Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Severn Estuary (Electricity)

1. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on Government support for a reappraisal of the options for generating electricity from the tidal flow in the Severn estuary. (140334)

I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues, and I am keen to see the Severn barrage go ahead, as tidal power represents a massive untapped, clean, green energy source.

Will my right hon. Friend seek commitments from UK Cabinet and Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh universities have the support to enable them to develop sustainable technologies—such as those harnessing wave, tidal or river current energy—in order to generate electricity and to help bring research and development jobs and manufacturing jobs to Wales?

We certainly want every opportunity to be explored. I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest and support. The Severn barrage could create up to 35,000 jobs over the nine-year construction period, half of them in areas surrounding the Severn estuary. It is anticipated that in the longer term about 40,000 permanent jobs would result from the barrage, which would lead to economic regeneration in terms of recreation, transport, housing, industrial and commercial property, tourism and infrastructure development. My hon. Friend is right that renewable energy has enormous potential not only to fight climate change but to strengthen the economy and to create more jobs.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), will the right hon. Gentleman also make sure that in-depth research is undertaken into the possible use of tidal lagoons in Wales, bearing in mind the New Zealand experience where that is a huge component in the energy mix?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in that issue, and the Sustainable Development Commission is looking into it. However, previous assessments suggest that a lagoon alternative in the Severn would produce less than a third of the generating capacity of the barrage, and in addition the barrage would save about two and a half times more carbon dioxide emissions than a lagoon. Prior to any further investigations at least, the barrage therefore appears to me to be a much better bet, and it would also offer the opportunity of a transport link between Taunton and south Wales, which could be of enormous benefit on both sides of the Severn.

The Severn estuary is an internationally important site for wild birds. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we protect the habitats that would be affected by the proposal, and that that must be taken into consideration before any development goes ahead?

Yes; my hon. Friend raises an important point. The European Union birds and habitats directives must be considered in relation to the project. However, I should draw it to the House’s attention that the experience at La Rance river in France is that biodiversity can increase as a result of the construction of a barrage. Also, if we are not prepared to take bold steps to fight climate change, biodiversity will be, in a sense, a secondary matter. That will be the case if we get the terrible consequences to life on this planet that would come from climate change, which can be avoided by the adoption of projects such as the Severn barrage, which could create up to 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity-generating needs.

While I welcome tidal energy in the Severn estuary, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is enough tidal power off the north Wales coast to offset the need for a replacement nuclear power station in Anglesey? However, given that all bar one of the Labour deputy leadership candidates said on “Newsnight” that they support more nuclear power stations, including the right hon. Gentleman, how can anyone seriously believe that the second nuclear consultation is not destined to be as big a sham as the first?

It is not a sham. I have always made it clear that if a nuclear new-build is necessary in order to keep the lights on, it would be irresponsible to rule that out. As the hon. Gentleman knows, no one is more enthusiastic about clean, green renewable energy than me. Indeed, I often have scraps with Liberal Democrats about wind farms and other sources of clean, green energy, because they are in favour of green energy in principle, but in practice differences can arise. However, I think that we can work together to make sure that Wales benefits from all forms of energy. Sometimes there is a demand for a replacement nuclear power station. That is the case in Anglesey. The local council and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) support a replacement of the existing nuclear power station, and they deserve to be supported.

I very much thank the Secretary of State for those remarks. I support a rich and diverse energy mix, including tidal power. However, will the Secretary of State assure me that funds and support will not be diverted from established and emerging options into one big project, such as the Severn barrage? If we are serious about security of energy supply and lowering carbon emissions, we need a rich energy mix.

We do, and we need our energy to be developed and sustained as much as possible in home-grown forms, so that we are not dependent on fossil fuels imported from abroad, including from many unstable areas of the world. So this is not just a climate change but a security of supply issue. However, I see no conflict here between strong renewable energy and considering the nuclear option in Anglesey, for example, if that is appropriate. The Severn barrage is a privately funded project; the construction companies—McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and others—that formed a consortium intend to fund it privately. Indeed, that is the point: there would not be a big draw on public funds.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that despite the obvious, early and absolute backing for the Severn barrage scheme given in answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the Secretary of State is not going to rule out investigating tidal lagoons? Has he had the opportunity to read the research produced by Friends of the Earth showing that the generation cost from tidal lagoons is more economically beneficial than that from the barrage; and will he give this House and the people of Wales an absolute assurance that he will carry out full investigations into the environmental impact of the barrage and of the lagoons, and not rule out the lagoon option at this stage?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not ruling it out; indeed, the Sustainable Development Commission is looking at this option. However, the facts are reasonably clear—unless they are contradicted by any further study—that the barrage would generate masses more power and is lower in emissions, and there are other benefits. The risk in the Severn area of flooding, especially as sea levels rise, is enormous, and the barrage would clearly help by providing a much securer environment for local houses and businesses. It also offers the exciting prospect of a transport link, with Cardiff airport being just round the corner. So there are benefits, which is why there is a lot of support in the south-west of England for this proposal, especially along the coast. The local regional development agency, for example, supports the idea of a barrage. So that is where my preference lies, but obviously we will look at the evidence.

However bold the Severn barrage project is, we must not ignore the opportunities along other parts of our coastline. In Swansea, particularly Swansea bay, the lagoon has captured people’s imagination and there is a great deal of support for it. There should be more localisation of power generation. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Wales is supremely well placed to harness the benefits of tidal and wave power because we have such an extensive coastline, including in the Swansea bay area, which provides a great tidal power opportunity. We should look at all options there, including the one that she mentions.


2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on Welsh priorities in respect of the medical training application service. (140335)

My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on a range of health issues. I understand that Wales has opted out of using MTAS for recruitment, and that the Department of Health had no difficulty with its doing that.

When I tackled the Secretary of State for Health on this matter some two weeks ago, I asked her where in the application form there was a reference to the qualification of being able to speak Welsh. Her answer was, I am afraid, woefully inadequate. Will the Minister take this matter up with the Department of Health, given that there are shortages of Welsh-speaking doctors not only in general practice but in paediatrics, psychiatry and geriatrics? There is a pool of Welsh-speaking doctors—not only in Wales—who could be recruited.

I saw the exchange between the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Health, and I can tell him that the current recruitment system in Wales does allow for applicants to complete their form and then be interviewed in the Welsh language, provided that they inform the recruitment panel in advance. As we are interviewing every applicant, there is that clear opportunity for them to make the case that they have this additional benefit—it clearly is a benefit in many parts of Wales—of being able to communicate with their patients in Welsh. When I have discussions with Edwina Hart, the new Welsh Assembly Health Minister, I will raise this matter.

I welcome the fact that we are not going to be using in Wales a scheme that has been described by the British Medical Association as a disaster. Can the Minister assure us that any alternative that we do use will rely on doctors’ experience and their proven ability to make people better, and not on their ability to write 150-word vignettes full of jargon, or even—dare I say it?—the ability to speak Welsh?

Well, the hon. Gentleman gives us his usual rant, but the system that is now being used in Wales—in which every applicant will receive an interview—has been warmly welcomed by the Welsh deanery and the BMA Welsh junior doctors committee. The process is working well in Wales and we now have more than 2,200 doctors in training in Wales. The number of training places in Wales will rise from 261 last year to 320 next year. The investment in doctors’ training and medical students is proving to be a great success, and that is why we are seeing substantial improvements in the quality of care being provided in Wales and in England.

Hospital Waiting Times

3. If he will make a statement on hospital waiting times for Welsh patients in hospitals in England. (140336)

The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and are delivering real improvements in the standard of service to patients. Waiting times for Welsh patients in English hospitals are falling.

I am grateful to the Minister for that optimistic response. The Royal Shrewsbury hospital supplies tremendous service to Welsh patients, especially those from mid-Wales, but why do Welsh patients have to wait 29 per cent. longer than English patients for routine elective operations and 39 per cent. longer for a first out-patient appointment?

The facts are that there are no Welsh patients waiting more than eight months for treatment in hospitals, including the Royal Shrewsbury, compared with 900 a year ago, and in the past three years the number of Welsh patients waiting for more than six months for a first appointment at an English hospital has fallen by 61 per cent. Those are significant improvements. Yes, further improvements can be made, but the Welsh Assembly Government will spend £5.5 billion on the health service in Wales next year, amounting to £1,800 per person, something that could not be achieved by the hon. Gentleman’s policy of sharing tax cuts with public service investment. That would mean a £21 billion cut.

Much progress has been made in reducing waiting times for patients from Wales attending hospitals in England. In Wrexham, visits to the Countess of Chester and Gobowen hospitals have much shorter waiting times. I suggest, however, that there be close discussions with the new Welsh Health Minister on that issue and on cross-border funding issues. I suggest that my hon. Friend also discuss the matter with the new Assembly Member for Wrexham, Lesley Griffiths. I may have omitted to mention the fact that Wrexham was a Labour gain—

Indeed. I congratulate Lesley Griffiths on her recent success. My hon. Friend is right that the investment in the health service in Wales is delivering real improvements and waiting times are falling. Local health boards in Wales need to talk to hospitals in England about local packages of care, but given the money that is now going into the health service in Wales, finance should not be a problem.

The Minister mentions that the target waiting time for elective surgery is eight months. In fact, as I am sure he will agree, that is the target waiting time for in-patient treatment. The combined target waiting time for Welsh patients is a total of 68 weeks, whereas for English patients it is 31 weeks. Can the Minister explain why Welsh patients—who after all pay their taxes at the same rates as English patients—should be expected to wait in pain for an additional 37 weeks? Is that a policy decision by the Welsh Assembly Government, or is it incompetence?

As I said earlier, no Welsh patient is waiting for care in an English hospital for more than 12 months, compared with 900 last year. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look back at the figures for 1996-97, which were substantially higher than those for last year. No patient in Wales waits longer than eight months for in-patient care, which means that many of them actually receive care long before the eight-month target time.

Cross-border Issues

4. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the National Assembly for Wales’s legislative programme as it relates to cross-border issues. (140337)

The First Minister will announce later today the Welsh Assembly Government’s strategic and legislative programme for the coming months. He has already announced in plenary on 25 May that he will bring forward proposals in relation to child poverty, affordable housing, climate change and better access to health care.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. How closely do the Labour Government in Westminster intend to involve Westminster MPs in scrutinising Welsh legislative issues? Is not the Secretary of State concerned—as Opposition Members are—that such scrutiny opportunities for Westminster MPs are limited to statutory instruments, secondary legislative bodies and Welsh Committees? What can he do to give more scrutiny by the House?

I very much support the principle of scrutiny, particularly pre-legislative scrutiny, which I took forward in my previous post as Leader of the House. The Welsh Affairs Committee has the opportunity to pre-scrutinise matters and only yesterday produced a valuable report, which noted that the whole House could be involved. Although it is a Welsh Members’ Select Committee, other Members have the opportunity to give evidence to it and to contribute to the scrutiny process. There are other ways of achieving that, too.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive comments about our report. Would he be prepared to appear before the Select Committee to discuss the matter more fully? Like him and the whole House, we are keen to ensure that there is thorough scrutiny of all framework powers going through the Welsh Assembly Government.

Undoubtedly, the introduction of Orders in Council, as provided for in the Government of Wales Act 2006, to give the Assembly the opportunity to take extra measure-making powers is an important advance, and my hon. Friend’s Committee will have a valuable pre-scrutiny role. He referred to framework powers, as did the report, and my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) have also raised the issue on the Floor of the House. It is an important issue, and an explanatory memorandum will of course accompany each proposed framework power in an England and Wales Bill and will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. We need to make sure that a full explanation is provided by the Welsh Assembly Government so that Members have the chance to look at what they are being invited to endorse in a Bill.

In discussing with the First Minister his proposals for climate change legislation, will the Secretary of State ensure that the First Minister is fully aware of the controversial cross-border issues that will arise over proposals for the Severn barrage? Will the Secretary of State and the First Minister ensure that before they proceed they visit the barrage de La Rance at St. Malo, where they will see how over 40 years, and to generate only 3 per cent. of the electricity of Brittany, the environment has been devastated and biodiversity has been sterilised? The impact of the barrage on that part of France has been devastatingly bad and there will be great opposition to the Severn barrage on those grounds alone.

That is not my understanding, but obviously if the hon. Gentleman wants to put evidence before me I shall be happy to look at it. As I understand it, the evidence shows that La Rance river, which is the only equivalent project that I know about, has seen an increase in biodiversity. Given the support for the proposal in the south-west, from Bristol down to Taunton, including the regional development agency and local authorities, I think the Severn barrage could be of enormous benefit environmentally and in every other way.

I am not sure that the Secretary of State will have time to visit the Rance project; after all, he did not have time, or was unable, to attend the opening of the Welsh Assembly yesterday. However, will he find time to ask the First Minister how he can claim to be leading a listening Government in Wales when he has not discussed his legislative programme with the other parties and did not even attend the televised debate between party leaders on the legislation last night? Is not the truth that Labour continues to take Wales for granted even when it has lost its majority and lost its authority?

This is from a Welsh Conservative party that did extremely badly at the 3 May elections and that has consistently lost ground in Wales over the past 20 years because of its anti-Welsh policies and the way in which unemployment went up and bankruptcies and public spending cuts increased in Wales under the Tories. All that would lie in Wales’s future if Tory Ministers took power away from a Welsh Assembly Labour Government. Tory Ministers back in power and in charge of Wales is not something that the people of Wales want.

Social Housing

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on measures which could be taken by the UK Government to increase funding available for social housing in Wales. (140338)

I have regular discussions on a range of issues, including housing. I welcome the extra £1 billion for Wales that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided in his Budget, which covers, of course, every public service.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that council housing must be part of the social housing mix? Will he assure me that he and the Government will respond positively to the message coming from council house tenants such as those in Swansea who say that they wish to stick with the local authority as their landlord and want proper investment in council housing?

I am strongly sympathetic to the point of view that my hon. Friend argues. Indeed, the Welsh Labour manifesto pledged to invest £450 million in new social and affordable housing, thus bringing about 6,500 additional homes. It is important that we make housing a real priority, including that of councils and housing associations, because there is a real need for more affordable homes to rent in Wales and right throughout Britain.

If there is a fourth option for social housing, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to make it realistic, rather than the vague possibility that it is at present?

Yes. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has recently signalled exciting new initiatives to take forward extra house building because that is one of the priorities for our next term in government.

Ambulance Services

6. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Ministers on the interaction between the ambulance service in Wales and neighbouring services in England. (140339)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Ministers on cross-border issues affecting the ambulance service in Wales. (140342)

I have regular meetings with the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services on a range of issues, including the provision of ambulance services.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Ambulance services are a particular challenge in Gloucestershire, especially in Forest of Dean, given the nature of its geography. In some cases, it would make sense for the Welsh ambulance service to deal with patients in the southern part of my constituency. Will the Minister use whatever good offices he has to encourage Welsh Assembly Ministers to urge the Welsh ambulance service to work seamlessly with its colleagues in Gloucestershire, because we do not want the Welsh border to become a barrier to effective health care? [Interruption.]

Order. The House should come to order; it is unfair to those who are here for Welsh business.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) makes a very good point. I understand that the Great Western ambulance service, which covers his constituency, has joint working arrangements with the Welsh ambulance service to deal with specific sites such as bridges and tunnels. Those working arrangements are regularly reviewed. I understand that there are closer working arrangements and co-operation elsewhere on the border. I will shortly be meeting Edwina Hart, the Assembly Minister with responsibility for health, and I will take up the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Whatever the Minister says, the present arrangements do not seem to be working terribly well, with response times deteriorating from the present eight minutes. Is that the fault of the Minister, or the Welsh Assembly?

In fact, response times have improved dramatically in the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust. It was formed in 1998, and for the past two months, it has exceeded its target of responding to 60 per cent. of life-threatening emergencies inside eight minutes. That is a result of substantial investment in staff and, especially, equipment. The service is meeting its targets and continues to improve. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would appreciate some assistance from the Welsh ambulance trust.

Barnett Formula

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the operation of the Barnett formula as it affects Wales. (140340)

The Barnett formula has worked well in delivering funding for Wales, and I have been taking every opportunity to discuss the forthcoming spending review with the Chancellor and with the Chief Secretary to ensure that it continues to do so.

Public expenditure per head of population in Wales is £1,000 more than in England, yet patients in Wales have to wait significantly longer for NHS treatment. Five thousand patients in Wales are waiting more than six months for an NHS operation—what has gone wrong?

Waiting times in Wales are coming down progressively, and they are well down compared with the appalling scandal of long waiting times under the Tories.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, as the House will know there has been fierce fighting in the south of Afghanistan in which UK troops are being deployed with considerable courage and commitment on their part. I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of those who have fallen: Guardsman Daniel Probyn of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, Corporal Darren Bonner of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglican Regiment and Corporal Mike Gilyeat of the Royal Military Police. This country should be very proud of the sacrifice they have made.

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 associate myself and my constituents with the expressions of condolence for the families of the service personnel lost in action.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Northampton climate change forum, which has its first meeting tomorrow evening under the excellent chairmanship of Terry Smithson of our local wildlife trust? As my right hon. Friend heads off to the G8, what message does he have for climate change campaigners in Northampton and elsewhere on what he hopes will be achieved in Germany?

I congratulate the Northampton climate change forum on the work that it does, which shows the interest that is taken in this issue in constituencies and communities up and down the country. What will be important at the G8 is first, that for the first time we manage to get agreement on the science of climate change and the fact that it is human activity that is causing it; secondly, that we manage to get agreement that there should be a new global deal that involves all the main players, including America and China, when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012; and thirdly, that at the heart of that has to be a global target for a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That should be followed through via the United Nations process. Those are the key things that we need out of the G8 agenda. I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind my saying, however, that we should not forget the necessity of also keeping to our commitments on Africa.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Mike Gilyeat, Corporal Darren Bonner and Guardsman Daniel Probyn, who were all killed in Afghanistan. They died serving their country.

Tonight, the House of Lords will vote on proposals to help the 125,000 people who are suffering because their pension schemes went bust. The Government fund set up to support those people has so far helped only just over 1,000, and yet it has cost £10 million to administer. Will the Prime Minister confirm those figures?

The total amount of the fund over the years to come will be some £8 billion. There used to be no help available to people in this situation; there is help available now. The difficulty with the House of Lords amendment—we have had this exchange several times—is that unless we can be sure that we can keep to those commitments within the £8 billion that has been set aside by the Government, it is irresponsible to hold out the promise that we can go up to 100 per cent. if we are not able to do so.

The Prime Minister will not confirm the figures, but I have to say that they are unacceptable. Yes, we have had this exchange before. When I raised this with the Prime Minister two months ago, he promised a review of the unclaimed assets and said that he would try to get the maximum compensation level. What are the results of that review? Does he recognise that tonight’s vote is probably the last chance that he has as Prime Minister, without any long-term spending commitment, to right the wrong that has been done to those people?

First, let me make one thing clear to the right hon. Gentleman—more than 100,000 people will benefit from the scheme. There used to be absolutely nothing for those people. Secondly, let me point out to him that the reason why we have not gone beyond 80 per cent. is that it is wrong to promise that we can go further than that unless we can say how it will be paid for. We simply cannot, on the basis of the Treasury loan scheme or the idea of unclaimed assets, make future spending commitments outside the £8 billion. That is not sensible and it is not responsible. As for suggesting that we are not helping people, it is true that more than 1,000 people have already been helped, but in the years to come there will be tens of thousands more.

The reason the Government scheme was set up was because so many pension schemes went bust under the Prime Minister’s Government. That is the problem. What the pensioners involved need is help now as thousands of them have reached retirement age. I have to say to him that when the Maxwell crisis was sorted out—[Interruption.] Yes, when the Maxwell crisis was sorted out, the Government of the day used a Treasury loan to advance money to those affected without putting long-term costs on the Exchequer. Why does the Prime Minister not do the same thing now?

It is not possible to do what we propose unless we set aside the money now, because what we cannot do is promise people that we will pay them more for their pensions, over and above the £8 billion commitment, which has been given to people for the first time and which will allow us to compensate them for 80 per cent. To end up promising more without saying where the money will come from is an idea that I might describe as completely “delusional”.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming any decision by Edinburgh university to strip Robert Mugabe of his honorary degree, and will he ensure that neither Mugabe nor any of his henchmen are permitted to come to Britain with visas until democracy is fully restored to Zimbabwe?

I confirm that that is indeed our position on visas. It is, of course, a decision for Edinburgh university, but I entirely endorse the sentiments that my hon. Friend has expressed.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of condolence and support for the relatives of those who have lost their lives in the service of our country.

With 200,000 people killed and 2 million displaced from their homes, what can the people of Darfur expect from the G8?

I hope that they can expect a recommitment to sanctions if the Sudanese Government do not abide by the peace accord that has been set out and do not stop bombing their citizens. The Sudanese Government should also welcome the hybrid African Union-United Nations force as that is the only way that we will keep the combatants apart. In addition to that, it is important that rebel groups abide by the peace accord. I am sure that Darfur will be raised in the course of the G8.

Is it not time not only for tougher sanctions against the Sudanese Government, but for a much more effective arms embargo and for much better logistical support for the African Union mission in Sudan? Will the Prime Minister tell the other members of the G8 that we cannot afford another Rwanda?

It is precisely for that reason that, in part as a result of pressure from this Government, we have an African Union force in Sudan. We are giving it logistic support, but it is true that we need to do more, as I have already said. I am afraid that the arms embargo will not, in this instance, meet the issue. What will do so is building up the African Union’s peacekeeping capability. One of the things that we will discuss at the G8 is the progress that we have made since Gleneagles—for example, the UK has been involved in training some 11,000 peacekeepers in Africa. However, the only solution is a strong African Union peacekeeping force that can be deployed in such situations. Darfur has not slipped into being a Rwanda yet, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right—it is a parlous situation and it is essential that we take action, and we will be pressing for that action.

Q2. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done now to try to resurrect the peace process, and does he agree that the University and College Union’s boycott of Israeli universities is misguided, undermines academic freedom and contributes absolutely nothing to the attempt to bring peace to the middle east? (140250)

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the boycott and I very much hope that that decision is overturned because it does absolutely no good for the peace process or, indeed, for relations in that part of the world. He is right to emphasise that the only solution ultimately is to relaunch the framework for a negotiated peace with a two-state solution at its heart, and we will work on that.

The G8 agreed at Gleneagles that by 2010 everyone suffering from HIV/AIDS would have access to the medicines that they need. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, sadly, almost three quarters of sufferers still do not have access to that treatment?

There are 1 million more people who receive treatment, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to go further. The commitment is to do that by 2010, and I hope that we will recommit to that at the G8 summit at Heiligendamm. In addition, the announcement by the Americans to double their HIV/AIDS spending from $15 billion to $30 billion is extremely important. The Germans have now committed an extra €3 billion of aid to Africa over the next four years, which is also important, and this country is making a huge contribution to fighting HIV/AIDS. Yes, we need to go further, but it is important to realise that, as a result of what was done at Gleneagles, 1 million more people are now receiving treatment.

Charities such as ActionAid believe that the specific proposals set out in the draft communiqué do not go nearly far enough, and they believe that the goal agreed at Gleneagles is on the verge of collapse, which would result in millions of preventable deaths. We have long argued for interim targets, as the Prime Minister knows. Does he agree that it would be a disaster if the current wording of the communiqué is allowed to stand?

We are trying to strengthen that language and put in some specifics, particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS treatment. For obvious and natural reasons, pressure groups always say that not enough is being done or that the situation is in danger of collapse. Since Gleneagles, however, there has been almost $40 billion of debt relief; there have been substantial increases in aid, including to Africa; millions more children are in primary education; and, as I said, 1 million extra people are receiving HIV/AIDS treatment. As I saw for myself last week in South Africa, the possibility, if we expand the use of drugs for those people, is that we can save millions of lives, so we have to do so. It is precisely to achieve those types of commitments that we will go to the G8 and negotiate.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on engaging in dialogue with some of the most distinguished Muslim leaders and scholars around the world at a recent conference at Lancaster House. He rightly wants the authentic and true voice of Islam to be heard in Britain. How does he believe that he can achieve that?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in that area. What is interesting, and what came out very strongly from the two-day conference, is the fact that the moderate, reasonable voice of Islam is the majority voice of Islam. It is not heard enough, but it was interesting that people around the world, including some of the most distinguished Islamic scholars, made it quite clear that they wanted no truck with extremism.

Q3. Fifteen per cent. of school-age children are obese, and under-age drinking has doubled. Yesterday, the Children’s Society said that 43 per cent. of parents are scared to let their children go out with their friends. Schools have become exam factories, contributing to the one in 10 children suffering mental health problems, to which the Prime Minister’s solution is to force four-year-olds to take exams in mental health. Is he proud of his legacy on the state of our children, or is he just not “bovvered”? (140251)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating the situation a trifle. Of course, there are pressures on children today: pressures through exams and through the type of things to which they have access a lot earlier than generations past. The majority of young people whom I meet are working hard and are extremely responsible, decent members of society who behave very well. There is a minority who either misbehave or are socially excluded and we need specific measures to help them. However, I do not think that the debate is helped by that type of hyperbole, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so.

Q4. Does my right hon. Friend accept that among the important reforms and changes that have occurred on his watch over the past 10 years is freedom of information? Why should Parliament alone, of all the public bodies in this country, be able to contract out of a law? Can my right hon. Friend explain why the two Front Benches are supporting the private Member’s Bill, when it should be thrown in the dustbin? (140252)

Because I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend and because this may be the last time that he asks me a question at Prime Minister’s questions, I do not want to disagree with him—but if I were pushed, I might. It is important—and this has been made clear—that on matters such as expenses, MPs continue to be very open. There is a consensus on that. A huge amount of scrutiny is given by the House about Members of Parliament and I do not think we should apologise for what we do in the House.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that if communities such as Milton Keynes are to be truly sustainable, final decisions on their expansion should be made by democratically elected local authorities, not by unelected, unaccountable quangos? (140253)

Of course, local decision making is important, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that if we are to deal with housing issues, we have to expand the availability of housing because of the expansion in the number of households. I agree that a balance needs to be struck, but that must include proposals that allow us to make sure that our people, particularly our younger people, have houses to buy.

The 25p per week age addition to state pensions for the over-80s has remained at the same level since 1971. Does the Prime Minister agree that the time is right to review that derisory amount? Should the Government give consideration to, say, adding a £25 lump sum to the winter fuel allowance as an alternative?

Those are obviously decisions that have to be taken at the time of the Budget. Although I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, we are now spending, on an annual basis, about £11 billion a year extra for our pensioners. They have the winter fuel allowance, the free TV licences for the over-75s, and a substantial uplift in many of the payments that are made through the pension credit. There is one other thing that is worth pointing out: over the next few years we will move to a situation where the basic state pension is relinked to earning. That will benefit many of our pensioners to a far greater degree than even an extra £25.

Q6. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what evidence there is for his assertion that closing or downgrading accident and emergency departments such as Rochdale’s saves lives? (140254)

Each of those decisions must be taken on the basis of local conditions, but they are driven by clinicians, not cost. In emergencies involving some of the most serious illnesses such as stroke or heart disease, it is better for people to be treated by paramedics in an ambulance and then taken to a specialised unit. The idea of changing accident and emergency, like maternity services or paediatrics, is therefore driven by the fact that there is increasing specialised provision that does the best for patients. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take account of that.

The Prime Minister will be talking with Mr. Putin at the G8 and discussing the Litvinenko case. We have other problems with Russia—the threat to target missiles at European cities, the fact that Shell and BP have effectively been renationalised there, and the boycott of trade with Poland. All those are grave and troubling signs of a different approach from Russia. Will the Prime Minister talk frankly to Mr. Putin about those problems? We want partnership with Russia on Iran, Kosovo and other issues. Will he also talk frankly with his European partners, because it is European unity and sticking together that will achieve that?

There will be an opportunity to talk to President Putin at the summit. I have always had good relations with President Putin. We want good relations with Russia, but that can be achieved only on the basis that there are certain shared principles and shared values. If there are not, there is no point in making hollow threats against Russia. The consequence is that people in Europe will want to minimise the business that they do with Russia if that happens. A closer relationship between Europe and Russia is important, but it will be a sustainable relationship only if it is based on those shared values.

Q7. The Prime Minister will know that Sinn Fein members have taken their places on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. Does he agree that it is totally unacceptable that a party that has members on the Policing Board also has leading members on the Provisional IRA terrorist army council? Will he therefore agree to take urgent steps to have that matter dealt with effectively? (140255)

The most important thing is that whoever is on the Policing Board and whoever is taking part in the politics of Northern Ireland does so on the basis of complete commitment to democracy and exclusively peaceful means. That applies to everybody. That is the central test, and it is a test monitored, as the hon. Gentleman knows, by the Independent Monitoring Commission.

Q8. Although I am sorely tempted to ask my right hon. Friend about grammar schools, I have decided to ask him whether he has read the Communities and Local Government Select Committee report on coastal towns and the problems that many of them face—for example, isolation, the outward migration of talented young people and high numbers of incapacity benefit claimants. Will he continue to liaise with his Ministers about coming forward with a coherent national strategy to tackle those problems in coastal towns? (140256)

The point that my hon. Friend has raised about coastal towns is very important. Because the focus is sometimes on inner-city regeneration, people forget that some coastal towns have large numbers of people who are either socially excluded or unemployed and that such local economies can be difficult. It is precisely for that reason that we are looking at what more we can do to support our coastal towns and to make sure that a fair proportion of the £20 billion that we are spending on regeneration gets to them to allow them to develop local economies that are sustainable in the future.

Why did carbon dioxide emissions in both the UK and the EU rise last year while falling in the United States of America, and what are the Government going to do about it?

It is correct that there was a small rise here and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe. It is precisely for that reason that we have agreed a new framework for the European emissions trading system. I know that the right hon. Gentleman may find it hard to support anything with the word “European” in it, but it is none the less important to recognise that it is only through that trading scheme that we will make a difference. The fact that the European Council has now set very ambitious targets for CO2 emissions and greenhouse gas emissions is extremely important. Incidentally, this country will meet our targets under the Kyoto treaty.

Q9. In my local authority, Sandwell, there has been enormous demand for places at the new Sandwell academy, and that interest has been reflected in demand for places at other proposed academies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a developing consensus that excellence in education can be delivered without academic selection? Will he seek to build on that consensus, which I believe is both public and political? (140257)

I thought that there was a developing consensus, although it has faltered a little in the past few days. The academy programme is proving to be a real success story with parents, and it is providing excellent education for some of the poorest communities in the country. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is part of a change throughout schools in our country, where there has been massive capital investment and better results. As a result of investment and reform, we now have a situation totally different from that a few years back. The vast majority of our children are getting educated well. We need to go further—we know that we do—but the fact is that education in this country has been transformed in the past decade.

Q10. It is Government policy that in the next 15 years a substantial part of the green space in the borough of Kettering will be concreted over with the number of dwellings to increase by a massive one third. Given the Government’s alleged new-found commitment to localism, does the Prime Minister think it fair that local residents effectively have no say on whether that development proceeds? (140258)

As I said to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) earlier, the green belt is being protected—we now have far more development on brownfield sites—and that is absolutely right, but we need to build more homes. If the Conservative party says that, in general, we need to give help to first-time buyers and those who need to get into the housing market, and help to ensure that we have proper housing, it cannot then, in particular, oppose every housing development in different parts of the country. That simply shows me that the Conservative party, in that area of policy as in many others, has still not worked it out.

Q11. I do not suppose that my right hon. Friend will have time between now and 27 June to visit Bristol, but if he did, he could see for himself the stunning new schools that are being built under the building schools for the future programme, especially the first BSF school in the country, which is due to open this summer at Speedwell. Will he join me in urging the 27 per cent. of parents who currently take their children out of the state sector at the age of 11 to visit the fantastic new school buildings, see what they have to offer and give Bristol schools a second chance? (140259)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the opportunities now exist because many hundreds of schools throughout the country have GCSE results that are well over 70 per cent. In addition, there have been thousands of refurbishments, some 2,500 extra sports facilities and we have the biggest school building programme under way that the country has ever seen. Consequently, standards are also improving. The great thing about many of the new schools—I have recently visited several—is that they are designed differently, their whole look is different, and the children feel that, for the first time, they are in an environment that will encourage them to do better and learn. That is all about our programme and our commitment to providing excellence not just for a few, but for all.

Q12. The whole House will want to join me in warmly congratulating the Prime Minister on his appointment last week as the supreme chief for peace by the people of Sierra Leone. Does he expect to pick up a similar plaudit from the people of Iraq? (140260)

Sometimes, the best people to speak about Iraq are the elected politicians there. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the press conference—which, unsurprisingly, was not covered—that the President of Iraq gave here a few weeks ago. He said that however difficult the situation because of the terrorists, we should never forget what it was like under Saddam and that, if terrorists try to stop the country getting democracy, we should stand up and fight them, not give in to them.

Q13. Ask older residents in Stafford their top concern, and most would say the fear of losing their post offices. Will the Government and Post Office Ltd hurry up and announce which post offices are being considered for closure so that, conversely, reassurance can be given about the majority that are staying open? For those at risk, will the Government accept responsibility to do all they can to preserve postal services for older people through co-location of services, outreach and innovative ways of providing services, such as social enterprise and community shops? (140261)

My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right and reasonable. We are putting a huge investment—some £2 billion—into supporting our post office network. However, as he rightly implies, changes are happening that mean that the way in which post offices operate must change if they are to be viable in future. We will try to identify as quickly as possible the post offices that are at risk and those that are not. However, my hon. Friend is right that there is no point in kidding ourselves—we must find new ways of making the network viable and ensuring that people can use it to carry out a further range of transactions, but not close our eyes to the inevitable fact that many more people now take their money through their bank account and not the post office. There is a viable future, but it has to be on the basis of the suggested changes.

Q15. The Prime Minister has brought great style and flair to the high office that he has held for 10 years. Will he leave office with honour by giving an assurance in the House today that he will hand over no further powers or competences to the European Union without the referendum that I believe that he promised the people of the United Kingdom? (140263)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. As he knows, my belief is that we do not need a constitutional treaty and that we should have a simplified and amending treaty. I can assure him that all the red lines that we have set out will be protected for this country, but it is also in the interests of this country that we find a way for Europe to operate more effectively with 27 members than it can under rules designed for 15 or fewer members.

Q14. Two days ago, General Motors brought its most advanced hydrogen-powered car into the Palace of Westminster for colleagues to see. Over the past few months, the Government have done a tremendous amount of work, led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, to ensure that General Motors succeeds in delivering investment into Ellesmere Port. Can we have an assurance that the Government will continue that work to help promote those new modern technologies? Does the Prime Minister agree that there is no incompatibility between the development of vehicle building and climate change issues when it is delivered by those sorts of hydrogen technologies? (140262)

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on their work in the car industry and also on finding environmentally beneficial ways of ensuring that the car fleet is modernised to take account of the pressures of climate change. We are investing several million pounds in research into hydrogen fuel cell technology. I have no doubt that, partly as a result of agreeing that we will have a global target this week at the G8, there will be a big impetus behind those types of technologies for the future. I certainly hope that we can do so.