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Prime Minister

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2007

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.