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Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

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

Every year, approximately 33,000 pedestrians are killed or injured in road accidents, yet the Department for Transport has no idea how many accidents are caused by uninsured or disqualified drivers. For example, over a four-year period Sajjid Hussain from Rochdale—

Order. Supplementary questions should be brief. I think that the Prime Minister will be able to answer.

How we deal with fatalities and injuries arising from road accidents is a very important matter. Over the past few years, the number of fatalities has fallen significantly, especially among children. That is a major achievement, but the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there are too many people without proper insurance on our roads. That is one reason why we are looking at ways to toughen the penalties for people who drive without insurance, and it is also why the police are able to make spot checks to discover who those drivers are.

My right hon. Friend is also First Lord of the Treasury, so may I ask him which of the following he finds preferable: a Chancellor of the Exchequer who follows policies imposed on him by Whitehall mandarins that drive us into the exchange rate mechanism and create economic havoc, or one who carries out Labour party policies that have created record employment levels and unparalleled prosperity for this country?

My right hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. Some people remember that, under the Conservatives, we had Black Wednesday, interest rates at 15 per cent., 3 million unemployed and an economy in recession. This Chancellor has delivered the longest period of economic growth in our history and we should be proud of that.

I do not know why the Home Secretary is smiling—he will soon be running a power station in Siberia.

The beating of Morgan Tsvangirai last week demonstrated the depths to which Zimbabwe has sunk under Robert Mugabe. Will the Prime Minister confirm what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday—that the Government will press the EU for an extension of sanctions against Zimbabwe? Specifically, what will he do to make sure that that happens?

We will press the EU to widen the political sanctions that were introduced in 2002 very much as a result of prompting by Britain. We will seek to extend the assets freeze and travel ban as far as we can, but it is also important that we take action in the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council. We will be urging partners in both those institutions to make strong statements against what is happening in Zimbabwe, because that is appalling, disgraceful and utterly tragic for the people of Zimbabwe.

I am grateful for that answer, but may I press the Prime Minister specifically on how the sanctions will be widened? Will he make sure that the scope of the assets freeze is widened, and that EU visas and residence permits for those on the EU sanctions list are cancelled? In addition, will he ensure that the governor of Zimbabwe’s central bank is added to the list? Crucially, will he also ensure that none of those people, including Mugabe, is invited to the EU-African Union summit later this year?

In respect of the summit, the very reason it has not taken place for a significant period of time has been problems over Zimbabwe. However, as well as extending sanctions on assets, the travel ban and so on, the most important thing is for us to make sure that other African countries, particularly in the neighbourhood of Zimbabwe, do everything they possibly can to make it clear that this is a disaster not just for the people of Zimbabwe but for the reputation of good governance in Africa.

The right hon. Gentleman and I met the President of Ghana last week. Ghana is a country that has got on its feet, held democratic elections and is doing extremely well, giving an example of model governance to the rest of Africa. It will be tragic for the reputation of Africa if Zimbabwe is allowed to remain in the state it is in.

Specifically on that point, will the Prime Minister be having further discussions with Thabo Mbeki on that vital issue? What does he think can be done throughout South Africa and across the whole international community to isolate that despotic regime and ensure that it is no longer able to bring desolation, poverty and tyranny to the people of Zimbabwe?

Obviously, we will do everything we can with the South African Government and others. In addition, the UK Government and therefore, through the Government’s financial support to people in Zimbabwe, the UK people have provided £140 million over the past five years to try to help the poorest people in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean Government say that we are not prepared to help with land resettlement, but we have said that we will set aside a specific sum to help with the problem, provided that the money is routed through the UN Development Programme and not through the Zimbabwean Government.

Let us be clear, however. The solution to Zimbabwe, ultimately, will not come simply through pressure applied by Britain. Pressure has to be applied within Africa, in particular in the African Union, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do all we can to make sure that Africa realises that it is a responsibility for Africa as well as for the Zimbabwean Government.

I am sure the whole House will unite in sending sympathy to the family of my constituent, Kodjo Yenga, who is yet another of the teenagers who have met a violent death on the streets of London in recent weeks. Is my right hon. Friend aware that far too many children and young people fear violence, crime and bullying on the streets, and even in our schools? Does he agree that although effective policing and strong deterrents for violent crime play a vital role, it is also crucial that we redouble our efforts to engage with our young people, to talk to them and invest in strategies that will deter them from violent crime and the gang culture?

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. However, it is important to recognise that in London overall violent crime was down by more than 5 per cent. last year and gun crime was down by almost 14 per cent. In addition, we are taking new measures on knives and the use of knives under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. It is also important to recognise that the problem is specific to specific cultures in specific of our inner cities, so we have to take very specific measures in respect, obviously, of the help and support we give young people, but also where families are dysfunctional and out of control and causing real problems to the whole of their neighbourhood. We shall outline some of those proposals in the coming weeks.

I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy from the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on behalf of her constituent.

Is the Prime Minister disappointed that after 10 years in government the gap in wealth between the rich and the poor in this country is greater than it was under Margaret Thatcher?

That is simply not correct. [Interruption.] No, it is not. It is absolutely correct that wealthy people have got wealthier, but it is also correct that the poorest have got wealthier, too. Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman how they have got wealthier. [Hon. Members: “The gap!”] I am sorry, he is absolutely wrong. Those at the bottom end have actually done extremely well over the last 10 years. Let me tell him why—[Interruption.] Tories shake their heads, but people have done well because of the minimum wage, which the Tories opposed. They have done well because of the tax credits, which the Tories opposed. They have done well because of extra child benefit, which the Tories opposed. I do not know whether the Lib Dems ever had policy positions on any of those things.

Let us be absolutely clear. The average family, particularly with children, has done better under this Government. We have not penalised high earners, but we have helped the lowest earners a great deal.

Will the Prime Minister engage with the argument? How can he possibly be satisfied when the poorest in this country pay a higher proportion of their income in taxation than the richest? How can that possibly be fair?

That is simply not correct. [Interruption.] No, it is not correct. As a result—[Interruption.] Sorry, but as a result of the measures that we have taken, families who are on the lowest incomes do not pay tax until far higher up the income scale than they used to. If we look at how the lowest earners are treated in this country, we see that it is infinitely better than 10 years ago. It now compares very well with other European countries. So as well as the Chancellor having delivered the highest employment rate, the lowest unemployment for 30 years, low interest rates, and the strongest economic growth, he has done a lot for income inequality too.

In a diverse constituency such as Tooting, a good museum can be invaluable in teaching young people in a stimulating way about local history and local heritage. It can give young people a real sense of belonging. Despite a generous grant settlement, Wandsworth council is considering closing down Wandsworth museum. The council meets next week to make its final decision. What does the Prime Minister think about a local council risking community cohesion and choosing tax cuts over public services?

The museums do an immense amount of good for our young people and the broader community. As a result of our introducing free entry for our national museums, we have had millions more people going to museums—some of them from some of the lowest-income families. What my hon. Friend draws attention to is the reality of Tory government.

Q2. In my constituency, local arts organisations such as Beaford Arts and the Plough theatre and dozens of community, sports and charitable organisations are doing immensely valuable work for the rural communities that they serve. What can the Prime Minister say to reassure them that that work will not be damaged by the draining of lottery funds to the Olympic games? (128692)

We will certainly make sure that those projects are not the casualty of any problems to do with funding. As a matter of fact, we have already said that projects that have got funding agreed will continue to have that funding agreed. In addition to that, the core funding for the arts has gone up by some 73 per cent. in real terms since we came to power. The reason why a lot of those projects are supported in the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere is precisely the investment that we have made.

Q3. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a wealth of independent evidence that the Labour party’s and Labour’s Government’s commitment to education over the last 10 years has borne fruit right across the educational spectrum? But is he also aware that there is still a real problem with staying-on rates at 16 and the number of young people not in education, employment or training? Will he continue to campaign and have the right policies to keep young people in work, employment, and training, and will he put his back—his efforts—into the new diplomas that we all want to come in from September 2008? (128693)

Yes. In particular, obviously, we will keep the investment going in our schools and also in the apprenticeship programmes. We will make sure, as I think that my hon. Friend will find from later announcements, that we do even more to encourage young people to stay on at school and to go into proper training. Of course, it is important that we provide the proper training for them, and that is why the quadrupling of the number of apprenticeships since 1997 has been very important. I was told yesterday, when visiting the Department for Education and Skills, that more new schools have been built in the last five years than were built in the previous 25. Going round the country, I can see, as I am sure he can, how the programme for refurbishing and rebuilding every school in the country is not just doing wonders for pupils, but is making sure that our school results go up, so that, whereas in 1997 there were only about 80 schools with over 70 per cent. of pupils getting five good GCSEs, the figure is now over 600.

The 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade in the British empire is the right time to acknowledge the pain and devastation that was caused by that evil trade. Does the Prime Minister agree that the bicentenary should also be a reminder of those who are still suffering slavery in our world today? Will he confirm that 120,000 women are trafficked for sex in Europe every year and that some European countries have named Britain as the No. 1 destination? Does he think that that is accurate?

I do not know whether that is an accurate description—I certainly hope not. However, I do know that on Friday we will sign the convention on human trafficking. We will also ensure, through the measures that we are taking, especially in relation to serious and organised crime, that we do everything that we can not only to bring to justice those engaged in this appalling activity, but to try to disrupt those people’s activities by seizing their assets. When new measures on the seizure of assets and organised crime are proposed, I very much hope that we will get the full support of the House.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister will be signing the EU convention, as we suggested earlier this year.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the most useful things that we can do to end this sickening trade is to ensure that when women flee their captors, there is a safe place for them to go? Will he join me in praising the work of voluntary sector organisations, such as Sister Ann Teresa’s, that provide safe places up and down the country? Instead of listening to the man who is about to go off to the power station, will he make sure that the Government do all that they can to support those excellent voluntary bodies?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was pointing out that it is all very well for the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to say that he is in favour of supporting the voluntary sector and voluntary bodies, but he voted against the national offender management service Bill, which will allow people in precisely the situation that he describes to be helped by the voluntary sector. As a result of the additional funding that we have given to many of these voluntary bodies, we are able to help women in that situation. It is also important that they recognise that they will not be at a disadvantage if they come forward to give evidence against the people who have trafficked them. Part of the problem is that a lot of these women are ignorant of what is going to happen when they get to this country, and they are then very frightened of what will happen if they give evidence against the people who have trafficked them.

Does my right hon. Friend also accept that opportunities for all young people, especially those engaged in sport, and the regeneration of east London are priceless?

I agree with both the first and the second part of what my hon. Friend says. The most important thing to understand is that the Olympics will not merely be a huge showcase for the country, but that they will result in thousands of jobs being created, thousands of new homes being built and the development of state-of-the-art facilities that will be there for the whole country. The Olympics will benefit people in my constituency and her constituency, as well as people in London. They are a fantastic thing for the country, and I know that the country is proud of them.

Q4. The Prime Minister will be aware that the Government’s target for ambulances responding to life-threatening emergencies is that they should reach 75 per cent. of such cases in eight minutes. The local ambulance trust in my constituency manages to reach only 45 per cent. of such life-threatening emergencies in eight minutes. I do not think that that is good enough. What does the Prime Minister intend to do about it? (128694)

In fairness to the ambulance and paramedic services in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I think that he will find that they will tell him that they have improved considerably over the past few years. Massive investment is going into our ambulance services and paramedics, although of course we always have to improve on it. However, I heard for myself the other day from people who had been treated for heart disease that as a result of the work done by paramedics today, as well as the additional number of consultants, doctors and nurses working on heart disease, we have saved some 100,000 lives over the past 10 years. I do not doubt that there are significant improvements still to be made, but the health service in the hon. Gentleman’s area and others is getting better.

Since the European Union will this weekend be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome, and since the Prime Minister will be attending the European Council meeting in June, can he confirm that the recent agenda on the environment is one that can unite all the peoples of Europe in this continued forward march?

As I pointed out to the House the other day, I think that it is very important that the issue of climate change should become a major question and challenge for the European Union. We have now agreed a very ambitious and bold set of targets. As I pointed out to the House—as it is slightly fuller now than it was for the last European statement, I might just repeat it—there was one member of the European Council who was against including climate change as one of the forward projects of the European Union, and that was the Czech Prime Minister.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting the National Autistic Society’s campaign to “make schools make sense”, and will he agree to meet me and a leading campaigner, Ivan Corea from my constituency, to discuss the inadequacies of services across the country? (128695)

I do not know enough about the details of that particular campaign to give an endorsement to it, but I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and the campaign to discuss it. Autism is a very serious issue that has to be taken seriously by our medical services and schools.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister agree that the cause of efficient energy use in future will be better served by encouraging energy companies to enter into contracts with consumers, in which they agree to invest in methods of reducing energy use and to share the savings? Would that not be better than the companies continuing to endeavour to sell as much energy as possible to customers? Is he pressing for progress in developing ways of doing that, as suggested and outlined in the energy review? (128696)

There is no doubt at all that it will be impossible to meet our CO2 emissions targets unless we also do much more on energy efficiency. My hon. Friend will know of the very strict new regulations on energy efficiency for the building of new homes. Work is being done by the Carbon Trust and others, and obviously there are plans to switch to low-energy light bulbs and so on that are immensely important. One fact that shows the significance of small changes is the fact that if every home had at least three low-energy light bulbs, it would save the amount of energy used for the whole country’s street lighting, so there is a massive amount that we can do. Again, over the next few weeks, we will announce further proposals on that issue.

Will the Prime Minister kindly explain why, in relation to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, he has treated the House of Commons with contempt, and why, in relation to the question of unequal treatment, he has given those who stand for gay rights preference over those who are concerned with conscience, family and religion?

I am afraid that I just do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. First of all, we have had a very full debate on the issue in public, and we have followed exactly the procedure that we said we would follow in relation to the regulations. I am afraid that in the end there is a basic choice; he takes the view that there should be discrimination against gay people in respect of this—

Well, it is no use him shaking his head; that is the impact of voting against the regulations. I happen to think that we can, if we are sensible, find a way of preventing discrimination against gay people, while allowing Catholic adoption agencies to carry on doing the excellent work that they do. It is a difficult balance to strike, but I believe that we have struck the right balance, and I think that most sensible people would agree with it.

Q7. What progress has been made to widen and deepen the EU emissions trading scheme, particularly in respect of aviation; and is it not the case that international agreements of that kind will have greater effect in reducing carbon emissions than proposed plans to restrict individual travellers? (128697)

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says, which is why I am opposed to the Opposition’s proposals to—I think—put VAT on domestic flights. We have got to be very clear about this: the fact is that people are going to travel. Indeed, there is no possibility whatever of trying to restrict access to airlines now, in a modern world where people want that access. I think that the right way of dealing with the issue, as my hon. Friend rightly implies, is to deal with it within the European Union emissions trading system. It allows us to bring aviation within that system, which we will do from 2011 onwards, and it allows us therefore to move in concert with other countries. If we end up penalising our passengers in this country, it will do us no good at all.

Q8. We all want to be cleaner and greener, and have a cleaner and greener environment, but in Hertfordshire, we have massive road congestion, groaning infrastructure and high pollution. St. Albans has one of the largest CO2 footprints in Hertfordshire, so will the Government listen to my residents’ concerns, and stop ratcheting up the housing totals that are imposed on us? (128698)

I understand why the hon. Lady raises that concern, but the truth of the matter is that we need more homes in the south and elsewhere, particularly for couples and first-time buyers who need to get a foot on the first rung of the housing ladder. We will not be able to deal with the housing problems of an expanded number of households unless we build new homes. We will protect the green belt—in fact, we have increased it. We have dramatically increased the amount of new build on brownfield sites, but it is not a realistic policy, I am afraid, to say that there will be no more house building in the south-east.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister will take the opportunity to tell the House what plans are being discussed to cope with the possibility of tens of thousands of migrants entering England, Wales and Northern Ireland from a future independent Scotland because of a failed independent Scottish economy?

The best plan is to make sure that it does not happen. Certainly, the recent proposal for a 3p local income tax is a very timely reminder of why it is better that Scotland remain inside the United Kingdom.

Q9. Sir Michael Lyons has said that the council tax places too heavy a burden on pensioners. Does the Prime Minister agree? (128699)

It is for precisely that reason that we asked Sir Michael to look at the way in which council tax works, and he has published his report today. It is one reason why we have given more support for pensioners, although I do not think that there will ever be a situation in which local taxes are popular.

Early-day motion 992, signed by 84 MPs, concerns the injustice done to a local community football team, AFC Wimbledon, whose hopes of promotion are over because it has been docked 18 points. It did not know that one of its players, who previously played for Cardiff City in the English championship, needed a—[Interruption.]

Order. I must be able to hear the hon. Lady to find out whether she is out of order. I cannot hear her if hon. Members are shouting her down.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. AFC Wimbledon did not know that it needed an international registration for that player to cross the river Severn to play football in south London. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give his support to the thousands of football supporters up and down the country who believe that there should be justice for everyone’s teams, whether in the Ryman or the premier league?

Actually, I agree with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right: it sounds like a daft rule, and someone should change it.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman something. Fortunately, one of the things that I have not had to be bothered about in the past 10 years is the running of the economy, because the Chancellor has done such a good job. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends must realise that in the end, that is what people will judge his record on—the results. Those results mean that in constituencies such as his, as well as in the constituencies of Labour Members, there are more people in work, people are earning more, living standards are rising and interest rates are at levels not heard of for years and years and years. As a result, schools in his constituency have had money put into them, the health service has had money put into it, and there are more police on the streets. That is the difference between a Chancellor who delivers and a Conservative party that failed.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see the recent analytical report in the Daily Record that highlighted the potential loss of thousands of jobs in the shipbuilding industry in Scotland? If those who wish to break up the UK are successful, does he agree that that is an act of unpardonable folly, and something that all of us should be bothered about?

It is an extraordinary situation when it is suggested that we break up the oil and gas industry and the way that it works, and that we break up institutions like defence and shipbuilding which have done so much for the people of Scotland. Scotland has had 200,000 extra jobs in the past few years, living standards have risen, there has been massive investment in education and health, and that is why I am sure people will not want to put that at risk.

Q11. Next week the Government are to reply to the all-party parliamentary group’s report on anti-Semitism. Given that we indicate in the report that the problem is growing, albeit subtly, in Britain and that there are blatant examples of anti-Semitism breaking out across Europe, will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government’s response is full and sufficient for our needs in this country, and also exemplary for other countries that may want to look at the matter further? (128701)

I certainly undertake to do so. I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. It is important that we respond positively to that report—I am sure we will do so—in order to make it clear that anti-Semitism or any form of racism is unacceptable in this country. The hon. Gentleman is also right that this is a good and timely moment to send a signal across Europe too.