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Engagements

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Smith of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday. He was part of the mission in Sangin to protect the Kajaki dam project. Once again we pay tribute to his heroism, his sacrifice and the work done by him and his colleagues in Afghanistan.

This morning I 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 condolence?

My right hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Following last week’s election, does he agree that what the people of Northern Ireland want is for their interests to be put first, and for local politicians to get on with the business of forming a Government? Will he confirm that the deadline for devolved government in Northern Ireland remains 26 March, and that that deadline will not change?

As my hon. Friend knows, the deadline is set out in the legislation.

I pay tribute to the leaders of all the political parties, including those in the House, who have played such a prominent part in the politics of Northern Ireland over the past few years. Let me also say that one significant development—in addition to all the other things that are happening in Northern Ireland—is the publication today of the employment figures, which show that over the past few years there have been 100,000 extra jobs in Northern Ireland and a reduction of 30,000 in the number of unemployed people.

What was fascinating, by all accounts, about the election in Northern Ireland was that the bread-and-butter issues—water charges, health, education and the local economy—were prominent on the doorstep. That in itself says a great deal about the modern face of Northern Ireland.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Michael Smith, killed in Afghanistan last Thursday.

Replacing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is in the national interest. A submarine-based alternative is the right answer, and the decision needs to be made now. Does the Prime Minister agree that in a dangerous and uncertain world, unilateral nuclear disarmament has never been and will never be the right answer?

For precisely the reasons that I gave when I made my statement to the House, I think it right that we make the decision now to begin work on replacing the Trident nuclear submarines. I think that that is essential for our security in an uncertain world. It is important for us to recognise that, although it is impossible to predict the future, the one thing that is certain—as I said in my statement—is the unpredictability of it. For that reason, I think it sensible that we make this decision today.

I agree with the Prime Minister. Does he agree that replacing Trident meets both the spirit and the letter of our international treaty obligations? Will he confirm that the last Conservative Government cut the number of warheads, that his Government cut the number of warheads, and that there will be further reductions in the future? Does he agree that, as a result, the argument against replacing Trident on the basis of non-proliferation simply does not stand up?

We are very proud of our record in this respect, and making sure that we reduce the number of warheads is important, as we have said. It may be possible to reduce the number of submarines, although that is a decision that will have to be made at a later stage.

Yes, of course it is important that we conform fully with our non-proliferation treaty obligations, and we are doing so. I think it is possible for us to continue to play our full part—under the non-proliferation treaty—in the multilateral negotiations that I hope will take place over the years to come, so that the world becomes a safer place with fewer nuclear weapons. However, I think that we shall be best able to achieve that if we maintain our nuclear deterrent.

We are discussing this now because the system could take about 17 years to put in place, so the timing is right, the legality is clear and maintaining the deterrent is in our national interest. Because the Prime Minister has the support of the Conservative party, we can work together in the national interest. Will he tell us clearly that tonight’s vote is the vote and that there is no going back after tonight’s vote? Will he also confirm that he will stand by his policy and that he will not appease those in his own party, or the Liberal Democrats, who simply want to run away from a tough decision?

It is precisely because I believe that this decision has to be taken now that we have the vote today in the House of Commons. I entirely understand why people might want to put off this decision, but the fact is that we need to take the decision today if we want to get parliamentary approval for the work that has to begin now on the concept and design phase—of course, the actual contracts for the design and construction are to be left for a later time. If we want to get proper parliamentary authorisation, this decision has to be taken now. I entirely understand and respect the views of those who hold a different opinion on this issue, but I have been pretty clear and firm on it from the beginning, and I think that we should continue to be so.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the petition submitted to Downing street seeking a posthumous knighthood for the late Jock Stein in recognition of his achievements as the manager of Dunfermline, Celtic and Scotland? As this year is the 40th anniversary of Celtic and Stein winning the European cup—the first British team to do so—will the Prime Minister give serious consideration to giving approval for this petition to go online as soon as possible?

Those decisions are not taken by me, and I know that the rules governing posthumous awards are very complex. However, Jock Stein was a great manager, a great Scot and someone who contributed enormously to football and civic society in Scotland.

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

I cannot help remembering that the last time the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the Prime Minister voted together in the same Lobby on an issue of national interest was on Iraq, and that has not proved to be a comforting precedent. Does the Prime Minister accept that the most immediate nuclear threat is from other countries acquiring nuclear weapons? What then will be the role played by his Government at the nuclear non-proliferation review conference in 2010?

We will continue to play a positive role on this issue. However, I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence whatever that if Britain now renounced its independent nuclear deterrent that would improve the prospect of getting multilateral disarmament. On the contrary, I think that the reverse is the case. I must also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although of course I understand why he wants to put off this decision—I understand that that is his position—the fact is that the 17-year programme is what has been advised by the experts who advise us on this issue. I recommend that he read the evidence given to the Defence Committee on this very point by Rear-Admiral Mathews. So the 17-year period is clear, and that must be worked back from 2024, which takes us to 2007. That means that we have to take the decision now if we want parliamentary approval for the concept and design phase. I am sure that if we did not seek parliamentary approval but continued with the work on the concept and design phase, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be standing up and asking why I had not sought such approval.

The Prime Minister surely accepts that a hasty decision to replace Trident is bound to undermine our ability to have influence at the conference in 2010. Should we not now be offering to reduce the number of warheads on Trident in order to give a lead to others?

We are set to reduce the number of warheads, but it is absurd to say that we can somehow put off the question of whether we take a decision now on this concept and design phase. That is absurd because obviously we have to take the advice of the experts, such as the director general who is in charge of this matter in the Ministry of Defence and others, who say to us that it is a 17-year programme and it must therefore begin now if we want to maintain the nuclear deterrent. Therefore, we cannot put this decision off; we have to take it now. I recall that a few days ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said on this issue,

“I will not sit on the fence.”

I am afraid that “on the fence” is exactly where he is, and as I think that he will find, it is not a very comfortable place to be.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister share my shock and horror at the stories in the Sunday newspapers about the treatment of injured soldiers? Will he ensure that these hospitals will be fit for purpose, and guarantee that those heroes who come back injured will have the correct treatment and the after-care that they deserve? (127215)

I totally agree with what my hon. Friend says. Many of the stories in the Sunday newspapers were from cases of some months ago, all of which have been investigated and looked into. I want to say this on behalf of the staff of the medical defence services at Selly Oak hospital and those who work elsewhere in our armed forces. They do a superb job for our armed forces, and it is simply not true that the national health service staff who work alongside them do not give excellent care to those who are injured. They do give excellent care, and I can tell my hon. Friend, based on the discussions that I have had with people working at that hospital and on the visits that I have paid to that and other facilities that handle injured soldiers, that there is an immense amount of praise, which never gets any publicity, for the staff who work there and the care that they give. When these stories appear, we should at least balance them with a fairer and I think truer picture of what is actually happening.

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on the point raised by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? As the Prime Minister says, anyone who has been to the Birmingham Selly Oak hospital is hugely impressed by the work that the doctors and nurses do. I have seen it for myself and it is impressive, but surely what matters is not just the quality of care but the environment in which our soldiers are cared for. Is it not the case that when soldiers are injured in battle one day and in a British hospital the next, it is easier for them if they are surrounded by soldiers who have been through what they went through? I know that the Prime Minister has made progress in getting a military managed ward, but when does he expect to have a dedicated military facility in the hospital?

The commitment is precisely to have a military managed ward, and there is such a ward and has been since December of last year. Let me explain why it is important to express the situation in that way. Hospitals such as Selly Oak, to which very serious cases are brought, need the advantage of having the full range of NHS facilities and experts. It is precisely for that reason that the last Conservative Government rightly took the decision to phase out the military hospitals and to replace them with facilities for the armed forces within the NHS. But I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important that those who are injured in war are then surrounded by their own comrades, and that they have a sense of their own feeling and sentiment among them. That is precisely what is happening now. I got the latest report from that hospital just a couple of days ago, and if either he or I were to visit it, we would find that the facilities offered to people are very good.

There is a difference between a military managed ward and a dedicated military ward—that is the important point. General Sir Richard Dannatt said yesterday that he has

“every confidence that in three years’ time”—

when the hospital is rebuilt—

“we will not just have a military managed ward, but effectively a dedicated military ward where our people will be exclusively”—

exclusively—

“attended to”.

If it is right for three years’ time, why cannot we do more, quicker?

As I understand it, the point is that there may be beds in some of these wards where the level of care is intensive and high, and where anything between six and eight consultants may be looking after a particular person. But if, for example, there are spare beds within such a ward and the staff are required to look after a civilian patient, it would be wrong to say that such a bed could not be used for a civilian patient. It would also be a very inefficient use of resources. But the whole point is to create the circumstances in which our armed forces who are injured are given the best and highest possible care, and in which they receive that care surrounded by other soldiers and members of the armed forces. General Sir Richard Dannatt said the other day that, having visited those facilities, he was satisfied that they were doing the very best for our armed forces.

Q3. Does my right hon. Friend accept that millions of tenants will benefit over time from this week’s introduction of the first national tenancy deposit scheme? Will he join me in congratulating all those who campaigned long and hard for this important consumer protection measure, including Citizens Advice, Shelter and the National Union of Students? Will he remember to chalk that up as yet another Labour achievement? (127216)

First, I can tell my hon. Friend that I am very happy to welcome the commencement of the tenancy deposit scheme on 6 April. It represents an end to the scandal of the small minority of unscrupulous landlords who refuse to return rent deposits left with them by short-term tenants. I would also say that the work done by Shelter, Citizens Advice and the NUS has been very important. It is good news for vulnerable tenants and students everywhere.

Q4. Tarceva has been deemed cost-effective for certain lung cancers in many European countries and North America, but only for British taxpayers with Scottish addresses. My constituent, Richard Burman, has paid his taxes to the British Treasury all his life, but faces a premature death unless he moves to Scotland. Will the Prime Minister please agree to meet him with his specialists to discuss the problem? (127217)

What I would say is that decisions on whether or not drugs should be available are taken by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I am afraid that I cannot make a commitment for a meeting, but I am happy to look into the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and to correspond with him about it.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to stop the environmental degradation of our planet, it would be better to give ownership of the question and the campaign to the ordinary citizen? Would it not be the greatest mistake if we thought that we could do everything by Government diktat, top down? (127218)

I agree with my hon. Friend. What is important is to have action that is available to the individual citizen. The energy White Paper will detail some of the proposals for that shortly. Secondly, it is important to get international agreement within Europe and then at the G8 plus 5. Finally, it is obviously important—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—that we have practical policy making in this area. That is why I believe that the proposals that we have put forward this week will give us a realistic chance of meeting very ambitious targets. They are certainly preferable to the proposals put forward by the Conservative party.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the extent of the funding crisis faced by Greater Manchester police, which has already seen the loss of some 216 officers? According to the Labour-run policy authority, it faces a financial shortfall of up to £27 million over the next two years. If he is aware of it, could he explain what he is doing to help?

My understanding is that the police in Greater Manchester and elsewhere are getting increases—significant increases—in the amount of funding available. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that the chief police officers came to us and asked for greater flexibility in how the money is used. I think that I am right in saying that there have been almost 1,000 extra police officers in Greater Manchester since we came to office and there are, of course, in addition, the community support officers. It was in response to the request from the chief police officers that we now give them greater flexibility in how they use their funding.

Q6. The Prime Minister must be aware of the tragic situation that is unfolding in Sri Lanka, where Government and Tamil forces have been fighting, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and claiming 4,000 lives in the last 15 months. Because of our very close historical links with Sri Lanka, can the Prime Minister use his good offices to persuade all the parties and factions to recommit to the agreement made in 2002, which was brokered by the Norwegian Government, so that the escalation in violence can be curtailed and peace and tranquillity can return to this beautiful island? (127219)

The issue that my right hon. Friend raises is a very serious and important one and I can assure him that we are in touch at the present time with the International Red Cross and other UN agencies. He is right in saying that the Norwegian authorities have played a significant part in trying to put together a peace process in Sri Lanka. I totally understand the difficulties that the Government there face at present; it is a very challenging situation. We have said to them that we will do all we can to help, but my right hon. Friend is right to say that the only realistic way to get a solution is to come back to the 2002 agreement and make sure that it is implemented. I know that he will also agree that terrorism and violence can never be the way to achieve a negotiated solution.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents have been waiting two years for the approval of a new community hospital in Braintree? Progress has been stalled as the buck has been passed back and forth between the primary care trust and the strategic health authority. Will he agree to meet me to discuss how we can make progress on this project? (127220)

I am perfectly prepared to meet the hon. Gentleman, because it is obviously a serious issue for mid-Essex and his constituency. However, he will be aware that, at the same time as the proposals on the community hospital are being discussed, there is also discussion on what will be a huge multi-million pound investment by the Government in Broomfield hospital. Over the past few years, he will know that there has been huge investment in the local NHS infrastructure, so I am very happy to meet him to talk about how we can get the benefits of this investment in his constituency and elsewhere in Essex. However, I know that he will be the first to say that the NHS has improved considerably in the last few years.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that today’s motion on Trident effectively commits this country to the possession of an independent nuclear weapons system for the best part of the next 45 years without the House being guaranteed any future opportunity to consider whether it remains the best strategy? Does he understand that many of us accept the need to ensure our ability to replace the Trident system, but none the less believe that in a fast-changing world this House should be guaranteed the chance to revisit that decision at an appropriate point in the future?

I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s point. If I may put it like this, it is at what I would describe as the reasonable end of the opposition to what the Government are doing. However, let me try to explain why I think we have still got to take this decision today. It is absolutely right that this Parliament cannot bind the decisions of a future Parliament and it is always open to us to come back and look at these issues. He is right to suggest that when we get to the gateway stage—between 2012 and 2014—when we let the main contracts for design and construction, it will always be open to Parliament to take a decision. However, I believe that the reason why we have to take the decision today is that if we do not start the process now, we will not be in the position in 2012 or 2014 to continue with the nuclear deterrent should we wish to do so.

The real dilemma is that we decided rightly or wrongly—but I think rightly—that we should seek parliamentary approval even for the design and concept stage. When we came to the previous Trident nuclear submarine, it was only at a later stage that parliamentary approval was sought. That was much criticised at the time, so we decided that we should seek parliamentary approval at the very beginning of this process. Of course, it is a statement of fact that the gateway takes place at a later stage and in a later Parliament but if we want to spend at least the more limited sum of money now on the concept and design stage, we have to take a decision now.

Q8. Cash for peerages is probably not the biggest disaster of the right hon. Gentleman’s tenure—[Interruption.] (127221)

Order. The House will understand that it is important that I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, cash for peerages is probably not the biggest disaster of the right hon. Gentleman’s tenure; Iraq is. We have heard concerns already about poor medical treatment for soldiers, lack of body armour and delays in coroners inquests. Indeed, some of my constituents from Stornoway have to pay council tax when they are in Iraq. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that families are having to send food parcels to some soldiers in Iraq because of the lack of 24-hour canteen facilities? Why is this Prime Minister, who was so cavalier in taking this country into Iraq, failing in his duty of care to these soldiers?

I simply dispute that we are failing in our duty of care towards our soldiers. Our soldiers are doing a magnificent job in Iraq. They are doing a necessary job for our security and the security of the wider world. I have to say, even though the hon. Gentleman and I may disagree strongly over the issue of Iraq, it is completely wrong for people to undermine the morale of our armed forces by suggesting that we are deliberately not giving them the equipment they need or the care they need when injured. It simply is not true and it is not right to say it.

The only talk in Crawley for years was the closure of Crawley hospital. Now, under new management, under the primary care trust, there is over £20 million of investment, a new urgent treatment centre opening, and new services every day. Will my right hon. Friend come to see for himself?

I would be delighted to do that. I remember that, before the last election, the Conservative party said that this would never happen and that it would not be done. It has been done. Later today, we will launch the results of the Government’s coronary disease programme over the past few years, which indicate that, since we came to office, over 100,000 lives have been saved as a result of investment and reform. The point is that every bit of that investment and reform, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, has been opposed by the Opposition.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what message he can give to the 7,000 families on Stockport council’s waiting list? When does he intend them to have a decent home? (127222)

It is important, of course, that we invest more in social housing. We are doing that and, as a result of the investment, we are not merely helping people with the refurbishment of their homes, we are building new homes as well. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there will always be a limit on the resources that we are able to spend, but the Government have put £2 billion into council and social housing over the past few years and we intend to put in hundreds of millions more in the next few.

Q10. I am glad that my right hon. Friend shares my joy in the beginning of the new national tenancy deposit scheme, which will help thousands of my constituents. I am sure that he is also aware that withholding deposits is not the only way that letting agents have of fleecing vulnerable tenants. Will he therefore consider legislation to regulate letting agents? (127223)

We, of course, always keep these issues under review and I am happy to look at the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I would agree with him, certainly, that the tenancy deposit scheme is a good first step in giving protection to tenants.

The Prime Minister will probably know that the police estimate that the largest ever mass lobby of Parliament took place a few weeks ago, when 1,200 blind people came here to call for a higher rate of mobility allowance. He may also have noticed that more than half the Back Benchers in the House have now signed my early-day motion to that effect. Will he perhaps have a word with the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) to suggest that, at a cost of £50 million, it might be something that he could include in his forthcoming Budget and thereby enhance his reputation as a humane and caring Chancellor?

We have obviously increased the payments for mobility allowance over the past few years. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and I will study carefully the early-day motion. I can give no commitments at this stage, but we will take into account what he says.

Q11. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great success that our overseas drugs liaison officers have had with seizures of cocaine in Latin America, working with the authorities in those countries? We could prevent much more cocaine—and all the misery that it brings—from ending up on the streets of this country if we invested in more of those drugs officers. Will he look into this matter personally? Tackling the source is the most effective way of combating drug trafficking. (127224)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the liaison officers do a fantastic job. This is an example of liaison co-operation between the different services. The number of drugs seizures is now way above what used to be the case. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I am happy to look into what more we can do. Obviously, the other measures that we are taking to protect our borders will play a part as well.

What progress is the Prime Minister making on delivering the outstanding issues—many have been supplied by my party to him and his officials—that are essential for the delivery of devolution at some point in the very near future?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in receipt of the proposals that have been put forward by his party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting representatives of his party and I will do the same. We will honour the commitments that we have given, and we entirely understand why those proposals are an important part of the overall package to get devolution back up and running in Northern Ireland.

Q12. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that over the past decade, the number of people killed in road accidents in the United Kingdom has declined. However, is he aware that over the past five years, there has been a very alarming increase in the number of young drivers killed, very often with young passengers as well? Will he have discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport to find out why that is happening, and will he bring forward proposals to stem this tragic loss of life? (127225)

My hon. Friend is right on both points. There has been a dramatic drop in the number of deaths as a result of various measures that have been taken over the past few years. It is sometimes worth pointing out that the number of lives saved, especially young children’s, as a result of some of the road measures that have been taken runs into many hundreds. However, my hon. Friend is also right that a very specific problem has arisen. Discussions are under way in government about what we can do about that and, especially, about what can be done to ensure that we are able to deal with young drivers in either stolen or uninsured vehicles far more quickly than we do at present.