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Engagements

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, before listing my engagements I am sure that the whole country will welcome the news that Alan Johnston, a fearless journalist whose voice was silenced for too long, is now free. I want to thank all those who contributed to the diplomatic and other efforts to secure his freedom.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings today.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on becoming the leader of our country. He said—[Hon. Members: “More!”] He said that he would, unlike his predecessor, listen to the people of our country. With that in mind, can I inform him that the great men and women of Shrewsbury have spoken, and they have voted overwhelmingly against unitary authority status for Shropshire? Four out of the five district councils are against it, as am I, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne). Will the right hon. Gentleman listen to the people of Shrewsbury and please not impose this ghastly unitary authority status on us?

Of course we will listen. As I understand it, Shropshire county council—a Tory council—proposed these measures. I also understand that the hon. Gentleman’s local council at Shrewsbury is against the measures, and that it has taken judicial action to try to have a review of them. Of course, I cannot comment on that judicial action, but the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government or I will be pleased to meet him after that action to discuss the next step forward.

Will the Prime Minister press the international community to develop financial instruments for the protection of tropical forests to ensure that the 20 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions that are going up into the atmosphere from the destruction of those forests does not continue?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he did as a Minister in this Government to deal with the issues of tropical forests. I welcome the fact that he is now going to take a major interest in trying to ensure that the tropical forest in the Congo basin is reforested, that jobs are protected, that livelihoods are ensured and that the £50 million investment that we are supervising for that forest actually takes place. Let me congratulate him on becoming a special envoy for the Government in this task.

First of all, I agree with the Prime Minister about Alan Johnston. It is fantastic news that he is on his way back to his family.

Recent attempts to cause massive loss of life in London and in Glasgow remind us of the very real threat that we face in this country. There are a number of measures that we believe would make a difference. First, we support the use of telephone tap evidence in court so that we do not just catch these people but convict them and lock them up. Six weeks ago, the Government agreed to our proposal for a Privy Council review of this issue. Can the Prime Minister tell us how soon they will publish the names, when it will meet, and when it will report?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that, right across the House as right across the country, there can be unity in our determination to fight terrorism. I want to remind people of just how brave and courageous the explosives experts in London and those who tackled the terrorist activity at Glasgow airport were. I hope that we can continue on an all-party basis to agree measures that are necessary in this country to deal with the terrorist threat. On the specific question of intercept, I can tell him that we will go ahead with our investigation, carried out on Privy Council terms, and of course I shall consult him and the leader of the Liberal party on the names of the people who will conduct it.

I hope that we can make progress. It is a complicated issue but setting up a committee is not complicated and that should happen without delay.

We need to act against groups which are seeking to radicalise young people. Almost two years ago, the Government said that they would ban the extremist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. We think it should be banned—why has it not happened?

Of course, with all those details—I have had to tackle the matter at the Treasury when dealing with terrorist finance—one has to have evidence. It is precisely to examine the evidence that we instruct several investigations.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we will do. We will expand the watch list on potential terrorists, which is the means of co-operation across the world, from Europe to the Arab states. We list them in such a way that authorities in different countries can be warned. We will expand the background checks that are being done where highly skilled migrant workers come into the country. Where people sponsor them, we will ask them to give us their background checks. As a result of what has happened in the national health service and because of what we know has happened in the past few days, I have asked Lord West, the new terrorism Minister, to conduct an immediate review of the arrangements that we must make for recruitment to the NHS. Finally, we will want to sign new agreements with other countries around the world so that we act together to deal with the potential terrorist threat and we can deport people to countries where they should be rather than this country. Again, I hope that there can be all-party agreement on the measures that we are taking to ensure the security of British citizens and to work with other countries in the fight against terror.

A very interesting answer, but I asked a specific question. The Prime Minister said that we need evidence about Hizb ut-Tahrir. That organisation says that Jews should be killed wherever they are found. What more evidence do we need before we ban that organisation? It is poisoning the minds of young people. Two years ago, the Government said that it should be banned. I ask again: when will this be done?

We can ban it under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Of course—[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition forgets that I have been in this job for five days. [Interruption.]

I have agreed that we will look at the issue, but we need evidence, and it cannot be just one or two quotes. We must look in detail at the evidence and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we should approach those matters in a sustained and calm way; that we should not jump to conclusions but consider all the evidence. That is the basis on which the Government will proceed.

But there has been a lapse of two years since the Government said that they would ban the organisation. People will find it hard to understand why an organisation that urges people to kill Jews has not been banned.

As well as preventing radicalisation and stopping future dangers, we need to protect ourselves against present dangers. Does the Prime Minister agree that the time has come for a national border police force?

I am prepared to look at that. I have, of course—when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer—looked at how the Customs and Excise authorities can work better with the police to secure border arrangements. However, I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that everyone who looks at the issue, including Lord Stevens, who considered it for him, has concluded that the need for identity cards is complementary to a border police force. [Interruption.] It is his party that continues to oppose identity cards. The new shadow terrorism Minister, Lady Neville-Jones, whom he appointed only a few days ago, also said that identity cards are complementary to the other measures that are necessary to protect our borders. I hope again, in the spirit of bipartisan co-operation, that he will reconsider his views on the need to introduce identity cards.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to trade quotes on identity cards, perhaps he will try this one from the Chancellor of the Exchequer:

“Identity cards are unnecessary and will create more difficulties than they will solve…I do not want my whole life to be reduced to a magnetic strip on a plastic card.”—[Official Report, 2 March 1992; Vol. 205, c. 70.]

Identity cards did not stop the Madrid bombings. After the 7 July bombings, the then Home Secretary said that they would not have helped in the UK, that they would not come in for years and that they would cost billions of pounds—money that should be spent on things such as border police.

Let me come back on the border police. The Home Affairs Committee supported a border police, the current Metropolitan Police Commissioner supports it, and Lord Stevens, as the Prime Minister said, is conducting a review for us now on the need for a border police, which he fully supports. The Prime Minister has said that he is open to this suggestion. Will he tell us exactly what he will do and when he will make an announcement about a national border police force?

First, I may say to the right hon. Gentleman on comments made about identity cards in the past that we have got to take into account what is actually happening now. It is because the situation has changed that more and more people have come to the view taken by his security expert and Lord Stevens that we need identity cards—and I know that many on the Conservative Back Benches believe exactly the same as we do.

As for the border police, I have said that I will look at this issue. We have already brought Customs and Excise and the other authorities together to work in closer co-operation. I have to look at that in the context of the available finance and of other measures that we are taking, including electronic borders, to step up security, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that this Government will ensure that the security of the British people is protected, and we will take all measures that are necessary for the safety of the British people. Again, I hope that there will be bipartisan co-operation on these issues, so that we can show the world that Britain is protected against terrorism.

Convicting terrorists by using phone taps, banning the extremists who radicalise young people in our country and, vitally, securing our borders—are they not three of the practical steps that are absolutely vital parts of the unity that the Prime Minister needs to build so that we can all ensure that the terrorists will never win?

We can co-operate on the issues ahead, but the right hon. Gentleman has to look at the policies that he has been putting forward and examine whether they are the right things for this time as well. I also have to make the point to him that the unfunded change is no change at all. If he is not prepared to support with financial resources the policing, the law and order and all the public services that are necessary, we will not be able to agree on the way forward.

In the light of the events of the last few days, I hope that the country can come together and agree these measures. I have offered conversations with the right hon. Gentleman on a number of issues, including intercept, and on other issues we are prepared to co-operate not only with the Leader of the Opposition but with other parties. It is vital that the message be sent out to the rest of the world that we will stand strong, steadfast and united in the face of terror.

The dust has hardly settled at Glasgow airport and already there are some siren voices in Scotland seeking to divide our investigative and inquiry teams. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to assure the House that any terrorism in this country is a British problem which requires a British solution?

I agree. Let me add my thanks for the work done at Glasgow airport. Not only did a number of employees at the airport come to the rescue and take action against those who were later arrested, but as a result of the determination of the British people to send out a message that terrorism will not disrupt our way of life, the airport returned to normal within 24 hours. I will certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s comments.

Like everyone else, I am delighted at the release of Mr. Alan Johnston. I am sure that I am not the only one to be impressed by his remarkable dignity and composure while being interviewed this morning.

The Prime Minister entered No. 10 Downing street with a promise of change. Will he now set a target for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq; will he order the reopening of the investigation into allegations of corruption in relation to arms sales; and will he renegotiate the one-sided extradition treaty with the United States?

As I said yesterday, my door is always open to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. On these issues, let me tell him this: it would be wrong to set a timetable at this stage. What we have done is reduce the number of troops from 44,000 to 5,500, and move from combat to over-watch in three provinces of Iraq. What we await is a decision to move to over-watch in the fourth province of Basra, but we have obligations, which we have accepted, both to the United Nations and the Iraqi Government, and we are not going to break those obligations at this stage.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s two other questions, I have made it clear that decisions on prosecutions are not for the Prime Minister or the Government, and the extradition treaty with the United States is a matter for continuing discussion.

When I look at the Prime Minister’s door it appears to be more of a trap door than anything else—so there is not much evidence of change there. Will the Government now abandon their headlong rush towards a new generation of nuclear power stations? Will they undertake to tax pollution more than earnings? Finally, will they abolish the unfair and regressive council tax?

Surely the events of the past year should make it clear to everyone that we cannot rely on an energy policy that makes us wholly dependent on one or two countries or regions across the world. That is why we have made the decision to continue with nuclear power, and why the security of our energy supply is best safeguarded by building a new generation of nuclear power stations. On the council tax, let me remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he got very little support from the electorate for his policy of local income tax.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking on the stewardship of this country and commend the cool and steadfast way in which he and the new Home Secretary have handled the recent difficult circumstances? In relation to the question from the Leader of the Opposition, I confirm what the Prime Minister said: we have recently carried out two reviews of Hizb ut-Tahrir and we have decided that there is insufficient evidence to ban it. I therefore ask the Prime Minister to stay absolutely on the course that he set today, and to stick by the law and the evidence and not to be swayed by any arbitrary political advantage that he thinks might be gained. May I also tell him—[Interruption.]

Nothing would be more politically disadvantageous than taking on a case without evidence and losing it. That would confirm all the accusations made against us by our opponents.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work he did as Home Secretary, and particularly his work on setting up our new arrangements for dealing with terrorism. I agree that, however distasteful remarks made by organisations are, we must proceed on the basis of evidence and work within the law. The Government will make no panic reactions; we will work in a strong and steadfast manner and within the law.

The Secretary of State for Defence is doing a full-time job. [Interruption.] Someone pointed out to me the hon. Gentleman’s website this morning—[Interruption.]

They do not want me to tell them that the hon. Gentleman’s website says:

“Conservatives must be relentlessly positive.”

[Interruption.]

The Defence Secretary is working with our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is working to draw up future defence estimates, and he is doing a magnificent job on behalf of this country.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend extend his praise to the year 5 boys at Middlethorpe primary school in Cleethorpes for their wonderful “bully-buster” initiative, and will he tell the boys at that school what his Government will be doing to ensure that local councils and organisations such as ChildLine are well funded to tackle bullying in our schools today? (147226)

Let me thank my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in her Cleethorpes constituency, and offer thanks for the work being done by the “Beat Bullying” campaign. I was fortunate to attend with Kelly Holmes the launch of the anti-bullying week, and I am very grateful to all the organisations that are trying to stamp out bullying not just within schools but outside schools, and to all the teachers and parents involved in this. It is a measure of the importance that we attach to every child having a decent childhood that we will extend the funds available to ChildLine. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is announcing today a £30 million budget for ChildLine over the next two years, which will enable it to improve its services both to young people affected by bullying, and to all children who need the service of ChildLine. They do need it, and it is a great service.

When EDS agreed to pay £71 million in compensation to Customs and Excise, £44 million was up front, with a further £26.5 million in staged payments. However, at the present rate of progress, it would take 106 years for the Exchequer to receive the money it is due. Does the Prime Minister think that a satisfactory rate of progress, and if not, what is he going to do to get the money owed to the taxpayer?

We are talking about a commercial arrangement between a firm and the Government—a commercial arrangement that was then renegotiated. The Public Accounts Committee or any other organisation is welcome to look at it, but I am satisfied that we have done what is right in the public interest.

Q4. The 5,000 families in housing need in the city of Chester have welcomed my right hon. Friend’s announcement that the provision of affordable housing will be a key priority for his Government. What message does he have for those Tory councillors in Chester who are trying to block the development of homes for local people on the site of an old Victorian psychiatric hospital that has been in the local— (147227)

It is right that we now build more houses in this country. It is also right that we seek to make housing affordable for thousands of people who cannot at the moment afford housing because of house prices. That means that we will have to build more houses, and that local authorities, including Conservative local authorities, will have to look at how they can release land to be able to do so. That is why I am disappointed that the new Conservative shadow housing Minister has said,

“you cannot build your way out of a housing crisis.”

We need to build more, and I hope again that there will be all-party support.

Q5. May I express my sadness at the recent deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including that of Private Kennedy, who was from my constituency? The Prime Minister will no doubt be aware of my constituent, Steven Johnston, who spent 10 years in prison for murder before his conviction was quashed last year. Since then, Steven has received no specialist professional psychological support and very poor after-care in general. The guilty are treated better. Will the Prime Minister investigate the specialist support provided to these victims, to ensure that they are given every chance to live as normal a life as possible? (147228)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency neighbours mine. However, I have to say to him that the conviction is a matter for the Scottish courts; any compensation would have to come from the Scottish judicial system. As far as the services available to individuals who need either special care or special attention are concerned, I shall look at the points that he made.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order to tackle terrorism, we need the Muslim community to provide strong leadership from within that community? Does he also agree that the experience of Northern Ireland bears out very strongly his belief that we need a bipartisan approach if we are to succeed in resolving these problems?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee with great experience as a former Minister in Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right that all sections of the House should appeal to all faith communities in this country. I want to see a stronger inter-faith dialogue where people find the common ground that exists between the different religions and communities of our country. There are more than 200 inter-faith groups throughout our country and I would like us to be able to finance and help the development of inter-faith groups in every community. I agree that that would make a huge difference to community relations. I hope to be able to talk to other party leaders about how we can move this forward.

Q6. The Prime Minister is a Scot, who has made it clear that he cherishes our shared Britishness. As an Ulsterman, I, too, value that Britishness. What plans does he have to ensure that people in each part of the United Kingdom can see the enduring benefit of building again a great nation that prevails over terror and adversity, whether domestic or international? (147229)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s words about the unity of the United Kingdom. I hope that the work we started yesterday on a statement of rights and responsibilities in our country will yield fruit and I hope that all parties in the House will join in that work. As a result of that work and the hearings to be held by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, I hope that we will see how the United Kingdom can move closer together.

Q7. My right hon. Friend has spoken often of his commitment to improving patients’ access to NHS services. Does he have any further information on plans to develop services on the Ormskirk site of the Southport and Ormskirk hospital, with special regard to the urgent care centre and recognising the benefit of providing the right local services in local settings? (147230)

I appreciate the work that my hon. Friend does as a local MP in pushing for an improvement to health services in her area. There will be a statement in a few minutes from the Secretary of State for Health, who will be outlining the Government’s plans to improve primary care services, personal care services in hospitals, investment in future health care and the treatment of diseases, and to make sure that the health service in this country is best for cure and best for care for all the people of the country.

Q8. As a Scot and, like the Prime Minister, a son of the manse, I was concerned by his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). The Secretary of State for Defence is fully employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more troops deployed than at any time since the second world war. Given that, how much time will he be able to devote to his duties in Scotland? (147231)

The Secretary of State for Scotland does not bring legislation before the House in normal circumstances. He is a Minister of State, who will be carrying out his day-to-day duties on a full-time basis. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the Secretary of State for Defence is doing an excellent job and that the relationships between the Secretary of State and the Army, the Air Force and the Navy are very good. I hope that the whole House will support the Secretary of State for Defence in his work.

Seven of our brave soldiers died in the first five years that we were in Afghanistan, mostly as a result of accidents. In the past 14 months, 56 soldiers have lost their lives, and there has been little progress on reconstruction and no progress on drug eradication. Is it not time to look again at the purpose of the mission in Helmand province?

I have visited Afghanistan and have talked to our brave troops who are doing an excellent job on behalf not just of this country, but of a combined NATO exercise that involves more than 30 countries in putting troops and support on the ground in Afghanistan. The House must remember that Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban, and if we allow Afghanistan to become a weaker country again, the Taliban will be back in the way that we saw before the events of 11 September. I have nothing but praise for our brave troops. I know that there have been casualties and I am sorry that a number of people have lost their lives only in the last week, but there is immense international support within and outside NATO for continuing this fight. The way it is going to be fought is on three levels: first, to improve security in Afghanistan; secondly, to ensure that there is political reconciliation; and thirdly, as my hon. Friend rightly says, we have to give people a stake in the future of Afghanistan. That is why we are discussing, as a matter of urgency, economic measures that can help the Afghan people.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister join me in extending our sympathies to all those who have been flooded across the country, but particularly in Yorkshire? I understand that several flood defence schemes that would have gone ahead were cut, because of the single farm payment disaster and the Environment Agency budget being cut. Those included defences that would have helped Sheffield and Doncaster. Is he also aware that his Government are, for the first time, introducing a financial assistance scheme to help business communities? I am sure that that will be most welcome, but will he ensure that north Yorkshire businesses qualify as well as south Yorkshire businesses? (147232)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the question of floods. The loss of life is to be regretted and we will do everything that we can to support those people who have been moved from their homes and are homeless. I have telephoned the leaders of the local councils in the areas and said that we will do what we can to give them support.

I must correct the hon. Lady on the issue of the prevention of floods and coastal defences. The budget for that will rise over the next few years—[Interruption.] Oh yes. The budget will rise from £600 million a year to £800 million a year over the course of the next few years, so that we may have in place proper flood defences in our country.