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Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will once again wish to join me in sending our profound sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jeremy Brookes of 4th Battalion the Rifles, who was killed in Iraq this week by a terrorist bomb. He and others before him died working towards a safer, more secure world and we pay tribute to him.

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.

I am sure that the whole House wants to be associated with the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and indeed with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, that lobbying firms such as Bell Pottinger and DLA Piper that do not sign up to the industry’s voluntary ethical code of standards, which requires transparency in regard to all clients, should seriously consider doing so?

As I understand it, this is an area that the Public Administration Committee is going to look at. We will of course pay careful attention to the study that it undertakes and to the conclusions that it comes to.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Jeremy Brookes and I also pay tribute to Lance Corporal George Davey, who died after a tragic accident at a British base in Afghanistan.

With more than 40 maternity units under threat in the NHS, including five in Greater Manchester, would the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop the closure programme and think again?

I certainly would not advise stopping a change programme that is absolutely necessary in order to provide the best care for patients. Part of that will of course involve more specialist services, whereby those who need specialist help get it and those who do not need it get a more routine service. That is entirely sensible. It is being clinically driven. We are actually putting more money into maternity services in Manchester and elsewhere.

Let me just point out to the right hon. Gentleman two reports that came out within the last week. First, the Healthcare Commission reported that 90 per cent. of patients said that the health care that they received inside the NHS was “excellent” or “good”. Secondly, there is the international survey that ranks the UK’s NHS top, ahead of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the United States of America. One of the reasons for that is the investment that we put in, which he opposed, and the other reason is the necessary changes, which he is now also opposing.

So let us be absolutely clear: the closure programme is continuing—that is what we have learned—even though deputy leadership candidates are appearing on picket lines and objecting and even though the former chairman of the British Medical Association says that morale in the NHS is at a 30-year low. Across the country, accident and emergency departments are under threat, including five in London. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop that closure programme?

I will give exactly the same response that I gave to the last question, because we are being advised—with the greatest respect, by those who know better than the right hon. Gentleman how to deliver health care in this country—that these changes are necessary. Let us be absolutely clear. At the same time that these changes are happening, waiting lists and times are falling and cancer and cardiac treatments are improving, as is the standard of care in the NHS. It was extraordinary that he made a speech earlier this week in which he said that if the Conservatives were returned to power, he would abolish all NHS targets. Let us be quite clear: that would mean that there would be no minimum waiting times, no fall in the waiting lists, no ability for people to see cancer specialists within two weeks and no maximum waits in accident and emergency. That might get him a round of applause from certain parts of the medical profession, but it is not in the interest of patients.

The Prime Minister asks who he should listen to. I will tell him who he should listen to: the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who says:

“I have never seen so much money wasted…It must be a personal tragedy for Tony Blair. In the recesses of his mind, he must be saying: ‘What the hell has gone wrong?’”

Hospitals are closing, 27,000 jobs were lost in the last year, thousands of junior doctors are being lost by the NHS and public confidence in Labour is at an all-time low, so would the Prime Minister advise his successor—he can ask him now; it is a bit like proximity talks today—to keep the Health Secretary in post?

These are decisions for my right hon. Friend. However, let me point out that, while the right hon. Gentleman says that we have lost thousands of jobs in the NHS, there are now 250,000 more people employed by the NHS. He says that hospitals are closing, but the biggest hospital building programme is now under way. When we came to power, more than half the NHS stock had been built before the NHS came into existence, but the figure is now less than 25 per cent. We have more doctors, lower waiting times and smaller waiting lists. All that the right hon. Gentleman is doing is simply supporting groups that are opposed to change, which I understand. However, the changes are delivering better outcomes for patients. When we get, as we will, at the end of next year to a maximum in-patient and out-patient wait of 18 weeks, including diagnostics—when we effectively abolish waiting in the national health service—it will be because of the decisions taken by this Government and in spite of the positions taken by him.

Everyone in the NHS and the country will have noticed that the Prime Minister has hanged his Health Secretary out to dry. Does he not realise the damage that it does to have a lame duck Health Secretary in post for another month?

Let us look at another Minister who is not up to the job. Last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told us that the court case against home information packs was “completely groundless” and had no impact on policy. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told us that the court case was the very reason why they had to be all but abandoned. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to keep the Housing Minister in post?

I most certainly will not advise—[Interruption.] I will not advise abandoning the programme or the home information packs at all. It is extraordinary that the Conservative party is opposing energy performance certificates—[Interruption.] Yes, it is absolutely typical. The right hon. Gentleman says that he cares about the environment, but when there is a specific measure to help the environment, he opposes it. He opposed the climate change levy and he now opposes energy performance certificates. He cannot say where he stands on nuclear power or any of the issues in today’s White Paper. The fact of the matter, as ever, is that when it comes to serious politics, we take the decisions, he makes the gestures.

Everybody knows that energy performance certificates could be introduced anyway—that fig leaf is not even green. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, the Housing Minister—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister should listen—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Well, he is not going to be here much longer.

The Prime Minister’s Housing Minister led us to believe that there were 1,100 registered home inspectors ready to go. Yesterday, it was admitted that there were fewer than half that number. Never mind what the next Prime Minister is going to do; what on earth is the Minister still doing in her job?

First, let me say that more than 3,000 people have passed their exams and can now get accreditation. Now that the court case has been dealt with, those people can come forward and be accredited. I thought that it was amazing that the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the energy performance certificate. As he supports its introduction, is it not sensible to make the introduction at the point of sale of a house so that buyers can see what measures they can take to protect the environment? After all, as all the environmental groups point out, 25 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions come from households. Why is the right hon. Gentleman opposed to this measure if he supports the energy performance certificate?

I know the walls of the bunker are pretty thick, but has the Prime Minister not noticed that this policy has completely collapsed? He told us that he had so much to do in his dying weeks, yet home information packs are in chaos, he set up a Ministry of Justice without even telling his Lord Chancellor, and he is doing nothing to stop the cuts, the closures and the plummeting morale in the health service. The chairman of the British Medical Association resigned on Sunday and he will leave office on Friday. Is not that an example that the Prime Minister should follow?

I think that it is instructive to look at what both parties have been doing this week. Today, we have the energy White Paper—a major task to ensure that we have energy security for the future. Yesterday, we had the draft Local Transport Bill, which allows us to reregulate the buses and introduce local road pricing. On Monday, we had the planning proposals, which are supported by industry and, incidentally, opposed by the Conservative party. And we have digital X-ray imaging for the national health service. That is what we have been doing. What has the right hon. Gentleman been doing?—trying to persuade his party that grammar schools are not the answer to education. I happen to agree with him, but frankly that is an argument from the stone age. Therefore while the Labour party has been getting on with the serious business of politics, he cannot even take his party with him on that issue.

Will the Prime Minister invite the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accompany him to the European Union summit? Does he realise that not to do so would appear churlish and discourteous and that the British people require that the Prime Minister-elect be there, accompanying him and sharing in decisions that cannot be reversed?

I assure my hon. Friend that the position that is taken in the European summit will be the position of the Government. We have already set out that position: we do not want a constitutional treaty; we want a simplifying amending treaty, and I am sure that we will manage to get it.

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

Can the Prime Minister explain why, in his manifestos of 1997, 2001 and 2005, he did not seek a mandate for renewed generation by nuclear power stations? Why is he so hellbent on nuclear power now? [Interruption.]

Sorry, I missed that one. [Interruption.] No, I do not think that that is reasonable.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will explain today, we are 80 to 90 per cent. self-sufficient in oil and gas at the moment, but that will decline—completely in relation to gas and largely in relation to oil. In addition, a lot of our fleet of power stations will become obsolete and our nuclear power stations will become obsolete. If we want to have secure energy supplies and reduce CO2 emissions, we have to put nuclear power on the agenda. If people are not prepared to do that, I would like them to explain how we will manage to reduce the dramatic decline in our self-sufficiency that I have described, and how we will be able, through wind power or renewables, to make up the huge deficit that nuclear power will leave. If we are about serious policy making, we have to confront and take decisions on those issues.

It came out very clearly in the Cabinet Office review of 2003. Why is the Prime Minister so committed to nuclear power, in a way that suggests that he disregards the issues of risk, cost and toxic waste? Where is the investment in wave, wind and tidal power and clean-coal technology, which would give us a secure, non-nuclear future?

First, we are boosting renewable energy significantly, but let us be absolutely clear: we will not be able to make up through wind farms all of the deficit from nuclear power—we just will not be able to do it. In addition, we have had nuclear power in this country for more than half a century without the problems to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention. I also urge him to look round the world. He will see that at the present time—I think that I am right in saying this—there are something like 70 to 80 new proposals for nuclear power stations, and that is for a perfectly sensible reason. Every country round the world is looking at two problems: securing energy supply with sufficient diversity, and reducing CO2 emissions. The reason why we should look at nuclear power as an option is that if we do not, we are—in my view, for reasons of ideology—simply putting it to one side when plainly many others around the world are coming to the opposite conclusion.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to extend its sympathies to my constituents, Bill and Julia Hawker, whose 22-year-old daughter Lindsay was murdered in Japan some two months ago. Although the police over there have been doing their best to apprehend the killer, they have not been successful, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue yesterday in a visit to Japan. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to talk to the Prime Minister of Japan, to put his authority behind the effort to ensure that the killer is caught, and to ensure that the Japanese state police are involved? Finally, I ask him to get the Prime Minister of Japan to invite someone from the UK police on to the case as an observer, so that they can provide a good link back to Mr. and Mrs. Hawker, who need some essential support.

First, may I join with my hon. Friend in extending my sympathy and condolences to the Hawker family? As he knows, the Foreign Office has been closely in touch with the family throughout, and it is important that we continue to provide all possible assistance. I also understand that the Japanese authorities are treating it as a major case; there are something like 100 police officers or more working on it. However, I will reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend is saying, both in relation to the Japanese Prime Minister and in respect of any help that the British police can give, and I will come back to him on those points. In the mean time, I assure him that we will keep in the closest possible contact with the family.

Q4. Considering the massive health deficits and high council taxes in the east of England, may I tell the Prime Minister how interested my constituents would be to know that in Scotland public spending per head is higher by 40 per cent.? In retrospect, does the Prime Minister consider that to have been a worthwhile investment? (138665)

I do support the Barnett formula, as a matter of fact. It is there for very specific reasons, and it has been there for almost 30 years. Let us be absolutely clear: as well as the extra investment that has gone into Scotland, with the Barnett formula applying there, there has been extra investment in education and health, not least in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He need only look around to see the massive amount of investment in, for example, new health care facilities in his constituency, schools in his constituency, and programmes such as Sure Start and the new deal. Of course, the Barnett formula will no doubt continue to be an issue of dispute, for the Conservative party at least, but I think that we have put a major amount of investment into our public services, and that investment is paying off.

Q5. Our mutual friend the Chancellor has spoken about rebuilding trust in public life. Does my friend agree with me that the best way forward would be to transfer responsibility for the appointment, terms of reference and terms of office of constitutional watchdogs such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life from No. 10, where prerogative powers are used, to Parliament, where they can be set up by statute? (138666)

I am sure that that will be an interesting debate for the future, but for the present I can say that I have no plans to change the situation.

May I ask the Prime Minister to intervene personally in the debate, or rather the litigation, between the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—the miners’ union—and the Government relating to knee injuries suffered by ex-miners? Will he please request Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry to engage constructively, so that we can try to avoid long drawn-out litigation? If he were so to intervene, I would be the first to congratulate him on his term of office, and to wish him a long and happy retirement.

In respect of that particular court case, I would have to see what it would be proper for me to do by way of intervention. I think that I am right in saying that over £3 billion has now been put in as compensation for people, particularly miners, over the past few years. We are aware of the NACODS dispute, and we are aware of the sensitivity of it. I will see what it is possible for me properly to do, but he cannot take it as a firm commitment until I have looked at the degree to which I am able to help.

Q6. In the 1980s, my predecessor brought Minister after Minister to view Burnley’s derelict housing problems, but it took the election of a Labour Government before we finally got the housing market renewal programme that was so desperately needed. However, the Liberal Democrat-Tory administration on Burnley council is moving too slowly in administering that scheme. Last year, it did not even spend the money that we allocated it under that programme. Before my right hon. Friend leaves office, will he stick a rocket under the local authority and local agencies so that my constituents get the regenerated communities that they need and deserve? (138667)

I obviously agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the regeneration money that has been put into our inner cities, particularly the housing programmes and pathfinder project, has produced tremendous benefits. Some 35,000 homes around the country, including 1,800 in east Lancashire, have benefited. Of course, that is absolutely typical of the way in which the Lib Dems and the Tories get together, as they do not have the proper facility to make sure that those things count, or that the money is properly used and invested in some of the poorest communities in the country, which is one very good reason, without reverting to the previous question, why Lib Dems and Tories do not make a very good coalition.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that as the NHS in south-east London struggles with a £65 million-plus accumulated deficit, largely as the result of flawed private finance initiative projects, the one hospital earmarked for closure—St. Mary’s, which serves the Chislehurst part of my constituency—does not have a PFI contract? Will he assure my constituents that they will not lose their local hospital and A and E to bail out the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pet botch-up? (138668)

First, in respect of Queen Mary’s, I understand that no decisions on its future or, indeed, of any hospital in the area have been made, so the hon. Gentleman is somewhat premature in his condemnation. Secondly, in respect of his attack on PFI, there have been 26 PFI and hospital schemes in his strategic health authority, with a value of £1.7 billion. Twenty-eight LIFT schemes have opened and 13 are under construction in his strategic health authority. I do not know whether he speaks for his party on this issue, but if he is signalling Conservative opposition to PFI, he should know that we would never have achieved the renewal of our hospital stock without it. It is absolutely essential, as it ties companies down to delivering budgets on time and on cost. The reason for the budget deficit is the same in many parts of the country: hospitals and NHS trusts must live within their means, and it is right that a system of financial accountability should be introduced. If he is trying to say that PFI has not delivered for his constituency, I suggest that he take a look around it.

Q8. Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the former head of his delivery unit, Sir Michael Barber, has said that the power of a Prime Minister is too weak, rather than too strong? He said that it needs to be strengthened and that there should be a Prime Minister’s Department. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that, and would he recommend it to his successor? (138669)

I always thought that Michael Barber was a very sound man, and I think that that is an even sounder suggestion. However, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) to decide.

Q9. Given that next year is the national year of reading, will the Prime Minister give his support to the campaign by the right to read alliance to improve access to text for visually impaired children? In particular, does he support a pilot project that is being discussed with his officials? (138671)

We do support the aims of the right to read campaign—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”] —and the Royal National Institute of the Blind is quite right in saying that it is a very important issue. I understand that a feasibility project is being conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry and the RNIB. We are obviously not in a position to publish the conclusions yet, but I know that when we can do so we will want to do everything we can to encourage the project. The question is obviously one of cost and working out how that can be properly done. However, we support the general aims, and the feasibility project will be concluded shortly.

At 10.42 on Sunday morning, my office answerphone picked up a message from the congregation of Gilgal Baptist church during their morning service. They asked me to bring a message to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that they should continue to force through the standards and changes in the millennium development goals. What answer can I take to them?