House of Commons
Tuesday 3 July 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Whitehaven Harbour Bill [Lords]
Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.
Oral Answers to Questions
FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS
The Secretary of State was asked—
Gaza and West Bank
I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to be the first of—no doubt—many right hon. and hon. Members who want to take the opportunity to wish you a very happy birthday. Your arrival, which I think I am right in saying was just four days before the 1945 Labour Government came to office, was almost as momentous as that election result.
We are extremely concerned by the situation in Gaza, especially, and in the west bank. The events of recent weeks have seen very high levels of political violence, resulting in the death of more than 100 Palestinians and two United Nations workers. Together with the European Union and the Quartet, we are now working with the emergency Government to support their efforts to restore law and order and to prevent further humanitarian deterioration.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion and welcome him to the Dispatch Box? I am sure that he is aware of the death on Sunday of Taghreed Abeaed, the 31-year-old Palestinian woman and mother of five who died in the searing heat and appalling conditions at Rafah crossing. He will know that 6,000 Palestinians—men, women, children, sick, elderly and dying—are blocked in at Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side, and many more will die if something urgent is not done to relieve their suffering. Will he have talks with his Israeli and EU counterparts to ensure that Rafah crossing is reopened as soon as possible and that EU monitors are reinstated?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. She raises a very important point; it is one of several very serious humanitarian issues on the Gaza strip. I was hoping to be able to raise the matter with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, whom I was due to meet tomorrow. However, I will not be able to do so because he will be back in Egypt, but I will certainly take it up with him when I speak to him on the telephone, as I hope to do in the near future.
I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of supporting the emergency Government, but will he also accept that it is important that we are not seen to be one-sided? If at all possible, we need to maintain some dialogue with Hamas, who were after all elected. If we are going to get a solution, it is necessary to try to redevelop a national consensus among Palestinians. Does he agree that we should do what we can to encourage that, rather than maintaining the divisions that currently exist?
The bedrock of the Government’s approach over the next months and years will be threefold: first, to be unstinting in our support for a two-state solution in the middle east, which I think is the position that commands support on both sides of the House; secondly, to support those who are committed to peaceful progress in the region; and thirdly, to support the economic and social development across the occupied Palestinian territories, including the humanitarian work that my hon. Friend referred to.
It is also important to say that we are determined to play our full role in the Quartet’s work. The Quartet’s principles are the foundation of progress, and my hon. Friend will know that we worked closely with the national unity Government over the past few months. We did so with those members who were committed to peaceful progress and, as I say, that is an important bedrock for the sort of change that we need to see.
I do, however, want to pick up on one thing that my hon. Friend said. It is very important that President Abbas, whom I spoke to last Friday, and Prime Minister Fayyad ensure that Palestinian institutions that are capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinians come forward to take up their important role in the critical months ahead.
May I add my voice to the congratulations to the new Foreign Secretary, but press him a little further on the previous question? Does he not share the analysis that one of the main messages from the Northern Ireland peace process is that we must now engage with Hamas?
I hope that, in due course, we can discuss that. I say “discuss” and not “debate”, because I appreciate that the issue is very complex and that there is much expertise in the House. I hope that we can discuss the issues at genuine length, but one has to be careful about drawing parallels. Where the Northern Ireland experience can be used, we should of course draw on it, but I would not want to be drawn into a simple export from one part of the world to another, both of which have deep and complex histories associated with them. Having discussed other issues with the hon. Gentleman, I think that he would agree that it is important that we remain part of an international process. The work that we are doing in the EU and with the Quartet is an important component of our work in the region.
I too congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he not agree that in the months before the recent terrible events in Gaza and the west bank, one of the brighter initiatives was the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas? Would it not be a good idea for the Government to support every measure possible to get those two parties back round the table in Saudi Arabia to re-implement the Mecca agreement? This time there should be one difference: an international body should supervise the implementation of that agreement to make sure that the provisions are acted upon.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. First, it is important that there should be unity and a negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. The partner needs to be committed to the existence not just of the two-state solution, but of the other state that needs to be party to that: Israel. Secondly—I hope that he will take this in the right way—it is incumbent on me and the Government to be extremely careful about how we lecture others on the way in which they form coalitions and partnerships. The violence in Gaza, directed against President Abbas, has cost more than 100 lives. I choose my words carefully when I say that I very much hope that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad will develop institutions capable of representing the aspirations of all Palestinian people. We need to support them in that.
May I add my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker? I am sure that you do not need reminding that today is also the birthday of one of the most distinguished ornaments of the Palace of Westminster. I refer to Police Constable John Harrigan—although it is actually my birthday as well.
Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer, may I implore him—not that he needs reminding, because I know that he is acutely aware of this point—not to forget the position of the persecuted and fast-disappearing Christian minorities of the region in the conversations that he has with regional leaders?
My hon. Friend, whose birthday I am happy to celebrate as well—I am sorry that I missed him out earlier, but the research department at the Foreign Office did not quite get to that part of the birthdays list—raises an important point and I will look into it.
One of the most important prospects for dialogue is the dialogue that could be undertaken by Tony Blair. However, some commentators feel that he has a huge handicap in terms of his previous role as Prime Minister, and the problems in Lebanon and Iraq. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to get him over that hurdle and handicap?
From my experience of the former Prime Minister, I would say that he is more than capable of looking after himself. The reaction of leaders from across the region has been significant and positive. The mandate of the former Prime Minister is important and he will be able to develop it under his own steam. In the telephone calls that I have had over the last four days with regional leaders, they have welcomed his appointment and are looking forward to his active engagement in the arena as someone who has real knowledge of the issues that confront anyone who seeks peace for that part of the world.
In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his appointment and congratulating him, may I ask him to remind the Israeli Government that if they refuse to have dealings with Palestinian moderates, the Palestinians will elect extremists, that if they refuse to have dealings with the elected Palestinian extremists, militants will take over, and that the only hope of peace and security for the Israelis is for them to be realistic about whom they have dealings with, with the objective being to come to a settlement regardless of what their enemies and opponents may say?
My right hon. Friend speaks with a long history of engagement and expertise in this area. This November will mark 40 years since the passage of resolution 242, which marked the start of the UN engagement, which led, in 2002, to the commitment in Security Council resolution 1397, I think it was, to a two-state solution. As I said, the bedrock of our approach will be first to pursue that two-state solution, secondly, actively to support peacemakers in the region and those committed to peaceful political progress, and thirdly, to ensure that we have what the new Prime Minister has called an economic road map, as well as a political road map, for the future—and that it includes the humanitarian issues that I referred to earlier.
Mr. Speaker, may I also abase myself and congratulate you on your birthday? We cannot all be 21 again. May I also congratulate the Foreign Secretary on taking up his position? He leaves behind the Rural Payments Agency and flooding and comes to the more tranquil areas of foreign policy. May I ask him, in particular in relation to Gaza, what line the Government are taking to persuade Hamas in Gaza to reach some form of accommodation with President Abbas? Or will the international community just try to isolate Hamas in Gaza and starve it out?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and one day we can talk about the Rural Payments Agency, too. He talked about starving people out; I hope that what I said earlier on the humanitarian issues, and what was reflected in my subsequent answers, shows that we are absolutely determined to ensure that we play a full part in tackling the diverse humanitarian issues. It is important to put it on record that in the last month there have been about 180 or 190 rockets launched into Israel from the Gaza strip. I am sure that he will understand when I say that the suffering of Palestinians on the one hand, and the fear and insecurity felt by many Israeli citizens on the other, need to be addressed together, and they can only be addressed through mutual recognition, which will be vital to long-term stability in the area.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is not a lot of point in lecturing the people of the middle east about representative democracy if, when they elect a party that we do not happen to like—in this case Hamas—we try to say that the election was null and void? Surely all that can do is drive the Palestinians into the arms of militants.
As I said earlier, we did engage with the new Government—the national unity Government that was created in the occupied Palestinian territories—over the last year. I think that it is also important to point out that we were part of the EU, which sent about €680 million to that Government over the last year. I think that it is right to say that one issue that unites people across the House is the determination to pursue a two-state solution, and that can only be pursued with people who are willing to recognise that the other state has a right to exist. I know that my hon. Friend is committed to a two-state solution, and I hope that she and the rest of the House can follow through on that commitment, given the difficult waters that we have to navigate.
May I be the latest in what will be a very long line of people wishing you a happy birthday today, Mr. Speaker? I, too, welcome the Foreign Secretary to his appointment. There is probably never an easy time to take on that important role, but we on the Liberal Democrat Benches wish him every success.
Returning to the appointment of the former Prime Minister as the Quartet’s special envoy, he has been described by the White House as an “aggressive facilitator”. Notwithstanding the reaction of some of the regional leaders, does the Foreign Secretary accept that one of Mr. Blair’s most pressing challenges will be to overcome the open hostility to his appointment in Gaza and the west bank? Does he also accept that if the former Prime Minister is to win the support of both Palestinians and Israelis, he will have to persuade the international community, with some urgency, to overhaul the discredited temporary international mechanism?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and with the Opposition, where we can find common ground. He mentioned the west bank, but actually President Abbas was keen to impress on me his welcome for the former Prime Minister’s appointment to his role, which I think is important. In respect of the temporary international mechanism, I will look at that issue in more detail. Having spoken to regional leaders over the past four years, I have to say that they have not put pressure on anyone to say that the mechanism is discredited—I think that is the term that the hon. Gentleman used. I am sure that there are ways in which the mechanism can be improved, but they have stressed to me that the investment mechanism is an important part of building the sort of economic future that we need.
May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Returning to the issue of humanitarian access, is he aware of the report from Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organisation, which reports that Western Union and DHL have stopped the transfer of money into Gaza, so the people trapped there cannot even receive support and money from their relatives abroad? Is there not a role for the Quartet to ensure that that kind of humanitarian aid is facilitated, so that people can make ends meet?
I have not read the report to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will look at it. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East pointed out to me, we are working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and funding it, and that is one issue that it is pursuing. I will look into the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raises and, if I may, write back to him.
European Union Reform
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the then Prime Minister’s post-European Council statement to the House on 25 June. The June European Council agreed a detailed mandate for EU institutional reform. An intergovernmental conference will now be convened under the Portuguese presidency to draft a new treaty. We want to see the IGC concluded promptly. The EU needs to complete institutional reform in order to focus on such issues as climate change, which matter immensely to people right across the European Union.
May I take the Foreign Secretary back to a commitment given by his predecessor but one after the French and Dutch votes two years ago? The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked him:
“Will he assure me that one matter that he would certainly submit to a referendum is the creation of a Foreign Minister and a European President?”
The then Foreign Secretary replied:
“Those points are central to the European constitutional treaty, and of course I see no prospect of their being brought into force, save through the vehicle of a constitutional treaty.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1001.]
The new treaty does indeed include both a Foreign Minister and a President. According to the Government, that would make it a constitution, so why is there no referendum?
The first thing to say is that it is enormously in this country’s interest to have a president of the European Council—not a President of Europe, but a president of the European Council—who can replace the six-monthly rotating presidency, which is not just tiresome, but inefficient. Secondly, it is in our interest to ensure that we have a lead representative on foreign policy issues answering on a unanimous basis to the 27 member-state Governments of the European Union. The two issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are good for Britain. That is the first point. Secondly, we do not propose to have a referendum on the reform treaty precisely because it is not a constitution.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and happy birthday. I, too, welcome the new Foreign Secretary to his post. I am sure the Foreign Affairs Committee looks forward to questioning him on these matters over the coming months. Given that the Portuguese presidency of the European Union intends to hold an intergovernmental conference relatively soon and is talking about a process from this month until 18 October, can my right hon. Friend tell us how the House will be able to subject the process to proper scrutiny before the intergovernmental conference?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ultimately it will be a matter for the Leader of the House. I am keen that we have extensive investigation and scrutiny of the mandate and then of the reform treaty when it finally comes forward as a treaty, including in front of my hon. Friend’s Select Committee. The Government are determined to play their full part in that. I cannot give him the details today, but I understand the point that he makes.
As the EU accounts have been rejected by the auditors for the past 12 years, and as our net contribution to the EU budget this year will be nearly £5 billion, why did the European summit not tackle at all, judging by the published conclusions, the urgent issue of financial reform?
Financial reform is an important issue for the European Union. I know that the previous occupants of Her Majesty’s Treasury pursued serious work in that area. No doubt that will continue, but it was not the focus of the European Council, because the European Council was focused on the institutional issues that we are discussing in this question.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post and I am sure that he will be looking forward to the intricacies and labyrinths of European institutional debate. As he manoeuvres himself along those labyrinths, will he draw a clear distinction for the British public between the fundamental rights charter of the European Union and the human rights articles of the Council of Europe, enabling him to make it clear that no transfer of power to European institutions arises from the draft treaty in June, and that the Council of Europe provisions are as strong today in defending human rights in Britain as they have ever been?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Manoeuvring along labyrinths is an enticing prospect—thickets come to mind. He makes an important point about the legal wording that we now have in respect of the charter of fundamental rights, and he is also right to draw the distinction between that and the Council of Europe.
In welcoming the entire ministerial team to their responsibilities, I draw attention to the IGC mandate and its call for an enhanced role for national Parliaments, which I hope that everyone very much welcomes. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that shared sovereignty in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on many issues is with the EU. What enhanced role does he see for the Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in relation to the EU?
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post, and I wish you, Mr. Speaker, a happy birthday, and many more of them.
As my right hon. Friend said, many of the reforms that were hammered out at the recent conference were aimed at making the EU easier to manage now that there are 27 member states. What is his assessment of the effectiveness of the reforms in addressing that particular point, which was rightly the focus of the discussions?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a good treaty for Britain. It is good that we end the rotating presidency, it is good that the Commission’s numbers are reformed, and it is good that we have a new voting system, which is a 45 per cent. increase—
I look forward to a question from the hon. Gentleman, when I will be happy to volley back at full blast.
It is good that national security is definitively and for the first time set out as a national competence, and it is good that the symbols, flags and anthems, which distracted attention from the discussion of the European constitutional treaty as previously put forward, are done away with, so that we can focus on what, in the end, will make the EU useful to this country—jobs, climate and energy, the issues that matter to ordinary people.
I join in warmly congratulating the Foreign Secretary on his elevation. There are many bipartisan issues in foreign policy on which we look forward to working with him, and more than that, there are many very difficult issues, not least in the middle east, on which we wish him every success.
On Europe, however, the right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that Mr. Giscard d’Estaing has said:
“This text is, in fact, a rerun of a great part of the substance of the constitutional treaty”;
“the public is being led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly.”
Why does the Foreign Secretary think he said that?
I warmly reciprocate the right hon. Gentleman’s kind words. He will certainly find me very keen to co-operate in areas where a bipartisan approach is good for the country. I would not seek to read Giscard d’Estaing’s mind, but one does not need to do so to see the difference between the constitutional treaty and the reformed treaty. I have here the published conclusions of the European Council. Clause 1 of the IGC mandate clearly states:
“The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing treaties and replacing them by a single text called “Constitution”, is abandoned”—
not reformed, not amended, but abandoned. The constitutional treaty has been abandoned. That is not just my view, nor is it just the view of our Prime Minister—it is the view of the 27 Heads of Government who signed the document.
Could the reason why the former French President said that be that it is true? Is it not clear that
“the new EU treaty preserves the substance of the constitutional treaty”?
Those are not my words, but those of the German Foreign Minister. Did the Prime Minister not say that Ministers had to honour their manifesto and that this was an issue of trust between him and the public? Would it not be a splendid start to the Foreign Secretary’s time in office if he were to tell the Prime Minister that if there is no referendum on the revived EU constitution, he will never be able to use the words “honour” and “trust” with any credibility again?
The right hon. Gentleman’s memory has deserted him. When he first entered this House, he worked with 11 other members of the current shadow Cabinet and 22 current Conservative Front Benchers to vote against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, which involved a smaller transfer of power. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is a new member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, and it is incumbent on me to mention his distinguished record, working with Douglas Hurd to ensure that the Maastricht treaty was piloted through this House before 1992. He entered this House in 1992, and he voted against a referendum on a motion that I can read out, if hon. Members are interested. His membership of the Conservative Front-Bench team should mean that the Conservative party, instead of being a dying sect, returns to being a mainstream, sensible political party.
I join other hon. Members in welcoming the Foreign Secretary to his post. There is no need for a referendum on an amending treaty. Will he assure the House that the IGC will not be an end to this Government’s commitment to the reform agenda in Europe? We should push the process forward to ensure the more efficient use of the European institutions and the greater enlargement of the EU.
My right hon. Friend speaks with the authority of a former Minister for Europe who has been through the European labyrinth that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has described. He is right, because in the end the European Union must prove its worth by delivering for the people who elect us to this House and to other Parliaments around Europe. It adds value when it focuses on the things that need to be done at a European level. Those things should be done efficiently, which is what this Government are determined to advocate.
EU Treaty Opt-outs
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister’s post-European Council statement to the House on 25 June this year. The Government received legal advice from the Government lawyers on all aspects of the IGC mandate.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, although I think it regrettable, given the important negotiations that lie ahead, that the new Prime Minister has downgraded his post by not allowing him to attend Cabinet, which his two predecessors did. May I draw his attention to the comments of the legal adviser to the European Scrutiny Committee, Mr. Michael Carpenter, who said that the declaration on foreign affairs might turn out to be completely meaningless, and who went on to cast doubt on all the other opt-outs on the so-called red lines? Given that the whole case made by the then Prime Minister as to why we were not going to have a referendum was based on those opt-outs on his so-called red lines, has that not been shown to be completely and utterly worthless?
Not at all. However, I begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome to this important job. I also thank him for championing my cause; my mother will be pleased. The hon. Gentleman’s specific points are, of course, unfounded, as were the points made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The treaty explicitly confirms for the first time that national security is the sole responsibility of member states. Where we agree, and where we agree unanimously, we will work together, but where we disagree, we will, of course, continue to act independently.
The charter of fundamental rights, which is closely associated with the treaty, declares that every worker has the right to the limitation of maximum working hours. Does the Minister believe that that will leave Britain’s existing opt-out open to challenge at the European Court of Justice, and if it does, how vigorously will he defend it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcoming of me to my new role. In terms of his specific point, I do not agree with him. This does not affect our opt-out in any way. The former Prime Minister made it very clear that one of our red lines is that our existing labour and social legislation would not be affected by this part of the reform treaty, and that is very clear in the outcome of the deliberations.
It is quite clear that declarations, protocols, emergency brakes and opt-ins have been tried in the past and have failed; they cannot be relied on. The only thing that works is a veto. Why does the Minister not say that this is going to be a new Government and use the IGC to put the vetoes back—the only sure way of defending the red lines?
The right hon. Gentleman has a long record of being wrong on European issues. He voted against the previous referendum proposals. When we look at the difference between the reform treaty and the constitutional treaty, we see that out has come automatic qualified majority voting for policing and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, out has come any suggestion of a binding charter of fundamental rights, out has come the weak emergency brake on social security measures, and out has come possible communal decision making for foreign and defence policy. Much has changed, but the right hon. Gentleman’s decades-long, strident opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union still remains.
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman’s mother and welcome him to his new and important role? In that role, does he agree with his ministerial colleague, Sir Digby Jones, who recently told the Economic Research Council:
“This is a con to call this a treaty—it’s not. It’s exactly the same—it’s a constitution”?
Was not the new Trade and Investment Minister exactly right?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. We have always had a very good and friendly relationship, particularly in European Standing Committees A, B and C, but I do not agree with his comments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made it clear that, as it says loud and clear in the reform treaty, the “constitutional concept…is abandoned”.
UN Resolution 1701
May I, Mr. Speaker, add my best wishes to you on your birthday?
Full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701 remains a high priority for the Government. We continue to call for the unconditional and immediate release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, almost a year ago. The UN facilitator appointed by the Secretary-General leads on negotiations to secure their release. The UN has the United Kingdom’s full support as it takes this important work forward.
As the Minister told the House, it is nearly a year since those two Israeli soldiers were captured. He will be aware that last week the UN-Lebanon independent border assessment team revealed that the borders between Lebanon and Syria have been opened to the smuggling of weapons and goods, which is in violation of resolution 1701. Will he tell the House what discussions the Government have had with other Security Council members and with Syria to stop the illegal flow of these weapons to Hezbollah and to Palestinian terrorist organisations in Lebanon?
The hon. Gentleman is right; this is a very serious situation and one which the United Nations has been trying to address. I went to the Israeli border on the Lebanese side, south of the Litani river, to speak with General Graziano, who is running UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—down there. He told me that he was pretty confident that there is not a large amount of smuggling coming over the Syrian border in that part of Lebanon, but he could not give those guarantees for the northern part of Lebanon. That is a very long and very porous border, as the hon. Gentleman says. We have been urging the Syrians, and everyone else, to turn the rhetoric about wanting stability in Lebanon and in the middle east into reality by doing their best to promote peace in that area and not to support rejectionist groups and Hezbollah, paid for by Iran, that are intent on causing destruction and mayhem.
Happy birthday, Mr. Speaker. It is nice to see one old face among such an excellent new team.
One of the features of resolution 1701 was a commitment for Israel to publish maps of any landmines in the Lebanon. There are still landmines there. What action could the UK, with its expertise in de-mining, take to assist with the removal of landmines, which are causing such havoc in Lebanon?
I will not comment on the “old” adjective.
We are worried about the levels of unexploded ordnance throughout southern Lebanon and we have committed a total of £2.8 million to clearing unexploded ordinance in the area. We have also asked the Government of Israel to hand over all relevant maps, which could help us locate unexploded ordnance—whether mines or the configuration of shells that were fired by artillery from Israel. I am afraid that, so far, we have not had that co-operation, although we have had promises of it.
The Syrians have said that they want to play a constructive role in bringing about peace in the region. What pressure is being brought to bear on the Syrian Government, given their relationship with Hezbollah, to ensure the release of the two Israeli soldiers?
We certainly have pressed—and will continue to press—the Syrian Government to play their part in trying to bring peace to the Lebanon and to secure the release of the Israeli soldiers. I must admit to the hon. Gentleman that we have not made a great deal of progress, but at least talks have begun. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the former Foreign Secretary, met Foreign Minister Mouallem of Syria in the margins of a recent conference and pressed him in order to try to discover Syria’s attitude to its continuing support of Palestinian rejectionist groups and its apparent lack of co-operation in trying to find and return the Israeli soldiers. We would very much like an answer from Syria about that.
We want good relationships with Syria. We understand the important part that it could play in bringing peace to the middle east. So far, its reaction has not been helpful but we will urge the Syrian Government to change their mind about that and play their part in co-operating to bring peace to the region and ensure the return of the soldiers.
The violence of recent weeks has undermined the political foundations of robust and durable progress towards a two-state solution. The Quartet principles remain an essential basis for an inclusive political process. We will support the work of Tony Blair as the new Quartet representative in helping to build the capacity and institutions of a viable Palestinian state.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. Happy birthday.
In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new role, may I say that I was surprised to see that article 22 of the Hamas constitution of 1988 argues that Zionist secret societies, such as the freemasons, the Rotarians and the Lions, were established to sabotage society and promote Zionist interests? With such views, is a peaceful solution possible between a Hamas Government in Gaza, a Fatah Government in the west bank and Israel? Are we moving towards a three-state rather than a two-state solution?
I said earlier that the bedrock of our approach would be to support first, a two-state solution; secondly, all those committed to peaceful negotiation in search of a solution; and, thirdly, the economic, social and humanitarian work that is essential. Consistency with the Quartet principles is the foundation. Obviously, we deplore the sort of sentiments that my hon. Friend read from the Hamas charter, because they are incompatible with the settled two-state solution that is the foundation for a peaceful middle east.
Will the right hon. Gentleman use his best endeavours to urge our American friends to cease poisoning the well of relations between Fatah and Hamas? Does he agree that Palestinian unity is extremely important if security is to return to the territories, and that—most important of all—peace talks can recommence with Israel?
Palestinian unity is important, but the violence, the killing, the feuding between Hamas and Fatah representatives and supporters has deep roots. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is all the fault of the Americans—[Interruption]—or words to that effect. “Poisoning the well” was the expression that he used, but one has to be very careful in making that sort of allegation. The unity to which he referred and a set of Palestinian institutions that can provide the political basis for proper negotiations are obviously essential. I will certainly discuss those and other issues with Condoleezza Rice, my opposite number, when I visit the United States in due course.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it might help the peace process if the 44 properly elected Palestinian Members of Parliament who have been in Israeli jails for a considerable time were charged and brought to trial, and that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which has been trying to visit them in jail for almost two years, should be given that access?
May I reinforce the call of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? If the Palestinian Legislative Council were the same size as this Chamber, 220 of us would now be in detention. As it is primarily supporters of Hamas who have been detained, what effect does the Foreign Secretary believe that that has on popular support for Hamas among Palestinians?
Perhaps unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I gave a very clear answer to my right hon. Friend. The Quartet principles make it clear that recent events made it doubly imperative that there should be progress and re-engagement in the area. This issue and its resolution provide classic ground for the sort of progress that is needed.
As we speak, the Israelis are continuing to expand their illegal settlements in the west bank. The population of Israelis in the occupied territories has risen at five times the rate of the population of Israelis within Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israelis to stop taking further west bank land, as that merely strengthens the extremists on the Palestinian side and weakens the moderates, making a two-state solution impossible?
Yes; I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these issues. Settlement building is contrary to international law. We will continue to raise the matter with the Israeli Government, because the road map is clear that Israel should freeze settlement activity.
Last month, the former Foreign Secretary discussed Kosovo with our EU colleagues at the General Affairs and External Relations Council and in the run-up to the European Council. This issue is also frequently raised in bilateral meetings with EU member states.
Her Majesty’s Government support the UN special envoy Ahtisaari’s proposals, which took 14 months of intense negotiations and involved Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. He carried out his negotiations professionally and with integrity and we believe that that formed the basis of the subsequent UN resolution.
May I add my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr. Speaker? May I also congratulate the Minister on his new appointment? No doubt the Opposition will work closely with him.
Will the Minister confirm that the Ahtisaari plan for the future of an independent Kosovo is the only fair and sustainable option on the table at the moment? Will he also confirm that his Government have been having discussions with the Russians, to persuade them that neither they nor their Serb rivals have anything to fear from an independent Kosovo? If he is unable to persuade the Russians that they should not use their veto, what contingency plans has he to deal with the situation in that event?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. He is right to say that we have discussions and negotiations with our Russian colleagues on this important issue, as we do with others throughout Europe. This is also an issue that has been discussed between the Presidents of the United States and Russia over the past 48 hours. One of the areas of concern to Russia and the Serbs is the protection of Kosovo Serbs. The Ahtisaari plan is very detailed and contains a comprehensive set of protections, which should provide important comfort as we move towards establishing the new UN resolution.
We have provided extensive consular assistance to Angela Barratt as well as to her family in the UK. We have also been making representations to the Turkish authorities where appropriate. She was found guilty and sentenced on 26 June 2007 and is currently on bail pending appeal, so her case remains sub judice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, met the foreign affairs adviser of the caretaker Government of Bangladesh on 19 April. She welcomed the Government’s commitment to restore democracy before the end of next year, looked forward to free and fair elections, applauded the Government’s drive against corruption, and stressed the need to respect human rights and due process.
I am grateful for that answer. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware of the high level of concern in the Bangladeshi community here in the UK about the situation in Bangladesh and the need for a proper democratic Government there. What will my hon. Friend’s Department do to impress on the caretaker Government the need to work with the political parties in Bangladesh to get them re-established and working again properly, so that they can play a proper part in free and fair elections?
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We believe that the lifting of the ban on party political activities will be an important step towards creating the right conditions, and we stand ready to offer practical assistance. We await the findings of the United Nations Development Programme’s assessment of the extent of the assistance required to pave the way for free and fair elections.
I understand that the Bangladeshi Government recently met representatives of the European Union and gave a commitment that the Bangladeshi electoral commission would bring forward a road map for elections by mid-July. During the Minister’s negotiations with her opposite number in Bangladesh, will she ensure that any assistance needed for the production of that road map will be provided?
The middle east peace process is one of our highest priorities. Our objective remains a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two-state solution is the only realistic basis for a just and lasting peace, despite Hamas actions in Gaza. That means a viable state of Palestine living in peace and security alongside the state of Israel. Both parties need to fulfil their obligations in order for that to become a reality. The international community has a key role to play in helping to secure that outcome, and the Government are fully committed to doing whatever they can to help.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does he not agree that it is a secure economic future for the Palestinians that will make a future Palestinian state viable? Will he tell the House what the Government are doing to help the economic development of the Palestinian people?
I doubt whether there is a politician across the world who has paid more attention than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to trying to find economic solutions to the problems in Gaza and the west bank as part of a peaceful solution to that long-running conflict. We will continue to do so, because we recognise that the lack of jobs and the fact that there is no sense of an economic future are a curse on the region. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will continue to put the resources required into ensuring that we play our part in the rebuilding of the infrastructure of both Gaza and the west bank.
He is not here.
Does the Minister accept that the Israeli Government themselves, however inadvertently, played a not insignificant role in the rise of Hamas, not least by encouraging continued settlement building and continually snubbing President Abbas in the early days? Does he accept that there is no way forward on the two-state solution, which we all desire, unless all the parties with real power in the area, including Hamas itself, are part of the process?
We have never denied that Hamas should play a part, but it must be a constructive part. I would very much like it to play that role, which I believe the Palestinian people elected it to play. However, we cannot treat Hamas in the same way as other players in the region if it supports suicide bombers and if it plays a game of violence, and does not take a peaceful approach to the problem. There is no question but that Hamas was the democratic expression of the majority of the Palestinian people in the elections—that is not disputed—but the hon. Gentleman will agree that we cannot deal with a Government with elected representatives who advocate terrorism as a way of achieving some kind of political settlement in such a sensitive area.
I have not had any discussions on the situation in Burma with my EU counterparts. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, and her EU colleagues issued a statement at the General Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on 23 April expressing concern about the situation in Burma. EU Ministers and their Asian counterparts issued a further statement at the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers meeting in Hamburg on 29 May.
Congratulations, Mr. Speaker, on your birthday.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I welcome her to her new post. Does she think that there is any more that the EU can do to help end the suffering and the abuse of human rights endured by many thousands of people in Burma? Those abuses, particularly the practice of portering—using detainees as porters in armed conflicts—were even condemned last Friday by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which usually remains neutral. That is the strongest example of its speaking out since Rwanda.
I thank my hon. Friend for her warm comments, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on Burma over many years. The EU common position is the best achievable policy. The EU acting as 27 carries more weight than individual members acting alone. However, we are deeply concerned that the ICRC has been forced to close two field offices in Burma, and we share the concerns that it has expressed. We will continue to keep the matter under review, and I entirely share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.
I welcome the Minister to her new position. As secretary of the all-party group for democracy in Burma, may I tell her that we enjoyed a very good relationship with her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), and I hope that we will enjoy a similar relationship with her? Her predecessor wrote to me last month explaining that the Government were pursuing the question of non-British companies investing in Burma through the British Virgin Islands. Requests were made for that claim to be investigated by the local authorities there, so can she tell me what progress has been made?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and congratulate him on his work on the all-party group on Burma; that group is widely appreciated throughout the House. Unfortunately, during my few days in post I have been unable to attain the level of detail to be able to answer his question. I hope that he will bear with me by allowing me to write to him on it. I will certainly pursue the matter on his behalf.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, my first, most important and most solemn duty is to pay tribute to the five members of our armed forces who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past week. Corporal Paul Joszko of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, Private Scott Kennedy of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and my constituent Private Jamie Kerr, also of the Black Watch, were all killed on patrol last Wednesday in Basra. Captain Sean Dolan of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters and Sergeant David Wilkinson of 19 Regiment Royal Artillery were killed at the weekend in Afghanistan. They served their country bravely, and the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to their families.
May I also pay tribute, Mr. Speaker, to the professionalism of our police, emergency services and security services over recent days, and applaud the heroism and vigilance of ordinary members of the British public? We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.
All Members of this House and all the people of this country have a shared interest in building trust in our democracy, and it is my hope that, by working together for change in a spirit that takes us beyond parties and beyond partisanship, we can agree a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people. Change, with a new settlement, is in my view essential to our country’s future. For we will meet the new challenges of security, of economic change and of communities under pressure—and forge a stronger shared national purpose—only by building a new relationship between citizens and Government that ensures that Government is a better servant of the people.
Let me pay tribute to the contribution to our thinking—and to the wider constitutional debate—that has already been made by parliamentarians in all parts of the House. Because I want this process to be one in which we consult and involve not only all political parties but the people of this country, what I propose today is not, and should not be seen as, the final blueprint for a constitutional settlement, but a route map towards it.
The route map seeks to address two fundamental issues: to hold power more accountable and to uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. Constitutional change will not be the work of just one Bill or one year or one Parliament, but I can today make an immediate start by proposing changes that will transfer power from the Prime Minister and the Executive. For centuries, they have exercised authority in the name of the monarchy without the people and their elected representatives being consulted, so I now propose that in 12 important areas of our national life the Prime Minister and the Executive should surrender or limit their powers, the exclusive exercise of which by the Government of the day should have no place in a modern democracy. These are: the power of the Executive to declare war; the power to request the dissolution of Parliament; the power over recall of Parliament; the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties without decision by Parliament; the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny; the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of our intelligence services; power to choose bishops; power in the appointment of judges; power to direct prosecutors in individual criminal cases; power over the civil service itself; and the Executive powers to determine the rules governing entitlement to passports and the granting of pardons. I now propose to surrender or limit these powers to make for a more open 21st-century British democracy which better serves the British people.
Let me set out the measures, the details of which are included in a Green Paper published today by the Secretary of State for Justice. Constitutional change should never limit our ability to deal with emergencies and should never jeopardise the security of our forces or any necessary operational decisions, but the Government will now consult on a resolution to guarantee that on the grave issue of peace and war it is ultimately this House of Commons that will make the decision. I propose, in addition, to put on to a statutory footing Parliament’s right to ratify new international treaties.
We will also consult on proposals that this House of Commons would have to approve a resolution for any dissolution of Parliament requested by the Prime Minister and that, while at present members of Parliament cannot decide whether the House should be recalled, for the first time a majority of Members—and not just the Prime Minister—should have that right, subject to your authority, Mr. Speaker.
The House of Commons should also have a bigger role in the selection of key public officials. I propose, as a first step, pre-appointment hearings for public officials whose role it is to protect the public’s rights and interests, and for whom there is not currently independent scrutiny. That includes the chief inspector of prisons, the local government ombudsman, the civil service commissioner and the commissioner for public appointments. For public offices where appointments are acknowledged to be market-sensitive, the Chancellor is setting out today how pre-commencement hearings will apply to new members of the Monetary Policy Committee, including the Governor of the Bank of England, and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. I also propose that we extend pre-commencement hearings in this House to utility regulators and other regulators. I propose that we review too the arrangements for making appointments to NHS boards, and it is right that this House of Commons vote on the appointment of the chair of the new independent Statistics Board.
I can announce also that from now on the Government will regularly publish, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our national security strategy. It will set out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue. I have said for some time that the long-term and continuing security obligations on us require us to co-ordinate military, policing, intelligence and diplomatic action—and also to win hearts and minds in this country and around the world. So following discussions over the last few months, I have decided to establish within Government a national security council, charged with bringing together our overseas defence and security, but also our development and community relations efforts, to send out a clear message that at all times we will be vigilant and we will never yield in addressing the terrorist threat.
As the security agencies themselves recognise, greater accountability to Parliament can strengthen still further public support for the work that they do. So while ensuring necessary safeguards that respect confidentiality and security, we will now consult on whether and how the Intelligence and Security Committee can be appointed by, and report to, Parliament. And we will start now with hearings, held in public wherever possible; a strengthened capacity for investigations; reports subject to more parliamentary debate; and greater transparency over appointments to the Committee.
The Church of England is, and should remain, the established Church in England. Establishment does not, however, justify the Prime Minister influencing senior Church appointments, including bishops. And I also propose that the Government should consider relinquishing their residual role in the appointment of judges.
The role of Attorney-General, which combines legal and ministerial functions, needs to change. While we consult on reform, the Attorney-General has herself decided, except if the law or national security requires it, not to make key prosecution decisions in individual criminal cases.
To reinforce the neutrality of the civil service, the core principles governing it will no longer be set at the discretion of the Executive but will be legislated by Parliament—and so this Government have finally responded to the central recommendation of the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the civil service made more than 150 years ago in 1854. The frameworks for granting pardons and for issuing and withdrawing passports should also be set not by Government but by Parliament. And I propose that we reduce the advance sight that Government Departments have of the release of statistical information from as much as five days currently to just 24 hours.
Even as we now reduce the power of the Executive, we will also increase their accountability. Following the decision to revoke the provisions that previously allowed special advisers to give orders to civil servants, I am also publishing a new ministerial code today that provides for a new independent adviser to supervise disclosure, whom I can ask to scrutinise ministerial conduct, including conflicts of interest. I propose that we reinforce the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and to the public with a statement in the summer, prior to the Queen’s Speech, on the provisional forward legislative programme, and this will start this month. Annual departmental reports will be debated in this House.
But just as the Executive must become more accountable to Parliament, Parliament itself must become more accountable. Given the vote in this House in March for major reform of the House of Lords as a second and revising Chamber with provision for democratic election, a statement will be made by the Government before the recess as we press ahead with reform. A statement on the reform of local government will propose a new concordat between local and central Government. We will fulfil our manifesto obligation to publish our review of the experience of the various voting systems introduced since 1998, and the House will have a full opportunity to discuss in detail, and to vote here in this House on, the legislation that flows from the European Union amending treaty.
Just as we have appointed Ministers for each region of England, I propose that, to increase the accountability of local and regional decision making, the House now consider creating Committees to review the economies and public services of each region, and we will propose a regular Question Time for regional Ministers. But while we will listen to all proposals to improve our constitution in the light of devolution, we do not accept the proposal for English votes for English laws, which would create two classes of Members of Parliament—some entitled to vote on all issues, some invited to vote on only some. We will do nothing to put at risk the Union. I am reminded—[Interruption.]
I am reminded of the statement in 1999 by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, who said that English votes for English laws would cause constitutional chaos.
The right of all the British people to have their voice heard is fundamental to our democracy and to holding public institutions to account. Britain is rightly proud to be the pioneer of the modern liberties of the individual. I think it right to make it a general rule that in these areas there is independent oversight of authorities and accountability to Parliament. I encourage the House to agree a new process for ensuring consideration of petitions from members of the public. Disengagement is too often reflected in low turnout in elections. Britain is unusual in holding elections on weekdays, when people are at work, and the Secretary of State for Justice will announce a consultation on whether there is a case for voting at weekends.
The Government will also bring forward proposals to extend the period of time during which parties can use all-women short lists for candidate selections, and to give more time for all parties in this House to take up this new right, if they choose. While balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, I think it right—in consultation with the Metropolitan police, Parliament, the Mayor of London, Westminster city council and liberties groups—to change the laws that now restrict the right to demonstrate in Parliament square.
The measures that I have just announced represent, in my view, an important step forward in changing the way we are governed, but it is possible to do more to bring Government closer to the people.
Although our system of representative democracy—local as well as national—is at the heart of our constitution, it can be enhanced by devolving more power directly to the people, and I propose that we start the debate and consult on empowering citizens and communities in four areas. The first is powers of initiative, extending the right of the British people to intervene with their elected local representatives to ensure action, through a new community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to involve local people.
The second is new rights for the British people to be consulted through mechanisms such as “citizens juries” on major decisions affecting their lives. The third is powers of redress, and new rights for the British people to scrutinise and improve the local delivery of services. The fourth is powers to ballot on spending decisions in areas such as neighbourhood budgets and youth budgets, with decisions on finance made by local people themselves.
At the same time, we must give new life to the very idea of citizenship. All in this House would acknowledge that there are very specific challenges we must meet on engaging young people and improving citizenship education. I hope that there will be all-party support for a commission to review this and make recommendations. Although the voting age has been 18 since 1969, it is right, as part of that debate, to examine, and hear from young people themselves, whether lowering that age would increase participation. Consultation will take place with you, Mr. Speaker, and through the Leader of the House, with this House as to whether the Youth Parliament should be invited here in this Chamber once a year, on a non-sitting day.
What constitutes citizens’ rights, beyond voting, and citizens’ responsibilities, such as jury service, should itself be a matter for public deliberation. As we focus on the challenges that we face and what unites and integrates our country, our starting point should be to discuss together and then, as other countries do, agree and set down the values, founded in liberty, which define our citizenship and help to define our country. And there is a case that we should go further still than this statement of values to codify either in concordats or in a single document both the duties and rights of citizens and the balance of power between Government, Parliament and the people.
In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate about whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and duties, or for moving towards a written constitution. Because such fundamental change should happen only when there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to lead a dialogue within Parliament and with people across the United Kingdom by holding a series of hearings, starting in the autumn, in all regions and nations of the country, and we will consult with all the other parties on this process.
So the changes that we propose today and the national debate we now begin are founded on the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy. It is my hope that this dialogue of all parties and the British people will lead to a new consensus, a more effective democracy and a stronger sense of shared national purpose. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Paul Joszko, Private Scott Kennedy, and Private James Kerr, all of whom died in Basra, and to Captain Sean Dolan and Sergeant Dave Wilkinson, who were killed in Afghanistan. They died serving their country. I join the Prime Minister, too, in his praise for the work of the police, the emergency services and the security services and also in thanking the public both for their bravery and for their vigilance.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today. Let me begin by congratulating him on becoming Prime Minister. He has achieved his long-held ambition, and I hope that there will be opportunities for us to work together, not least on the issue of terrorism and the safety of our people.
The British system of government and politics needs real and lasting change. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, Ministers do not give straight answers and people feel shut out of decision making. That is why we need change. We welcome much of what is in the statement: the national security council was in our policy review; confirmation hearings—one of our proposals; and neighbourhood budgets are in the Sustainable Communities Bill being taken through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). But we have to ask this of the Prime Minister: he says he wants to decentralise Government, but is he not the one who has imposed 3,000 central targets on our public services and local government? He says he wants to strengthen Parliament, but how can we forget the 10 years that he has spent on new ways of trying to avoid Parliament, with his stealth tax changes not even mentioned in his Budget? He says he wants all his Ministers to give straight answers, but when he was Chancellor he did not answer a single question about the tax credit system for which he was responsible for more than two and a half years.
The Prime Minister says he wants to restore trust in politics, but surely he has to recognise that he has been at the heart of the Government who have done more than any other Government in living memory to destroy trust in politics. He says he wants to get to the truth. In that case, I have to ask him why he opposes holding an inquiry into Iraq where, above all, we must get to the truth. That is why, when it comes to restoring trust in politics, we simply do not see that the Prime Minister can be the change this country needs.
Let us look at the detail. There are three key relationships: between Government and Parliament, between different parts of the United Kingdom, and between politics and the people. On Parliament, in May last year I said that Parliament should vote on peace and war and on international treaties, so I am glad the Prime Minister will be introducing that; it has our full support. In June this year, I called for real power for Select Committees. The Prime Minister said a lot about the Intelligence and Security Committee, but there was little in the statement about other Select Committees. Will they be getting more power? Three years ago, we sponsored a Civil Service Bill. Can the Prime Minister confirm that what he was talking about in his statement is a full civil service Act?
Does the Prime Minister agree that in changing the relationship between Government and Parliament, we should go further? Is it not time to give the House of Commons the right to determine its own timetable? Is not that the absolute key to restoring power in Parliament?
I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister said about electoral reform. I have to say this: as a Prime Minister who was not elected by the British people, he must understand that any attempt to alter the electoral system without the consent of the people will be seen for what it is—an attempt to change the rules to suit one party’s interests and to cling to power.
As the Prime Minister did, let us turn to the relationship between different parts of the United Kingdom. Today, the situation is that neither he, nor I, nor any Member of the House has the right to vote on hospitals, schools or housing in his constituency or in other parts of Scotland, yet he is able to vote on hospitals, schools and housing in my constituency. We already have two classes of MP. Is it not the case that the only effective way to solve that problem is to give MPs in English constituencies the decisive say in the House on issues that affect only England? The Prime Minister has had 30 years to come up with answers to the West Lothian question, and I have to tell him that Question Time for regional Ministers just does not cut it. Does he not see that the failure to answer that question is actually putting the Union at risk?
Now let us look at the third and most important relationship—that between politics and people. Part of the Prime Minister’s answer will clearly be the Bill of Rights and duties, but surely at this most serious of times we need greater clarity about the Human Rights Act 1998. Is it not the case that it is now almost impossible to deport foreign nationals who may do this country harm? That is why we believe a proper British Bill of Rights should mean replacing the Human Rights Act.
On the subject of things that have sapped trust in politics, why have the Prime Minister’s Government systematically taken more power from local councils and given it to unelected regional assemblies? The only people who were asked their views about that—people in the north-east—gave a resounding no, so why does he not recognise today that regional assemblies are costly, unnecessary and unwanted and should be scrapped?
Above all, how can the Prime Minister possibly restore trust in politics if he will not give the people the final say on one of the biggest constitutional questions of all—whether to sign up to what is in effect the European constitution? He talks about citizens juries. Why not have a jury of all our citizens and ask them to give their verdict on that issue?
However worthy, however sensible and however desirable some of the changes that the Prime Minister has outlined, let us not pretend that they are the answer to restoring trust in politics. Constitutional change is not the solution to broken trust, because the constitution is not the cause of broken trust. It is broken promises that are the cause of broken trust. A vote on Europe, no tax rises, fixing the NHS—these are broken promises and people will ask how the person who broke this trust can be the person to mend it.
Four vital questions go to the heart of this statement. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that real decentralisation must mean scrapping top-down targets? Does he accept that when there is constitutional change—transferring power from Westminster to Brussels—it should be put to the people in a referendum? Does he accept that real power for Parliament means the House of Commons—not the Government of the day—determining its own agenda? Does he not understand that real reform must mean answering the West Lothian question, which he failed to do today?
Now the Prime Minister tells us that he wants a proper debate in Parliament in which Ministers answer questions. He can start today—four straight questions needing four straight answers. We will engage in this constitutional debate, as we have for the last 18 months, but engagement must involve tackling the real reasons why people in this country are so disillusioned with their politics and the political process.
Let me thank the Leader of the Opposition for his welcome to me and also for the sentiments that he expressed about those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past week.
I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed the agreement of his Opposition party to a number of the proposals that we are putting forward—on the power of the Executive to declare war, on the power of the Executive to ratify international treaties and on the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services. I welcome that. I hope that he will, in time, agree with the other proposals that I have put forward to restrict the patronage of the Executive.
I remember the right hon. Gentleman saying when he became the Leader of the Opposition that he hoped the era of Punch and Judy politics was over. Where we agree with him, I hope that we can make progress, and I hope that all other parties will join us in doing so. Where we disagree, I hope that we can have a vigorous debate that will lead eventually to a consensus in this country.
I want to take up the issues on which the right hon. Gentleman has expressed his disagreement with us. First, he mentioned a British Bill of Rights and the question of whether we can deport people from this country. I can do no better on this matter than quote the chairman of his democracy commission, the man he appointed to do the job of looking at the reform of the constitution and who said that the Conservative proposals for a British Bill of Rights were “xenophobic and legal nonsense”. I can only also quote the former tutor to the Leader of the Opposition at university. He said of him:
“I think he is very confused. I’ve read his speech and it’s filled with contradictions. There are one or two good things in it but one glimpses them, as it were, through a mist of misunderstanding…I’d be quite happy to give him a few more tutorials on civil liberties.”
Where we disagree on the European referendum, I can again do no better than quote the chairman of the democracy commission, who said—[Interruption.] We are seeking bipartisan agreement, but there is a case for some bipartisan agreement within the Conservative party itself. The chairman of the Conservative democracy commission said that the treaty referendum proposal put forward by the Conservative party was “Frankly absurd”. He said:
“a lot of intelligent, well-educated…businessmen type constituents…would think I was dotty”
As far as the European referendum is concerned—and we have discussed it in the last few days—there is no other country but Ireland that is putting forward a proposal to have a referendum. The last Conservative Government did not have a referendum on Maastricht; they never had a referendum on previous treaties. I believe that the Conservative leader is making a grave mistake if he believes that this constitutional debate about the future of the country and the relationships between legislature, Executive and judiciary should be overshadowed simply by a debate on an issue that we will investigate in detail in the House of Commons when the legislation comes before the House in the next few months.
As for the third point of difference—again, I believe that we should seek consensus in the House on this matter—I have said that although I look forward to a discussion about the implications of devolution for our constitution, I do not believe that English votes for English laws is the answer. If the Conservative party wishes to continue to push that, it has to take into account the fact that the Executive would owe their authority to two different groups of people: on one occasion, to all Members of the House and on another occasion, simply to some Members of the House. That is why the shadow Home Secretary said in 1999 that it would cause constitutional chaos and why the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said only a few weeks ago:
“It would weaken rather than strengthen the United Kingdom.”
Yes, we are prepared to look at proposals that will strengthen the United Kingdom in the light of devolution, but no, I do not believe that we will have a sensible debate if it is purely about English votes for English laws—something that would create two categories of Members in the House of Commons.
We will look carefully at all the other proposals that have been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope that, on reflection, the Conservative party—which, in its democracy commission, has put forward proposals for the reform of the constitution—will see this as an opportunity for there to be common ground in this country about improving our constitution, making Parliament accountable to the people and renewing trust in our democracy.
I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence and the tributes that he paid at the outset of his statement.
This is indeed a comprehensive statement and it is therefore not possible to deal with it all in detail in the time available, but we will give a considered response to the Green Paper. My starting point is that reform of our constitution is long overdue and that the United Kingdom deserves a constitution that is fit for the challenges and standards of contemporary Britain. If we are to restore public confidence in our political system, we must be both innovative and inclusive. I therefore welcome the proposals with regard to the prerogative powers and the principle that they should rest with Parliament. However, the Prime Minister used the words “surrender or limit” when describing what he proposed to do, and there is obviously an issue about what is to be surrendered and what is to be limited, and in what way.
I support the Prime Minister’s determination that Parliament should have the final word in issues of peace and war, but I notice that he observed that that should be done by way of resolution. Will he consider whether that should be put on a proper statutory footing? I also support the intention to establish a national security council, but from where will members of that council be drawn? Will they simply be drawn from the Ministries or will there be opportunities for Members of Parliament to serve on the council? I also believe—[Interruption.]
I also believe that we should all welcome the Prime Minister’s intention to make the intelligence and security oversight much more transparent. As for Parliament square, it has been a source of great discomfort to many Members, on both sides of the House, that there has been such a limitation on legitimate protest so close to Parliament.
The Prime Minister did not mention in detail a strengthened Committee system. Does he have any proposals to strengthen the powers of Select Committees? He did not mention electoral reform—other than in the context of fulfilling a previous manifesto commitment. Does he understand that, for many people, the reform of the constitution in essence requires electoral reform? There should be fixed terms of Parliament. The best way in which to deal with those matters is through a written constitution.
On the issue of English votes for English laws, does the Prime Minister accept that once devolution is properly established in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it will be impossible to ignore the role of Members of Parliament from those three nations here in Westminster? That is an issue that simply cannot be dismissed. Finally, will the Prime Minister accept that if the public are to be properly engaged in the matters that he has outlined so comprehensively today, a constitutional convention would be the best and most effective way of ensuring it?
I agree with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the following issues. The first is the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee—he supports us in that. The second is on the setting up of the national security council—I am glad that he is prepared to support us on that. The third is the reform of the right to demonstrate outside Westminster—I understand that he is prepared to support a change in the way that we carry that out. Fourthly, I believe that he supports all the measures that we are bringing forward that will change the royal prerogative. I say to him that the door is always open if he wishes to discuss other matters.
On the questions on which we are not wholly in agreement, of course there is a debate to be had about the future of Select Committees, and it can be led from within the House. Of course I am open to discussing the implications of devolution for our constitution, but I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that English votes for English laws would mean that we would no longer have one United Kingdom. As for the constitutional convention that he proposes, let me tell him that a constitutional convention of the great and the good is not as good as hearings that will be held in all parts of the country, that will involve people in different communities of the country, and that will be led by the Secretary of State for Justice after consultation with the other parties. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will join us in supporting the nationwide debate on the future of the constitution.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a most remarkable document, but more particularly I welcome the proposals that he has put before the House on ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I chair, will be more transparent and accountable. May I reassure him that all members of the Committee, from whatever party, look forward to examining the proposals to make the Committee more transparent, and particularly the proposals on holding more debates in this Chamber and the Chamber of the other place?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been an excellent chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He has led the way in suggesting that reforms can be made. I feel that the two functions of a Select Committee are first, to investigate, to interrogate and to examine events and what is happening in our country, and secondly, to persuade the country that important things are being done by the services that the Committees are monitoring. It is the second function to which we can now turn our attention. If we have a national security strategy, and if there is a debate on that both in Parliament and in the country, and if there is a power to call witnesses and to report on that, I believe that that second important job of a Select Committee, which is to inform the country of the good work that our services are doing, can be best achieved. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to take forward the proposals.
I welcome the fact that in setting out his encyclopaedia of proposals the Prime Minister has made it clear that they are for debate and discussion, and are not the kind of instant constitutional change that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs criticised following recent events. Will he show good faith by resolving the dispute with the senior judges about the arrangements for setting up the Ministry of Justice, and does he recognise that the transfer of power to Parliament will not be meaningful if the Government are able to wheel out their majority to suppress all dissent?
The right hon. Gentleman plays a very important role as chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I hope that he will join in the discussions that we are having on the future of the constitutional arrangements about which he speaks.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is holding discussions with the judges about the very issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised, and of course he will report back to the House on the resolution of them.
On behalf of the Church of England, and as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, may I say that the Church congratulates the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice on the proposals put forward today? They will be given a fair wind and there will be a constructive, positive response from the Church. I also thank the Prime Minister for the prior consultation with the Church of England, and particularly with His Grace the Archbishop of York. Following today’s publication of the Green Paper, will there be appropriate consultation with the Church, so that it can modify its internal procedures to encompass the Government’s proposals?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The important role that he plays as a Church Commissioner is reflected in his contribution today. At the same time as he has been commenting on these issues, there has been full consultation, where possible, with the Church of England. I have met the Archbishop of York, the Government have been in touch with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I hope that we can proceed with the changes by consensus. I know that they reflect the views of many in the House.
If the Prime Minister truly believes in an effective bicameral Parliament, will he take steps to abandon the automatic timetabling of all controversial legislation, and will he not take steps to create a rival elected second Chamber at the other end of the Corridor?
I cannot assure the hon. Gentleman about the second matter, which is the subject of debate and where the will of the House of Commons has already been very clearly expressed. On the first matter, I know that it is the subject of discussions by the Modernisation Committee.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statement. At a time of change, nothing could be more significant than this abrupt departure from the past on central issues of civil liberty. Does he accept that although there may be problems with the letter of the statement, not least the West Lothian question, it is the spirit in which it is made to the House that will give many of us cause for considerable optimism?
I welcome many of the proposals that the Prime Minister has put forward, but in rejecting the case for English votes for English laws, he said that he did not want to create two classes of Members of the House. Is it not a fact, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, that we already have two classes of Members of the House—those who are able to vote on all measures affecting their constituents, and those who, on many measures, are able to vote only on measures affecting the constituents of others?
I disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman who, if he studies these matters, will note that devolution is devolution from this United Kingdom Parliament—a decision made by this United Kingdom Parliament and by all Members of the Parliament. I can only quote to him the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who said:
“Either you are a Member of Parliament or you are not. If you go ahead with this, you will have 100 MPs . . . who are second-class legislators.”
That is the issue at stake.
I strongly commend my right hon. Friend’s proposals, particularly his introducing them at the outset as the flagship of his new Administration. Does he accept that if Parliament is genuinely to hold the Executive to account, it must also have the right to set up its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry, where appropriate, into major issues that go beyond the resources and scope of current Select Committees, even in cases where the Executive may, for whatever reason, decline to set up its own investigation?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sorry that he was not able to join me in the contest for the leadership of the Labour party. It is a matter for Parliament to decide whether to set up its own committees on such matters. That is a matter for Parliament to vote on, but I hope that he agrees that the progress that we are making today, with my proposals for the Intelligence and Security Committee, shows that we are aware of the need for our Select Committees not only to be able to conduct investigations within the House, but to be able to tell the nation, through public reports for which they are responsible, about the work of services such as the security services. By all means, let my right hon. Friend put forward his proposals for the House to decide—but I hope that he will agree that we have made progress on the Intelligence and Security Committee today.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his appointment, and I speak on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. In his statement, he referred to being beyond politics and partisanship, so in that spirit, will he review the convention whereby the Attorney-General’s full legal opinion is not usually disclosed to the House of Commons? If not, does he envisage that at some time Parliament will be able to commission its own legal opinion?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to limit the prerogative powers, and we will do whatever we can to assist him in that in order to address the imbalance between the Executive and Parliament.
On devolution, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he will do all in his power to ensure that devolution in Wales—the unfinished business—will proceed accordingly and that eventually we will be able to put in place all the Richard commission’s suggestions?
The last point is a matter for the Welsh Assembly and this United Kingdom Parliament to discuss. We will publish a consultative paper on the future of the position of Attorney-General. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises about the publication of the advice given by the Attorney-General will, among many other matters, be a subject of that paper, and I have just made a statement today about how the Attorney-General proposes to deal with individual criminal cases in the future.
Will that include consulting local people on local government reorganisation, as in Northumberland, where we do not know which way we are going, and where the people want two-tier local government but the Government seem to want one-tier local government?
There is a process for examining the very issue that my hon. Friend raises, and today I suggested that it would be a good thing if there was a concordat between local and central Government, but he will have to wait for a statement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the matter that he raises.
Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the measures that he has announced today will in no way prevent the British Government from discharging their fundamental obligation to act in defence of the British people? In particular, will he assure the House that these measures will not have the effect of impeding or delaying the conduct of military or anti-terrorist operations against those who are planning to mount or may already have delivered an attack on the United Kingdom?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the position and to give more detail about what is contained in paragraphs 28, 29 and 30 of the document before him. That explicitly states that we
“would provide sufficient flexibility for deployments which need to be made without prior parliamentary approval for reasons of urgency or necessary operational secrecy. We would want to avoid any risk that members of the Armed Forces could be subject to legal liability for actions taken in good faith while protecting the national interest in such deployments.”
It goes on to suggest how we, as a House of Commons, might debate these issues and come to a resolution of them. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, both in the detail of my statement and in the detail of the document, that the position that he represents is properly safeguarded.
I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on his splendid statement, which will reverse that damaging tendency of at least 50 years of concentrating more and more power in the hands of the Executive and the Prime Minister. I particularly welcome, on behalf of the 1,300 people who work in the Office for National Statistics in Newport, the news that the chairperson of the board, whoever he or she may be, will be elected by Parliament. That comes after the decision last night to accept the Lords amendments to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which will do a great deal to strengthen the validity of national statistics.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What we are proposing with an independent statistics board, with a chairman who is voted upon by the House of Commons, and with restrictions on the pre-release of statistics to Government Departments, is a major step forward in ensuring the independence of statistics in our country and will give greater confidence in the use of statistics in all areas.
I welcome the scope of the debate that the Prime Minister has opened today with his statement, and if it concludes successfully I hope that he will feel personally comfortable if he is the Prime Minister in a more open, accountable, collective and democratic Government.
If the House of Commons is to be properly strengthened vis-à-vis the Executive, surely it is essential that it have more control over its timetable so that there is some ability to debate matters when they are still timely and events are unfolding and might be influenced, and that it should strengthen Select Committees by reviving the proposal of the former Leader of the House, Robin Cook, when he was in the Cabinet, that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be selected by secret ballot of every Member of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman embraced both those propositions, we would make a substantial step forward towards strengthening Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for some of the proposals that he put forward through the democracy commission, which he chaired. I hope that there will be common ground, despite some of the earlier comments on future constitutional changes. In particular, I agree with him about the royal prerogative. On Select Committees and the House of Commons, the Modernisation Committee has made some proposals and it is open to hon. Members to make additional proposals. Perhaps we can move towards a consensus in that area, too.
I do not know whether the conflation of the two of us is welcome or not.
What the Prime Minister has said today is welcome, particularly what he said about reviewing the way in which NHS boards are appointed. Will he provide an assurance that we will make NHS boards not only more accountable, but more representative of the communities that they serve, particularly in areas of health deprivation where people often have little or no representation on the boards that decide how the NHS should be conducted?
The virtue of the process that we are starting is that the very issue that my hon. Friend has raised can be part of the discussion in moving forward. I know that there is concern in some areas of the country about both the accountability and the representativeness of the people who sit on boards and committees. During the course of the debate, we can consider whether some of those issues can be addressed. I look forward to debating them.
I have suggested that the House could consider how it deals with petitions from members of the public. In the Scottish Parliament, there is a special procedure for dealing with petitions. In the original European treaty, there was a special proposal for dealing with petitions from members of the public. It may be that in the light of the discussion, the House will want to introduce a trigger mechanism under which, if a certain number of people have signed a petition, it is the subject of debate either in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I encourage hon. Members to examine how we can respond more effectively to public concerns by using the willingness of members of the public to sign petitions as a signal for us to consider how to debate them.
I apologise, Mr. Speaker—I am going a little deaf. I am pleased that the Prime Minister is showing signs that his listening capabilities have improved. I wish him well in achieving his aim, which I am sure that we all share, of improving our democracy in this country. I am sure that he is right that we need to work together more effectively. However, patronage and partisanship are not only between parties but within parties. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has any ideas for dealing with that—I have a few suggestions.
The Prime Minister did not respond to one of the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell)—the one about electoral reform. Will he state his personal view on electoral reform for this House? Does he recognise that having a Government who are invariably elected by a minority among the voters of this country undermines the legitimacy of all Governments?
On behalf of the Public Administration Committee, which has over the years recommended a good number of the measures that he announced today, may I say to my right hon. Friend that this is a genuinely historic statement? It is not unusual for an Opposition to say that they want to introduce measures to make Parliament stronger, but it is most unusual for a Government to say that. May I also say that the manner of the announcement—it was made here first—has been good for Parliament, too? It is the first time that I have had journalists phone me to ask if I knew what was going on. This is good for Parliament: long may it continue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does such good work as Chairman of the Committee. I believe that there is scope for bipartisan support for measures such as the ones that I have put forward. I have also suggested areas where the debate can move forward and where all parties should be involved. I know that his Committee, and the proposals that have come from it, will contribute to what final recommendations are made. That points towards a constitutional reform Bill, which I hope will, in the end, be capable of having all-party support.
The Prime Minister prefaced his remarks by saying that he wanted to give more power to Parliament. Would not Parliament have more power, and would not it do its job better, if the Committee that decides how to relate to the Executive was chaired by a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, not by a member of the Cabinet?
That, again, is a matter for the Modernisation Committee. Obviously, we are willing to discuss these issues. However, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the proposals that we have put forward are a very significant transfer of power from the Executive to Parliament in all the areas that I have set out. The matter that he raises is one on which discussions can take place in this House.
I welcome the depth and breadth of these proposals, especially those relating to local communities and young people. I also welcome the emphasis on regional communities and the regional committees. When my right hon. Friend sets up those committees, will he bear in mind that large communities such as Swindon often look across regional boundaries with regard to their economies?
That must always be taken into account in considering the role of regional Ministers or of regional committees. I am saddened that the Opposition parties have not welcomed what we are suggesting on the regions. We have regional planning areas and regional development agencies. We have, in many areas of the country, very active regional organisations and regional offices of the Government. In the spirit that organisations that are doing a public job should be fully accountable where that can be so, I would have thought that there should be all-party support for regional committees and for forms of accountability that hold regional offices to account.
The Prime Minister will of course be aware that there is much to welcome in his statement on both sides of the House. However, other issues will need to be looked at with great care and caution. If he is really serious about improving the opportunities of citizenship, especially for our young people, will he acknowledge that this is the only country in Europe, other than Iceland, that stops teaching history compulsorily before the age of 16? Does he understand that the teaching of history is extremely important for people to have an idea about the citizenship of the country to which they belong?
The Prime Minister has given an awful lot of important portfolios to Members of the House of Lords. Does he recall how Aneurin Bevan used to draw the attention of the House to the need to speak to the organ grinder instead of the monkey? Can he ensure that we consider having Ministers who hold portfolios in the other House answering questions at this Dispatch Box and the other way around?
That would indeed be a constitutional innovation. The Executive must have members in both Houses, and having good Ministers, such as those whom we appointed in the House of Lords, is important to the Government’s functioning. Obviously, the future of the House of Lords and the status of election in it is a central question that must be resolved first.
From his statement, it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is wrong for the Prime Minister to be able to call a general election on a whim, possibly for party advantage. Does not that equally apply to the governing party’s power in the Green Paper to do precisely that? Will he therefore seriously consider fixed-term Parliaments, starting with the current one?
The document proposes that the dissolution of Parliament cannot simply be at the Prime Minister’s discretion but should be by a vote in this House. That is what we shall consider and debate. I will listen to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I hope that he agrees that progress is made by our saying today that the dissolution of Parliament should be by vote of Parliament.
May I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, especially the suggestion that the Security and Intelligence Committee be made accountable to the House? The Select Committee on Home Affairs, which I once had the honour to chair, recommended that some time ago. However, may I say to him that, if the past is anything to go by, he will meet considerable resistance during his consultation from the agencies themselves and possibly from members of the existing, appointed Committee? At that stage, an act of political will, not a consultation, will be required.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments, but I have to tell him that extensive discussion took place with the security services before the proposal was presented. As I said in my opening remarks, the security services recognise the strength that is given to their work if there is public support for their actions. As I reminded the House, Select Committees have two functions: one is to investigate events and the second is to win public support for the work of the services that they monitor. We should now direct our attention to the second function, and I believe that the security services will not only welcome, but benefit from, opening up the Committee in the way that is suggested.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the enforceability of pre-nuptial agreements; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would give legal effect to pre-nuptial agreements—[Laughter.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I emphasise that the Bill is a purely permissive or enabling measure. We should be especially careful when introducing legislation that would impose obligations on the citizen, thereby constraining his liberty. My Bill does nothing of that kind and simply adds to the liberty of the citizen.
The measure will provide the citizen with an option in the conduct of his personal affairs that he currently does not have. It will make it possible for him, when he contemplates entering into a marriage—and, though the short title does not make it clear, when he contemplates a new relationship or he or she is in a relationship—to make an arrangement, which will subsequently be enforceable by the courts, to determine in advance the basis—[Interruption.]
One or two Conservative Members are understandably sore about some home truths that I had to tell them the other day. I sympathise with that reaction, which does not entirely surprise me.
As I said, the object of the Bill is to give people an option that they do not currently have, thereby adding to the liberty of the subject. It means that, when people are in a relationship or contemplating a relationship or marriage, they can decide with their partner or potential partner the exact basis for the distribution of any assets or liabilities if the relationship fails. It is important to emphasise the voluntary aspect of the proposals.
My Bill would remove two major anomalies of the present time—most significantly a legal anomaly. At present, people can contract in all sorts of ways and reach agreements that will be enforced in the courts—purchase and sale contracts provide a good example, but people can also contract to make agency agreements, exclusivity agreements, service agreements, employment contracts and all sorts of agreements to do with the management and distribution of intellectual property. In all those cases, they can do so with the expectation that if there is a dispute, the agreement will be enforced subsequently in a court in accordance with its terms and subject to normal common-law safeguards, which would certainly apply to my Bill. I refer to safeguards such as no undue influence, no material non-disclosure and so forth. Many contracts will be enforced by a court even if they are purely oral. It is only in the event of a contract that provides the transfer of real estate that a court will require a written agreement or a written contract.
There is only one other area where a signed agreement or a contract otherwise drawn up is not enforceable in law—and that is a gambling contract or arrangement. I happen to sympathise with that exception to the law, but I simply cannot think what gambling has to do with pre-nuptial agreements or why pre-nuptial agreements should be treated in the same fashion.
There have been a number of high-profile cases in the matrimonial courts recently. One thinks, for example, of the Miller case, the Charman case and the McCartney case, which is presently before the courts. Colleagues may think that those cases have inspired me to bring forward this measure at this moment, but that is not the case. In the context of some of these high-profile cases, it is true that judges have expressed the view that the present law is very unsatisfactory and unfortunately sends a signal to the public that one way of becoming supremely rich in one’s own right is to marry someone who is very rich, stay with him or her for a few years and then walk off with half the proceeds. That is clearly an undesirable and unattractive aspect of the present law.
However, it was not those particular cases but rather the situation of people on very modest means that inspired me to propose this measure. I am thinking of people who have just a few assets, perhaps a family house, and who want to protect those assets not only for their own sake but more especially—I am thinking of specific cases now—to protect their children, perhaps their children from their first marriage. The first marriage may have ended in divorce or widowhood and the person may subsequently fall in love with somebody else and want to live with or marry somebody else—[Interruption.] Indeed, such changes do happen in life. Such people may want to protect the children from their first relationship from any dispute that might subsequently occur if the relationship breaks down. That is an important aspect of the potential injustice that currently occurs.
There have been suggestions that the law should be changed to provide the same regime as currently applies to married couples—in respect of the distribution of assets in the event of a breakdown—to co-habitees who are not married. I am not in favour of going down that road—[Interruption.] I have to say that if the House in its wisdom decided to go down that road one day, it would seem to be particularly important to have on the statute book something like the mechanism that I am currently proposing. Otherwise people currently in such a relationship would find that they faced an invidious and nightmarish choice of either ending the relationship or finding retrospectively that they face a whole number of risks and liabilities that they could not previously have contemplated and would never have voluntarily entered into.
Let me make one final point. I said that the most important anomaly that I was addressing with this Bill was a legal anomaly. I believe that to be the case, but the measure also resolves a curious geographical anomaly. In other major common law jurisdictions such as the United States and Australia, the option to sign pre-nuptial contracts exists and they are indeed enforced in law. That is also the case in a number of European Union countries where Roman law applies. One might think that the need for a pre-nuptial agreement would not be so great in such countries, because the relevant principle of Roman law states that, if a marriage is dissolved, the assets belonging to each party when the marriage was contracted are reserved to that party. Any dispute over distribution applies only to assets and liabilities that were accumulated during the course of the marriage. That principle applies in Scotland, which also has a legal system based on Roman law. Although the need for this measure might be less great in some other EU countries, the option nevertheless exists for their citizens to use it. It does not exist in England or, indeed, in Scotland.
It is time for the House to consider this measure; it is time that it was brought in. I have the honour to commend it to the House.
I quite understand why someone who had been in a relationship for 20 years—a marriage that had ended suddenly in acrimony and bitterness—might want legal reassurances before entering a new marriage. They might wish to be reassured that whatever assets they were taking with them would not be abused by the new party. They might wish to lay down what their future course might hold in the new marriage. They might wish to know whether there were tasks or functions ahead that were particularly relevant to the decision that they were making.
However, I rise briefly to oppose the Bill because I fear that it has come all too late for the hon. Gentleman, who has already changed his marriage before his Bill has gone through.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Quentin Davies, John Bercow, Chris Bryant, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Paul Farrelly, Mr. Edward Garnier, Dr. Julian Lewis, Ian Lucas, Rob Marris, Mr. Michael Moore, Mr. Robert Syms and Keith Vaz.
Mr. Quentin Davies accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the enforceability of pre-nuptial agreements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 137].
[15th Allotted Day]
Access to NHS Services
I beg to move,
That this House reaffirms its commitment to equitable access to high-quality NHS care, based on need not ability to pay; regards local access to NHS services as an important aspect of quality of care; urges the development of practice-based commissioning to incentivise primary care access and the integration of GP services, out-of-hours care, urgent care and NHS Direct services; calls on the Government to publish its review of walk-in centres and patient access survey results; notes the continuing threat to community hospitals, local accident and emergency and maternity services; calls for the preparation of evidence-based service models which seek to maintain local access to accident and emergency services, and to maintain community-based treatment and diagnosis and maternal choice; and further calls on the Government to ensure the fair allocation of resources, relative to burden of disease, to secure equitable access to NHS services.
It is a great pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State and his fellow Ministers to their new responsibilities. I look forward to our exchanges across the House, and I look forward even more to having the opportunity to work together to improve the legislative, regulatory and political framework in which the NHS seeks to deliver services to patients. Despite her travails in her post, it was always the Secretary of State’s predecessor’s great privilege, and often pleasure, to meet NHS staff, as it is my great privilege and pleasure to do so. If ever one becomes tired or distressed by what happens here at Westminster, one need only visit doctors, nurses and other health care professionals around the country to be astonished at, as well as immensely respectful of, what they achieve and the way in which they go about their tasks.
For the sake of the NHS, however, I hope that the Secretary of State does not emulate his predecessor. At the then Department for Education and Skills, the right hon. Gentleman’s policies were rescued by the support of the Conservatives for his Education and Inspections Bill. The time has come for him to be rescued at the Department of Health, although not by our supporting his legislation, but by his supporting Conservative-inspired legislation. We have supported the right hon. Gentleman in the past—now it is his turn to support us.
The purpose of the motion is not to debate those proposals, as the Secretary of State plans to deliver a statement tomorrow. Following proposals from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and myself for greater autonomy and accountability for the NHS, he will be aware that we recently suggested a White Paper containing legislative proposals. We are happy to work together to give the NHS core principles and values entrenched in legislation; a structure of greater autonomy, not only for medical professionals but for those responsible for commissioning services for patients; greater freedoms for those who provide services as well as the ability to invest and improve services; and a strengthened accountability structure that does not all track back to the Secretary of State, as it does now. All those proposals are included in our document, which I will leave on the Table for the Secretary of State to enjoy. I hope that in the weeks and months to come we can work together in a spirit of consensus which, according to the Government’s rhetoric, is one of their intentions.
May I trespass away from the subject of the motion, and say a word about the arrest of a number of doctors in relation to the terrorist attacks last weekend? The House and the public will be shocked that members of a profession dedicated to saving lives should, it is at least suspected, conspire to take lives in an indiscriminate act of terror. I hope that the House shares my view that we should not let the action of a tiny, extremist minority ever prejudice our positive view of the way in which thousands of Muslim and overseas doctors form an integral part of health care in this country. NHS employers are responsible for ensuring that doctors meet the requirements for clinical practice and, for example, in language proficiency. Checks on those entering the United Kingdom include visa and criminal record checks, for which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office are responsible. It is important to note—I am sure that the Secretary of State has already done so—that the code of practice for the recruitment of health care professionals from developing countries includes Iran, Iraq and Jordan, which are countries from which the UK has agreed not actively to recruit. I am sure that the House will understand if, when he responds to our debate, the Secretary of State will explain how that code of practice and the highly skilled migrants programme have been applied, and what checks are undertaken on medics who come here.
The Secretary of State has to address urgent priorities in his Department, but if he has any doubts about the scale of the problems he must tackle, he need only read the capability review published about his Department last weekend, when, as they say in business, the Department was “kitchen sinking” on the issues that it had to deal with. The review said that
“the Department has not yet set out a clearly articulated vision for the future of health and social care and how to get there”.
It had “serious concerns” about the setting of direction which, given the understated language of the civil service, is about as serious as it gets. There is no direction for the national health service, and there has been a failure of leadership and direction. Where my party leader has led, the new Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have followed in saying that the NHS is their priority. Constitutional affairs have turned out to be the new Prime Minister’s priority but, none the less, we have led by making the NHS our immediate and first priority.
What the new Prime Minister means by all this amounts to the belief that
“we need to do better”.
When he launched his leadership tour, he said that we must have
“more access to health services at weekends and outside normal hours, millions using NHS Direct, millions using walk-in centres, more access to GPs”.
I was not sure whether that was a statement of what exists at present or of what the Prime Minister hopes will be the case. He is right that access to NHS care must be regarded as a vital aspect of the way in which quality health care is delivered. We have argued that that is the case, which is why we tabled the motion.
As my hon. Friend knows, reconfigurations are taking place throughout the country, especially in south-east England. Will he consider asking the Secretary of State if it is possible to call a halt to them for the moment as they are an attempt to impose one-size-fits-all structures on local health services? The Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath is 15 miles south of one the biggest airports in the world, five miles from a major motorway and located in a changing area where thousands of new houses will be built. It is to have its accident and emergency and maternity services taken away from it and transferred to an impossible place to get to in Brighton. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be proper to reconsider that in light of what he has said?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I entirely agree with his point. The new Prime Minister has stated that he must listen to what the public and NHS professionals are saying throughout the country, but he cannot do that when—as is happening in many places—top-down reconfiguration of services is being forced upon local health care economies. I was recently in Hastings in my hon. Friend’s part of the country. The way in which the reconfigurations are to be applied raises serious questions about both the evidential basis for them and to access the services that will result. I will say more about that.
The hon. Gentleman believes that reconfiguration should be halted and the medical profession should be listened to. However, what he recommends is the opposite of what is being said by Professor Roger Boyle, national director of Heart Disease and Stroke. He said that reorganising services could lead to 500 fewer deaths, 1,000 fewer heart attacks and 250,000 fewer serious complications such as stroke. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that is a firm medical basis on which to reconfigure services?
We have always argued that it is necessary to develop services; I am unsure whether the hon. Lady attended our debate on acute services reconfiguration. She is confusing the necessity for service development with the question of whether local access to services should consequently be abandoned. I have had discussions with Roger Boyle. I entirely agree with, and have argued for, propositions such as that patients suffering from a stroke should be admitted directly to a specialist stroke unit where they can access early scanning for possible thrombolysis and early stroke care. That would address a large proportion of the figures that Roger Boyle’s cites. There is also the issue of access to primary angioplasty; a smaller number of specialist units will be required in order to provide access to such services. However, for such achievements in service development to be followed through in respect of less than 2 per cent. of accident and emergency attendances it is not necessary for access to accident and emergency services to be denied to the other 98 per cent.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is sitting next to the hon. Lady. She can ask him about this matter. He and I have argued that it is not necessary for local accident and emergency services in Grantham to be shut down simply because specialist services are available in Nottingham. I invite him to agree with me on that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to do so. I am extremely grateful to the Government as we have now saved the accident and emergency unit at Grantham hospital. That happened several weeks ago. I received a great deal of sympathy on that matter from the then Health Ministers, my right hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) and for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and no sympathy at all from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). We spoke about it, and he seemed entirely uninterested in the future health of the people of Grantham. He seemed about as interested in what I was telling him as he would have been if I had been talking about mediaeval numismatics or the number of potholes in New Zealand. I was getting nowhere at all with him, but I did rather well with the Government.
I do not know what world the hon. Gentleman is living in, but he is not living in Lincolnshire, because I remember the conversation that he and I had with the chairman of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust; however, I will not go further down that path.
It is not only Opposition Members who believe that it is necessary for there to be a moratorium on the service reconfigurations that are proceeding in the absence of support or evidence. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in the deputy leadership election, at least had the honesty to say that
“we need a moratorium on structural change and reorganisation in the NHS.”
So we have support from within the Cabinet ranks.
I will come back to accident and emergency departments, but I wish to start with primary care, because we seek a primary care-led service. I wondered where the new Prime Minister had been in recent years when, during his leadership election, he talked about access to GP services, because the GP contract has reduced GP access. We do not know to what extent, because the Department of Health has failed to publish the patient access survey that it commissioned at great expense. But we do know that the introduction of the out-of-hours contract was a shambles, according to the Public Accounts Committee. We know that NHS Direct has shut 12 of its 50 call centres, including the one in Cambridge, which I visited, because the planned expansion of NHS Direct has been abandoned.
Walk-in centres have been cut back. The figures for early 2006, compared with 2005, recorded fewer people attending walk-in centres. Indeed, fewer people visit walk-in centres in a year than visit GP practices in just three days. We have also seen community hospitals closed, local A and E services downgraded and birth centres and local maternity units threatened with closure. Care closer to home, which was a mantra of the previous Secretary of State, is turning, in many cases, into care further away from home. Care closer to home is not happening.
I welcome to the Front Bench the new Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who was president of the Community and District Nursing Association. We have fewer district nurses and health visitors now, but they are the very people we most need to deliver care closer to home and reduce demand for these services. It is only really when demand for hospital services is reduced that it would be safe or appropriate to reduce the supply of services. What we have at the moment is a structure that is trying to ration demand for care by restricting supply of care, and that is no good.
Well, the hon. Gentleman mentioned community hospitals and if he will allow me, I will quote the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said:
“there are occasions when community hospitals have to be closed. Politicians, we may not like saying it, but we’ve all fought for our community hospitals. Some community hospitals are very old and can’t really be done up. So difficult decisions do have to be taken.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his hon. Friend or not?
We have made it clear throughout that we agree that services must be developed, but that must be done in response to the changing needs of patients and the development of technology. Where community hospitals are concerned, it is not only the Conservatives who argue that they are an integral part of the delivery of care closer to the patient: the Government said so in the White Paper published in January 2006. That White Paper presented the rhetoric of support for community hospitals and that is why the Government ostensibly provided for a new capital fund to allow community hospitals to be developed. But too much of that money has been siphoned off to primary care centres and too little is being delivered. At the same time as the fund was being established, too many community hospitals did not have the revenue to enable them to continue to work. So community hospitals are being shut down in Cornwall, Devon, Wiltshire, near Bristol, Norfolk and Kent, and the list goes on. There are probably a hundred more that are still under threat because the Government have not delivered on the promises made in the White Paper at the beginning of last year that services would continue to be commissioned—including diagnostic services close to patients, out-patient clinics and, most importantly in some respects, access to in-patient services that allow step-up and step-down services to be provided.
My hon. Friend rightly focuses on the services provided by PCTs. The Government are right to emphasise the importance of early intervention, but in Aylesbury Vale there are no fewer than 400 young children who are not statemented—some of whom are pre-school children, while others are on school action or school action-plus—and have not received the speech and language therapy that they desperately need. Can my hon. Friend offer a way forward in terms of collaborative exercises and joined-up government, so that the children who desperately need help get it before it is too late?
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern, and he has been a redoubtable fighter for the interests of children who need speech and language therapy. There are two aspects to the problem. First, we must make sure that those who are in college training to be therapists find posts and are employed in the community. Secondly, I do not think that we are going to join up the services terribly effectively, given the present arrangements at the centre. It is not the job of those at the centre to join up services: instead, we should take budgets closer to the patient, allow GPs and PCTs to have access to those budgets, and make clear their responsibilities for commissioning services for young people with speech and language needs. That will mean that parents in particular will have someone to talk to, through whom they can access services. It should be as simple as that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the test of service reconfiguration is safety? Sir Ian Kennedy is the chairman of the Healthcare Commission, and he said the other day that people should keep an eye on safety considerations. Against that background, can my hon. Friend understand why my constituents in Banbury feel so desperate? They have had a consultant-led obstetrics and maternity unit for a long time, but it is to be taken away from them. The nearest consultant-led unit will be an hour away in Oxford, a distance of 26 miles. My constituents understandably feel that that will downgrade rather than enhance safety and access to NHS services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very important point. We have argued in this House many times that both safety and access need to be considered when one is talking about maternity services. Safety is an essential element of quality of care, and choice and access are highly desirable elements, but the evidence base of safety is absent from service reconfigurations such as the one affecting his constituency. We are happy to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), still has his Front-Bench place. He is the Minister responsible for maternity services, and we have asked him many questions about how great should be the distance that people must travel between, say, a birth centre or a midwife-led unit and a unit providing consultant-led obstetric care. He does not know the answer and has provided no guidance, but at the same time the Department of Health is driving ahead with service reconfigurations across the country. Ostensibly, those reconfigurations are about safety, but no evidence is produced to support that. I do not see how one can have safety without evidence.
Most of the reconfigurations of obstetrics and gynaecology services are going ahead not because the NHS wants fewer women to give birth in fewer hospitals, but because the royal colleges have said that consultants need a certain amount of labour-ward cover and experience of births to continue their professional development. If the hon. Gentleman were a woman in labour who had had to wait 12 hours for an epidural anaesthetic, he would know that being in a local hospital is no comfort if that means that she has to compete with people brought in from the trauma department. It is much better for a woman to give birth in a hospital with a dedicated obstetric anaesthetist, but not all hospitals across the country have one.
The hon. Lady should have attended our debate on maternity services, when we made it very clear that of course we must have proper risk assessment, and that mothers giving birth in places of relatively greater risk must have access to proper obstetric care. I am aware that, around the country, managers are representing the case for service reconfiguration by saying that, as a minimum, there should be 40 hours of consultant cover on labour wards. They make direct reference to what the Healthcare Commission said happened with the 10 tragic maternal deaths at Northwick Park and, in general, they say that there must be 2,500 live births at each hospital. One then asks how many live births there were at Northwick Park at the time, and the answer is 5,000. Another maternity unit had recently closed and a substantial amount of responsibility and additional births had been transferred to Northwick Park, and the transfer was not well organised. In fact, it was tragically badly organised. So there are issues to consider that are different and separate from the mechanistic approach of insisting on 40 hours of consultant cover on labour wards. We have to deal with the evidence, not just with simple management assertions that are driven as much by the European working time directive and financial pressures as by genuine evidence of clinical safety.
Two years ago, during the general election campaign, my hon. Friend came to Hornsea and visited people there to join the campaign to save the hospital. He will remember that the local Labour party said that it was scaremongering to suggest that there was a threat to Hornsea cottage hospital. In fact, my hon. Friend was barracked by a Labour councillor at the event that we held. Since that time, the primary care trust has formally made the decision to shut every single bed at Hornsea cottage hospital and to betray local people. That Labour councillor feels that the Government have broken their word and let them down.
I share my hon. Friend’s distress about the matter. It is clear that, on the criterion of access to services, his constituency will be extremely badly served by decisions that have emanated from the Government and are contrary to all that was said in the Government White Paper in January 2006.
Let me come to the points that I hope that the Secretary of State will have in mind. I understand that he has been in his post for only six days, but we need to get the immediate priorities up front. The following are among the things that he needs to do. He needs to start by working with primary care and especially family doctors. GP-bashing, which seems to have been the preoccupation of Ministers, has to stop—it is no good going down that path. Hamish Meldrum, the new chairman of the British Medical Association, has said:
“We are experiencing an unprecedented volume of misinformation, half-truths and politically-inspired doctor-bashing”.
That does not mean that one should just let GPs do as they like, but we know that GPs will respond if they have the right framework and incentives. The clearly required principal incentive, which has not been present in the new contract, is empowerment, professional autonomy and the ability to take decisions as senior public service and clinical professionals about real budgets, real commissioning and real opportunities to shape services.
Today, the NHS is not a primary care-led service but a centrally controlled service. The top-down initiatives are not working. Measures such as the 48-hour access target have been counter-productive, driving patients and practices into an absurd 8.30 am telephone scramble. Choose and book has been hopelessly mishandled and has compromised the freedom to refer that GPs always had.
Out-of-hours services under the new contract have de-emphasised the role of general practitioners. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will recall that we had to fight that one too, because GPs simply did not form part of the out-of-hours service in south Lincolnshire, and we had to persuade Ministers to involve them. [Interruption.] I know that I have mentioned the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way: we are just agreed about that issue, and we will settle at that.
Things can be changed. Let us take practice-based commissioning. Ministers, after a decade, have finally realised that the fundamentals of fundholding need to be brought back. GPs can take control of the commissioning of services, and that should include the commissioning of out-of-hours services. They can integrate those services more effectively with their own services.
The Department has also failed to publish an urgent care strategy, despite the fact that, at the beginning of last year, the White Paper stated that one of the jobs for 2006 was to produce such a strategy. I do not know whether the Department has admitted it to the Secretary of State, but it should have been done last year and it has not been done yet, and we are in July. We need an urgent care strategy which says to patients, “It is very straightforward how you access urgent care. If it is an emergency, you ring 999.” Some of our concerns about accident and emergency services would be met by such a strategy. We understand, however, that if someone is in an ambulance with a paramedic, they may not necessarily go to the local A and E, but instead go to a specialist centre for trauma, stroke and heart attack. Apart from that, however, we need a much more integrated urgent care structure. If it is not a 999 call and an emergency, the call should be made to 0845 4647, which would offer access not just to NHS Direct but to the necessary core handling and triage that determines whether an emergency response by an ambulance, a doctor response through the out-of-hours service, or a nurse or emergency care practitioner response is appropriate, or whether the person should be advised to attend a walk-in centre or an A and E department, visit their general practice the following day or receive advice on the telephone.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many people are completely muddled about what the Government are trying to achieve and the NHS that Labour Members describe? In my constituency, there have been cuts at Cranleigh hospital and Milford hospital. The whole of the Royal Surrey county hospital is under threat—accident and emergency, maternity and paediatric services are all under threat. That is not about increasing access for people and looking after them closer to their homes; it is about pushing all the care that my constituents in Guildford have been receiving further away from where they live.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, because she sums up exactly the experience of so many constituents throughout the country, rather than the rhetoric we keep hearing. After the failed combination of arrogance and incompetence that has characterised the Labour party’s approach to health policy for the past decade, the starting point should be the experience of constituents—what they are feeling and what they see happening in their health service locally. That is what our approach will be.
No, because I have already given way to the hon. Lady.
I was talking about what we need to do to co-ordinate urgent care. It is necessary for NHS Direct to be franchised out properly. As I have told the House before, NHS Direct call handlers, ambulance trust call handlers and out-of-hours call handlers can all be in the same room—for example, as they are in Cornwall or Norwich—yet they cannot have an integrated system of triage and referral to deal with patients. When patients ring in, they have to speak to each service separately. After all these years, that system is absurd.
Walk-in centres are another issue that has been left in the Secretary of State’s in-tray. Two articles have been published, one of which said that walk-in centres have had no impact on access to emergency care locally and the other said that they have had no impact in reducing demand for GP services. Questions about the costs and benefits of walk-in centres need to be dealt with.
Somewhere there is a review of funding for walk-in centres. It has not been published, yet cover at the walk-in centre in Luton has dropped from about 107 hours a week, including weekends, to 20 hours during weekdays only.
Does my hon. Friend agree that people are not only upset about having to travel much longer distances to hospital, but worried that when they are in those large monopoly hospitals they will be more prone to hospital-acquired infections, which puts them at considerable risk when they are already vulnerable?
I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns. Furthermore, he represents a part of the country that secures the lowest per capita distribution of resources. The Select Committee on Health made it clear that, as we had argued, there should be a review of the resource allocation formula to make it fairer in distributing resources relative to the burden of disease. It is interesting that the Secretary of State’s predecessor handed him one admission of our arguments. Only the week before last, the right hon. Lady said that the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation should be given Bank of England-style independence. She acknowledged that we were right and that it had been the subject of political interference. In a letter to me on her last day in office, she also accepted our argument that the principal cause of variation in health-related need in the burden of disease is age, so as an urgent measure I look forward to an independent review of resource allocation to deliver a fairer distribution across the country.
The purpose of the debate is partly to set out the things that need to be done. Local services, such as accident and emergency and maternity services, should not be shut down in the absence of evidence of what constitutes safe, accessible and good-quality care. I hope that tomorrow the Secretary of State will say that he will have such a moratorium.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State should not be wandering around the country saying that they are going to listen and then overriding things before they happen. We need care closer to home to mean exactly that, and not have services taken away that people have relied upon for a great deal of time. We need to know whether the Prime Minister has any substance to add to what he said in passing at the outset of his leadership campaign, or does he, as it turns out, have hidden shallows to him? Where in the Government amendment is the recognition that they must do better? If that is what the new Prime Minister said in his leadership campaign, why is it not reflected in the Government’s self-congratulatory amendment?
Morale in the NHS is at an all-time low. The Health Service Journal asked NHS staff about morale and published the results the week before last. It asked whether morale in the NHS was excellent and 0 per cent. said that it was. Some 4 per cent. said that morale was good and 30 per cent. said that it was moderate. However, 41 per cent. said that it was poor and 25 per cent. that it was very poor. That is nearly two thirds.
The Secretary of State is a former general secretary of a trade union and he must know that relations between the leadership of the NHS and the staff of the NHS are at all-time low. Even in his own Department, morale is low. Direction and leadership are badly needed, and we must have greater autonomy for health care professionals to re-empower and motivate them. We must have accountability to patients exercising choice and a public voice on these issues. We need evidence for the policies that are being pursued rather than simply a slash-and-burn pursuit of the Government’s fiscal targets, which are delivering inequitable access to care in too many parts of the country. Not least, we need strong commissioning decisions taken closer to the patients and stronger primary care-led commissioning in urgent care.
We have a clear vision for an NHS that is patient- centred and professionally led. It is a vision of an NHS accountable for its outcomes and not hamstrung by targets, and in which we recognise that access to NHS care, as well the safety of care, is integral to quality services. It is a vision of what is, indeed, a national health service that respects the diversity and needs of patients at every level, and incorporates the essential principles that have stood the NHS in good stead for nearly 60 years, and puts them right at the centre of NHS care.
I hope that this is a starting point from which we and the Secretary of State and his ministerial team can work together positively and constructively to deliver a service that lives up not only to those principles, but to the ambitions of the people who work in the NHS and, not least, of those who depend upon it. I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to end and add:
“supports the Government’s trebling of investment in the NHS by 2008 and welcomes the recent confirmation of an extra £8 billion for 2007-08; congratulates the staff and the medical professions for their hard work and commitment in helping progress towards this Government’s historic maximum 18 week wait from GP referral to treatment; welcomes the extra choice available to patients with new services more convenient for their lives including around 90 NHS walk-in centres and the £750 million programme for developing community facilities providing care closer to home; recognises the achievement of the NHS in delivering a wide range of quality personal services convenient for patients including NHS Direct, 23 new independent sector treatment centres increasing choice; further welcomes the 280,000 extra staff working for the NHS since 1997 including 80,000 more nurses and 35,000 more doctors; further welcomes the fact that over 85 per cent. of all GP practices have used Choose and Book to refer their patients to hospital and that over three million Choose and Book appointments have been made so far, allowing patients to choose appointments that are at convenient times to fit in with their lives; and recognises the need to ensure that the views of NHS staff and patients are paramount and that Government must engage fully in a dialogue with them about the future of the NHS.”.
I thank the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box and for the copy of the Conservative party document. I have had my attention drawn to many documents that could profoundly influence the NHS, but this was not among them. I will have a look at it in good time.
I pay tribute to my predecessor. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) is a woman of great courage, great intelligence and great ability—more courage, intelligence and ability than the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) possesses in his little finger, incidentally. I pay tribute to her for the tremendous work that she has done in my Department.
I have been in post for the equivalent of only 10 minutes, I suppose, but my party has been in government for 10 years, so perhaps the best way to open my speech is to look back briefly at the health service that we inherited in 1997. The service was starved of essential funding; indeed, we were investing, as a proportion of our GDP, at about the level of the Czech Republic and Poland and well below the level of France, Germany and Sweden. Every winter heralded a new crisis, waiting lists topped 1 million and the chronic bed shortage meant that elderly patients were turfed out in the middle of night while critically ill children were denied essential intensive care. All that has changed.
In 1997, patients were left on trolleys in accident and emergency departments for hours, or even days, waiting for admission. Now nearly 98 per cent. of patients are either admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours of arrival. In March 1997, 284,000 patients had been on a waiting list for an operation for more than six months. Today, that figure is less than 500. In 1997, half of all NHS hospital buildings had been built before the NHS was created. Now, thanks to the biggest hospital building programme ever seen in this country, it is less than a fifth.
Ten years on, the position has been transformed thanks to greater investment, difficult but necessary system reform and, above all, the tremendous work of those who work for the NHS. We have trebled the health budget and there are now almost 80,000 more nurses and more than 36,000 more doctors. Cancer death rates are down by 15.7 per cent., saving more than 50,000 lives. Death rates from heart disease are down by 35.9 per cent., saving nearly 150,000 lives. Since 2000, 231 new CT scanners and 158 new MRI scanners have been installed in hospitals.
Uncharacteristically, the Secretary of State has not started with the humility that is needed, given the Government’s record. The Conservatives recognise the increase in expenditure, but, like the public and those who work in the NHS, we have not seen value for money from that expenditure. Will the Secretary of State, on his first outing, accept that that is fundamentally true—as the Prime Minister appeared to in his leadership campaign—and tell the House that he feels we must do better in getting value for money for the vastly increased resources that—to give the Government credit—have been introduced to the NHS?
It was not worth giving way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to tell us about the exciting developments in his constituency, but instead we heard the same mantra that the investment that has been put into the health service has not been matched by results. It is my genuine belief that, without a change of Government in 1997, the NHS would have weakened and withered with each subsequent year of neglect. That would have strengthened the position of those who oppose the whole concept of a national health service that is free to all and based on clinical need rather than the ability to pay. The mantra of such people is that no matter how much investment is put into the NHS, it will never work because of the principal basis on which it was founded.
The Secretary of State has rightly drawn attention to the fact that there have been significant improvements in many specialties in the past 10 years, but does he accept that there is a considerable distance still to go, particularly when the survival rates for conditions such as cancer and for strokes are compared with those in many other European countries?
May I say how pleased I am that the hon. Gentleman is the Liberal Democrat spokesman? We have history, the hon. Member for Norfolk South—[Interruption.] We have history, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I—although it does not extend to my remembering his constituency accurately. He is absolutely right: of course we will never be in a state of absolute perfection in the NHS. What I am setting out—and what I am using to counter the points made by the Opposition—is the fact that we are making huge strides forwards. I will come later to some of the issues that we still need to address, but it is right to put the debate in the context of where we were in 1997 and where we are now.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I knew him for a number of years before I came to this place and he is a man of great integrity and decency. As Secretary of State, he is in a profoundly important position when it comes to having an impact on the future of the NHS. In my constituency, we face the closure of hospital services in north London and services in the north of my constituency, in Welwyn. May I prevail upon him to grant me a 10 or 15-minute meeting so that I can discuss my concerns? We are between a rock and a hard place.