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Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

I am afraid that before listing my engagements I must ask the whole House, again, to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of those members of our armed forces who have fallen in the line of duty in the past week. Private Jonathon Wysoczan of the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment died on Saturday as result of injuries sustained last week in Iraq. He was a brave soldier and we pay tribute to him. We also send our condolences to the family and friends of Lance Bombardiers Liam McLaughlin and Ross Clark, both of 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, and of Marine Benjamin Reddy of 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed in Afghanistan helping to ensure that the project on the Kajaki dam went ahead. That will bring electricity to 1.8 million people in the south of Afghanistan and make a huge difference to the lives of people there and to the economy. The work that they were doing is of enormous importance, and I think our armed forces who are, at the present time, in the south of Afghanistan are displaying a heroism that, even given the rich history of the British military, is almost unparalleled, and we pay tribute to all of them.

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

First, may I associate not only myself but, I am sure, all Members on this side of the House with the Prime Minister’s message of condolence? [Interruption.] Members on both sides of the House; I beg hon. Members’ pardon.

€50 to visit a GP; €85 per month in prescription charges; 25 per cent. VAT; 50 per cent. income tax; and, hardest of all for some people to swallow, £8 for a pint of beer; does my right hon. Friend believe that the Scottish people would accept those characteristics, all of which are drawn from small European countries regularly used for the purposes of comparison by Members of Parliament who advocate independence for Scotland?

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The truth of the matter is that England benefits from Scotland being in the United Kingdom, and Scotland benefits from being in the United Kingdom. In the past few years, we have seen dramatic falls in unemployment and rises in employment. Some 200,000 extra jobs have been created, and there is a strong Scottish economy. About £11 billion-worth more money is spent on public services in Scotland and it is raised by taxes, so wrenching Scotland from the UK would be very serious for the Scottish economy and the living standards of the Scottish people.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier who died following his service in Iraq. We pay tribute, too, to Lance Bombardier Ross Clark, Lance Bombardier Liam McLaughlin and Marine Benjamin Reddy, who were killed in Afghanistan. They died taking part in a NATO operation enforcing a UN mandate, and helping a democratically elected Government. As the Prime Minister said, they were in the front line against terrorism.

This week, NATO launched a significant offensive in the south of the country. With spring approaching, many people expect the intensity of the fighting to increase. Are the Prime Minister and the Cabinet confident that British forces are sufficiently backed by other NATO countries, are properly reinforced and adequately equipped, not just to withstand attack but to secure peace and security throughout Helmand province?

I believe that the additional contribution that we are making and the contributions of other NATO countries are immensely important. For example, Sweden has made a decision today to reinforce its armed forces in the north of Afghanistan. Other countries are providing assistance for reconstruction and extra equipment such as helicopters and so on. All of that is important, but it is fair to say that, yes, of course, we want our NATO partners to do even more, which is why in the meeting in Seville a short time ago we pressed for that, and we will continue to press for it. The important thing about our own reinforcements in Afghanistan is that they are there not just to complete our mission but to protect our troops.

I am grateful for that answer. Britain has 5,500 troops in Afghanistan, but does the Prime Minister agree with me that this year, there will be significant pressure for further reinforcements unless we encourage other NATO countries to do more and, vitally, if we remove the caveats on many of the NATO forces in Afghanistan? Will he update us on progress on those two vital objectives?

As I said, other countries such as Australia are committing forces and additional equipment. However, it is important that we recognise that the extra 1,400 troops whom we are sending in as reinforcements will play a vital role, not just in securing the southern part of Afghanistan but in ensuring that our own troops are better protected. It is correct that some countries have lifted caveats, but others have not, and we continue to press them to do so the entire time. Yes, of course, I want more to be done by other NATO countries, and that will be part of informal discussions, I do not doubt, at the European summit as well as in any NATO meeting. In the end, we must make sure that we discharge our responsibility, which is not dependent on what others can do with us, although we press them to do more. We believe—this is probably the reality—that it is only the British forces who can make a real difference in south Afghanistan. It is tough for them, as we can see. Anyone who has read the accounts of what British forces are doing, particularly in the northern part of Helmand, will have read an extraordinary story of heroism and courage. We believe that we have to do it—we think that it is right for the world—and, yes, we will continue to press others to come in with us. In the end, however, we are doing what we need to do, and we are proud of doing it.

The Prime Minister is right that our troops are doing a magnificent job in the south, but with reference to his last answer in particular, we know that NATO commanders in the south have asked for two additional battle groups. We are providing one of them, but last week the Secretary of State for Defence was unable to say who would provide the other. Can the Prime Minister update us on that? More generally, given that last year in Helmand we saw attacks on soldiers increasing, high levels of insurgency, a rising poppy crop and the governor dismissed, how confident is he that over the next six months we will see real progress on all those fronts?

We should not ignore the progress that has already been made. The Afghan economy is double what it was a few years back. There are millions more girls now in school. We have reconstruction projects that are refurbishing schools and opening health clinics in Afghanistan. As important as anything else, it is not just the British forces and the forces of many other nations that are fighting down in the south of Afghanistan and elsewhere—it is an Afghan national army as well, whose capability is being built the whole time. Yes, we must press for the additional battle group from elsewhere. We are continuing to do that. At present we do not know the exact provenance of that battle group, but we are sure that in the end we will be able to get the support that we need. The important thing is to understand, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree, that there has been real progress in Afghanistan. What our troops have been doing there is remarkable, but what the Afghan people themselves have been doing down in the south of Afghanistan is incredible, standing out against the bullies of the Taliban. We know that just a few months ago, for example, a teacher was taken out and executed in front of his class for teaching girls in school. That is the battle of values in which we are engaged. I entirely agree that we need to ensure that the whole world faces up to its responsibility, but I am primarily responsible for our contribution, which I think is right and proportionate. We will continue to work closely with other allies. It is worth pointing out that there are soldiers from many, many other nations working alongside us. They are doing an excellent job as well, and we continue to press for more.

Will my right hon. Friend celebrate international women’s day by committing the Government to support the private Member’s Bill, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, introduced in the other place by the Lord Lester of Herne Hill? I recognise that the Bill will not stop families forcing young people into unwanted marriage, but it will send a strong message that we are on the side of the victims of this wicked practice.

First, it would be right to pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done to make sure that we tackle forced marriages, which are an iniquitous practice. As I think I have indicated, although much has been done, not least the establishment of the forced marriages unit a couple of years ago, which assists about 300 victims of forced marriage a year—I pay tribute to the work of the unit—because we fully support the aims of the private Member’s Bill on forced marriage, we are looking to see how we can support the Bill and make sure that it is in order. I know that there is a strong feeling in all parts of the House that we should do all we can to end the practice.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. We owe all these brave young men an enduring debt of gratitude. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, that the position of the Attorney-General, in his words, is not maintainable?

The position of the Attorney-General and the role that he carries out has been in our constitution for hundreds of years and I believe it to be the right role.

In the light of recent controversy in relation to Iraq, BAE and now cash for honours, is it not essential that the functions and responsibilities of the Attorney-General should be separate—[Interruption]—so that decisions about prosecution can be taken entirely independent of Government?

Q2. As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Union’s treaty of Rome, will the Prime Minister find time to read an article called “Beware the Berlin Declaration”, which calls for this country to leave the European Union? It can be found on the blog Chameleons on Bicycles. (125430)

First, it will be a very good thing for the whole of Europe to celebrate 50 years of the European Union, which has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that used to be ravaged by war. I think that we should celebrate our own position in the European Union. I look forward to going to the European Council tomorrow in order to bring forward proposals for climate change, where I am pleased to say that at least this Government will have some allies in ensuring that the battle against climate change is taken to a proper fruition.

Last night, the BBC broadcast the Prime Minister’s political obituary; I am sure that it will be the first of many. In it, his senior foreign policy adviser in No. 10 Downing street, Sir Stephen Wall, speaking of his time working with the Prime Minister, said:

“You got the very clear impression…that they could not govern without Gordon but they could not really govern with him either”.

Why would someone at the heart of Downing street say that?

People say many things, particularly after they leave. What I can say is this: fortunately, thanks to the Chancellor’s 10-year stewardship of the economy—which I am afraid is the weakness of the right hon. Gentleman’s position—he has delivered us the strongest economy, with 2.5 million more jobs, lower interest rates, the lowest unemployment and rising living standards. Actually, I am delighted to have had that record in government.

The Prime Minister is very good at praising the Chancellor, but the Chancellor is not so good at praising the Prime Minister.

It is not just his senior foreign policy adviser who says this—it is also the Cabinet Secretary, who sat next to him for five years in the Cabinet. Lord Wilson said this about the Chancellor:

“He states with absolute certainty what the position is…threatening…anyone foolish enough to interrupt…without any hint that”—

he—“might listen to” other “departments”. Does the Prime Minister think that there is any prospect of a return to Cabinet government when the Chancellor takes over?

As a matter of fact, the best thing about having a strong economy is that it enables one, when one is taking one’s Cabinet decisions, to make the investments in health and education, for example, that we want to have. The good thing is that we have had a consistent economic policy.

Can I give the House an update on the Conservatives’ policy on the married couples allowance? A few days ago, the chairman of the Conservative party was asked whether it would apply—[Interruption.]

Talking about policy making, the chairman of the Conservative party says that married couples allowance applies to couples without children. The Tory leader’s office then says:

“Francis was confronted on a particular point and was trying to answer the question…but he wasn’t sure…the truth is that it is…still being worked out.”

Then a couple of days ago the shadow Chancellor says that he is not sure whether it will apply to married couples without children, but for it to apply to gay couples in a civil partnership, they have to have children. We have this Chancellor with 10 years of a strong economy, and we have that shadow Chancellor with his policy making; perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to explain the difference.

The Prime Minister might have noticed that we are ahead on the economy.

I asked the Prime Minister a question about Cabinet government, but he will not answer, so let us ask the Cabinet. Who thinks that they will have more of a say round the Cabinet table when the Chancellor takes over? Come on—hands up! Is not that the problem—they all know it is going to be dreadful, but none of them has the guts to do anything about it?

First of all, I should remind the right hon. Gentleman of some experience that we had in the 1980s. Opposition parties can often be ahead in opinion polls in mid-term, but that does not mean that they win an election. In the end, let me tell him what will win an election—strength of policy.

I just gave an example about the shadow Chancellor, so let me give one about the right hon. Gentleman from his great speech on Europe yesterday in which he said how he was going lead Europe in the battle on climate change. Who is his ally? The ODS party in the Czech Republic, whose founder says that global warming “is a false myth”. This is serious politics. The right hon. Gentleman wants to form an alliance with a party that thinks global warming is a false myth and he will not go into the same political room as the Chancellor of Germany, who is the leader of the Conservative party, the President of the European Union and believes that global warming should be tackled. So when it comes to serious policy making, the right hon. Gentleman is simply in the kindergarten. We have got the answers: that is the difference between a serious political party and an Opposition party.

Staying with Europe, did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to watch the outstanding display of football at Anfield stadium last night? Is it not about time that we marked the memory of the late and great Bob Paisley with an honour? Will my right hon. Friend read early-day motion 1038 signed by Members of the House—both red and blue?

I look forward to reading that. I did watch the match last night. Congratulations to Liverpool, who did absolutely brilliantly. Congratulations also to Chelsea—we should congratulate the blues as well as the reds on this occasion. Let us hope that we have two other teams going through as well—[Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reminds me, there is also Celtic, and we wish it good luck, too.

Q3. My constituent, Mrs. Morello, has an 11-year-old son with recognised special educational needs. All the professionals suggest that the right education for her son is an out-of-borough specialised small school. However, reflecting the cost concerns of so many local authorities, they are trying to put him in a mainstream local school. After 10 years in power, when will the Prime Minister make the necessary changes to ensure that Mrs. Morello’s son and thousands like him get the education that they need and deserve? (125431)

Surely, in the end, it has to be a decision for the local authority. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but there is an extra £1,350—I stress, extra—per pupil for the funding of education in his area. Surely it has to be a local authority decision. That has been the case under the previous Government and under this Government. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if a child is best placed in specialist provision, that is where they should go. They should go into mainstream provision only if that is suitable for them. I do say again, however, that it has got to be a decision for the local education authority.

Q4. Last week saw declines in all the Wirral stock markets following falls in Shanghai—demonstrating again the global challenge and opportunity that is China today. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the UK is appropriately resourced and institutionally structured to deal with the fact that the world’s centre of gravity is moving eastwards, both politically and economically? (125432)

My hon. Friend raises an immensely important point. I think that we are well placed, actually, because of our bilateral relationship with China today. I also think that the work done through the G8 and the G8 plus 5, which includes China, is also important. The China taskforce is, of course, an important part of our bilateral relationship. However, as well as that bilateral relationship, the key thing is to recognise that both our alliance with America and our membership of the European Union are important parts of building a strong relationship with a country that will soon comprise 1.3 billion or 1.4 billion people and be the largest economy in the world—a country of immense importance as a superpower in the world. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should make sure that we are well positioned with China. In part, however, for a country such as ours in the early 21st century, that will happen through our alliances as well as on our own merits.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that voting in a £10,000 communication allowance for incumbent MPs out of taxpayers’ money, without the support of the Opposition, while at the same time lobbying Sir Hayden Phillips to limit the private funding of candidates in those incumbent seats, is nothing short of an abuse of power bordering on corruption? (125433)

As I understand it from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the matter is discussed in the House of Commons Commission and it will come before the House at the end of the month. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will put forward proposals that are just and fair.

My right hon. Friend will know of the serious concerns about Quiz Call television and shows that have premium lines for interactive viewer participation. Does he agree that ITV has done the right thing in pulling from our screens all its premium line shows for an independent health check? Will he urge all other broadcasters to do the same to ensure that their customers—our constituents—are not being ripped off?

The point that my hon. Friend raises causes a great deal of concern to many members of the public. I welcome ITV’s temporary suspension of all premium rate interactive services on all ITV channels. My hon. Friend will wish to know that the regulatory body for the premium rate telecommunications industry is currently investigating complaints about several television shows, and I understand that the broadcasters are meeting later this week. It is obviously important that they come together with the relevant telecommunications companies and make sure that the service is provided in a reliable and trustworthy way. I understand and share my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Q6. The Prime Minister has fought hard in his party to ensure that parents have a wider choice of schools to which to send their children. Would he have accepted his children being allocated a school place on the basis of a lottery system? (125434)

Whatever system is involved—a catchment area or a lottery—there will always be parents who do not manage to get their first preference, although the vast majority do. For once, I agree with the shadow spokesman on education who said that the most important thing, whatever system is chosen, is to increase the number of good schools. Whereas in 1997 I believe that only 80 secondary schools in the country got more than 70 per cent. good GCSEs—five good GCSEs—today the figure is more than 600. That is a huge improvement in the past 10 years, not least in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. Of course, there will always be parents who are disappointed but the most important thing is to improve the quality and standards in our schools. That is precisely what the Government are doing.

The White Paper on House of Lords reform lists several countries that have wholly or partly elected second Chambers. In the Prime Minister’s view, which of them is governed better than the United Kingdom?

For obvious reasons, I do not think that I would accept that any could be better governed than the United Kingdom, though that might be open to some dispute. However, I said at the time of the election, and our manifesto stated, that we would try to seek a consensus on House of Lords reform. The purpose of the vote later today is to ascertain whether we can do that. We said that we would facilitate that; that is precisely what we shall try to do.

Q7. Lord Levy has accepted that he may have offered his opinion about who should be nominated for peerages. In what capacity was that advice offered—as the Prime Minister’s middle eastern envoy, his personal friend and tennis partner, or because he is, just coincidentally, the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser? (125435)

For obvious reasons, I can say nothing at all about the issue.

Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it is extraordinary that the Scottish National party is aiming to be the Government of Scotland after the election on 3 May—that Government will handle the economy, health, education and law and order—yet the SNP has nothing to say about the economy because it knows that independence would wreck the Scottish economy, nothing to offer on health and education, and its law and order policy is a disaster. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are campaigning on a police inquiry conducted by the London Metropolitan police. I think that that says everything about the SNP and its fitness to govern.

Along with hon. Friends, I applaud Monday’s announcement of an extra £2 million to tackle domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will remain focused on that important policy area, especially on supporting victims through the legal process to bring their attackers to justice?

I assure my hon. Friend that our strong and co-ordinated set of policies on domestic violence will continue. According to the most recent British crime survey, domestic violence has fallen by about 60 per cent. in the past 10 years. Although more domestic violence offences are being recorded, their prevalence has fallen significantly, partly as a result of our additional investment, and partly, as she says, because we are treating the issue more seriously and offering more protection to people within the courts system. We should maintain our focus on the issue, which continues to be a serious one, as we approach international women’s day.

Q8. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs faces a £300 million fine from Brussels, 25,000 single farm payment claims remain unresolved, the policy on bovine TB is, as yet, unresolved, and the Department’s budget has been cut by £200 million. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister why the House has not been given the opportunity to debate those matters, bearing in mind that the last agriculture debate was in December 2002? (125436)

I am sure that there will be opportunities for people to raise and debate those issues. We are well aware of the problems that have arisen over payments to farmers, however, and we have said on many occasions that we are doing all that we can to speed up that system. We are not in a position of difficulty with the European Commission. It is also correct that there will be enormous budget pressures on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments. The Conservative party, however, has committed itself to putting half the money that goes on public spending into tax cuts—[Interruption.] Yes, the extra money from growth—[Interruption.] The extraordinary thing is that I seem to know more about Conservative policy than Conservative Members. Their policy is to share the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and spending. Therefore, whatever figure we have for investment, the Conservative party would have less.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the people of the Congo on their determined involvement in their first democratic elections for 40 years, which have been strongly supported by our Government. In view of the strategic importance of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, and the fragile state in which it has emerged from conflict in which 4 million died, will he confirm the commitment given in this morning’s Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall by the Secretary of State for International Development to continued support and assistance to the DRC’s Government, civil society and politicians for the difficult tasks that are ahead of them? (125437)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work on this issue. We have increased our investment in the DRC from, I think, just under £6 million to almost £70 million. We are doing that precisely to support the democratic process there and to give humanitarian assistance. I hope that people in the country understand that when I refer to that extra investment in Africa, I deliberately use the word “investment”. If those countries are riven by civil war and large numbers of people are displaced and become refugees, all the evidence of the modern world is that, sooner or later, that becomes a problem for countries such as ours in Europe. Therefore, when we bring peace and stability to parts of Africa, as with the DRC, that is an investment not only in those countries but in our own future.