no longer sustainable.

What epithets would the Minister use for those of his hon. Friends who voted for money to shut post offices, and then whinge in the newspapers when post offices are shut? There is a name for that, but I will not use it, Mr. Speaker, out of respect for you. What does the Minister say?

The Government have put £150 million a year into the rural network and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. On top of that, there is money for rationalisation and to pay redundancies. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the current number of post offices is unsustainable—a view shared by the National Federation of SubPostmasters. We have to have rationalisation and innovation from the Post Office, in order to provide the customer base that will protect the network.

Dentistry

7. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the provision of dentistry in Wales. (121347)

I regularly meet the Assembly Health Minister to discuss a range of issues including the provision of dentistry in Wales. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in NHS dentistry in Wales and are delivering real improvements in expanding access to dental services to all Welsh patients.

Given that less than half the adult population in Wales is registered with an NHS dentist, and the British Dental Association Wales has said that many dentists are unable to offer care to NHS dentistry patients because they do not have the funding, how does the Minister think it will be possible to fulfil the First Minister’s pledge that everybody who wants NHS dentistry in Wales should be able to get it by 31 March this year?

The investment is going in. Already this year there is an extra £30 million going into NHS dentists and several brand-new practices have been opened. For example, in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire two new independent practices, funded directly by the local health board, are now providing 24,000 patient places. That is the investment being made, but it would be put at risk if we ended up with a coalition led by the Tory party. The investment goes in under a Labour Government: it would be threatened under a Tory coalition.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

Iraq and the Middle East

With permission, I shall make a statement on recent developments in Iraq and across the middle east.

Saddam Hussein was removed from power in May 2003. In June 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution setting out the support of the international community for the incoming interim Government of Iraq, for a political process leading to full democratic elections overseen by the United Nations itself, and for Iraq’s reconstruction and development after decades of oppression and impoverishment under Saddam’s dictatorship.

In January 2005 the first elections were held for a transitional national assembly, and 7 million people voted. A new constitution was agreed. In December 2005 full parliamentary elections were held, and 12 million Iraqis voted. May 2006 saw the forming of the first fully elected Government of Iraq, an expressly non-sectarian Government including all the main elements of Iraqi society, Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish. There has been full United Nations backing throughout for the political process and now for the Government of Prime Minister Maliki.

Successive United Nations resolutions have given explicit approval for the presence of the multinational force. The political process has thus continued through the years. For example, as we speak the Iraqi Parliament is awaiting the report on amending the constitution from the constitutional review committee, a draft law on de-Ba’athification relaxing some of the restrictions on former Ba’ath party members, and the new hydrocarbon legislation, which will attempt to spread fairly and evenly the proceeds of Iraq’s considerable oil wealth.

However, the political process—the reconstruction, reconciliation and everything that the UN has set out as the will of the international community and for which Iraqis have voted—has been thwarted or put at risk by the violence and terrorism that have beset the country and its people. From the day of the appalling terrorist outrage in August 2003, which killed the United Nations special representative and many of his colleagues, to this day, Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, has been subject to a sickening level of carnage, some of it aimed at the multinational force but much of it aimed deliberately to provoke a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shi’a. The bombing of the shrine at Samarra in February 2006 was designed precisely to provoke Shi’a death squads to retaliate against Sunni.

The violence comes from different sources. Some of it originates with former Saddamists; some with Sunnis who are worried that they will be excluded from the political future of Iraq. Many of the so-called spectacular suicide bombings are the work of al-Qaeda, whose grisly presence in Iraq since 2002 has been part of its wider battle with the forces of progress across the world. Now Shi’a militant groups such as Jaish-al-Mahdi are responsible for the abduction and execution of innocent Sunni. These groups have different aims and ideologies, but one common purpose: to prevent Iraqis’ democracy from working.

Throughout all the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed, one hope remains. Talk to anyone in Iraq of whatever denomination, whether they are Iraqi or part of the multinational force, whether civilian or military, and they all say the same thing: the majority of Iraqis do not want it to be like this. They voted despite the violence, they know its purpose and its effect and they hate both. There can be legitimate debate about what was right and what was wrong in respect of the original decision to remove Saddam. There can be no debate about the rights and wrongs of what is happening in Iraq today. The desire for democracy is good; the attempt to destroy it through terrorism is evil. Unfortunately, that is not the question. The question is not should we, but can we defeat this evil, and do we have a plan to succeed?

Since the outset, our plan, agreed by Iraq and the United Nations, has been to build up Iraqi capability in order to let Iraqis take control of their own destiny, and that as they would step up, we would increasingly step back. For three years, therefore, we have been working to create, train and equip Iraqi security forces capable of taking on the security of the country themselves.

In normal circumstances, the progress would be considered remarkable. There are now 10 divisions of the new Iraqi army and more than 130,000 soldiers, able in significant parts of the country to provide order. There are 135,000 personnel in the Iraqi police service. There, the progress has been more constrained, and frequently hampered by corruption and sectarianism, but none the less, again, in normal circumstances, it would be considered a remarkable effort. The plan of General Petraeus, then an army commander in Iraq and now head of the coalition forces there, which was conceived in 2004, has in its essential respects been put in place.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Iraqi forces have often proved valiant, but the various forces against them have also redoubled their efforts. In particular, in and around Baghdad, where 80 to 90 per cent. of the violence is centred, they have engaged in a systematic attempt to bring the city to chaos. It is the capital of Iraq. Its strategic importance is fundamental. There has been an orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of its functioning. It does not much matter if elsewhere in Iraq, not least in Basra, change is happening. If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that, and we understand it.

So last year, in concert with our allies and the Iraqi Government, a new plan was formulated, and promulgated by President Bush in January this year. The purpose is unchanged. Indeed, there can be only one purpose in Iraq—to support the Government and people of the country to attain the necessary capability to run their own affairs as a sovereign independent state. However, the means of achieving the purpose were adjusted to meet the changing nature of the threat. The Baker-Hamilton report, to which I pay tribute, also informed the strategy.

There are three elements to this plan. First, there is the Baghdad security initiative, drawn up by Prime Minister Maliki and currently under way. It aims, as the operation in Basra has done, to take the city district by district, drive out the extremists, put the legitimate Iraqi forces in charge and then make it fit for development with a special fund in place able to deliver rapid improvement. This began last Tuesday. It is far too early to tell its results, although early indications are more promising than what was tried unsuccessfully some months back. In particular, there is no doubt of its welcome among ordinary people in Baghdad.

The second part of the plan is a massive effort to gear up the capability of the Iraqi forces, to plug any gaps in command, logistics, training and equipment. Thirdly, there is a new and far more focused effort on reconciliation, reconstruction and development. There are now talks between Iraqi officials and both Sunni and Shi’a elements that have been engaged in fighting. It is again too early to draw conclusions, but this is being given a wholly different priority within the Iraqi Government and by the multinational force.

In addition, there have been changes made by Prime Minister Maliki, to whose leadership I again pay tribute, to the way in which economic development and reconstruction moneys are administered within the Iraqi Government, with the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, given specific responsibility. That will allow the disbursement of funds to be made and will allow, in Baghdad and elsewhere, development and reconstruction to follow closely on the heels of improved security.

The objective of all this is to show the terrorists that they cannot win, to show those who can be reconciled that they have a place in the new Iraq, and to show the Iraqi people that, however long it takes, the legitimate Iraqi Government whom they elected, and whom the international community support, will prevail.

The aim of the additional US forces announced by President Bush is precisely to demonstrate that determination. If the plan succeeds, then of course the requirement for the multinational force reduces, including in Baghdad. It is important to show—particularly to show the Iraqi people—that we do not desire our forces to remain for any longer than they are needed, but, while they are needed, that we will be at their side. In this context, what is happening in Basra is of huge importance. Over the past months, we have been conducting an operation in Basra, with the 10th division of the Iraqi army, to reach the stage where Basra can be secured by the Iraqis themselves.

The situation in Basra is very different from that in Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency and no al-Qaeda base. There is little Shi’a on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the multinational force. It has never presented anything like the challenge in Baghdad. That said, British soldiers are under regular, and often intense fire from extremist groups, notably elements of Jaish-al-Mahdi. I would like, as I have often done in this House, to pay my profound respect to the British armed forces. Whatever views people have about Iraq, our forces are dedicated, professional, committed and brave beyond belief. This country can be immensely proud of them, and we send again our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen and to the injured and their families.

As a result of the operation in Basra, which is now complete, the Iraqi forces now have the primary role for security in most parts of the city. It is a still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place, but many extremists have been arrested or have left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis after the operations have been conducted show a much greater sense of security. Reconstruction is now happening in schools and health centres; in fact, there are about 300 projects altogether.

A few days ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, organised the Basra development forum. He announced a $200 million programme of development and infrastructure in public services. In addition, the international community, with Britain in the lead, has developed projects to increase power supply, put in place proper sewerage systems and increased the supply of drinking water to thousands of homes. The plan to develop Basra port will be published later this year. The problems remain formidable, not least in providing work where for decades 50 per cent. or more of the city’s inhabitants have been unemployed. In an extraordinary development, the Marsh Arabs, driven from one of the world’s foremost ecological sites by Saddam, have been able to resettle there.

What all this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis. I have discussed this with Prime Minister Maliki, and our proposals have his full support and, indeed, represent his wishes.

Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra over the coming months we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. I should say that none of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100—itself down from more than 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict—to roughly 5,500. However, with the exception of forces which will remain at Basra palace, the British forces will be located at Basra airbase and be in a support role. They will transfer the Shaibah logistics base, the old state building and the Shatt al-Arab hotel to full Iraqi control.

The British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and support to Iraqi forces; securing the Iraq-Iran border; securing supply routes; and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and to be there in support of the Iraqi army when called upon. Over time, and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the Iraqi security forces, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer.

We hope that Maysan province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months, and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly, our role will be support and training and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly.

Throughout the whole of that part of the south-east, the UK depends on the steadfastness of our coalition partners: Denmark, Australia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. I pay tribute to them. I welcome the continuing Australian role at Tallil in Dhi Qar province. We are keeping in close touch with our allies as the transition proceeds.

The speed at which that happens depends partly on what we do and what the Iraqi authorities do, but also on the attitude of those whom we are, together, fighting. Their claim to be fighting for the liberation of their country is a palpable lie. They know perfectly well that if they stop the terror, agree to let the UN democratic process work and allow the natural talent and wealth of the country to emerge, Iraq would prosper and we could leave. It is precisely their intent to eliminate such a possibility.

In truth, this is part of a wider struggle that is taking place across the region. The middle east faces an epochal struggle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. The same elements of extremism that try to submerge Iraq—or, for that matter, Afghanistan—stand in the way of a different and better future throughout the region.

None of that absolves us from our responsibility. Indeed, for too long we believed that, provided that regimes were on our side, what they did to their own people was their business. We must never forget that Saddam inflicted 1 million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war and butchered hundreds of thousands of his citizens, including by chemical weapons attack, wiping out whole villages.

We need to recognise that the spread of greater freedom, democracy and justice to the region is the best guarantee of our future security as well as the region’s prosperity. That is why peace between Israel and Palestine does not inhabit a different policy domain; it is a crucial part of the whole piece. I shall meet President Abbas later today and also talk to Prime Minister Olmert. In the past 24 hours, I have had detailed discussions with President Bush and Secretary Rice. I shall emphasise again today the importance of basing the proposed national unity Government on the principles of the Quartet. I will also stress our total determination to use the new opportunity to create the chance for peace.

I have always been a supporter of the state of Israel and I shall always remain so. However, for the sake of Israel as well as for all we want to achieve in the middle east, we need a proper, well-functioning, independent and viable state of Palestine.

We should support all those throughout the region who tread the path of progress, from the Government of Lebanon, whose Prime Minister courageously holds firm to democracy, to those countries—there are many now—that are taking the first, fledgling steps to a different and more democratic governance.

As for Iran and Syria, they should not be treated as if they were the same. There is evidence recently that Syria has realised the threat that al-Qaeda poses and is acting against it. However, its intentions towards Iraq remain ambiguous and towards Lebanon, hostile. The statements emanating from Iran are contradictory, but as the words yesterday of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency show, its nuclear weapons ambitions appear to continue. Both countries, though very different, have a clear choice: work with the international community or defy it. They can support peace in Palestine, democracy in Lebanon and the elected Government of Iraq, in which case they will find us willing to respond, or they can undermine every chance of progress, uniting with the worst and most violent elements, in which case they will become increasingly isolated politically and economically.

No one should doubt that, whatever the debates about tactics, the strategy must be clear: to bring about enduring change in the middle east as an indispensable part of our own enduring security. The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential—essential for Iraq but also for us in our country. Self-evidently, the challenge is enormous. It is the purpose of our enemies to make it so, but our purpose in the face of their threat should be to stand up to them to make it clear that, however arduous the challenge, the values that they represent will not win and those that we represent will.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. We welcome and support his announcement that 1,600 of our troops will return from Iraq by the end of this year. That news will be welcome in this House, in the country and especially to the families of those serving in Iraq over the coming months. We owe a huge debt to the professionalism, courage and dedication shown by our armed forces serving in Iraq, as elsewhere, and we should never forget those who lost their lives, whose families grieve for them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I visited Iraq in November. It was clear from our conversations with military commanders in Basra, who briefed us on Operation Sinbad, that there was a limit to what British troops could continue to achieve once that operation was completed, so it is right that they should now start to be withdrawn. But does the Prime Minister accept that that news is inevitably tempered by questions and concerns about the dire situation that persists in Iraq today, about its implications for Iraq’s neighbours and the rest of the region and, above all, about the safety and security of our troops who will remain?

In his statement today, the Prime Minister spoke about “wretched and inexcusable bloodshed”, and an “orgy of terrorism” in Baghdad. Will the Prime Minister pledge to continue to give candid assessments about the security situation in Iraq, particularly about the situation facing our forces in Basra? Anyone who has been there can see how it has deteriorated dramatically over the last three years. British troops who are there, often on their second or third tour, know that that is the case. The air station in Basra, to which many of our personnel will be withdrawn, comes under regular rocket attack, so what steps will be taken to ensure that our smaller forces based around Basra air station are able to protect themselves from encroaching militias? Will the Prime Minister confirm once again that all requests for equipment and protection will be granted?

Looking beyond Basra to the wider situation in Iraq, we, too, want to see Iraq become a stable democracy at peace with itself and at ease with its neighbours, but we are very far from that goal today. Does the Prime Minister agree that three things are essential to bring the situation under control? First, he spoke about the rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi army. Can he tell us what he believes the major gaps still are and how quickly they can be filled? Secondly, we need a more determined effort, as he said, to push Iraq’s own political leaders towards an internal political settlement between Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd. Does he agree that that must mean the disarming of all militias? Thirdly, is not what is required the creation of an international contact group, including members of the Security Council and nearby states, to buttress and support the Government of Iraq? Can the Prime Minister tell the House what is being done to implement those steps?

All those were, of course, recommendations contained in the Baker-Hamilton report, which the Prime Minister set great store by at the time. But despite his claim in today’s statement that the Baker-Hamilton report informed the US strategy, those steps were not all included in the different plans announced by the US Administration last month, which the Prime Minister also supported. Will he continue specifically to press for an international contact group to be set up as Baker-Hamilton suggested?

The Prime Minister spoke of the effort to bring peace to the middle east. Again, we wholeheartedly support that. Tomorrow, like the Prime Minister, I will meet President Abbas and next week I will visit Israel and meet the Israeli Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister said that he is a strong supporter of the state of Israel; so am I.

I note that the Prime Minister said that Syria should be treated differently from Iran, which is a change from his rhetoric about “arcs of extremism”, but can he tell us how he plans to engage with Syria, and specifically, what were the results of his envoy’s visit to Damascus?

On Iran, the Prime Minister did not specifically mention that today marks the expiry of the UN Security Council deadline for the country to suspend nuclear enrichment. Will the Prime Minister call for EU countries to join the United States in implementing additional financial sanctions to maximise the peaceful pressure that we want to see on the Iranian regime, so that it turns away from its dangerous course?

The Prime Minister spoke—impressively, as he always does—about the importance of spreading democracy and freedom in the middle east. He is right. There is a global terror threat; it is linked with a perverted ideology that we need to confront both at home and abroad. There are times, I agree, when it may require, as a last resort, military force to deal with it, but surely he would agree with me that we must also learn the broader lessons of the six years since 9/11; that the strategy must go beyond military force, that we need the soft power of diplomacy to accompany the hard power of military action, that we need broad-based alliances right across the region, that democracy takes time and that we should always act with moral authority. As a moral purpose always must be accompanied by moral means, surely we must recognise that, in the last six years, issues like Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition have done huge damage to our moral authority.

On the question of learning lessons, can I ask the Prime Minister this? Many of us in the House supported the intervention in Iraq, but there have been many, many bad mistakes. Is it not essential that we learn the lessons of those mistakes? [Interruption.] I know that the Prime Minister has up to now said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by—[Interruption.]

Order. I hear noises from the Liberal Benches and they are out of order. Bearing in mind that the leader of the Liberal party will be able to put questions to the Prime Minister, those noises are quite out of order. The Leader of the official Opposition is speaking and I will not allow Liberal Democrat Members to intervene in that way.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I know that the Prime Minister has, up to now, said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by Privy Councillors into the conduct of the war and into the decisions that were made, but will he today accept at least the principle of the need for such an inquiry? Will he do that today?

First, it is very important that we do everything we can to protect our troops, who will still face a difficult task—there is no doubt about that at all—in Basra. They will continue, incidentally, with the full combat capability that they have. What they are essentially doing is withdrawing from parts of Basra and doing the patrolling there, but the ability to get after the extremist elements, including the ones that are attacking us, remains undiminished. They will continue to do so. Of course we will ensure that they have the equipment and protection that we can give them.

As for the Baker-Hamilton report, let me just explain that it is correct that, because of issues to do with Iran and Syria—I shall come back to them in a moment—it was very much taken as if the Administration’s plan published in January was a rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report, but the elements in it are the only elements that anyone looking into the issue could emphasise. They are building up the Iraqi army, building up the Iraqi governance capability and making sure that those in the region help and support in that process. Both the Baker-Hamilton report and the Administration’s proposals are geared to dealing with gaps in the Iraqi army, which are essentially to do with command and control logistics, training and equipping. General Petraeus is in the process of ensuring that those gaps are dealt with.

In respect of the Iraqi Government themselves, it is a lot to do with the actual capability of disbursing the money. For example, there is a lot of money in the Iraqi oil account that could be used for reconstruction. The fact that Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is now in charge of that will make a big difference. That is important.

In relation to the contact group, there is already such a group. The issue is the extent to which Iran and Syria are going to play a constructive role in it. To be absolutely frank about it, some of the debates about what our relationship is with Iran and Syria and whether or not we are dealing with them can seem more contradictory than they really are. Ultimately, the question is this. We are perfectly prepared to deal with Iran and Syria in relation to supporting and helping the situation in Iraq, provided they are prepared to do so. The issue is whether they are prepared to do so. In respect of Syria, I think there is some sign that the Syrian Government are prepared to help. We cannot be sure of this, but there are some tentative signs.

In respect of Iran, I have to say, it is perfectly obvious to us—in this sense, we support entirely what the Americans were saying last week—that the ordnance, much of which was used against British soldiers, has an Iranian origin. No one can be sure of the precise degree to which those in the senior levels of the Iranian Government are complicit, but it is certainly very clear that that is the origin of that weaponry.

So the issue with Iran and Syria is that we could have any number of groups and they could come to the meetings, but what would they say when they came? Would they help or would they hinder? That is the issue that we need to explore.

In respect of Iran’s suspension of its nuclear enrichment, we will try to get a strong united European position. It is clear that, as a result of the measures that have been taken, including the financial sanctions and the sending of the troop carrier, the warship, out there, there has been a change, but we need to keep up the pressure. A very serious and dangerous situation is happening in Iran.

On the broad fight against terrorism, there have been all sorts of debates about Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, and I am not sure that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “What?”] Incidentally, it is a matter of fact that the European report about Britain’s involvement in this is simply wrong. If we were to construct a broad alliance against this terrorism, and if I had to single out one, or possibly two, issues to deal with, they would not be to do with rendition or Guantanamo or even some of the things that should never have happened, such as Abu Ghraib, which have obviously been a problem for us too. I would say that the single biggest issue that we should resolve and deal with would be the Israel-Palestine question. We also need to tackle global poverty, particularly in parts of Africa, where, if we are not careful, this same type of extremism is going to take root. If we want a broad moral purpose, those are the two clearest issues that we could address.

We must also realise something else about these people. In my view, we will beat them when we realise that it is not our fault that they are doing it. We should not apologise—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry, we should not apologise for our values, for what we believe in or for what we do. The fact is that the values that we stand for are values that can unite Muslim, Christian and Jew, and people of different races and backgrounds, and terrorism will be better defeated if we do not apologise for our values but stand up for them.

On the inquiry, I have nothing to add to what I said before. I totally understand that it is sensible to learn the lessons, but we will get to that point when our troops are no longer functioning in a combat situation on the ground.

The Prime Minister is right to say that we should not apologise for our values, but that does not mean that we should avoid the responsibility of taking account of the consequences of our actions. Whatever views we may have on Iraq, we can all agree that our forces have conducted themselves with skill, professionalism and courage, as the Prime Minister has said. I, too, extend my sympathy to the families of those who have died, and to those who have been injured.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of the troop withdrawals, especially in view of the remarks made by the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, yesterday about overstretch and the difficulties being experienced by our armed forces. That does not alter my view of the need for a phased withdrawal with a target of the end of October, but I do not expect to be able to persuade the Prime Minister of that. We make common cause, however, in having regard to the history of our treatment of Iraq. In the period immediately following Halabja, the then British Government extended the amount of credit that they were willing to offer to Saddam Hussein, a matter commented on by Lord Justice Scott in his inquiry—[Interruption.] Well, if I may put it this way, let the blame lie where it should.

The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003. That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy for the middle east that was promised some four years ago.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister a number of questions. On the Iraq study group, when the Government expressed their general support for the findings of James Baker’s committee, did they endorse what the committee said about phased withdrawal and the need to engage with Iran and Syria? James Baker said that

“it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies”,

yet the Bush Administration’s response to these proposals—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) must be quiet. That is courtesy, and it is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should be able to address the House without her interfering.

When the Iraq study group under James Baker put forward those proposals, did the Government have them under contemplation when they said that they broadly agreed with his proposals? Does the Prime Minister agree that there has to be engagement with Iran as part of the wider regional engagement to which he referred? Will he ignore the voices in Washington that are arguing—and perhaps even preparing—for military action against Iran? In that regard, will he take heed of the wise reservations expressed yesterday by his Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Does the Prime Minister expressly support President Bush’s surge strategy, on which the United States Congress is now deeply divided? What assessment has been made of the likelihood of the displacement of terrorist activity to Basra as a result of that surge policy? Finally—and perhaps most significantly, in the diplomatic context—what progress did Dr. Rice report to the Prime Minister in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following her recent visit to the middle east?

Does the Prime Minister understand that nothing that he has said today will persuade those in all parties who voted against military action in Iraq that they were anything but right to do so? Nor will it persuade the British public that military action was anything other than a major foreign policy mistake.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have been in close discussion with Secretary of State Condi Rice—and, indeed, with the President—on this matter over the past few weeks. There are possibilities of progress and I hope that in the coming weeks a framework for taking this forward will become a little clearer. Perhaps it would not be sensible to say any more about that at this stage, but obviously I look forward to my discussions with President Abbas later today.

In respect of the strategy being pursued by American forces in Baghdad, the most important thing is that it is strongly supported by Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi Government. They recognise that the situation in Baghdad is different from that in Basra. In Baghdad, they want this security plan to be carried out and to move through the city and really take on the extremists. In Basra, the 10th Division of the Iraqi armed forces consists of about 5,000 troops and the truth of the matter is that it is capable of doing the job. A lot of the fire is directed at the multinational force, rather than involving sectarian violence, so it is a different situation there.

I do not have much to add to what I said to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) earlier about the Iraq survey group. The Baker-Hamilton report made it clear that it wants to see a draw-down of American troops when the conditions are right, and that is also the strategy of the Bush Administration. It has never been our strategy to hold the troops there in perpetuity. On the contrary, as the Iraqi capability builds up, the need for our capability reduces. Of course, that will depend on the circumstances and on the time. In Baghdad, the extremists have redoubled their efforts, so we have had to redouble ours.

I have never agreed with those who say that the situation in the middle east was stable under Saddam, but there we are. That is a disagreement and there is no point in going back over it—

Well, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the consequences of our actions, I agree that we are entirely responsible for the decision to remove Saddam. However, let me tell him about the profound nature of my disagreement with him over what has happened subsequently. Since the middle of 2003, a full United Nations democratic process has been available, which the Iraqi people have shown time and again that they want. It is not our actions that are preventing them from getting it; it is the actions of the extremists, the terrorists, and the outside extreme elements linking up with the internal extreme elements to deliver chaos in the country. In those circumstances, since our actions are not causing that—on the contrary, we are trying to stop it—our response should be to stand up and take those people on. That is the profound disagreement that I have with him: not about the original decision, on which we can just agree to disagree, but on the subsequent one. I cannot for the life of me see how it can be right, when those elements are conducting themselves in such a way, and the alternative has been voted for by the Iraqi people and backed by the UN, to say that we should walk away and leave them to get on with it.

In paying tribute to my right hon. Friend’s dedicated efforts to bring about peace between Palestine and Israel, may I remind him that however repugnant Hamas may be, its election victory was as valid and democratic as that of the Israeli Government and the Iraqi Government? Imposing restrictions on the democratic decision of the Palestinian people, in all their poverty and deprivation, will simply strengthen their support for Hamas and make the settlement that he wants so much to achieve even more difficult.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his commendation of the efforts that we are making. I want to see a national unity Government, and it is far easier to deal with the situation in Palestine if there is one. It is difficult, however, for us to support that Government financially, or to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, if they are not prepared at least to say that they renounce violence or terrorism as a way of getting progress, and that they favour a two-state solution, since that is the position of the international community. I hope that we can make progress, including with the more sensible elements of Hamas. It is not a question of ignoring Hamas’s mandate; the problem is how we can take the peace process forward with a Government who say that they do not even recognise the right of Israel to exist. At some point, we must find our way around that in a manner that is obedient to the Quartet principles; otherwise, we will find it very hard to make progress. My right hon. Friend will know that the political situation in Israel—which is a democracy—would make it hard for any Government there to make progress unless there was some give in relation to the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. How can we negotiate two states when one side says that the other should not exist? We must try to resolve that problem.

Does the Prime Minister agree that of all the British newspapers today, The Sun got it most right when it said that the heroes who are coming back from Iraq deserve a heroes’ welcome? I was a little surprised, however, by what the Prime Minister said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Does not he agree that damage has been done to the reputation of both the United States and the United Kingdom by Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition? Does not he agree that there is nothing to be said by way of apology for our values, but that we need to uphold our values and act on them?

I have said what I have said about Guantanamo Bay on many occasions. We should never forget that it arose out of the situation of 9/11, the problems in Afghanistan and so on. A judgment must be made, but if we are talking about how to win the battle of ideology, particularly in the Muslim world, the two issues that I have mentioned—progress on Israel-Palestine and progress on poverty—are probably the major ones for those in the Muslim community here, let alone elsewhere. If we are standing up for the rule of law, I agree, of course, that we must promote that in an even-handed and sensible way.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that there are many heroes in Iraq, including the people of Iraq themselves. This week, we had a visit from a group of 11 representatives of teachers unions from Iraq. One of them was the wife of a man who had been executed by the regime, and another was a schools inspector who had spent four years on death row under the old regime. Whatever the leader of the Liberal Democrats says—I hope that he will go to Iraq soon, because unlike many of us, he has never been there, as far as I know—one of the teachers said:

“We are optimistic that all these things will be ended within one year, two years, three years. Then we are expecting a new life, a better life.”

Another teacher, Mohammed Saeed Hatem, said that the situation today

“was still better than it was. A bloody dictatorship has gone.”

We should not forget that.

The Prime Minister’s statement sounded like a long self-justification for the horrors of the last four years, and at points almost like something prepared for the day of judgment rather than for the House of Commons. He says that he does not apologise for values, although he did apologise for the slave trade, for which he had no personal responsibility. Will he at least apologise for the misinformation on weapons of mass destruction, which took us into Iraq, and the carnage that has been a direct result?

I have already said what I have said on that on numerous occasions. The reason I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should let the Prime Minister answer. By the way, I am not responsible for his answer.

That is just as well for you, Mr. Speaker.

As to the point on which the hon. Gentleman and I disagree totally, what has happened in Iraq in the past few years, which has been grim and difficult, is sometimes presented as a consequence of planning that was not done right or an administrative fault somewhere. However, the reason why there has been a problem is that the people whom we are fighting have a strategy: to plunge Iraq into chaos in order to stop democracy functioning. The point that I have made the whole time is that, given that the majority of Iraqis have indicated that they want peace, why should we not be at their side, helping them to get that democracy, rather than yielding to the same terrorism and ideology that killed the people on the train that we were hearing about just a short time ago? Ultimately, the hon. Gentleman believes that we should just walk away and let them get on with it; I do not.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is growing concern about what appears to be the mounting tension between northern Iraq and the Government of Turkey and, indeed, between the Kurds and Turkey? Given that some of the parties have apparently been involved in discussions with the American Administration, will the Prime Minister give the House a British perspective on those matters and an assurance that we will encourage dialogue and a peaceful solution to whatever problems there may be?

I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. We track the situation carefully, and we work both with those in Kurdistan and in Turkey to try to diminish any tensions as far as possible. I entirely agree that that is a sensible objective.

The Prime Minister is still in denial. Does he still not understand that the ability of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations to use Iraq as a battleground was only possible because of the decision that he and President Bush took to invade that country? Since then, not only has Iraq virtually disintegrated, with 100,000 Iraqi lives lost, but 2 million Iraqis have become refugees in fear of their lives and Iran has become the hegemonic power in the region. The Prime Minister is right that we should not apologise for our values, but I am afraid that he still has the obligation to apologise to this House and this country for his foolish decision to take this country to war in the first place.

I am afraid that, for obvious reasons, I completely disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not believe that it was right to leave Saddam Hussein, who had butchered hundreds of thousands of his people, and killed people using chemical weapons, in power. I do not believe that that was a sensible situation to leave in place. Again, as I have said to other hon. Members, the fact is that the reason why it is tough in Iraq is that terrorists are making it difficult. Therefore, our response—[Interruption.] With the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we did not cause the terrorism. The terrorists cause the terrorism. He has to understand that we will not defeat these people unless we stand up to them in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Anywhere where they rear their heads, we should be prepared to stand up and fight them. If we adopt the attitude that he has, we are well on the way to surrendering the initiative to them.

I look forward, as we all do, to the day when the last British soldier leaves Iraq, and I heard what my right hon. Friend said in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, but will he acknowledge that, given the range of hostile elements in Iraq, there is a limit to the extent to which he can reduce the number of troops in any area without beginning to increase the risk to them? Will he assure the House that in reaching decisions in future about reducing force numbers, the safety of the troops that remain deployed will be paramount?

Of course it will remain paramount. Of course, troops will still be subject to attack at Basra air base, although they are going to have the capacity to respond to that, and they will do so vigorously—indeed they have been taking combat action against some of those extremist elements with great success over the past few weeks—but the biggest problem that our troops have is that they are very much at risk when they are on patrol in Basra, so the fact that they are going out of the main districts in Basra will, hopefully, reduce the risk to them at least there. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing out the fact that we will continue to have a real challenge there and it is a challenge that our forces will continue to have to meet.

We all hope that today's statement from the Prime Minister marks the beginning of the end in terms of the active engagement of our armed forces. None the less, I am sure that he would want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that, for the rest of us, in this country and the world generally, it is far from the beginning of the end. The quagmire that we are almost inevitably leaving behind in Iraq, given what will now take place, will have ramifications. While he is right, or he takes the view that he is right, that no apologies should be offered, surely he should none the less take this opportunity to say that, for our country and for the Americans, it was a horrendous error at least, given what took place, never to give effect to a proper body count of the innocent Iraqi men, women and children who were lost as a result of the conflict that has taken place. That is a terrible reflection on our values as perceived in that country and the Arabic world generally—one which we will live with for a long time. When the Prime Minister did have his discussion with—

First, I simply do not accept, as I have said before, that innocent people in Iraq are dying as a result of our actions. They are not. They are dying as a result of the actions of terrorists and sectarians. I do not agree that our troops, as they withdraw from that part of Basra, are leaving a quagmire behind. They are not. The right hon. Gentleman should read carefully the accounts of the operation that has been conducted by British troops and pay attention. I do not think that we should completely disfranchise the elected Iraqi politicians in this situation. Those politicians have been elected. They are part of the Government and they do not believe that their country would have been better off if Saddam were still in charge. Nor do they believe that what is happening in their country today is leaving it a quagmire. They believe that they have the same right to democratic freedom as we have. I do not see why we should not support them in that.

The Prime Minister has referred several times to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group recommendations and he is right that the British Government have been engaged with Syria and Iran. Is not the essence of those recommendations that the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, should change its approach and perhaps do what it has done with North Korea? Perhaps that would be the best way of getting a solution in the region.

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. Of course there is a lot of wisdom in the view that it is important, even if you believe that people are hostile to you, to engage with them. It is precisely for that reason—I played some part in the discussions that led up to this—that the Americans agreed that, if there were a suspension of enrichment, which after all is the United Nations demand, they would participate in talks with the Iranians, for the first time in 27 years. They did make that offer. Indeed, they have made continual offers. It is hard to believe that the reason why the Iranians are doing what they are doing is that they do not know where the Americans or the rest of us stand on these issues. I think that they do. The Iranians, in my experience, are past masters at having all sorts of discussions with people and seeing different people—people go in and out of Tehran the whole time, back channels are opened here and there and everyone thinks that perhaps they are really going to make progress this time—and then it all never comes to anything. They have to realise that the international community is going to be firm as well as prepared to engage with them in order to get any results from them.

Today's news is extremely good. Does the Prime Minister accept that he deserves genuine credit for having kept his nerve and not withdrawn the troops prematurely, despite the strong pressures on him? We have got to the point today where we are making some real progress. On Iran, while of course diplomacy must be tried, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is correct that we need to go for tougher sanctions, particularly if we can get them through the Security Council, would it not be utterly irresponsible not to recognise that there is a real possibility that the last thing the Iranians want or would accept is a strong, united and successful democratic Iraq on their borders, and the last thing that they will ever agree to do, whatever the pressures on them, is to give up their enrichment and their nuclear weapons programmes? Do we not seriously have to confront that unfortunate, hideous possibility and plan accordingly?

I think that what the hon. Gentleman is saying is right in this sense. No one wants to resolve the issue with Iran in anything other than a diplomatic way, and no one is looking for confrontation with Iran, but we are faced with two unfortunate facts, as he rightly says. One is, as we can see from today, that they intend to carry on their enrichment process, which cannot be about civil nuclear power. The second is that all over the region, but obviously in Iraq, they are trying to do their utmost to undermine proper, elected Government. I think that it is possible to exert the right pressure, but he is right: we will have a far better chance of resolving this peacefully, as everyone wants, if the international community remains united and strong.

I for one will not use my right hon. Friend as an excuse for how I voted at the time. As he may know, I am quite capable of making up my own mind, as I did over Kosovo. Would it not be right to recognise that the large majority of British people, four years after the defeat and ending of Saddam’s tyranny, want to see a continuing reduction of British troops in that country, more or less along the lines that he has indicated—in fact, more so? We cannot stay there indefinitely. Whatever the United States decides to do, the policy that he has outlined today is indeed the right one.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I know that he would only vote according to his conscience on any of these issues. It is important to recognise the fundamental difference between Basra and Baghdad. The situation in Baghdad is simply not the same. The best guide for our own actions is the Iraqi Government. They are keen on the proposal to ensure that the Baghdad security plan is still in place and implemented. They are equally keen that the British draw down in Basra. That is because they recognise that, whereas in the one place they are fully capable of taking that control, in the other, they are not. That is a sensible way to approach that matter. I pay tribute to the allies that we have had in the south, who have done magnificent work there. This is always put in terms of British and American troops, but well over 20 other countries have been involved.

Is it correct that before the last Iraqi elections the Prime Minister sent officials from his office to assist the Iraqi party of his choice—the party of the then Iraqi Prime Minister? I am pretty confident that that is correct. It would be completely unacceptable if a foreign Government were to offer such assistance to a political party in our country, so why did the Prime Minister think that it was acceptable for the United Kingdom Government to do that in Iraq?

It is always important that we do everything we can to assist stability in that country. I will not go into the details of any help that we provided to that particular Prime Minister or any other Iraqi politician. If the hon. Gentleman were dealing with this matter in the way that I am, I think that he would do everything he could to make sure that we get the necessary stability in Iraq, and sometimes it is important to work through certain politicians to do that.

Does the Prime Minister realise that many people outside the House will find it very strange that in his statement he made no reference to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died in the past four years, or to the effect of depleted uranium usage, and the cancer rates in Iraq, or to the remaining cluster bombs? Does he not also think that the current attitude towards Iran and the threats being made towards it are leading us into another disaster like that which we are apparently about to come out of in Iraq?

I made specific mention, as I always do, of the terrible carnage; I think that I called it the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed. The only point I would make is one that I have made to other Members: that carnage is being caused by terrorists and extremists. It is important that we try to fight that in that country.

In respect of Iran, the issue is very simple. We will not get ourselves into the ludicrous position where a large part of western opinion is asking, “Why are we seeking this confrontation with Iran?” We are not seeking any confrontation with Iran. We are simply pointing out that, under its international obligations, it should not be developing a nuclear weapons programme and that it should stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine and elsewhere. I would have thought that, even from a progressive political point of view, we should be saying to Iran that both of those activities are wrong.

Does the Prime Minister accept that announcing a timetable for withdrawal from any conflict while it is still going on sends an invitation to insurgents to redouble their efforts? Does he accept that that is not what he has done today, but that it was spun in the media last night that that was what he was going to do? Will he take this opportunity to distance himself from last night’s media reports that he was setting a timetable for withdrawal, which would have put our soldiers at risk?

First, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that my experience over the past few years is that I am singularly incapable of spinning the media one way or another on issues—[Interruption]—particularly on this issue, on which it is incredibly difficult to get any balanced coverage at all. However, what he says is absolutely right. The reason why we are able to draw down is because the conditions have been met. It would be absolutely disastrous—we are not doing this in any shape or form—to say that future draw-downs are unconditional. Everything is conditions-based—based on progress and the capability of the Iraqi forces.

I agree with the Prime Minister that the Israel-Palestinian question is fundamental, but does he agree that there is currently a vacuum in the Palestinian territories? I saw with my own eyes during the summer the increasing squalor and poverty there, and in a breakfast meeting this morning with the Israeli Finance Minister it was acknowledged that an economic development initiative for the whole area is essential—an initiative that tackles the land ownership question and also allows greater freedom of movement, thereby stimulating more inward investment and increasing the chances of both peace and prosperity in that area.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend: that is exactly what is necessary. The question is how to achieve that. We need a political framework within which a negotiated solution can take place. I think that it should be possible to get a solution to the situation in the middle east even though people say, “It’s been going on for decades so how on earth can you be optimistic about that in any shape or form, particularly given the suffering of people on the Palestinian side, and not to mention the lack of security in parts of Israel, too?” The reason why I think that that is possible is because everyone is now agreed that we want a two-state solution. The territorial issue has to be solved, which can done, and there are issues to do with right of return and Jerusalem, which are difficult but not incapable of resolution, but the rest of it is just to decide for peace. If there were peace, the Palestinian territory would, of course, attract massive investment. That is what is so tragic about the current situation. As we have learned from the example in Northern Ireland, where there is peace we get economic development. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, but what is needed is for everybody—all the key parties—to agree to the basic principles of the framework that I hope we will be able to set out in the near future.

The Prime Minister states that he wants to keep the troops in Iraq while the Iraqi people want them there. When, therefore, will the Prime Minister organise a democratic referendum by secret ballot of the Iraqi people to find out what they want?

They had an election: 12 million of them voted—the turnout was 70 per cent.—and they elected a Government, who are a unity Government. That is what they said they wanted. We would do well to take account of the elected Government of Iraq rather than, with the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the professionalism of our forces in Basra, which has enabled them to come back. I also agree that the real issue in Iraq is to resolve the situation in Baghdad. In order to do that, would he look towards the Organisation of the Islamic Conference—apart from Syria—having a greater engagement?

Yes, I think that if the OIC can play a greater role, that would be sensible. Certainly it is important that all the countries in the area do what they can to assist; that is because they have a profound self-interest in doing so, quite apart from any other reason.

On the broader issue of the landscape of moral purpose and of values, how does the Prime Minister reconcile his entirely laudable aims in regard to poverty and democracy with the deeper problem of theocratic fundamentalism that drives so many of the policies in the region?

I do not think that poverty per se is the reason for that theocratic fundamentalism; I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, I do think that improved economic development plays a part. That is particularly the case in the African context where there are very worrying developments with this same type of extremism getting a foothold in conflicts. In general terms, the more prosperous and democratic people are, the less inclined they are to be drawn to any form of fundamentalism, political or theocratic.

Let me say what I think is the interesting thing about Iraq and Afghanistan. Where the people were given the chance to vote, they voted not to have fundamentalism. They voted for a broad-based non-sectarian Government. The key question is whether the extremists—some of whom are attached to theocratic fundamentalist movements—can push them into sectarianism, even though their first desire was not to go towards that at all. We need to deal with both of the issues referred to, but I believe that the more economic development there is in the region, the better it will be.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister has just made a statement regarding Iraq and he claimed that al-Qaeda entered Iraq in 2002. That is incorrect; al-Qaeda entered Iraq in 2003. Will the Prime Minister be given the opportunity to—

Order. That is not a matter for the Chair. I said earlier that I am not responsible for the words of the Prime Minister.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed how many Members were still rising to be called at the end of the Prime Minister’s statement. Does that not indicate to you the desire of this House to have a full debate in Government time on the issue of Iraq and the middle east?

I will not be drawn into that matter. The hon. Gentleman knows that a Select Committee said that statements should normally run for one hour. I ran the statement that we have just had for well over an hour, thereby giving more Back Benchers an opportunity to speak than would have been the case under the recommendation of the Select Committee.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Tonight there will be a very happy event in this House. The record of Baroness Thatcher as one of the four giants of 20th-century politics will be marked by the erection of a statue. However, the decision to have the statue erected is in conflict with a long tradition of the House. Although most Members would agree that that tradition should be disregarded in this instance, I would like to know why the decision was taken not by the House, but in an almost semi-secretive way? In fact, Members have not been informed of tonight’s event.

It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention that there was a great big box on the plinth. I entered the House in 1979—the same year that Baroness Thatcher became Prime Minister. Even then, older Members were saying to me, “That place will be kept for the Prime Minister, because she is the first woman Prime Minister.” I doubt whether the House will want to be detained by my telling Members about the arrangements, but I agreed that we should not have to wait until 10 years after the demise of a previous Prime Minister before unveiling such a statue. It is right and fitting that we have a celebration—we did it for Sir Edward Heath—and that we allow the Member concerned to be there to enjoy the unveiling. I will be there this evening in the Members’ Lobby, and the hon. Gentleman is entitled to be there, as well. I am looking forward to this evening—and to getting to the ten-minute Bill.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will no doubt already be aware that a large part of the Prime Minister’s statement was briefed to several newspapers last night. Do you not deprecate that, and what steps can we and you take to ensure that statements of this importance are made in this House first?

I keep insisting that statements be made in the House as soon as possible, and that is what I will continue to do. Unfortunately, I cannot prevent Ministers—and shadow Ministers, for that matter—and other hon. Members from going to television studios. I wish that they would not do it, but there we are.

Pedlars (Street Trading Regulation)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer further powers on local authorities for the regulation of street trading by pedlars; and for connected purposes.

The current provisions on street trading, which is different from peddling, can be found in schedule 4 and section 2 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. They allow local authorities to designate streets for the purpose of street trading; however, the regulation of pedlars is exempted from those provisions. The main legislation on the regulation of pedlars is the Pedlars Act 1871. In my opinion, 19th-century legislation can no longer cope with changes in the way that goods are marketed and sold today. Our consumers and business people deserve up-to-date legislation that can ensure their protection from rogue traders.

The 1871 Act defines a pedlar as

“a person who, without any horse or other beast, travels and trades on foot from town to town carrying to sell or exposing for sale any goods, wares or merchandise or procuring orders for the same, or selling or offering for sale his skill and handicraft”.

The Act specifically does not include the now common practice of a pedlar standing in one place for an extended period to sell their goods or services. Over the last decade, local authorities have reported increasing problems with pedlars. Registered pedlars are now selling goods in our town and city centres from bags, trolleys or stalls, often remaining in fixed positions for long periods—a practice not covered by the Act. An increasing number of persons who are neither registered as pedlars nor licensed as street traders are behaving similarly.

Under the provisions of the 1871 Act, the police are responsible for issuing pedlars’ certificates. Once issued, they allow pedlars to operate all over the country without the need to re-register. Although local authorities have prosecuted for breaches of the pedlar regulations, it is clear that the current enforcement provisions are ineffective.

A survey undertaken jointly in 2005 by the National Association of British Market Authorities, the National Market Traders Federation and the Association of Town Centre Management revealed widespread abuses of pedlars’ certificates across the land. The current system allows unlawful traders, under the guise of possessing a pedlar’s certificate, to sell goods virtually unregulated on the street. Evidence suggests that some pedlars view the fines imposed by the courts as merely a business expense. Their activities are damaging local markets and the surrounding small businesses, which are subject to greater regulation and overheads such as business rates and rents.

The situation in our towns and cities is becoming so bad that a number of local authorities have provided themselves with local legislation to ameliorate the problem. That is both time-consuming and extremely costly. Newcastle upon Tyne’s recent course of legislative action cost it almost £200,000. So far, Newcastle upon Tyne, Maidstone, Leicester and Liverpool have taken out local legislation, and in the current parliamentary Session, Manchester, Birmingham, Derby, Sheffield, Rotherham, Bradford and Bournemouth are promoting their own local legislation. Such cross-country activity demonstrates the widespread scale of the problem, but it is creating a patchwork of legislation.

Where local legislation has been pursued, benefits to the local economy and community have quickly been seen. For example, enforcement of local legislation in Newcastle upon Tyne has resulted in the removal of pedlars and unlawful street traders from the city centre. That, in turn, has improved the environment for legitimate street traders. The local legislation implemented in some parts of the country has taken as a model the provisions in the London Local Authorities Act 2004. My Bill will allow local authorities outside London to benefit from the powers that authorities in London can already exercise. Its provisions will allow the immediate seizure of goods, which, of course, means the swift cessation of trading. However, my Bill preserves the right of pedlars to operate, as they were originally intended to, outside town and city centres. Although there is compelling evidence for the success of local authority initiatives, there is widespread concern that if a national approach is not taken, pedlars and unlawful traders will simply move from one town centre to another. A nationwide approach is needed to ensure a cohesive and co-ordinated approach to peddling.

My Bill is supported in Parliament by the all-party parliamentary group on the markets industry, of which I am a vice-chairman. It is also supported by the National Association of British Market Authorities, the National Market Traders Federation, the Association of Town Centre Management and the Association of Chief Police Officers. ACPO supports transferring the regulation of pedlars from police authorities to local authorities, and it has also expressed concern about the relationship between some pedlars and unlawful street traders and the sale of counterfeit goods. The Local Government Association and the Institute of Licensing have also expressed their support for this Bill. They report that many of their members have contacted them in connection with the problem of unlawful pedlars and illegal street traders.

Since announcing the presentation of this Bill, I have received tremendous support from right hon. and hon. Members of all parties and from local authorities throughout the land, for which I express my thanks. My Bill is surely not contentious, in that it seeks to make nationwide powers that are available to only a handful of local authorities. It will prevent a piecemeal approach to legislation, which is driving unlawful traders from one town centre to others. The crucial power of seizure of an unlawful trader’s goods will enable local authorities to act swiftly in preventing unlawful trading, and consumers will be protected from purchasing counterfeited, stolen or sub-standard items on the streets of our towns and cities.

I stress again that my Bill does not outlaw peddling; rather, it clarifies its definition. Legitimate pedlars will still be able to sell their goods, as defined in the 1871 Act. I recommend 21st-century legislation for 21st-century traders, and advise the House to equip our local authorities with powers to enable them to protect our streets, our consumers and our local markets and small businesses from rogue traders. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

It is most unfortunate that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has smeared pedlars as rogue traders, because they are two different groups of people. I wish to put in a plea for lawful pedlars. They are hard-working, entrepreneurial, market-driven, self-employed and law-abiding traders who provide services much appreciated by the public at competitive prices. It is not my intention to divide the House, as the hon. Gentleman has every right to introduce a Bill, but it would be wrong for him to think that it would go unchallenged by those of us who believe in choice, competition and free enterprise.

Pedlars are already regulated. A pedlar’s certificate is renewable annually. If a pedlar is convicted, the certificate is revoked and will not be renewed. A pedlar cannot obtain a certificate to peddle if they are a bad or undesirable character. Every application made for a pedlar’s certificate is subject to a police check to ensure that the person is of good character. The law clearly defines the difference between legal peddling and illegal street trading. The High Court has ruled that pedlars may stay in one place for up to 15 minutes, but not longer. The example given by the hon. Gentleman of a person carrying on street trading in a location without a certificate for a period longer than 15 minutes is already unlawful. Why damn all pedlars because some people break the law? Those people are illegal street traders already.

Under section 15 of the Pedlars Act 1871, a pedlar must produce his certificate on request to a policeman, a justice of the peace or any member of the public who so requests. It is a fallacy that the general public are against pedlars. If they were, pedlars would go out of business. Let us have some trust in the public to use their common sense and judgment in deciding whether or not to buy from pedlars. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman implied, customers have protection in relation to the goods bought from pedlars. Pedlars have a duty to exchange or give a refund on any goods with which a customer is dissatisfied. The police also have powers of confiscation if they believe that goods are illegal, as do trading standards officers. We should put the issue in perspective.

Many people will be amazed that the hon. Gentleman and his supporters seem to be more concerned about removing the freedom of pedlars to sell helium balloons to children than about stamping out the sale of illegal drugs to children in our town centres, which is a far more serious issue of concern to our constituents.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Amess, Jim Dobbin, Mark Hunter, Mr. Eric Illsley, Alison Seabeck, Anne Snelgrove, Mr. Phil Willis and Sir Nicholas Winterton.

Pedlars (Street Trading Regulation)

Dr. Brian Iddon accordingly presented a Bill to confer further powers on local authorities for the regulation of street trading by pedlars; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed [Bill 64].

Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Acute Hospital Services

I beg to move,

That this House recognises the need to develop and improve acute hospital services; is concerned that current reconfiguration proposals are being dictated by financial and staffing pressures; believes that the Government cannot call for change whilst failing to put in place the commissioning and tariff structures necessary to support, for example, maternity services, acute stroke care, cardiac care and vascular surgery; regrets the Government’s lack of support for models of service configuration which would secure high standards whilst maintaining access; calls on Ministers to bring forward proposals to mitigate the effects of the European Working Time Directive on hospital services; insists that reconfigurations should be based on safety, quality of care, accessibility and choice; is deeply concerned that NHS staff, public and patient voices are not given appropriate weight in the decision making process; and calls for a stronger local democratic voice that will contribute to public confidence in the planning of acute NHS services.

It is just over a year since the Government’s White Paper. Far from being the best year ever for the national health service, it has been a year of deficits and financial and staffing pressures. We learned yesterday that the gross deficits across the NHS will be continued from last year into this financial year, that the number of redundancies continues to rise and that—as a consequence of the White Paper—hospitals across the country are threatened with cuts and closures. There are widespread concerns and anxieties, to put it mildly, about the implications.

The Secretary of State mandated that state of affairs by saying in the White Paper that resources would be moved into the community. In practice, the implementation of those words means that hospital budgets are being constrained, so cuts and closures are happening in the hospitals, but the infrastructure has not been created, or resources supplied, for patients to be looked after closer to home. I was interested to see that that point came across in the results of a recent consultation in Warwickshire. People said, “Don’t cut back our hospital services, because we cannot yet see the resources being put into the community.”

The process that the Secretary of State set in train a year ago has led to demonstrations in west Cornwall, Banbury, Chichester, Haywards Heath, Salford—[Interruption.] Yes, even in Salford. The Labour party chairman was there with her megaphone and placard. I must not leave out Worthing. Those demonstrations were against the consequences of the Government’s policy and are unprecedented in my experience in their scale and extent, especially over such a short period of time.

My hon. Friend has missed out the demonstrations in Surrey. Surrey does not demonstrate about much, but people are demonstrating about the health service, marching in stony, angry silence. They await the review of hospitals in the anticipation that Surrey and south-east London hospitals will suffer several closures. Among the factors that are presumably considered are usage and demand, and there are strong rumours of engineering, with the directing of patients to certain hospitals or, more importantly, from others. A constituent was recently referred by his GP to the Royal Surrey county hospital at Guildford for general surgery. The patient was told to use the choose and book system online, but he found that the Royal Surrey was not listed. He rang the booking number and he was told that the Royal Surrey was not taking bookings for general surgery—

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make his point as quickly as possible. Interventions should be brief.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I should not have left out Surrey. In fact, I should not have left out lots of places, but I did—[Interruption.] Yes, I should not have left out Hertfordshire or Shropshire. I am grateful to my hon. Friends. I could have mentioned Worcestershire, home to the Labour Chief Whip, or Lanarkshire, home to the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) makes an important point. I do not know whether he knows it, but one of the consequences of the way in which the reconfigurations are being pushed by NHS bureaucracies is that referrals are being manipulated through the choose and book system. I was talking to GPs in Yorkshire a few weeks ago, and one told me, “I sit there with my patient and we look at the waiting times for the hospitals that are available to us. The patient chose a hospital in Leeds, where she could be seen quickly. We went through the choose and book system, but the primary care trust, which has an enormous deficit, took hold of the referral.” The PCT, in effect, said to the patient, “Yes, you might like to go to Leeds, and Leeds could treat you in two or three weeks’ time, but you will not be seen until April because that is when the new financial year starts.” So, what is the point of choose and book?

The hon. Gentleman talks about Leeds, but can he understand why his words ring somewhat hollow with people on this side of the House? Under the Conservatives, six hospitals in Leeds were closed: Killingbeck, St. George’s, Marguerite Hepton, Roundhay maternity, Woodland orthopaedic and The Grove. Deficits were just as large in percentage terms and they were dealt with not only by closing hospitals and wards, but by keeping patients waiting longer and longer. Does he acknowledge that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who is not here, would, under these circumstances, no doubt get up and say, “Has the hon. Gentleman any idea what is going on in Wharfedale hospital?” It is all very well to build a hospital and open it, but it is another thing not to start shutting down the wards in it. We have constituencies where such facilities are being built. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) should know that major new hospital building projects have been conducted at a rate of five a year since 1997. The rate was also five a year between 1979 and 1997, so he cannot tell us that there has been a massive increase. He says that there have been a lot of hospital building projects, but they have been undertaken through a private finance initiative system that, frankly, has not transferred enough risk, and the their cost will be borne by the NHS for the next 30 years.

On the point about new hospital projects, my hon. Friend will be aware of the new super-hospital that was going to be built in Hatfield. It was pledged before the last election and would have involved a £500 million investment in Hatfield. Strangely enough, the project just disappeared after the election. Not only that, it took years for all sides to agree on the investing in health process, and not only have we lost the new hospital, we are losing the current hospital. Does he think that that is part of a national picture?

I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. In our motion, we say that we want to reassert the need for the voices of local people—not just the public, but professional local voices—to be heard in questions about reconfiguration. He is right—it might not have been something that everybody in Hertfordshire was entirely happy about, but they signed up, by means of a long investing in health process, to the idea that it was necessary for them to have specialised services provided in a new hospital. That happened before the general election, and the hospital was going to be in Hatfield. My hon. Friend, happily, secured his seat at the last general election. However, because of the increase in deficits that has occurred since 2005—if the Government say that the issue is not about deficits, this gives the lie to that proposition—that large new hospital has gone completely out of the window. Every time Ministers say, “The evidence tells us that you’ve got to have more specialised services that are in a larger, new hospital,” just think of Hertfordshire, where it is obvious that deficits are destroying even the Government’s own proposition.

May I just return my hon. Friend to what he was saying about the choose and book system? Is he aware of what is happening in my constituency? When GPs who are required to use choose and book try to refer someone to a consultant at the Royal Surrey county hospital, that persons gets an appointment not with a consultant, but with another GP. That is part of the demand management process that has been imposed by the primary care trust. So, in fact, instead of making it easier to get to hospitals quickly, there is now an additional layer of bureaucracy, which totally negates the whole point of choose and book.

Yes, it is astonishing that at the same moment as the Government are talking about the desirability of transferring greater responsibility into the hands of GPs, one of the core responsibilities of general practitioners—determining to whom referrals should be made and how patients should be treated—is being taken out of their hands by the local primary care trusts. That is not to say that there is not a role for GPs with special interests, but we have been talking about this matter for years and nobody should be under any illusions.

It is quite difficult and probably quite expensive to develop GPs with special interests. [Interruption.] Yes, I will give way in a minute. The silent one on the Government Benches seems to think that the doctor from Dartford needs to be heard. Well, we have heard from the doctor from Dartford too many times before to think that we could learn anything from him. [Interruption.] I do not think that we could. The point is that if GPs with special interests are valuable, their colleagues will know that and they can make referrals to them. [Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), and then we will find out what he has to say.

I grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly after his warms words about me. I think that I am right in saying that I am the only person present who uses the choose and book system. I use it regularly and the only thing that I find wrong with it is that there are not yet enough specialties for which we can use choose and book. The faster it expands and becomes universal for all referrals, the better. I can now sit down with one of my patients, go through every available hospital in my district and tell them precisely how long each waiting list is for each consultant. It cannot get much better. It needs to improve, but the basic system is very effective.

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is completely missing the point. A GP in Yorkshire who used choose and book said that he made a decision on the basis of the available waiting times at different hospitals. The primary care trust then took that decision away and negated it by saying that people had to wait 17 weeks anyway. I do not see what point the hon. Gentleman is making. We are not against direct booking or online booking. He ought to take the matter up with his colleagues on the Front Bench, whose job it was to deliver choose and book on time and who have not done so. Norman Warner pushed off. He was supposed to deliver choose and book, but he has gone already. He has got other fish to fry, and perhaps we will talk about them later.

Sorry. With regard to reconfiguration, does my hon. Friend agree that areas such as Shropshire—rural counties—are far more affected because of the huge distances that constituents have to travel? Will he press that point strongly to the Secretary of State?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he takes me to where I wanted to go next.

There should be no argument about the desirability of moving acute hospital services forward and of adapting and improving. In my experience, all the campaigns that we have been talking about across the country are not saying that nothing must change—

Well, except perhaps where the Labour party chairman was concerned. In my experience—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says “Hinchingbrooke”. I seem to remember that in the last debate we had on this subject he was at pains to quote me as saying that I believed that there needed to be change at Hinchingbrooke so that, for example, blue-light ambulances took people with certain specialised conditions past that front door to Addenbrooke’s hospital in my constituency—so I will not have any of that nonsense.

No, I am answering another point.

The Royal College of Surgeons, which is quoted quite a lot across the country, produced a consultation document in March 2006. It said something quite important, which is often referred to:

“The preferred catchment population size, as recommended in previous reports, for an acute general hospital providing the full range of facilities, specialist staff and expertise for both elective and emergency medical and surgical care would be 450,000-500,000.”

However, it went on to say:

“The majority of acute hospitals currently have, and are likely to continue to have, a catchment population of approximately 300,000.”

So, it is looking for 300,000 in the first instance. It continues:

“Where more centrally located units will have the option of closing down services on one site to be provided on another, the rural units do not have such inherent flexibility. Furthermore, in many cases, the Trust must provide, for example, A&E services on each site and have no hope, therefore, of lowering their reference cost.”

It adds:

“The College would strongly urge the government to consider the plight of rural hospitals and act accordingly to protect them.”

I have not heard Ministers quoting that bit of the Royal College of Surgeons document.

To continue my point about a decade of this issue, the recommended catchment population size in the Royal College of Surgeons report was not invented in 2006; it was in documents that it published in 1998. Ministers—not just current Ministers, but previous Ministers—have been sitting around debating this matter for years, and then they pop up in 2006 and say, “We’ve got to do it and we’ve got to do it now.” What they meant is not that we have to do the reconfigurations and specialisation in 2006, but that we have to cut the hospital budgets and do that now.

I have not yet given way to a Liberal Democrat, and as I am talking about rural areas I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

On rural areas, I assume that the hon. Gentleman would agree that if the acute system is to work, we must have cottage hospitals to manage non-acute patients. If those hospitals are closed—Llanidloes hospital in my area is threatened with closure—pressure is increased on the acute services and they end up doing the jobs that they are not best placed to do. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we see the persistent shutting down of rural services, the pressure on acute services will increase so that no one will get the service that they need at an affordable price?

Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He might recall our debate on maternity services at the beginning of January, when that point was illustrated well. When I visited Brecon Memorial hospital—it is not in his constituency, but it is close by—I could see that it provided an excellent service. The hospital makes an enormous difference to the mothers who give birth there and also relieves what would otherwise be serious pressures on other hospitals.

It is important to say that we accept the drivers of change. Let me quote the Secretary of State:

“Modern medicine means also that we can treat more patients with fewer beds. Many more services can be provided outside hospital”.—[Official Report, 16 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 133.]

The Secretary of State is agreeing not with herself, but with what the then Conservative Secretary of State said on 16 February 1993. The argument has not changed; the point is, what have the Government been doing about it? They have not been doing anything.

Let us have a look at what the Government have been saying. Their amendment to the motion focuses on some of the things about which they have started to talk. Suddenly, in December 2006, the clinical directors at the Department were invited to pop up and say why there was a case for the reconfiguration of clinical services. We had a maternity services debate on 10 January and, lo and behold, by 6 February the clinical director for children’s and maternity services popped up with a report—we will come to that in a minute.

As was illustrated by the clinical directors’ reports on accident and emergency and cardiovascular services, the question of A and E is often at the heart of this. A central point that has been argued for a long time is that full access in A and E to every specialised form of treatment cannot be maintained. Conservative Members—and certainly Conservative Front Benchers—do not argue that every A and E department in the country should be able to treat every patient. We have never believed that. For example, when Richard Hammond had his accident, he went to not the local hospital, but to Leeds general infirmary—quite rightly so, because it was able to provide excellent neurological care. The same will be true in every part of the country, but the question is how far that specialisation should go.

The Government’s documents focus on such issues as heart attacks and stroke. With regard to heart attacks, they talk especially about primary angioplasty—the Government cite that in their amendment—which is a mechanism whereby rather than giving thrombolysis in all cases, even if this takes a little more time, a balloon is put in a patient’s artery to re-engage the blood flow, after which a stent is put in to maintain the flow.

The procedure is not new. We did not suddenly discover it at the end of 2006. When Roger Boyle, the clinical director, produced his document, I asked him on what clinical evidence he based it. I was referred to an article of January 2003, which itself said:

“In 1995 and in 1997, systematic reviews of this topic were published, with the later analysis of 2,606 patients, showing improved short-term clinical outcomes … with primary PTCA”—

the primary angioplasty intervention—

“compared with thrombolytic therapy”.

So, from 1995, 1997 and 2003, there has been consistent information about the procedure.

I am not saying that the Government’s study discovered that in 2006. Towards the end of 2004, they began pilot studies. The hon. Member for Pudsey talked about Leeds. I visited Leeds general infirmary in March 2005, when it was involved in the pilot studies on primary angioplasty. However, I remember a conversation with the clinical director—if he puts himself in the frame of being the Government’s mouthpiece, he must take this—when I hosted a reception here on “saving minutes, saving lives” to celebrate success on call-to-needle times for thrombolytic therapy. I asked him what plans he was putting in place to move beyond that procedure to primary angioplasty, and he said, “Well, for the moment, we’re going to concentrate on the target and we’ll worry about that later.”

I will not take lessons from Government Ministers about us standing in the way of progress when the situation regarding the procedure has been clear for a long time. A million cardiological interventions involving primary angioplasty already take place in America—it is increasingly routine. I remember a cardiologist telling me in early 2004 that although the procedure was routine in the Czech Republic, it was virtually not happening at all in this country. The one place in this country where it is increasingly routine is London. There are 32 accident and emergency departments in London, nine of which offer primary angioplasty. Patients with myocardial infarction are going to those nine departments. Why are they going there? It is not because the Government have published anything—they are still spending their money and time on pilot studies and it will take a while before they publish the evaluation—but because the London ambulance service has taken the initiative. Frankly, if the Government got out of the way and people in the national health service were given greater freedom to deliver the services that they know are right, we would make more progress, more quickly.

I am somewhat disappointed by the hon. Gentleman. I usually have high regard for what he says, but today he appears to be trying to turn fiction into fact. Of course the procedure is routine in America and the Czech Republic. It is routine on Teesside. In 2003, I had angioplasty and several stents inserted in my left anterior descending artery. Routine? How routine does he want to get?

The hon. Gentleman might say that, but the procedure is not routine in this country. There are 11 pilot sites, and a limited number of places throughout the country in which it is offered.