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Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

Before I list my engagements, let me say that, sadly, I am sure the whole House will wish once again to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Ben Leaning and Trooper Kristen Turton of The Queen’s Royal battlegroup, who were killed in Iraq last Thursday, and Kingsman Alan Jones of the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, killed in Iraq on Monday. Those young men were brave and committed soldiers; they died in the service of their country, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

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.

The whole House will wish to join the Prime Minister in offering condolences to the families of the brave soldiers who lost their lives, and will also be joyful in welcoming back the Staffordshire Regiment, which has just returned from Iraq.

Despite claims that a full consultation is taking place in Staffordshire, Labour-controlled Staffordshire county council has announced the closure of all residential care homes and day centres within the next two years. We recognise that change must come about, but it should be phased in over time. Many elderly people are worried about their future and have no relatives to look after them. What can the Prime Minister do to ensure that, in Staffordshire at least, this change is phased in gradually over time?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there have been meetings between my hon. Friend the care services Minister and local Members of Parliament, and I am happy to facilitate a similar meeting between the Minister and the hon. Gentleman. In fairness to Staffordshire council, it does understand that this has to be done in a planned and careful way. As I understand it, what it is trying to do is move from the current situation whereby it has responsibility for about 4,000 people, of whom about 10 per cent. are in its residential care homes. It wants to move those people into the independent sector and to improve community services, and it is willing to invest an extra £19 million to do that. It is important that the consultation is undertaken properly, and it has listened carefully to the representations that have been made. As the hon. Gentleman implied in his question, it also believes that it is right to make these changes in the interests of elderly people and those in residential care homes, but, of course, that must be done with a great deal of care.

Q2. At the weekend, I met a group of my constituents whose lives have been made a misery over a long period by the antisocial behaviour of two neighbouring families. Will the Prime Minister outline the range of powers that are available to local councils to deal with such issues, and can he give any explanation of why Milton Keynes council seems to be so disinclined to take effective action in this case and in other similar cases? Could that be because it is Liberal Democrat controlled? (133605)

Yes, a full range of powers is now available under antisocial behaviour laws. The powers range from antisocial behaviour orders to dispersal orders, and to, for example, evicting people who are using homes for dealing drugs. They are important powers and where they are being used by local councils and the local police they are making a real difference to people’s lives. The Liberal Democrats voted against those powers—quite wrongly, because they help people—and it appears that even the leader of the Conservative party called them short-term and costly, bureaucratic and counter-productive. They are not counter-productive for families in communities who desperately need that help. The powers are necessary in order to make life workable for the vast majority of people in all communities who live in a law-abiding way.

I join the Prime Minister in sending condolences to the friends and families of Ben Leaning, Kristen Turton and Alan Jones, who have been killed in Iraq in the past week. We all pay tribute to their memory.

Last night, Peter Clarke, one of the most senior officers in the Metropolitan police, spoke about leaks of anti-terrorism operations to the press. In his words, the people who do this

“to squeeze out short-term presentational advantage … compromise investigations … put lives at risk”

and “are beneath contempt”. He referred specifically to the recent investigations in Birmingham, where the press seemed to know about the arrests almost before they took place. Does the Prime Minister share both Mr. Clarke’s analysis and his concerns?

I share his analysis entirely, and let me say that I completely deprecate any leaks of sensitive information that can impede terrorist investigations, which are immensely important in protecting this country’s security. I understand that Peter Clarke has said today that he is not making any allegations in respect of anybody. However, what he is saying is that there can never be any justification for doing this, and I entirely agree.

Both the shadow Home Secretary and the shadow Attorney-General have been pressing this issue for some time, and Mr. Clarke’s remarks today show that their concerns were well-founded. Can the Prime Minister give a guarantee that leaks about the operation in Birmingham did not come from any Minister, civil servant or special adviser?

The only guarantee that I can give is that as far as I am aware, they did not, but let me make it absolutely clear that I completely condemn any leaks of sensitive information from whatever quarter. However, I do not think it right to leave an allegation suggesting that there may be a Minister who has done this, unless the right hon. Gentleman has actual evidence that that is so. I would have thought that everyone should understand that, particularly when the police are conducting very sensitive operations and there is the potential for significant loss of life, it is incredibly important that that information be kept confidential and tight, and as far as I am aware, that is the case.

As the Prime Minister says, this is a very serious issue, so will he confirm that a full-scale leak inquiry is under way?

I am not going to confirm that. However, if there is any evidence at all that people have been engaged deliberately in leaking information of this sort, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will take the strongest possible action in respect of whomsoever it may be.

The Prime Minister says that he is pretty certain that it is not a Minister or a special adviser, but if he has not had a leak inquiry, how on earth can he know? I am sure that the Prime Minister understands the damage that the culture of leak and spin has done to his Government, and when it comes to national security, this can actually cost lives. So will he today—today—confirm that he will establish an independent leak inquiry led by a senior and independent figure: yes or no?

No, I will not confirm that, and for this very simple reason. If the right hon. Gentleman has evidence that someone has been involved in such a thing, I will of course have it properly investigated, but I am not going to have a situation in which he simply makes this allegation and leaves it hanging there, without any evidence to back it up whatever. If I were being unkind, I would call that a smear.

The Prime Minister is committed to an NHS that delivers the right care to patients at the right time and in the right place. Will he show his commitment to the carrying out of a feasibility study regarding the establishment of an urgent care centre on the Ormskirk site of Southport and Ormskirk hospital? That would be much appreciated by those of my constituents who have campaigned long and hard for the return of such a service.

As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter for local primary care services and the local primary care trust to determine, but I understand that a full assessment is being made of the advantages of having a primary care assessment centre at Ormskirk. The importance of such centres is that they are part of bringing care closer to the community, of reducing some of the pressure on local hospitals, and of the different way in which we are delivering health care services in today’s world. As my hon. Friend also knows, there has been a dramatic fall in waiting times and lists in her area, along with the improved treatment of cancer and heart disease. It is important that we have primary care facilities that are appropriate for the type of care available in the 21st century. So I am pleased that this assessment is being made, and I wish it well.

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

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that Members of Parliament should be exempt from freedom of information legislation? Why should there be one law for MPs and a different law for everyone else?

I think that this is a matter for the House, which can make its view known about it. Since the Bill in question is a private Member’s Bill that is before the House, it would obviously not be appropriate for the Government to make a commitment one way or another.

Does the Prime Minister not understand that the failure of the Government to oppose this Bill, which emanates from a former Conservative Chief Whip, undermines their own legislation and simply persuades people outside here that Parliament has something to hide? Does the Prime Minister support this shoddy Bill: yes or no?

I am not going to express a view on this, but I will point out that in this House and elsewhere, we have one of the most transparent systems anywhere in the world. Occasionally, Members of Parliament should stand up for the public service that they give and do. [Interruption.] Well, I happen to think that the majority of Members of Parliament in this House—from whatever political party—do a good public service job in the interests of their constituents, and against the background of a more transparent system than most countries in the world have.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree that the re-opening of St. George’s hall by Prince Charles, the halving of unemployment and the 40 per cent. increase in Government funding for education in Liverpool show the Government’s commitment to the people of the city? As the people of Liverpool go to the polls, will my right hon. Friend suggest what additional support the Government could give to ensure that the city’s growing success is shared by all its citizens? (133606)

The story of the renaissance of Liverpool, including regeneration, the new proposals for schooling, which have increased results fantastically, and the fact that it will be the European capital of culture next year indicate that the Government’s huge and strong support for the city has yielded real benefits to the people over the past few years. The best thing that they could do is to vote Labour in the local elections.

I wish to return to the subject of the 125,000 people who lost their occupational pensions when their pension schemes collapsed. In the last week, the Minister for Pensions Reform has said explicitly that all those covered by the financial assistance scheme will get 80 per cent. of their pension. Vitally, he said that that 80 per cent. level of support will be from the taxpayer and will not depend on unclaimed assets. Of course, we would like 90 per cent. to be paid.

Given that thousands of those affected have already reached retirement age and are not getting the 80 per cent., will the Prime Minister look again at the issue of a Treasury loan so that he can start to make those payments straight away?

Let us nail down the issue of 80 per cent., 90 per cent. or 100 per cent. I am sure that we would all like to give everyone 100 per cent. of what they want all the time, but it has to be paid for. Even with a payment of £8 billion, we can only afford as much as 80 per cent. We are prepared to look at any measures, and we have looked at the Treasury loan idea. Having looked at it, we do not think that it is a suitable or correct way to try to provide that help. In the end, it all has to be paid back. It is like the right hon. Gentleman’s policy on unclaimed assets. We are happy to look at the issue and in the next few months we will report on it, but I cannot make promises to people on the basis of some unspecified Treasury loan that would have to be paid back or the idea that there is a pot of gold lying about in bank accounts, building society accounts or pension fund accounts that we can lift up and give to people. Life does not work like that.

I do not think that the Prime Minister understands the point. Many of those people have reached retirement age. Some of them, such as my constituent John Brookes—who is 67, has leukaemia and paid into a company pension scheme for 40 years —are desperately in need of the money. Given that the Government have said that he will get 80 per cent. of his money anyway, why not use a Treasury loan and start the payments now?

That would have a financial consequence, which we would have to meet. I am totally sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent and to others, and it is only under this Government that any help has been available to people in those circumstances. I am happy to correspond with the right hon. Gentleman about the problems with the Treasury loan idea. What I will not do is say to his constituent or any others that I will promise something unless I am sure that we can actually deliver it within the financial means that the Government have.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the cuts to the voluntary sector by Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham council? Our local law centre has been cut by 60 per cent. and organisations helping refugees, the homeless and the unemployed have been cut by 100 per cent. I thought that the Tories claimed to support the voluntary sector: can he explain what is going on?

What is happening is a metaphor for what would happen with a Conservative Government. Having said that they would support the maintenance of services, the Tories have instituted some £34 million of cuts in those services, which are having a damaging effect on some of the most vulnerable people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. People should understand that when they come to vote on 3 May.

Q4. Why is it that my constituents in the London borough of Bexley face cuts and the downgrading of NHS services of locally? Who does the Prime Minister think is responsible for that, and perhaps he will give an answer for which we would be grateful? (133607)

I do not believe that in the hon. Gentleman’s area health services are being degraded or downgraded. In fact, in the strategic health authority that covers his area there has been an investment of about £1.7 billion; there have been 27 LIFT—local improvement finance trust—schemes for primary care premises; there are about 16,000 more nurses and 2,500 more consultants. It is true—and I understand the problem in his area—that people are changing the way in which services are delivered, but that is for a very good reason that affects many constituencies, and I truly believe that the Conservative party has taken the wrong position. The reason services are being changed and reconfigured is that they are becoming more and more specialised, and it helps patients if they can gain access to more specialist services. That is not being driven by cost-cutting, because the NHS is receiving billions of pounds more. It is being driven by the fact that we have a changing health care system in a changing world.

In a most excellent report published today, Lord Lofthouse highlights the scandal of overpaid solicitors double-charging miners. Will the Prime Minister get the Department of Trade and Industry to write to every miner and miner’s widow who has put in a claim to highlight both the scheme’s success in paying out compensation and the way in which people can make a complaint to the Law Society if they have been doubled-charged by their solicitor?

I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Lord Lofthouse’s report is obviously very important, and I will certainly ask the DTI to look into his suggestion about how that is taken forward. As a result of the action that has already been taken, about £100 million of fees have been taken back from law firms. However, I would like to emphasise one thing: as a result of the measures that we have taken, we have paid out over £3 billion in miners’ compensation. I believe that for those who used to work down the mines and for mining communities that is something that would only ever have happened under a Labour Government.

Q5. In 1999, the Prime Minister made a personal pledge that within two years everybody would have access to an NHS dentist, regardless of where they lived. Eight years later, according to the British Dental Association, less than 50 per cent. of the adult population of this country is registered with an NHS dentist. In my own constituency, no dentists are currently taking on NHS patients. When does he expect that promise to be fulfilled? (133608)

It is, and has been, a real problem, and I entirely accept that. The reason is very simple: even though we have increased the number of NHS dentists, we cannot stop dentists going outside the NHS if they wish to do so. They are entitled to do so, and despite the fact that we are paying dentists far more and hiring far more of them in the NHS, we have not been able to fulfil that pledge. The majority of people can access an NHS dentist in their area if they want to do so, but the figure is not 100 per cent.—I accept that. Ultimately, that will be dealt with only by increasing still further the number of NHS dentists, and that is what we intend to do.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recently published crime statistics for London are thanks, at least in part, to the commitment that the Mayor of London has shown to safer neighbourhood teams? Does he agree, too, that local authorities have a part to play in fighting crime, but that it has hardly been played well by my local Liberal council in Islington, which, despite its recently trumpeted installation of CCTV cameras, has installed fewer cameras in the whole borough than Ken Livingstone has installed at Angel tube station?

I pay tribute to the work of the police, the Mayor of London and the local authorities that have used the powers and resources available to them. The other thing to which my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention is the fact that crime in London, particularly violent crime, has fallen significantly. That is extremely important, but she is right, too, in saying that a major reason for that is the neighbourhood policing teams and antisocial behaviour and other laws that the Government have introduced.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister have a word with his further education Minister and Minister with responsibility for regeneration and European funding to ask them to block a potential £20 million of taxpayers’ money being used to relocate Dartington college from one part of the south-west region to another? That would have a devastating impact on the south Devon economy. (133609)

I am perfectly happy to look into the matter, but I shall have to correspond with the hon. Gentleman about it as I do not know the details.

I was delighted to hear from my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that a video of Al Gore’s film will be released to all secondary schools. However, will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the local Conservative councillor who has taken the Government to judicial review over the decision?

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) can have a word with his local councillor and bring him into line, although I wish him better luck than most party leaders on that score. However, I think that it is a very important film, and I am sure that schools will enjoy seeing it. It is both entertaining and highly informative, and it deals with one of the most important issues in our politics today.

Q7. I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree with me and all members of this House about the need for conservation in the marine environment. The Government have published their White Paper, but, if the Prime Minister wants a legacy, does he think that it would be a good idea to give a firm commitment to introducing a marine Bill? Otherwise, could he leave a note for his successor? (133610)

As I recall, introducing a marine Bill was part of our manifesto so, given that the Parliament has not finished, we will no doubt proceed with it.

On the theme of the marine environment, my right hon. Friend will be aware that hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage were discharged into the Firth of Forth last weekend from a plant operated for Scottish Water by the privatised water company, Thames Water. Initial investigations have raised real concerns about the stand-by procedures and contingency plans at that plant. Will he ensure that Ministers work closely with the Scottish Executive to ensure that such procedural failures cannot be repeated elsewhere in the UK? In that way, we can ensure that no other community is damaged in the way that Edinburgh and the communities around the Firth of Forth have been damaged by that incident.

I entirely support the First Minister’s decision to hold a proper inquiry into the incident. I am sure that we will learn the lessons for Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Q8. With barely two weeks to go before the Prime Minister announces the timetable for his departure, will he share with the House what his greatest regret will be when he leaves No. 10 Downing street? (133611)

Having defeated the Conservative party three times at successive general elections, I think that it is probably the hon. Gentleman who should be expressing his greatest regret, not me.

Q9. A year ago, a brand new £7 million health centre opened in my constituency, and that was followed last month by the opening of a second health service facility. Together, they are transforming the primary care and community services available to my constituents. Inevitably, however, what my constituents want from the NHS is the £110 million redevelopment of North Middlesex hospital, which serves some of the most deprived communities in the country. We are nearly there, and the redevelopment is almost complete. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to assist with the project, so that we can start the new build in June this year? (133612)

I can tell my hon. Friend that, as a result of the decision taken in February, the project to which he refers will proceed, subject to a number of conditions being met. I hope that a full and proper announcement about that project will be made shortly, but it is only one of a scheme of changes that are being made across the country. Investment in that project amounts to £111 million, and the new wards will provide 150 in-patient beds. The development will house a diagnostic and treatment centre, an emergency care centre and an acute critical care centre. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is part of the changing pattern of health care. In 1997, the clear majority of NHS buildings were erected before the service came into existence, but that figure is now down to 25 per cent. That is the scale of the capital investment in the NHS that this Government have made.

Will the Prime Minister think again about his ill-considered plan to break up the Home Office, which has attracted such widespread criticism? Just for a moment or two, will he cast his mind back to those halcyon days when he was shadow Home Secretary, when of course the Department had a much wider remit than it does today? Does he share my recollection that at that time both he and the Home Secretary of the day were able to discharge their respective responsibilities perfectly competently and without any undue difficulty?

That is not exactly my recollection, actually. I recall that when we came into power, after the right hon. and learned Gentleman had been Home Secretary, the average time that an asylum claim took was 20 months and the backlog was 60,000. There had been a number of category A prison escapes. Although not under him, to be fair, but under the Conservative Government, crime had doubled, so I think that I prefer our experience to his.

Q10. The Prime Minister will recall that DAC Peter Clarke’s speech included a reference to the leaks leading to a damaging lack of trust in intelligence. What impact does he think the unfounded allegation made by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—that they might be the responsibility of Ministers or civil servants—will have on trust in intelligence? (133613)

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. If people have evidence, they should produce it; otherwise they should not make the allegation.

Q11. Over recent years, there has been a decline in the health service throughout the United Kingdom and the closure of schools, yet we see in the press today that the Government plan to spend £30 million to open an academy to teach parents to sing nursery rhymes to their children. How can the Government justify that? (133615)

At this moment in time I am loth to disagree with anything that anyone from the hon. Gentleman’s political party says. However, I cannot agree that we have cut spending on the health service or schools. I do not know the precise facts in respect of Northern Ireland, but the investment that has gone into health and education throughout the UK has been enormous. I gave a statistic about the health service a moment or two ago. More new schools have been built in this country in the past five years than were built in the previous 25. I do not know about the £30 million investment in nursery rhymes—that strikes me as not very likely—but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are making a huge investment in public services.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Avon and Somerset police on making full use of the powers given to them under antisocial behaviour legislation to close 56 crack dens, which is more than have been closed anywhere in the country outside London? Does he share my astonishment that the local council is claiming credit for this, given that its controlling party voted against the legislation that made that possible? (133616)

That is a fair point. My hon. Friend talks about the record on closing crack houses. When we introduced the power, the Conservative party told us that it was a gimmick, while the Lib Dems opposed it and said that it represented an interference in people’s civil liberties. It allows local authorities to evict people from a house—

The hon. Gentleman voted against these powers, did he not? He should be getting Liberal Democrat councils to stand up and thank the Labour Government for introducing the powers. When we next bring forward a new batch of powers, he should be voting for them, not against them.

My constituent, Jamil el-Banna, has been held in Guantanamo Bay for more than four years without charge, without trial and without hope. The British Government claim that they cannot intervene on behalf of a non-British citizen because they have no consular locus. Does not the return of Bisher al-Rawi entirely undermine that position?

No, I do not agree. It is important that we do not take on responsibility for people in those circumstances who are not British citizens. Although we have made clear our desire to see Guantanamo close and to make sure that the people there are subject to a proper trial, it is also always important to remember that there have been real issues about them and their conduct over a period of time. The hon. Lady should remember that this arose from 11 September and Afghanistan, so I am afraid that I cannot give her the assurance she wants.