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Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2007

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright of Badger Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who died in a vehicle accident while on active operation in Iraq on Saturday night. We send our sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.

The whole House will be sad to learn of the death of Piara Khabra, who passed away yesterday. As his many friends on both sides of the House know, he was a tireless campaigner, particularly on international development and racial equality. He was a tremendous servant to his constituents. We all remember him, as I do, often asking questions from the Bench just behind me. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

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 expression of condolences? May I also join him in paying tribute to my dear friend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra)? He was a friend for a long time, and a dedicated servant of the people.

My right hon. Friend has created a great spirit of multiculturalism and of campaigning against racism. In all the years I have known him, no other Prime Minister has been able to deliver with such a spirit. I praise him for that.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, there are 1 million people of Indian origin in this country. Will he join me in praising their great contribution to this country and their achievement? Finally—

It is particularly appropriate that my hon. Friend asks that question after the sad news about Piara Khabra. I endorse entirely what he says about the tremendous contribution made by the Indian community—1 million of them—in this country. The state of the relationship between the UK and India has never been stronger, and it is a wonderful example of how our relationships with countries can change over the years. Today, this country has about 20,000 Indian students, which represents a major increase in the numbers coming to study here. We are the third largest investor in India today, and I can see our relationship only getting stronger in the years to come.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in southern Iraq. I also join him in paying tribute to Piara Khabra, who served his constituents energetically and enthusiastically for 15 years and will be sadly missed both in the House and in Ealing.

This week we have the scandal of the Prime Minister, in his last few days in office, opening the prison gates and releasing 25,000 prisoners on to our streets. Can he tell us when he was first warned that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

Let me explain what is actually happening. We have exceeded even the top-end projection for the number of people in prison—that projection having been made last year—so there is a requirement for us to release prisoners early, 18 days before the end of their sentences—in other words, 18 days before they would have been released anyway—as a temporary measure while new prison places are being built, to ensure that we do not breach the prison conditions regulations. I regret having to do it, but we have to do it.

Why is it having to be done? First, the number of people in prison has risen dramatically as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in sentencing. Secondly, this Government are now recalling people who breach their licence conditions, and as a consequence there are 5,000 extra people in prison. Thirdly, we now have almost 3,000 people in prison serving indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offences.

When we build the new prison places, as we shall—8,000 places, and now a further 1,500—we shall be able to retrieve the situation. I regret having had to do this, but it was necessary.

I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question: when did he first know that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

The truth is that the Prime Minister was told by the Home Office in 2002, five years ago, that the prison population this year was projected to be not 80,000 but 88,000. That was five years ago. Why did the Government so comprehensively fail to act in response to that warning?

As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, the projection that we were given at about this time last year—we deal with this matter on a year-by-year basis—was a projection that we have exceeded, and have exceeded now. We must therefore take this temporary measure, but let us be absolutely clear: the reason there are more people in prison than ever before is that under this Government there are tougher sentences—particularly for violent and dangerous criminals—and there are 20,000 more prison places. We are now going to build an extra 9,500 places on top of that. Most important of all, crime has fallen under this Government as a result of the measures that we have taken. Incidentally, the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the past year.

The truth is that those indeterminate sentences were introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As I have said many times, the right hon. Gentleman and his party refused to support the Act, and voted against it. It is true that we will have to take this measure as a temporary measure—and I hope it is very temporary—but it is important to recognise that under this Government prison places are up and crime is down.

The Prime Minister tells us that he examines the position on a year-by-year basis. That tells us all we need to know: there was a complete failure of planning. The Government were told about this five years ago.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I checked the record, and I think Members will find that the Prime Minister and I voted the same way. I did not support the Act because I do not believe in letting people out of prison half way through their sentences; the Prime Minister did not support it because he could not be bothered to turn up.

Not only were the Government not thinking about this matter five years ago; they were not thinking about it a month ago. Last month, the Secretary of State for Justice said:

“I am not going to announce early releases because of prison overcrowding… Any early releases, no…  It is simply wrong.”

Why on earth did he say that?

First, let me make something clear about the Criminal Justice Act. The Tory party voted against the Criminal Justice Act, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not turn up to vote on it does not alter that.

The reason we have more people in prison today is the tough measures that we introduced for violent and sexual offenders—which the right hon. Gentleman and his party opposed—to put more people in prison. I have already said that I regret having to take this action as a temporary measure, but we are going to build an extra 9,500 prison places.

Let me just point out that the Tory party voted not only against the tougher measures, but against the extra investment in prison places. The one group of people from whom we will not take lessons on this matter are the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

I am glad the Prime Minister mentions the money, because I have checked that, too. Let us look back at the five years since 2002. In 2002, the Home Office budget was £14 billion; in 2003, it was £13 billion; and in 2004, it was £13 billion. There was not any extra money, and the person responsible is sitting next to the Prime Minister. I shall ask the Prime Minister again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he say that?

The right hon. Gentleman said that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms, so when he gets to his feet again, let him apologise for saying that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up, and his party voted against the Budget measure that introduced that. On the reasons for introducing this measure, we have said again and again that it is important that we make sure that we deal with violent and sexual offenders most severely. That is why there are 3,000 people in prison today on indeterminate sentences. If the right hon. Gentleman’s party had had its way, those people would not be there.

Things have come to a bit of a pass when the Prime Minister will not even defend his former flatmate. Let me put the question to him again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he make that statement?

We hoped for a long time to avoid having to do this, but we have had to do it because, as I have said, the projections for the prison population, which we do on a year-by-year basis, have been exceeded even at the top end. As I have also said, I regret having to do this. However, as a result of the measures announced yesterday and those announced by the Chancellor in the Budget, we will now have an extra 9,500 prison places. We will be able to make sure that this is a temporary measure. Most importantly, violent crime is falling and the crime rate is coming down because we have more investment in prisons and the police and tougher measures, many of which the Tory party voted against.

We have had foreign criminals let out of prison when they should have been deported, and the Prime Minister now plans to release more prisoners this year than the entire prison population of Australia. Ten years ago, he told us that he would be tough on crime; now he is releasing 25,000 criminals on to our streets. Should he not, just this once, apologise for what can only be described as an abject failure to deliver?

When we came to power in 1997, crime had doubled. When we came to power in 1997, there were no proper plans for making sure that we had the money to invest in our prison system. As I have said, I regret very much having to take the measures on early release. However, over the 10 years of this Government we have reduced crime, increased the number of police officers and introduced measures on antisocial behaviour, and we have 20,000 extra prison places. When we compare the 18 years of a Government who doubled crime with the 10 years of this Government, it is clear who people should vote for on law and order.

Has the Prime Minister read an article in this morning’s Financial Times in which someone called Lord Harris, who I understand owns several academy schools, is quoted? He is reported to have said in a conversation:

“I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Adonis]. He rings me up and says, ‘Do you want this school?’ and I ask what it’s like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.”

Does the Prime Minister believe that the language of that exchange is appropriate for people charged with looking after the education of young people, or does he think that it is more appropriate for 21st century spivs?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have only got a week to go and I am not keen on making too many more enemies. However, I will have to doubly disappoint him. First, I think that Lord Adonis has done a superb job on the city academy programme. Secondly, although Lord Harris is from a different political party, as a result of the work he has done in education, not least in Peckham, he has given some of the poorest kids in the country the opportunity to get a decent education for the first time. If those two people are having an exchange about how we can improve our education system and give opportunity to kids who do not currently have it, that is good.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of sympathy and condolence and his generous tribute to Piara Khabra? [Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister believe it right for private equity executives to pay tax at a lower rate than those who clean their offices?

It is precisely because of the concerns over whether people are paying an appropriate level of tax that a review has been set up that will report around the time of the pre-Budget report later this year. However, it is important to distinguish between that question, which it is perfectly legitimate to raise, and condemning all the work that private equity companies do, because that would not be right at all. But yes, of course people have concerns about this issue, which is exactly why we said that we will look into it in a sensible and serious way and reflect on what we can do.

While this review is taking place, we are giving a tax break of £6 billion per annum to some of the wealthiest people in the United Kingdom. Would it not be much fairer to give tax cuts to lower and middle-income families, who have suffered most under this Government? Would that not be an illustration of governing for the many, and not the few?

I know that the Liberal Democrats like to say, “Here is this great pot of gold that is waiting to be redistributed to the families of the country.” Incidentally, it is just nonsense. However, there are real issues here, and they have been raised right across the political spectrum and by sensible people within the private equity field itself. The serious way of approaching this is to examine these claims carefully and to deal with the matter in the pre-Budget report, and that is what, very sensibly, the Chancellor is doing.

Q2. May I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the promise that he made to me on 8 January 2005, the day when my constituency was devastated by floods? During our telephone conversation, he said that moneys would be available to build flood defences to protect the people of Carlisle. Some £30 million was made available and those defences are being constructed. However, given the problems that we have seen today in the south of England, and given the problems of global warming and climate change, is he convinced that, following the comprehensive spending review, there will be enough money available to protect other communities from the devastation that we suffered in Carlisle? (143827)

My hon. Friend raises a perfectly reasonable point, and it is one of the reasons we are committed to spending an additional £600 million in this financial year on our costal defences. Since 1997, we have invested some £4 billion in coastal defences. This is an indication of how, over time, as a result of the changing climate, countries will have to invest very large sums in protecting ourselves against the changing weather. However, I entirely agree with hon. Friend, and I can assure him that this will obviously form a very significant and serious part of the comprehensive spending settlement.

Q3. When the Prime Minister referred to the Chancellor as the “big clunking fist”, was it a term of endearment or based on bitter personal experience? (143828)

I fear that the bitter experience will be felt on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the House once my right hon. Friend gets going.

My right hon. Friend will recall meeting representatives of Mountain Rescue England and Wales on 14 March. Will he find time during his final days in office to review its request for public funding similar to that available in Scotland? If he is unable to resolve the issue, will he ensure that the request is in the in-tray of our right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I explained to those representatives when I met them, I will take a close interest in this issue right up to the time of my departure. It is a very live issue that we are considering.

Q4. Reading’s increasingly congested roads are becoming a major constraint on economic success. We urgently need a third Thames bridge and north-south bypass. While Reading chokes, the local authorities are spending their time squabbling with each other. Will the Prime Minister help me to sort out those squabbling neighbours? (143829)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the desire for a new road crossing. The trouble is, as he knows, there is a dispute. He called it a squabble, but unfortunately the view he expressed is not shared by some of the local authorities. The trouble is that it will, in the end, have to be resolved at a local level. I know that the Department for Transport is also engaged with the issue and I am sure that it will do everything it can to mediate, but to get it done local agreement will in the end be necessary.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that since being elected to this House I have campaigned for formal recognition of the Bevin Boys and the role that they played in our world war two success and the defeat of Nazism. In January, the Prime Minister acknowledged their role and said that he would make progress on some kind of formal recognition for those brave men. Will he be able to bring that to a conclusion before he leaves office next week?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that he has mounted for some recognition for the Bevin Boys and the extraordinary work that they did in world war two, without which our war effort would have been seriously hindered. We will have a special commemorative badge for the Bevin Boys, and we will announce that later today. It will provide some recognition for the tremendous work that they did, express the sense of gratitude that the country has for them, and show why it is a good idea that on this day we should commemorate their work.

Q5. When the Chancellor says that he wants to see Britain governed in a different way, and Government to be more open and accountable, what does the Prime Minister think that he means? (143830)

I am sure that over the course of my right hon. Friend’s premiership he will want to carry on changes that we have been making. For example, we now have a Freedom of Information Act and devolution, which we have never had before. We also have a London Assembly and Mayor, which we have not had before. I am sure that such changes will continue over the years and fortunately, in the circumstances, that is something that I happily leave to my right hon. Friend.

Crime has been falling for many years: why are there huge increases in the number of people, including women, in prison? Does my right hon. Friend now agree with a former leader of the Tory party that prison works?

I have never agreed that, in itself, prison is what works, but if people are committing violent offences or are a threat or danger to the public, it is important that they are imprisoned, if that is what a court feels is appropriate. There are more people in prison because sentences have been getting tougher. I mentioned a few moments ago the more than 5,000 people who have been recalled to prison as a result of the breach of their licensing conditions. In 1997, that figure was around 200. People out on parole would breach their conditions, but nothing would happen to them—now it does, and that is one reason why the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the last year. In the crime partnership areas where crime has been highest, specific focus has been put on 44 of them and crime, especially violent crime, has fallen by 7 per cent. or more in the last year in those areas. We have to protect the public first, and that is what we are doing.

Q6. Last Saturday, a 23-year-old man was lost at sea off my constituency when his small boat overturned in Hoy sound. Two months ago, eight Norwegian seamen lost their lives when the Bourbon Dolphin capsized and sank 85 miles off Shetland. In both cases, as in so many others, the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in co-ordinating the search and rescue, was crucial and very much appreciated. Will the Prime Minister, in the time that remains to him, knock some heads together among the senior management of that agency to ensure that the current industrial dispute is resolved and the coastguards are paid the money they deserve? Or will that have to wait until things get so bad that the dispute escalates and lives are lost? (143832)

First, I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the family of his constituent who died. Secondly, we of course regret that the dispute is going on. Thirdly, I will be happy to look into the matter and to correspond with him about it. Obviously, we want the maritime service to return to full strength as quickly as possible.

Q7. Over the years, my right hon. Friend has visited my constituency on a number of occasions—[Interruption.] Some visits have been more memorable than others, but on his most recent visit he came to the £2 million local improvement finance trust scheme at Woodgate Valley primary care centre, one of 200 LIFT schemes across the country. Does he agree such schemes demonstrate real investment in the NHS and real commitment to our patients, compared with the half-baked ideas that we get from the Opposition? (143833)

I recall the LIFT scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it is one of the many around the country that have led to some 2,500 GP premises being renovated. In 1997, 50 per cent. of the NHS estate was older than the NHS itself, but today that figure is 20 per cent. As a result of that massive capital investment, waiting times are falling and we are also able to provide the most up-to-date equipment for our constituents. I deprecate the Opposition’s policy to scrap the target of an 18-week maximum wait for NHS treatment, with an average of seven or eight weeks. That policy would be a disastrous and retrograde step, whereas we intend to keep to the targets and make sure that we deliver on them.

Since taking office, there has been more investment in schools, local health services have been protected and young families have benefited from more free nursery care—all provided by the new Scottish National party Government. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the First Minister on those excellent developments?

I think that I prefer to say that investment on any scale can be made only because my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has run the most effective economy in this country for 30 years or more. We are able to invest in health and education because of the sensible policies of this Labour Chancellor, not because of the SNP’s economic policies.

Q8. Today, world refugee day is being marked across the globe. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in praising the refugee awareness projects being run by Refugee Action in Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool? The project workers go into local communities to challenge the many myths and media distortions about refugees and asylum seekers, and to help the refugees who have genuinely fled persecution in their homelands to find a safe haven in this country. (143834)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the Government are making a financial commitment to supporting refugee week. It is right for us to reduce the number of unfounded claims and make sure that only genuine asylum seekers can claim asylum here, but none the less we must make it clear that this country should always be open to genuine refugees fleeing tyranny. This country has a very proud record in that regard, and I am sure that that will continue.

Q9. As there might just be some misunderstandings over the next few weeks, does the Prime Minister agree with Baroness Morgan, his old friend and former Downing street aide? On the radio this week, she said that the Chancellor was“really involved in the nitty gritty of how to phrase the argument, and it made a difference.”Was that the role that the Chancellor played with respect to Iraq? (143835)

The position on Iraq was the position of the whole Government. I happen to believe that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, as is standing up against those people who would by terrorism prevent democracy from flourishing in Iraq. I pay tribute to the support provided by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It is important that those fighting us in Iraq understand that our position on Iraq is shared by the whole Government, and I am sure that they do.

Is my right hon. Friend able to use his influence in the case of baby Sebastian, who was born in Texas to my constituent Samantha Lowry and abducted to Mexico at the age of nine weeks by her estranged and unstable partner? Does he agree that the best place for Sebastian is with his mother, who is best breastfeeding him? Will he use his influence with the Mexican Government to get the case dealt with as soon as possible?

I am aware of the case and I sympathise with Samantha and her family. I assure my hon. Friend that full consular support is being provided to the family by UK consular staff in Houston and Mexico City. We are also in touch with the FBI about the case, and are ready to give every support to the US and Mexico’s FBI to ensure the safe return of Sebastian.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all be concerned about the growth of air travel, especially in relation to climate change? What are his suggestions for curbing that growth? (143836)

We must be careful, because many people have travel opportunities, particularly on cheap flights, that they have never had before. As politicians we must be careful that we do not appear to say that opening up such opportunities for people is somehow wrong. The best way to deal with aviation is through the European Union emissions trading system. As a result of the work done by the Government there is the prospect of aviation coming within the system, which will incentivise business and industry to develop ways of saving on harmful emissions. Personally, I do not believe the way to do so is to try to ban domestic travel on aeroplanes, as I think some people in the hon. Gentleman’s party have suggested. I do not think that is realistic.

Last week, my right hon. Friend opened the new management centre at Knowsley community college. Apart from that and 240 extra medical staff in the NHS, a brand new hospital, an 18 per cent. increase in GCSE passes, seven new learning centres and halving the rate of unemployment, what has my right hon. Friend ever done for Knowsley?

In addition, we have the minimum wage, paid holidays, extra increases in child benefit and all the investment that has gone into this country over the past few years. The reason we have been able to invest, as I said a moment or two ago, is that we have run a strong economy—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been its steward over that time. It is important always to recognise that for the first time this Labour Government are able to combine a more just and fair society with a well functioning, strong economy. Under this Government that is exactly what will continue.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the recent exchanges, my constituent, Lord Harris, was referred to as a spiv. Will you rule, Mr. Speaker, that that is inappropriate language to describe a member of the other place?