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Prime Minister

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2007

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the three servicemen killed in Iraq at the weekend. They were Private Edward Vakabua of 4th Battalion the Rifles, Lance-Corporal Ryan Francis of 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, and Corporal Christopher Read of 3rd Regiment Royal Military Police. They died doing vital work for our country. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that the ringleader of the 21 July terrorist attacks, Mukhtar Ibrahim, was allowed to travel backwards and forwards to Pakistan to a terror camp, despite the fact that he was wanted on extremism charges in the UK? Throughout this time, he was given succour and encouragement by Hizb ut-Tahrir. Does this case not illustrate the overwhelming argument for banning this evil organisation, and for bringing in a dedicated UK border police?

I have looked at the argument put to me last week about the banning of the organisation. This will be kept under continuous review. Equally, I have looked at, and continue to look at, the argument for a national border police force, but it is the combination of an e-border system that operates in airports and ports way outside our country that prevents people from coming in in the first place, and the introduction of identity cards that would do the best to deal with the problem.

On the particular person who has been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, there are three instances that we have got to deal with, and I have looked at all of them. First, when he was guilty of crimes in Britain in the early and later 1990s, under the new laws he would have been deported from this country. Secondly, he applied for citizenship of this country and received citizenship because all his offences as a juvenile had been wiped off. That would not happen now, and he would not get citizenship of this country. I am also looking very carefully at the circumstances that surround his visit to Pakistan.

Q2. As the Prime Minister knows, many in the faith community and elsewhere, like me, still have concerns about super-casinos, believing that they will add to the current problem of the 400,000 people who suffer from gambling problems. Given that a majority of the public believes that these super-casinos will add to gambling problems and social breakdown, will he use this period of reflection and change in policy to look again at the policy on super-casinos, and to go back to the original purpose of the Gambling Act 2005, which was to regulate gambling and reduce gambling problems? (148622)

It is true to say that this is an issue on which no consensus is found within the two Houses of Parliament, and it is an issue that is now subject to reflection over the next few months. In September, we will have a report that will look at gambling in our country, and at the incidence and prevalence of it and its social effects. I hope that during these summer months, we can look at whether regeneration in the areas for the super-casinos may be a better way of meeting their economic and social needs than the creation of super-casinos.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Christopher Read, to Lance-Corporal Ryan Francis, and to Rifleman Edward Vakabua, who died serving their country.

Last week, the Government announced a fundamental review of the NHS. Will the Prime Minister confirm that no hospital closures or service reductions will take place until that review is completed?

What I can confirm is that the seven proposals before the Secretary of State will be referred to the medical panel—an independent medical panel—which will make recommendations on what is the right way forward. I can also confirm that, as the review is taking place throughout the country, all decisions will be based on medical and clinical need. We will report back to the House on the review at the time of the pre-Budget report in October, and that will be the basis on which we will proceed further.

I should also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that there are 108 new hospital developments in this country as a result of what this Government have done, and that the difference between the two sides of the House is that we are prepared to spend more money on the health service. He has never guaranteed an extra penny on the national health service.

So the answer is no. The cuts go on, the closures go on and the service reductions go on. What is the point of holding a review if one is not going to stop and wait for its conclusions? Let us take a specific example. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the “Healthcare for London” report, published today, will lead to the closure of accident and emergency departments and maternity wards all over London? A simple yes or no will do.

This is not correct. Lord Darzi has conducted the review, which is for consultation and then local decision making. I shall quote to the leader of the Conservative party what he said. He said:

“I don’t think there will be any”

need for hospital closures.

The Prime Minister is getting a bit ahead of himself, as the person in question is not even Lord Darzi yet. I asked a simple question. The author of the report says:

“The days of the district general hospital… are over”,

and that we need

“fewer, more advanced hospitals”.

What can that mean if not cuts in departments and closures in existing hospitals?

It means more money for the national health service this year, next year and the year after—money that the Opposition will not match. It means a proposal for 150 new polyclinics, which will mean that GPs will be able to undertake operations. It means an improvement in specialist care in London. It means this Government are prepared to finance the NHS.

If we are updating ourselves about Conservative party policy, let me remind the House that not only will the Opposition not match us on health service spending, but they have just issued a report on the future of hospitals in which they say that, because of their funding mechanism, hospitals are at risk

“of financial failure”

and this will

“entail risks to the assets necessary for the provision of essential national health services.”

Who is closing hospitals—the Government or the Opposition? It is the Conservative party.

I think that people will start to conclude that this Prime Minister just cannot answer a straight question. He says that he wants to listen to people, so will he confirm that the report says specifically that people do not want these changes?

The report’s author specifically says about closures:

“I don’t think there will be any”

need for hospital closures.

The Opposition want to run a scare campaign about the future of the NHS. In 1997, 300,000 people had to wait six months or more for operations, but that figure is now in the low hundreds. That is thanks to the investment made by a Labour Government; it would not happen under the Conservatives.

Again, the Prime Minister will not answer the question, and again he has not done his homework. I asked him whether Londoners supported the changes. Paragraph 36 of the report states:

“58 per cent. of Londoners would choose existing hospitals as opposed to investing in…fewer, larger hospitals”.

So people do not like the Prime Minister’s plan. Will he listen to them?

Lord Darzi is not proposing the closure of existing hospitals. It is hardly surprising that if people are asked, “Do you want your hospital closed?”, they might say no, but Lord Darzi is not proposing that. He is proposing 150 new polyclinics, which will mean that doctors can get consultants into their surgeries to perform much needed operations that can be done there. He is proposing the expansion of specialist care, and that the teaching hospitals be able to do more research. I think that the Leader of the Opposition would do better to look at the report before commenting on it.

Let me just remind the Prime Minister of what Sir Ara Darzi says. He says:

“the days of the district general hospital…are over”

and that we need

“fewer, more advanced hospitals”.

That would mean that maternity units, accident and emergency units and specialist services will go. Is not the truth that his health policy—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) should not shout, and neither should the hon. Ladies behind her.

The truth is, they know that it means cuts in NHS services. Is not the truth that the Prime Minister’s health policy is exactly the same as it ever was: more closures, more removal of services and more job losses? Does not the report, out today, show that all we shall get is more of the same from a Government who have failed?

The right hon. Gentleman says more job cuts, but there are 80,000 more nurses in the national health service. There are 30,000 more doctors and 5 million more A and E attendances every year as a result of investment. As for him and his policy on the national health service, he can spout the slogans, he can hold his press conferences and issue his glossy booklets, but we will get on with running the national health service better. He can go for his PR—I will go for being PM, and we will get on with the job.

My right hon. Friend will not need reminding of the momentous event that took place two weeks ago today: on 27 June a grateful nation celebrated—veterans day. Will the Government undertake to ensure that the 35,000 veterans of the Malaysian campaign are allowed to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal next veterans day?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who as Minister for Veterans brought in the veterans medal and enabled it to extend to a large number of people who would not otherwise have been able to have it. In all our constituencies, we can see thousands of people who are benefiting from the award of a veterans medal, which is a recognition of their service to our country. I shall certainly look at his proposal and report back to the House.

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

What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of the sums wasted by fraud, error and overpayment in the tax credit system he set up three years ago?

It is very interesting that the leader of the Conservative party did not ask anything about the married couples allowance or tax credits and that it has been left to the leader of the Liberal party to pick up the baton. Tax credits are the most successful policy in removing child poverty in this country: 6 million families benefit from tax credits. Yes, there was computer error to start with, but it is being substantially reduced and the right hon. and learned Gentleman should admit that 600,000 children are not in poverty today because they are receiving tax credits.

But as the Prime Minister said on the radio this morning, there is still a long way to go. The truth is that the money wasted is heading towards £9 billion—£9 billion that could have been better spent. Behind that figure there are 2 million families whose lives have been made miserable by error and overpayment. Is not that the responsibility of the Prime Minister?

I can tell the Leader of the Opposition he knows what it means, saying a long way to go. Child benefit was £11 when we came into power; it will be £20 in 2010. The child tax credit was £27 and it is rising for the poorest families to more than £70, compared with £28 when the Conservatives were in power. We have done more through these measures to take children out of poverty than any previous Government in the past 30 or 40 years. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be supporting the tax credit system, not condemning it.

The Prime Minister will know that tens of thousands of families around the land fear that their housing future will be plagued by the prospect of regular flooding and ultimate uninsurability. Given the pressure that he is under to approve further development on floodplain land, will he consider making the developers liable for full insurance cover for development on such land for the first 20 years of the life of the developments, rather than leaving the tenants and owners of properties to be both victims financially and victims of flooding?

I shall certainly look at my hon. Friend’s proposal, but we are increasing flood prevention moneys from £600 million to £800 million. I have visited the areas subjected to the worst of the floods over the past few weeks. On Saturday, I visited a number of people who are not insured, and we have to do something to help them in those circumstances. I talked to local authorities and we gave them special help to get over the difficult circumstances now. We also have to help them with reconstruction, but I hope my hon. Friend agrees that to increase the flood prevention budget from £600 million to £800 million, at a time when we have other priorities to meet, is a sign of our determination to deal with the proper defences against floods.

Q3. Can the right hon. Gentleman think of any ministerial decision in the domestic sphere that has been taken during his time as a Member of this House that has caused more lasting harm to the British people than his withdrawal of £100 billion from the pension funds as a result of his abolition of dividend fair play? (148623)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to dividend tax credit. Despite the stock exchange crash and despite what he says about tax changes, the assets of pension funds in this country have risen from £500 billion in 1997 to more than £1 trillion now. I believe that the pensions of the people of this country are better protected because of the Pensions Bill that we will bring in, and I hope that there will be all-party support for it.

Further to the Prime Minister’s earlier answer on super-casinos, does he recall that in the debate on this issue there was an acknowledgement that locating a super-casino, or indeed any of the casinos, in a resort location would minimise the impact of problem gambling and maximise the regeneration potential? When he looks in the autumn at the report that he referred to on problem gambling, will he take into account the special needs of a town such as Blackpool when it comes to regeneration?

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking up at all times for the needs of the people of Blackpool. She does so with great eloquence. Of course we will look at the proposal that she is putting forward, but I have to say that there are means to regeneration for our coastal towns—and particularly our great holiday resorts—and those means include investing in local infrastructure, and in hotels and conference centres. At the same time, we know that Blackpool has put forward proposals: first, for a tramline, secondly, for a museum of the theatre, and thirdly, for a better conference centre. I want to look with her at all those proposals and see how Government can help.

Q4. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has at long last decided to join my campaign to fly the Union flag from every public building throughout the United Kingdom, but when is he going to start treating my constituents in England in the same fair way as he treats his constituents in Scotland and give us English votes for English laws? (148624)

There is one United Kingdom Parliament. We are all part of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are not two classes of citizens in this House.

This is from a Scots MP: my brother, Gregor Moffat, left last month to serve in Afghanistan with the British Territorial Army. Does my right hon. Friend have a message for the brave volunteers who leave their families to serve their countries in war?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am grateful for the service that is being given by her brother. I was in Afghanistan, and also in Baghdad and then Basra in Iraq, and I have nothing but praise for those people in the Territorial Army who have volunteered—with their skills—to help in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe the whole House will want to say that we owe a debt of gratitude to them as well.

Q5. How can the Prime Minister justify the fact that nurses in his constituency are paid a lot more than nurses in mine, in the London borough of Bexley, for doing exactly the same job? Is he aware that the point that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised about potential closures of hospitals in south London is a real issue? (148625)

That is why I read to the Leader of the Opposition what Lord Darzi said this morning about the purpose of his report. The purpose of his report is to improve health services in London. It is to create a system of polyclinics that will mean that people will get access to health care nearer their homes. Those proposals are now out to consultation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join that consultation. From 1 November, every nurse will receive the same rate of pay.

Q6. Is my right hon. Friend aware that two Coventry police officers have been nominated for the police bravery award? Officers Owen and Rudnicki arrested two men, one of whom was armed with a sawn-off shotgun. Does not that say a lot about the bravery of the British police force? (148626)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will be hosting a reception at Downing street for the brave policemen and women who will be receiving those awards this week. Again, I have nothing but praise for what they are doing. They undertake very difficult work with great courage, increasingly in circumstances in which we face a terrorist threat. They deserve the full-hearted support of the public. Everyone who receives those awards for their absolute and tremendous courage should be thanked by all of us.

Will the Prime Minister explain how, after a £24 million grab from the Welsh lottery fund, people in north Wales will in any way—economically or otherwise—benefit from the Olympic games in London?

Despite the difference in party labels, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support Britain holding the Olympic games. All the opinion polls show that in every part of the country, including Wales, people welcome the Olympic games. When I go around the country, I find young people in every part, including Wales, who want to compete in the Olympic games and represent our country.

Q7. The Prime Minister’s predecessor was hugely supportive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association’s campaign to raise £15 million to find a cure for this dreadful and terminal disease. As a direct result, we have raised almost £4 million so far this year from private donors. Will the new Prime Minister meet representatives of the MND Association to maintain the momentum and help us to achieve a goal that I believe we all share: a world free of MND? (148627)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this. He has been a long-standing campaigner for support for both the Medical Research Council and others to carry out greater research on motor neurone disease. As someone who has also seen people die of motor neurone disease, I support the research that is being done. I will do my best to support everything that he is doing. I will be happy to meet him and all those associated with this good work in Downing street at the soonest possible opportunity.

On behalf of 40,000 British nuclear workers and 17,000 workers in my constituency, may I thank the Prime Minister for his unequivocal support for the industry at the Dispatch Box last week? Will he join me in urging hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the Government’s energy Bill when it comes to the Floor of the House?

My hon. Friend knows that we put our nuclear proposals out to public consultation on 23 May. The Government’s preliminary view is that nuclear has a future role in providing our homes and businesses with the low-carbon energy that we need. Let me emphasise that the Government will make their decision in the autumn, after, and in the light of, the consultation.

Q8. The Prime Minister claims to treat everyone equally, so why do nurses in his constituency earn more—[Interruption.] (148628)

The Prime Minister did not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett).

The hon. Lady is referring to a decision in relation to nurses in Scotland that was made by the Scottish Parliament. I have to tell her that from 1 November, all nurses will be paid exactly the same rate.

My constituent, Dr. Aziz, who is a leading Muslim scholar, has asked me to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary on their moderate tone in response to the terrorist attacks. He asks me to ask the Prime Minister to confirm this: does he see this as a struggle not between different civilisations, but between ordinary people of all religions and none, and the people who seek to kill us?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The number of organisations of different faiths in our country that have come out to condemn the attempted attacks in Britain over the past few days has been encouraging. All mainstream opinion will want to stand up against extremism. In the next few months, I hope that we can set up inter-faith councils in every constituency and community of our country so that we can bring together the faiths and all moderate opinion against those extremists who are trying to disrupt our civilisation and who, at the same time, of course offend every decent value of human dignity.

Volatile Substance Abuse

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work, and we will support his campaign on combating volatile substance abuse by young people.

Volatile substance abuse involving glue, lighter fuels and sprays kills more young people aged 10 to 16 than die from illegal drug use. Three Departments are involved in combating that nuisance—the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Home Office. Does the Prime Minister share my disappointment that prior to the reshuffle, Solve It, a Kettering-based charity doing much good work on the issue, was refused a meeting with a then Education Minister? Will the Prime Minister, under his Government, facilitate a meeting with that Minister’s replacement?

Of course I will, and I apologise if that meeting did not take place; I will make sure that it does. We have published a national framework for dealing with substance abuse. The hon. Gentleman is a campaigner on the issue, and I pay tribute to Barbara Skinner, one of his constituents, who set up the charity in 1998. We are very happy to work with her, and with all people who are interested in finding better solutions, so that we can combat that terrible problem.

A proposal based on a single, unpublished academic paper and anecdotal sources was put forward yesterday that would end the hugely successful general practitioner-led drug treatment programme in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister confirm that his drug treatment policy will be based on evidence and proven success, rather than on the political prejudice of the Commission on Social Justice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. It is true that Britain has a major drug problem. It is also true that we need a new and better strategy for dealing with it, and I have already announced that we will formulate such a strategy. At the same time, Opposition Members should acknowledge that the number of people receiving help with drug rehabilitation has doubled in the past few years, and that we are attempting to help to solve a problem that has ruined the lives of many young people. If the Opposition wish to work with us on that, they must admit that the public spending that is necessary for doing that must be found, and they should resist the third fiscal rule, which would mean that they spent less, not more, in the future.

Engagements

Q10. The Prime Minister talks about the need for more open and transparent politics, so can he explain why his Government continue to defy the Information Commissioner by refusing to publish the first full draft of the Iraq dossier, which was produced by the Foreign Office press officer, John Williams, on 9 September 2002—one day before John Scarlett produced his first draft? Does the Prime Minister not believe that actions speak louder than words? (148630)

The hon. Gentleman should recognise that that is a process in which the Government have rights under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 too, and we are pursuing a policy in which we are defending our rights in relation to it, but a decision will be made in due course.

Yesterday, the House heard welcome proposals for tackling deprivation. Will the Prime Minister start to put those plans into action by supporting pilot schemes in areas such as Liverpool that address the particular problems of young people who leave school and do not go on to further education or training, and who do not have a job?

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a major challenge that we now face. While there are far more young people in education than there were before, and far more young people in work than ever before, there is a group of young people that the new deal has not yet got to, and that is the group of people we want to help with their transition so that they can undertake apprenticeships and can have a path to a career. If Opposition Members want to support us in doing that, they will have to say that they will provide the equivalent funding to do so; that is what is lacking in everything that the Conservative party says at the moment.

Q11. The whole House will be aware of the acute personal importance to the Prime Minister of one particular NHS issue. In his new home, he is within just 9 miles of 19 consultant-led maternity wards. If plans go ahead, that will compare with none at all in Cheltenham. Will his Government reverse the trend towards less choice further from home in maternity care for so many parts of the country? (148632)

What we are trying to do with maternity care is to give every mother a choice. Having had access to a midwife, women will have the choice of having the birth at home, in a midwife-led unit, or in a maternity unit staffed by consultants and doctors. That choice will be open to every mother from 2009, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that extension of choice, which means that there are more doctors and more nurses, and more midwives helping them.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the plight of over 1,000 Kwik Save staff struggling to feed their families following the company’s closure? Will he do all he can to ensure that those people are not left high and dry, and also back USDAW, the shop workers’ union, which is striving to secure seven weeks’ back pay and redundancy money for the Kwik Save workers?

We are sad about any redundancy that hits people and their livelihoods, and we will try to do everything we can. I hope we can provide help for those workers through the new deal, and look at their financial circumstances. If my hon. Friend wants to contact me, we will have a meeting to discuss it.

Q12. The Prime Minister can scrutinise health policy in my constituency but, because I represent an English constituency, I cannot scrutinise health policy in his constituency. Is that not an example of the fact that we already have a two-tier Parliament? When will he put the fairness back into the United Kingdom? (148633)

The hon. Gentleman should understand the devolution settlement. This Parliament voted the right to make decisions on health to Scotland and Wales. It also voted the right to make decisions on specific issues to London. It is right that the House of Commons can make those decisions, but now that they have been made, and the Conservative party has said that it accepts devolution, it is a bit much for Conservatives now to change their minds.