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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2007

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Darfur

The situation in Darfur is appalling. Over 2 million people have been forced from their homes, with 110,000 people displaced between January and March this year. The extraordinary work of humanitarian agencies is helping to keep alive the 4 million people dependent on aid, but worsening security is making that increasingly difficult. The continuing violence aimed at civilians and humanitarian workers must cease.

When does the Secretary of State expect the second full phase deployment of UN personnel to be on the ground, so that the aid agencies can get to the more than 1 million people whom they cannot currently access? When will the international community get its act together when it comes to Darfur?

The answer is: as quickly as possible. The light support package is largely but not yet completely deployed. The Government of Sudan gave their agreement some time ago to the heavy support package, which, speaking from memory, I think would bring in about 2,000 UN support personnel and other equipment. Most significantly, yesterday, President Bashir of Sudan indicated Sudan’s willingness to accept the hybrid package, following the proposals that had been put to him by the United Nations and the African Union. I welcome that commitment, but as ever, we will judge the Government of Sudan by what they do, and it is very important now that everybody makes every effort to enable that force to deploy, because that will eventually get in about 20,000 troops to provide better security for the people who have suffered far too much.

The Secretary of State is right to say that the situation is appalling, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is clearly right to say that the international community must get its act together. Surely the only way to bring pressure on the disgraceful regime in Khartoum is to impose tough international sanctions? What chance does the Secretary of State think there is that that can happen through the United Nations, with a possible Russian or Chinese veto? If that is impossible, should Europe and America go it alone?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is precisely because parts of the international community have been threatening sanctions that we got both the result in relation to the heavy support package and yesterday’s decision by the Government of Sudan on the hybrid. Our position as a Government, as he will be aware, has been extremely clear that the Government of Sudan must honour the commitments that they have entered into, and we need to keep under review what further steps need to be taken, because commitments are not good enough; they must be matched by actions to support the deployment. We should say to the Government of Sudan, “We will continue to watch the steps that you take, and if at any point you fail to honour the agreement that you have given, we will go back to the UN Security Council.” As the right hon. Gentleman will also be aware, however, not all members of the Security Council are in the same position as the United Kingdom Government, the United States of America and one or two other countries on the question of further sanctions.

My right hon. Friend will know that, with colleagues, I was in Rwanda last week and, sadly, could not take part in the debate. One of the alarming bits of information that we picked up was that the Rwandans had not been paid recently. They are a major contributor to the AU force and Rwanda is one of the African nations that is willing to put more troops on the ground if and when we get the hybrid force in place. But can he just chase up the money? Otherwise that will blow up in our face?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does through the all-party group. Secondly, he highlights a really important issue. The truth is that the African Union mission in Sudan has been living hand to mouth. We have provided a lot of support and committed £73 million. The European Union announced a further €40 million in May. Part of the problem is the difficulty that AMIS is having in satisfying Europe’s requirements in demonstrating how that money has been spent. The real solution is to end the hand-to-mouth existence and fund the African Union effort and the UN part of the hybrid force through UN-assessed contributions. That is exactly what we are trying to do. That is why yesterday’s announcement is so important, and everyone must get on and make it happen as quickly as possible.

Given that the Government of Sudan have, among other things, a record of truly shameless mendacity, what credibility does the right hon. Gentleman attach to the latest intimations from the Government of Sudan that they would be prepared to accept a hybrid force? In the circumstances of not being able for sure to believe them, will he undertake to look very seriously at, and give his verdict on, the proposal for an oil trust fund? It is a regime driven by oil. It needs to be squeezed into behaving better than it has so far behaved.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that pressure is very important in getting the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. As I said in answer to the earlier question, in the end we must judge yesterday’s announcement by the actions of the Government of Sudan and nothing else. There are proposals for an oil trust fund, but the question is how that would be established without the agreement of the Government of Sudan.

There is a second issue in relation to disinvestment, which is another matter that we discussed in the debate last week, and the genuine difficulty is that, given that the proceeds of Sudan’s oil wealth are shared with the Government of South Sudan—for them, that is an important part of the comprehensive peace agreement—one would need to be careful about taking steps that reduced the money available to that part of Sudan’s new Government, because the need for resources, health and education is huge in that part of the country.

The Secretary of State has just said that pressure was important. Bashir’s agreement for the deployment of the force does not come into effect until 2008, so has the Secretary of State considered using the international spotlight on China, owing to the Olympics, as leverage to encourage China to use its influence with Khartoum to end the genocide and stop Darfuris being killed between now and when Bashir may or may not allow troops to be deployed in 2008?

We certainly have encouraged China and all members of the Security Council and other nations to play their part in encouraging the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. I welcome the fact that the Chinese have now appointed a special envoy, Liu Guijin. That, plus the effort made by China in November when we had the meeting in Addis Ababa, chaired by Kofi Annan, which came up with the proposals for the hybrid force that have now been agreed by the Government of Sudan, demonstrates that China has taken a greater interest in trying to play a part. But the truth is that every single country has a responsibility to do more and to use all the influence that it has, including, if required, the threat of sanctions, to ensure that fine words are turned into action, because action is what is needed.

We agree with the Secretary of State and welcome Sudan’s acceptance yesterday of the revised plan for a joint African Union/UN force. However, Sudan’s compliance has conditions, including requiring all hybrid force troops to be African, which will make the construction of the force difficult, if not impossible. What is the UK Government’s ongoing strategy—alongside the international community, including China—to guarantee that Khartoum does not renege on assurances again and continues the search for a comprehensive and inclusive ceasefire? What additional support and assistance is being put in place in the interim to ensure the safety of the Darfurian people until the proposed deployment of the hybrid force in 2008?

I set out in my earlier replies the steps that we are taking to ensure that the Government of Sudan honour those commitments. In the meantime, the best that we can do is to provide support to the African Union mission, which we are doing via the substantial amount of money we have put in, and by getting agreement through the UN to the use of assessed contributions. The Government of Sudan have said that they want an all-African force and I hope very much that Africa will be able to come up with the number of troops. We discussed that in Addis Ababa in November and said that we should look to Africa first, but if the troops cannot all come from Africa, we should look elsewhere. I hope that it will be possible to find those troops.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a comprehensive peace agreement is the only real solution to the crisis. I hope that he and the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) will recognise the statement that was agreed at the G8 in Heiligendamm, which was raised in the debate last week. The statement shows that we have continued to press to make sure that the G8 gives a very strong lead. We have to get the talks going. That is a responsibility both on the Government of Sudan and on the rebels, because they too are partly responsible for the current banditry and attacks on humanitarian workers. They too have to stop doing that, get round the table and negotiate a peace deal.

Doha Trade Talks

2. What his assessment is of the current status of the Doha trade talks as they relate to international development issues. (142237)

We have been encouraged by the new momentum in the Doha talks: for example, by the many recent discussions between key countries and the continuing support at the G8 last week for a deal that delivers a good outcome for developing countries. In Potsdam next week at the G4 ministerial meeting we hope that there will be a breakthrough that can be taken forward by all World Trade Organisation members.

European agriculture subsidies remain a major obstacle to the successful conclusion of the Doha trade round. Do the Minister and the Government believe that the new French President has the political will to tackle that issue?

We will enter a series of discussions with the leader of France as part of the EU’s review of the budget, and the common agricultural policy will be part of that discussion. Preparatory work is under way prior to ministerial discussions next year. I do not believe that the common agricultural policy is holding us back from getting a deal. There is sufficient flexibility available to our Trade Commissioner. We need to see more movement by our American friends, but I hope that we will see that in the next week and that we will be able to get the broad agreement that we need.

While the Doha round is taking an extremely long time to reach some form of conclusion, what is my hon. Friend doing to support the role of co-operatives in developing many trades and industries, especially for crops such as coffee? Through investment from his Department he can ensure that people on the ground are getting a fair deal for their products, which they often produce at a loss when they are not part of a co-operative. Can he assure me that his Department takes the role of co-operatives seriously and is ensuring that money is reaching them to aid their development?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we must concentrate on trying to secure an agreement through the Doha round of talks. At the same time, we must look at the barriers to trade that many organisations face, including the particularly important form of business organisation that he describes—co-operatives. We work closely with a number of international organisations, not least the International Labour Organisation, to which we have recently committed some £5 million so that it can expand its support for work with co-operatives in Africa.

In his statement to the House on Monday, the Prime Minister said that there were only a few remaining percentage points either way, and that the Government would do all they could to bridge the gap. What are the outstanding issues, and what do the Government hope to do to bridge the gap?

As the hon. Gentleman will remember from his time as Chair of the Select Committee, the key issue on which we need progress is access to agricultural markets. As he said, and as the Prime Minister said on Monday, we are much closer to a deal than we have ever been. Through the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for International Development, we have been talking to a range of partners with influence in those negotiations. A series of further conversations is taking place, and next week there is the Ministers’ meeting to try and make progress. We continue to be optimistic that a deal is possible. We hope that the enthusiasm that we saw at the G8 last week for a deal to be concluded will lead to the broad agreement that is necessary next week.

Given that those negotiations are so clearly in the last chance saloon, will the Minister set out precisely what the Government are doing to add urgency and energy to reaching a solution—hopefully, as he said, at Potsdam next week? Will he ensure that the important compromise proposal being tabled by Ambassador Crawford Falconer, the chairman of the agricultural negotiating committee, is given the attention that it clearly deserves?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made the issue a particular priority in his bilateral conversations with President Bush, President Merkel and a range of other EU colleagues, and in discussions with President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Singh of India, so we have been at the forefront of seeking to generate new momentum in the talks. We believe that there is a broad appetite among the G4 for progress next week. Of course we will seek to make sure that all options are available to the negotiators who meet next week. We believe that our negotiator, Mr. Mandelson, has the flexibility that he needs within the EU package, but we need some additional “give” from our friends across the Atlantic and from India and Brazil too, in specific areas. If there is a little movement, we remain confident that a deal can be achieved.

Pakistan

3. What programmes his Department has to assist participation of women in civic society in Pakistan. (142238)

We assist the participation of women in civic society in Pakistan in a number of ways. For example, we provide support to the 24,500 relatively newly elected women councillors so that they can do their job more effectively to represent the poor and socially excluded. We are also supporting the establishment of over 50,000 citizens community boards to drive development at the very local level, which require at least a third of board members to be women.

The Asian Human Rights Commission reports that between 2000 and 2006, almost 9,500 women were killed in Pakistan as a result of rape, gang rape, honour killings and burning to death. How can DFID support women in their fight for equality and status in Pakistan when they take on the risk faced by women such as the Punjabi Minister Zille Huma Usman, and the fatwa against tourism Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar? How can DFID protect women in Pakistan who take on civic roles?

I join my hon. Friend in condemning the murder of the Minister in Pakistan and the continuing intimidation that is happening on too many occasions against women in Pakistan, especially those who enter civic life. Our key role must be to continue to support the Government of Pakistan in dealing with that intimidation. In that light, we have welcomed the Women’s Protection Bill that President Musharraf took through Pakistan’s National Assembly in November 2006, which dramatically reformed the rape laws and laws on adultery in Pakistan. We welcome, too, the further legislation that he has put before the National Assembly seeking, for example, to outlaw forced marriage and to safeguard women’s rights to property and inheritance. Of course, the crucial thing will be how those laws are implemented in practice. We can continue to support, through our financial assistance, a variety of programmes to help to improve a range of Pakistani authorities, so as to ensure that that legislation makes the difference that we all want to see.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of encouraging women’s participation in civic society in Pakistan and throughout the developing world is through the Grameen bank, which lends small amounts of money to women who otherwise would not be creditworthy and increases that loan as they go along? What has DFID done to encourage micro-finance throughout the developing world?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about the power of micro-finance to empower women, in particular. The Grameen bank in Bangladesh has been an important pioneer in this area. We are working with the Kashf Foundation in Pakistan, which is seeking to help some 300,000 people with micro-finance loans, the vast majority of them women.

May I ask my hon. Friend for an update on the help given by his Department to the women who were rendered homeless and/or widowed by the Pakistan earthquake last year?

My hon. Friend will remember that we provided some £58 million in emergency relief assistance to help all those who had been made homeless or had lost loved ones as a result of the earthquake. We continue to support the recovery and reconstruction process with some £70 million of aid. We are working closely with the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority in Pakistan, and through the UN, to build up the effectiveness of Government institutions in the earthquake-affected areas, especially in supporting the most vulnerable who have suffered as a result of the earthquake, among whom women particularly feature.

G8

4. What assessment he has made of the outcomes in terms of international development of the recent G8 meeting. (142239)

On climate change, the G8 summit made significant progress towards a new global agreement, which is very important for developing countries. The summit also reaffirmed the Gleneagles commitments on development assistance, and set out how the fight against AIDS will be taken forward with additional funding and help for vulnerable mothers and children. There has also been considerable progress on debt cancellation.

I applaud efforts made at the G8 last week to get its less generous members to pay more, but surely the Secretary of State agrees that quality matters as well as quantity? Does he agree with the proposal by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State to create an international independent aid watchdog to assess international aid efforts, and will he start at home by creating one for us in the UK?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was interested in the Opposition spokesman’s recent proposals, which came after the statement that I made to the House announcing, first, that we are going to set up an independent committee to oversee our aid evaluation, and secondly, that we are pursuing with colleagues in the international community a means of doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman proposes. In the end, it would be sensible, where we are pooling our efforts in a country—which is the right thing to do to help to overcome poverty—if, rather than individual donors trying to assess the effectiveness of the aid which we collectively give, donors came together to find a way of making that assessment jointly.

Given the centrality of reproductive health and family planning issues to DFID’s new health strategy, published this week, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of new funding commitments to reproductive health commodities at the G8?

Let me say to my hon. Friend, who does a great deal of work on those issues, that the increased commitments to the fight against HIV and AIDS are significant, because AIDS is an epidemic that now affects women and young girls in sub-Saharan Africa more than anyone else—approximately three quarters of young people who live with HIV and AIDS are women and girls. Making reproductive health services available to them, including condoms, other means of protection, and more information so that they have greater control over their lives and their bodies is essential if we are to win that fight.

Does the Secretary of State understand and appreciate the deep concerns of non-governmental organisations, the aid community and campaigners about the announcements in Germany? Does he agree that it does the G8 no credit to indulge in creative accounting when presenting its new aid package for the developed world?

I do not agree because I do not believe that that was a case of creative accounting. The first thing that the G8 summit did was to reconfirm the commitments that were made at Gleneagles. Genuine progress has been made on debt cancellation—that should be acknowledged—and global aid to Africa increased last year. The hon. Gentleman and the NGO community need to recognise that. The most important aspect of the summit was that countries agreed to specify how the increased aid will be spent, especially for the fight against HIV and AIDS. The American Administration announced a significant increase in their spending through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—PEPFAR—programme. There is a long way to go, but when progress happens, it is right to acknowledge it.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the G8 decisions will have a genuine impact on development—or, perhaps more accurately, de-development—in the Palestinian territories? Does he share my concern about the violence that currently engulfs Gaza and parts of the west bank, which is born of despair, itself born of the blockade of many months—some would say years? Will he assure me that, as well as putting money into those areas, the policies of the Government and the international community will support rather than undermine the democratic institutions of the Palestinian territories that we helped to create?

I say to my hon. Friend, who works hard in support of an agreement in the middle east, that the Palestinian people are already among the most heavily aided people on earth. Their condition is desperate because of a failure of politics. I share his concern about the current violence, which is engulfing Gaza in particular. It offers no way forward for the Palestinians. Progress will be made only if people commit to a peace process, recognise each other and are prepared to sit down and negotiate the agreement, which, as everybody acknowledges, must be reached to enable the people of Israel and the people of Palestine to live in safety and security alongside each other.

On aid, does the Secretary of State understand the irritation that many feel about the smoke-and-mirrors way in which the G8 presents the figures for aid? People want to know how much each country gives and when it gives it so that they can hold their leaders to account for their promises. Secondly, they want to know that the money genuinely reaches the people at the end of the track, who do not have basic health care, a school to attend, clean water or sanitation. How will he bring transparency and accountability to the promises?

The best way in which we can do that is, first, through the United Kingdom keeping its promises—that is exactly what we are doing—because leading by example is the greatest contribution that we can make. Secondly, we can examine the figures that the OECD Development Assistance Committee publishes. That tells us all about the progress that individual countries are making in keeping their commitments. Thirdly, we should support those who continue to campaign to ensure that Governments throughout the world keep their promises, and then ensure that the right mechanisms are in place so that the money helps the people for whom it was intended.

World Bank

5. What recent proposals he has made for reforming the World Bank; and if he will make a statement. (142240)

The World Bank plays an important part in tackling global poverty. It has many strengths but must reform if it is to respond to a changing world. Its priorities should be: providing more long-term, predictable funding for developing countries; finding better ways in which to assist middle-income countries; helping to tackle climate change; giving developing countries a greater say in its decisions; and continuing to change its use of conditionality.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and I agree with him. However, does he agree—[Interruption.]

In the light of the nomination by the United States of Robert Zoelleck to be the next president of the World Bank, does the Secretary of State agree that as long as the Americans have the gift of the presidency as their prerogative, the poor of the world will have little confidence that the bank’s overriding objective is to reduce poverty rather than to further the influence of the US or any other developed nation?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be better if we had a different system for agreeing the president of the World Bank and the person in charge of the International Monetary Fund. That is the position of the UK Government, but we can make a change only if there is a consensus to make a change, and there is not. Having met Robert Zoelleck, the nominee, on Monday this week, I must say that my discussion with him gives me a great deal of confidence that he has the interests of the World Bank at heart and understands the nature of the challenge he faces if his appointment is confirmed by the World Bank board next week. We intend to work with whoever is ultimately appointed to ensure that the World Bank continues to play a really important role in overcoming global poverty.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I must ask the House once again to join me in sending profound condolences to the families and friends of the soldiers who have fallen in the last week. Lance-Corporal Paul Sandford from 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters and Guardsman Neil Downes from 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards were killed in Afghanistan, where our troops are performing a magnificent and heroic job in fighting the Taliban. Our condolences also go to the family and friends of Corporal Rodney Wilson from 4th Battalion the Rifles, who was killed last week in Iraq on a search and detention patrol. As the House may know, he showed immense bravery under fire to help his colleagues. We pay tribute to all of them, and to those who are still serving our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I am sure the whole House will also wish to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of PC Jon Henry, who was killed on duty on Monday. His death highlights the dangers that our police officers face every day in their task of protecting the public. We send our profound condolences to his family also.

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.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of condolence?

Last week, figures were released for March on the percentage of NHS hospital patients treated within 18 weeks of GP referral. Milton Keynes general hospital in my constituency was among the top 10 hospital trusts in the country, with 73 per cent. of patients treated within 18 weeks. That is obviously a credit to the hard work of the hospital staff, but also to this Government’s investment in new buildings, extra operating theatres and more doctors and nurses. The Prime Minister will know that Milton Keynes is continuing to deliver high housing growth. Can he assure me that NHS funding will continue to reflect that population growth so that waiting times at Milton Keynes can improve still further?

First, I add my congratulations to the Milton Keynes general hospital on the outstanding work that its staff are doing to ensure that more than 70 per cent. of patients are seen within 18 weeks. As we can see from the waiting times and waiting list figures today, the 18 weeks is not based just on the old in-patient list, as it includes the out-patient, diagnostic treatment as well as in-patient treatment. The 18 weeks figure, relating to all of that, is a magnificent achievement, and we are en route to 18 weeks as the maximum, door to door, from GP to operation, for everyone in the country by the end of next year. That will effectively mean the end of waiting as we know it in the national health service. It is of enormous importance to the country and it is, of course, a great tribute to those working in the NHS.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal Paul Sandford, Corporal Rodney Wilson and Guardsman Neil Downes, who died serving their country. I also endorse what the Prime Minister said about the dedication and commitment of PC Jonathan Henry. We all send our heartfelt condolence and sympathy to his young family.

For months, the Government have been briefing the tabloid newspapers that they would introduce Sarah’s law. The headlines reported “stunning victory” and that Sarah’s law would “start in months”. This afternoon, the Home Secretary will announce that Sarah’s law will not be introduced. Is the Prime Minister at all surprised that the press are cynical about his Government?

What we said was that we would investigate the possibility of greater disclosure. We have indeed investigated that, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make his announcement later today. We are proposing that there will be circumstances in which, for the first time, members of the public will have the right to request details of possible sex offenders. It is true that this does not go as far as what is currently happening in the United States of America, but it is a change in practice. It is sensible to take this a step at a time, and also to see how it works in practice. It is important that, at the same time as doing everything that we can to protect young people against sex offenders, we also ensure that we protect the proper liberties of people in this country.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that he knows exactly what his Government were doing, and he knows exactly how disgraceful it can be. I have to tell him that they are at it again today. The headlines of the tabloids today are screaming out about “chemical castration for paedophiles”, but if we listen to what the Home Secretary said on the radio, it is about giving a few of them Prozac pills. Let us look at something that would really make a difference in terms of stopping sex offenders preying on children. After the dreadful Soham murders, there was the Bichard report, which recommended a system for the police to share information so that we could stop more sex offenders more quickly. The Home Secretary said that that information-sharing system would be ready this year. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether that promise will be kept?

First, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of what Sara Payne said about what the Home Secretary is going to announce—[Interruption.] I do not think that it is wrong to discuss this with somebody who, for very obvious reasons, has a particular interest in what we are about to do. She said:

“It’s a massive step forward. If you have a child or look after a child you have a place you can go and have some access”—

to details about paedophiles—

“You don’t have full access but you have some access.”

This has also been welcomed by Dame Mary Marsh, the director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So it is a sensible, worthwhile step forward. As for the measures that were recommended by the Bichard inquiry, it is precisely for that reason that we have systems that share information far better. What we are trying to do all the time, however, is to improve this in the light of experience. We will continue to do that, but we have acted on the recommendations in the Bichard report.

The Prime Minister has completely failed to answer the question. The fact is that the Home Secretary told us that the system would be in place this year, and it is not going to be. Is that not completely typical of the way in which this Government operate? Initiatives that are never going to happen are endlessly spun to the media, but when it comes to serious measures that would really help to protect our children from sex offenders, this Government are completely incompetent at introducing them. Will the Prime Minister confirm today that the full system of information sharing recommended by Bichard will not be introduced for another three years, until at least 2010—yes or no?

We are building up the system of sharing information—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] It has to be done in a way that is careful to protect the interests of everyone concerned. The right hon. Gentleman says that we have done nothing about sex offences, but let me just remind him that the Sex Offences Act 2003 created and redefined more than 50 sex offences and set tough new maximum sentences. We set up the sex offenders register. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows us, for the first time, to give indeterminate sentences for the most dangerous, violent or sexual offenders. What did the right hon. Gentleman do when that Act came before Parliament? He voted against it. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] It is true. This is the single most important thing that we can do. For the first time, we can keep those who are a threat to the public behind bars—but when it came to the tough decision, he ducked it.

With reference to what the Leader of the Opposition has just said about press coverage, why did my right hon. Friend pull his punches when speaking about the press yesterday? Is he not aware that, over these years, a huge proportion of the press coverage of politics has consisted of fiction, propaganda and gossip—[Interruption.]

A serious deterioration in standards has occurred since I worked as a political journalist in the House.

Yesterday I made my point in my way. Today my right hon. Friend makes it in his. I do not think that there is anything more to add.

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

On Monday the Prime Minister told us that the Government were co-operating fully with the OECD inquiry into the Saudi Arabian arms contract. Can he tell us today which Minister is answerable to the House for the decision to withhold information from that inquiry in relation to payments made by the Ministry of Defence to Prince Bandar?

First, whether to give the information to the OECD was a decision of the Serious Fraud Office. Let me make it clear that the criticism of the Attorney-General in relation to this matter is completely unfair and wrong. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to blame anyone, he can blame me. I am perfectly happy to take responsibility for it. Let me explain why I gave the advice that I did. First, the allegations are strenuously denied by the Saudi royal family. Secondly—[Interruption.] Well, were we to conduct an investigation into the allegations, which might last two or three years, frankly, I think that it would lead absolutely nowhere. It would, however, lead to the complete wreckage of a relationship that is of fundamental importance to the security of this country, to the state of the middle east and to our relationship with countries in the middle east. That is why I took the decision. I did not regret it then, and I do not regret it now.

If the Prime Minister is taking responsibility, can he tell us what payments have been made since 2002? What did he know about those payments and when did he know it? What legal advice did he take about those payments after the law changed here in 2002? Finally, whatever happened to Robin Cook’s “foreign policy with an ethical dimension”?

First of all, I do not negotiate these contracts. I am delighted, however, that we managed to win that contract, which protects thousands upon thousands of jobs in this country. Secondly, let me repeat again to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I was asked for my advice as to what damage the investigation would do if it continued. I gave that advice, because of the huge importance of working with Saudi Arabia on the middle east peace process, on counter-terrorism and on the situation in the middle east. I stick by that. Frankly, the idea that such an investigation could be conducted without doing damage to our relationship is from cloud cuckoo land—which is, after all, the natural habitat of the Liberal Democrats.

Later today, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) will introduce a ten-minute Bill that aims to extend the provisions of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to the construction industry. Is the Prime Minister aware of the terrible impact that gangmasters are having on the construction industry in this country, with intimidation, violence and illegal deduction of earnings? Will he join us in outlawing such activity?

We will certainly consider carefully what is in the private Member’s Bill. My hon. Friend will know that we have already introduced certain protections. It is fair to say that concerns remain about the activities of some gangmasters, and it is important that we keep the matter under review. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a commitment on the Bill today, but we will certainly consider carefully both the Bill and the debate that follows.

Q2. For decades there has been talk of a Severn barrage or similar scheme. The Prime Minister has now been in office for another 10 years, during which there has been a lot more talk but precious little action on that scheme. If the Government were serious about renewable energy, would we not be harnessing the tidal power of the River Severn by now? (142222)

Yes, it is absolutely right, but we must ensure that that can be done on a cost-effective basis and in a way that will provide the renewable energy that we want. So far we have not been able to find a satisfactory way of doing it, but we will continue to look at what we can do. In principle, of course we want it to happen, but it must be done in a way that is cost-effective.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best mental health care is provided by multidisciplinary teams of professionals working together in the best interests of the patient? Does he agree that the amendments made to the Mental Health Bill in the House of Lords were not made in that spirit, and that people with serious personality disorders can benefit from treatment in a modernised mental health service? [Interruption.]

Before Opposition Members start shouting, we should understand the seriousness of the issue. About 1,300 suicides and 50 or more homicides are committed each year by people who are in touch with mental health services, and almost 15,000 people are under compulsory powers at any one time under the Mental Health Act 1983. We introduced the Mental Health Bill because we believe that we need to give greater protection to the public as well as to those who are mentally disordered.

Let me read a statement from Jayne Zito that was read to me by the Zito Trust today.

“Nearly 15 years have passed since my husband Jonathan Zito was killed. I firmly believe that these measures in the Bill are both balanced and necessary.”

We as a House have a duty to protect the public. This House of Commons has expressed a very clear view, and I think it should be upheld.

In the last few days, members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet have called for the trade unions to be given more money, more power, and in some instances both. Does the Prime Minister agree that they are all wrong?

Obviously I do not agree with changing our trade union laws, but if we are talking about leadership campaigns, I might remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said when he ran for the leadership of his party. He said:

“consistency in politics is vital”,

and then proclaimed his support for grammar schools and selection. I think that rather than worrying about our deputy leadership campaign, he should worry about his own leadership.

I know that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about the deputy leadership campaign, because the contest appears likely to achieve the impossible and make the current Deputy Prime Minister look like a cross between Ernie Bevin and Demosthenes. In the last few days, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that the new anti-terror laws could make us the equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has said that we should review the Trident decision. Does the Prime Minister think that they are both wrong?

No, I do not agree with either of those statements—but let me return to the subject of leadership for a minute. May I give the House an update on the married couples allowance? Members will remember where we left it: the Tory policy was that married couples without children should receive the allowance, but gay couples would have to have kids. However, the Tory leader has now clarified the position: he says of the married couples allowance that

“it could be something to do with married couples”.

I think the Prime Minister should focus on the big picture, which is that we are on the way up and he is on the way out. I have only a couple more goes left! I am going to miss him.

In the last few weeks, the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministers have told us that they want to increase taxes, that they want to hand power to the trade unions, and that they want to end reform. The whole thing has been one long lurch to the left. They are even arguing about how much money people should be allowed to spend on a handbag. Now that this contest is looking like a cross between “Big Brother” and “The Muppet Show”, can the Prime Minister answer this question? Which one is he going to vote for?

Actually, I am going to focus on the big picture. I say this with the greatest respect for all my colleagues who are standing for deputy leader, but the leadership is the important thing. We will have a leader who is strong; the Opposition have a leader who bears the imprint of the last person who sat on him.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that when large organisations such as Sony find that their copyright has been breached, they are quick to use the law. Does he agree that when Sony used images of Manchester cathedral as part of a game that extolled gun violence, it was in bad taste and very insulting, not only to the Church of England, but to people across the land who think that it is inappropriate for big corporations to behave in that way?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that any companies engaged in promoting such goods have some sense of responsibility and some sensitivity to the feelings of others. I think that it is an immensely difficult area—the relationship between what happens in those games and the impact on young people. I have no doubt that this debate will go on for a significant period, but I agree with him: I think that it is important that people understand that there is wider social responsibility, as well as simply responsibility for profit.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister believe that it is right that, on the one hand, he and his Government should be critical of the Sudanese regime’s butchery in Darfur, yet on the other hand, at British military establishments, Sudanese military personnel received training as recently as April this year? (142223)

I would have to look into that fairly carefully before I agreed with the premise behind the hon. Gentleman’s question, if I may say so. As far as I am aware, any training that we give to the military of whatever country is training that also upholds respect for law and order, human rights and so on. I simply do not know about the particular instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but let me tell him that we are continuing to put all the pressure we can on the Sudanese Government to come into compliance with the international community’s recommendations, and over the next couple of weeks, if there is not action by the Sudanese Government, we will be tabling a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Q4. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the good work that the trade unions, Church leaders and the Mayor of London are doing to try to secure a London living wage for all new procurement contracts? Yesterday, an indefensible decision was taken to try to block the paying of the London living wage to cleaners in our fire stations by the Tory vice-chair of the body concerned. That just goes to show that, no matter how the Leader of the Opposition parts his hair, they are still the same old Tories. (142224)

That seems a very reasonable comment to me. Let me point out that the minimum wage has now brought benefit to more than a million people in this country, in raising their living standards and their wages. It particularly helps women, and it is excellent that London is focusing on paying the living wage to the cleaners. I very much hope that those concerned will reverse their position, if the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) can assert a bit of control over his party.

Q5. At the end of the G8 summit, when President Sarkozy was asked about the Euro-constitution, he said:“Tony Blair and I have just agreed on what might be the framework for a simplified treaty. That is quite something.” Simultaneously, the Foreign Secretary said that “nothing you could really call negotiations”had taken place. Which is true, and if it is what Sarkozy said, what was the agreement? (142225)

Obviously, we are trying in advance of the summit next week to gain allies and to co-ordinate positions with those who do not want a return to the constitutional treaty either, but do want a return to a conventional amending treaty. It is sensible for us to build allies in Europe. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to shake his head, but I want to take him back 10 years: in 1997, after what people remember as the beef war, we had no allies and no influence in Europe. We could not even bring ourselves to sign up to the social chapter in Europe. Ten years on, we are managing to determine the agenda in Europe, and it is important that we keep on doing it.

Does the Prime Minister share my concerns and those of other County Durham MPs that the current regional spatial strategy for the north-east is potentially very damaging to economic and housing development in the county? If he has a little more time in his diary in a few weeks, will he join us in trying to rectify the shortcomings in that document?

I certainly look forward to that possibility, and I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend has said.

Q6. The Prime Minister, in a recent newspaper article, deplored the way in which the courts use the European convention on human rights—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] It was not me who objected—it was the Prime Minister, who objected to the way in which the courts use the convention to strike down anti-terrorism measures. We can, however, override that convention if we wish, as Parliament is supreme in this matter. Why, then, did the Prime Minister sign the European Constitution, which contains the much stricter and more extensive EU charter of fundamental rights, from which no exceptions are permitted, and which would explicitly override the House’s powers? Will he, even at this late stage, repent of his folly in signing the European Constitution and reject any revival that would bind the House in a way that even he now objects to? (142226)

First of all, Parliament is always sovereign. It is always up to Parliament to decide what it wishes to do and what it wishes not to do. Parliamentary sovereignty always remains: that is a constitutional principle, and it is a constitutional fact. Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the European convention is not to do with the European Union. It is a separate convention, to which we have been signatories for over half a century. Yes, we are worried about the way in which it is interpreted, which is why we have joined other countries to try to get the ruling in the Chahal case changed so that we can deport people who are a threat to this country. Thirdly, in relation to the European charter, I will agree to nothing that allows Europe to alter our laws without the consent of this House.

The Prime Minister will know that a consultation is under way into the future of Remploy, which suggests that many factories should be closed and that there should be greater emphasis on trying to get disabled people into mainstream work. Will he guarantee, on the Government’s behalf, that no one who is working for Remploy will be compulsorily made redundant? Will he ensure that there is a lifelong guarantee of terms and conditions, including final salary pension schemes?

Obviously, terms and conditions must be negotiated by Remploy and its employees, but we are watching the situation very closely. My hon. Friend will know the difficulty. Many hon. Members, particularly Government Members, have Remploy factories in their constituencies. Remploy does excellent work, and it provides important jobs for people. On the other hand, it is important that it modernise and go through a process of change. That is strongly supported by many bodies that represent those with disability. We will have to try to match those two principles up, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will look very carefully to make sure that terms and conditions of employment are given the utmost protection that we can give them.

Q7. All seven north Yorkshire Members of Parliament of all political persuasions, all the district councils, every major business organisation and the vast majority of parish councils and individuals in north Yorkshire utterly oppose the Government’s proposals for a unitary council in the area. Will the Prime Minister, as part of his legacy to the people of north Yorkshire, agree to scrap those proposals? If not, will he at least allow the people to hold a referendum to decide for themselves what sort of local government they want? (142227)

I think that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the final decisions have yet to be made about which of the 16 bids will proceed to implementation. When the consultation ends on 22 June, all the proposals will be carefully assessed against the five criteria that we set out to councils last October. That means that proposals will not go forward unless we are convinced that they are affordable, provide strong leadership, improve public services, empower local communities and have a broad cross-section of support, too. Obviously, the fact that seven Members of Parliament have made their views known is very powerful, but the decision will be made at a later point.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Industry and Parliament Trust, of which I believe you are a patron, Mr. Speaker. How useful does my right hon. Friend believe that the trust has been in fostering understanding between business and Parliament?

Let me congratulate the trust on its 30th anniversary. In providing over 300 fellowships and a number of opportunities for Members of Parliament to interact with business, it has done immensely valuable work over the years. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have benefited enormously from that work.

Q8. The Chancellor recently told a group of schoolchildren:“I did maths at school…but I don’t think I was ever very good at it—and some people would say it shows.”Does the Prime Minister agree with that self-assessment? (142228)

He obviously does not do irony in a good way, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman that what is more important than whether the Chancellor passed his school maths exams with flying colours is the fact that he has passed with flying colours his time as Chancellor for 10 years. I should thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to point out once again that, thanks to the Chancellor, we have 2.5 million more jobs, unemployment at its lowest level for more than 30 years, interest rates half what they were in the Tory years, and the strongest ever period of economic growth. I thank the hon. Gentleman again for giving me the opportunity to remind the House of that.

I would like to point out to the Prime Minister that there is a group that represents British nuclear test veterans, including those who worked on Christmas Island. Some startling work from New Zealand shows that genetic abnormalities are associated with the brave men and women who stared into the face of atomic bombs. Does the Prime Minister agree that we ought to help the people from our country who went out there and served for us?

Yes of course I agree with that, and I might be able to correspond with them about what help we can give them.