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Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2007

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.