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Engagements

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2007

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

The owner of a local small business wrote to me yesterday, saying:

“I was made redundant…and started my own small business…I am approaching retirement and was hoping the sale would help support my pension which has already reduced by…the raid on pensions made by Gordon Brown.”—[Interruption.]

Under the new tax rules, my constituent’s tax bill will rise from £2,520 to £9,504. Can the Prime Minister tell him what he has done wrong and why he is being penalised?

We have cut capital gains tax from 40 per cent. since 1997, when the Tories were in power. We have, as the Leader of the Opposition acknowledges, the most successful economy. We have created 2.5 million jobs, unemployment is down today, and businesses are thriving.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last Saturday marked the anniversary of the collapse of Farepak, in which 122,000 small savers were robbed of their money. I have just met the administrator, who tells me that she is unlikely to pay back any money before Christmas this year. In addition, none of the reports will be made public under law. Would he be prepared to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) to discuss how we can speed up the process and get justice for the victims of Farepak?

What happened to Farepak was completely unacceptable. We have worked very closely with all those people who have lost money as a result of Farepak and we will continue to do so. I will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and any other hon. Members who are concerned about Farepak so that justice is done.

In the past four years, the number of people who have died from the hospital-acquired infection clostridium difficile has trebled. Ninety patients died in one hospital trust alone. The Healthcare Commission said last week:

“where trusts…are under severe pressure to meet targets relating to finance and access, concern for infection control may be undermined.”

Will the Prime Minister now accept that the number and extent of his top-down targets are contributing to this problem?

It is because we are concerned about MRSA and C. difficile that in the past few weeks we have taken very special measures: isolation wards; we are about to appoint 3,000 more matrons; and we are about to do a deep clean of hospitals. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of targets and cites the Healthcare Commission, so let me quote to him what its chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, has said:

“Targets or their equivalent are an inevitable feature of a modern 21st century healthcare system…The obligation to meet targets cannot be used as an excuse for failing to meet other managerial objectives.”

He also says—and I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will take this into account—

“targets are not to blame for the trust leaders taking their eye off the ball.”

He adds:

“Managers always have to deal with conflicting priorities and plenty of organisations…do it successfully.”

In other words, it is not targets that are to blame. We have got to invest in the health service. Will he invest in the health service as we will?

It is clear that the Prime Minister has not read the Healthcare Commission report. The report could not be clearer. On the Maidstone hospital, it says:

“senior managers were…reluctant to implement major infection control measures”

because of the need to meet targets. It was not just that one hospital. The report on Stoke Mandeville said:

“The achievement of the Government’s targets was seen as more important than the management of the clinical risk inherent in C. difficile. This was a significant failing.”

Almost one in two hospitals agrees that targets are getting in the way of infection control. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee both agree. What makes the Prime Minister think that he is right and they are wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman has not done his research. Targets are responsible for waiting lists, which were at a quarter of a million, being almost zero for those people at six months. Targets are responsible for a 17 per cent. fall in heart disease. Targets are responsible for a 40 per cent. fall in coronary disease.

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the Healthcare Commission. I have quoted Sir Ian Kennedy, who is its chairman, saying that targets are not to blame. Let me also quote the new chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust. He said:

“targets are there for a reason but that should not stop us from focusing majorly on patient safety, that is the number one priority”.

The Leader of the Opposition should recognise that the reason we can invest more in tackling MRSA and C. difficile is that we are spending more money on the health service. He voted against that spending.

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) will not keep shouting. You have a difficulty in Prime Minister’s questions because you keep shouting. You should not do it.

It comes to something when you have to tick off the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Mr. Speaker.

The Prime Minister said that he would listen to people, but he is not listening to those working in the NHS. The Healthcare Commission quotes one senior manager saying that

“if anyone says the top priorities aren’t money and targets, they are lying”.

The nurse of the year, who resigned today, says that she is leaving because of bureaucracy, reorganisation and paperwork.

MRSA deaths have quadrupled. C. difficile deaths have trebled. If we are going to deal with hospital-acquired infections, does not the Prime Minister understand that he has got to listen to the people who work in the NHS?

It is precisely because I have been listening to the British people that we have put an extra £100 million into tackling MRSA and C. difficile. It is precisely because we are listening that since I took over this job we are now insisting that every patient who comes to hospital will be screened against the possibility of MRSA. It is precisely because we are listening that we are going to do a deep clean of hospital wards. It is precisely because I am listening that we are going to double the number of matrons.

None of that extra expenditure would be possible if we accepted the Conservative party’s plans on spending. It has a £6 billion black hole in its spending plans, which would mean deep cuts in the national health service. The Leader of the Opposition should listen to the experts on this matter, who are saying that targets are not to blame. We need investment and reform in the health service, and only we on this side of the House can do it.

If the Prime Minister wants to ask me questions, he should call an election. In the meantime, he says that this is all about how much he listens, so let us ask about the other important issue of this week and whether he is listening. His manifesto promised a referendum on the European constitution. The overwhelming majority of people in this country want a referendum on the European constitution. European leaders, the European Scrutiny Committee and his own representative on the European Convention all say that the new treaty is the same as the constitution. Will he tell us why will he not grant a referendum on that constitution?

I see that the right hon. Gentleman has given up on the health service now. Let us come to the European issue.

In 1992, every member of that shadow Cabinet refused a referendum on a far more significant treaty. The Foreign Secretary voted against a referendum on Maastricht. Why is this treaty different? It is different because it is not a constitutional treaty; it is an amending treaty. Why is it different? It is different because we won a protocol in the charter of rights, we got an opt-in on justice and home affairs, we got an emergency brake on social security, and we have exempted the security issues. All those changes have been brought about in the past few months, and that is why not one Government in Europe—apart from the one in Ireland, who are bound constitutionally to have a referendum on anything—are proposing a referendum on this treaty. Just as those on the Conservative Front Bench voted against a referendum in 1992, they should have the honesty to vote against it now. [Interruption.]

Order. Before the next question, may I ask the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) to be quiet as well? He is not the only one, but if I get him to be quiet I am sure that the others will follow.

The Prime Minister called my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) the Foreign Secretary. I have to say to him that it is just a matter of time.

Let us be clear about what Labour’s representative on the European Convention, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart)—[Hon. Members: “Where is she?”] Where is she? She has probably been sent for re-education. Let us be clear about what she said:

“The red lines are red herrings. It’s a matter of trust and integrity. A referendum was promised. It should be delivered. If Labour can’t trust the people, why should the people trust Labour?”

It is a simple question: is she not right?

We will do what is right in the interests of the British people. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to trade quotes, he should listen to the chairman of his own democracy commission, who says that the proposal for a referendum under the Tory plans is “crackpot”, “dotty” and “frankly absurd”. I know that the Leader of the Opposition likes pre-rehearsed soundbites—[Interruption.] I know that he is good at PR—[Interruption.]

I acknowledge that the Leader of the Opposition is good at PR, but did he not go too far last weekend when he went to California and said in a newspaper interview:

“look at me and think of Arnold Schwarzenegger”?

That is the last thing on anybody’s mind.

People will look at the Prime Minister and just say, “Here is a man who breaks his promise.” Why does he not admit that the reason he will not have a referendum is that he is scared of losing it? Does he not understand that if he breaks his promise on this, no one will trust him on anything else?

If we were deciding whether to join the euro, we would have a referendum. If the treaty were the old constitutional treaty, we would have a referendum. Because it is an amending treaty that is not fundamental change, we have managed to negotiate red lines in Europe which mean that the national interest is protected. Britain will decide on justice and home affairs; Britain will decide on foreign policy where it is multilateral; Britain will decide on social security; and Britain will decide on national security. We will at all times stand up for the British national interest.

On Saturday evening, I sense that the nation will be watching its television sets as England plays South Africa in what has been an extraordinary Rugby world cup. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to send a message to the team.

I think I might be able to speak for the whole House here. I think the whole House wishes to congratulate the England team on a magnificent performance in reaching the final. I think the whole House wants to wish Brian Ashton, Phil Vickery and the whole team our best wishes for Saturday’s match. As someone who, like my hon. Friend, follows rugby, and met the England team recently, I wish to send our best wishes so that England returns with the world cup on Saturday night.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the comments of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that there is a moral case for rewarding marriage through the tax system?

May I first of all say—and I think I speak for the whole House—that we send our best wishes to the former leader of the Liberal party, who is a distinguished parliamentarian? He is a man of integrity, he is a man of honesty and he is a man of decency. Let me welcome the shadow Chancellor of the Liberal party to his position as temporary leader of the Liberal party. If things go on in this Parliament at this rate of change, every single Liberal Member will have the chance to be leader of the Liberal party.

As far as the tax issues are concerned, it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that we have made the changes that we have on inheritance tax; it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that—[Interruption.] It is only possible because we recognise marriage in the tax system. But as far as children’s tax credits and child benefit are concerned, I believe that the duty of every citizen of this country is to support not just some children in our country, but all children.

I thank the Prime Minister for his gracious comments and for his welcome.

Both of us are happily married men, but why has the right hon. Gentleman crafted an inheritance tax system that discriminates against millions of unmarried couples and their children? And why is he lining up with the Tories to defend the principle that these families should not merely be condemned to the everlasting flames of hell, but should be taxed more on the way?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me into the secrets of his marriage. It has always been the case that marriage is recognised in the inheritance tax system. I have not seen him making very detailed proposals to change that in recent years. As far as inheritance tax is concerned, if we took up his proposal and extended it to everyone, that would be a very great additional expense. I do not know how Liberal party policies would be able to cope with yet another spending commitment, because in the last few days we have had commitments to a border police force, high-speed rail links, more money to Visit Britain and reducing VAT on historic buildings—£18 billion of spending commitments in all. The most recent one that I want to draw attention to is more investment in bullying prevention; perhaps they should look at that as a party.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the Treasury Committee, which is looking into Northern Rock, would have a lot more clout if only it could intervene before such financial dealings got out of control? Is he aware that the Notting Hill finance group has got another financial scam—to spend £3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money and raise only £650 million? That is another Northern Rock waiting to explode. And one of them has got previous—he was involved in Black Wednesday.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a £6 billion black hole in the Conservatives’ promises. They cannot afford to pay for their spending commitments and are back to where they were in 1992—with more spending, lower taxes and less borrowing. Where did that end? It ended not only in Black Wednesday, but with 3 million people unemployed, public spending cuts and 15 per cent. mortgage rates. And the economic adviser to the Chancellor at the time is now the Leader of the Opposition.

Q2. The Prime Minister should be aware that the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers regiment has sent more than 100 Territorial Army soldiers to Iraq in support of hard-pressed regular British soldiers. Will he therefore explain to the House why funding for the Territorial Army has been slashed by millions of pounds, and why the Royal Monmouthshire has been told that it can no longer recruit? (158503)

I shall immediately look into what the hon. Gentleman says about the Royal Monmouthshire, but I can tell him that expenditure on the defence forces as a whole is going to rise by more than £1 billion a year over the next few years. We have just made it possible for there to be extra commitment to equipment in Afghanistan. We will do everything in our power to support the magnificent men and women fighting for our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I hope that that would be common ground between the parties.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that obesity is the most important public health issue facing our nation today? Not only does it shorten the lives of sufferers but, ultimately, it affects the whole of society. Does he share my view that obesity cannot be tackled by Government alone, but will he outline the Government’s proposals to deal with this very important problem?

My hon. Friend is a doctor, and he brings to the subject a great deal of knowledge about the damage done to young children when obesity is allowed to go unchallenged. Not only must we deal with the advertising of unacceptable foods and persuade the food labelling authorities to make food labelling better to deal with those foods, but we must have a push on fitness in our schools. That is why we will move from two hours to five hours of sport a week in our schools over the next few years, and every young child will have the chance to enjoy a range of sports. That will be possible only because we are able to spend the money necessary to recruit sports teachers and improve sports education in our schools. That would not be possible if we had a £6 billion black hole in our finances.

Q3. Last Friday, I saw how moved the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary were at the opening of the armed forces memorial near Lichfield. It has places for the names of 16,000 men and women who have lost their lives serving their country since 1945, but will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to clarify precisely how many troops currently in Iraq will return to the UK before Christmas? (158504)

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who made that new national memorial possible. It is in the centre of our nation, so friends, relatives and families from all over the country can visit and pay tribute to those who have lost their lives since the second world war. As he rightly says, there are already 16,000 names commemorated in the stone of what is a most magnificent statue and memorial, which has been created using donations from large numbers of people. I hope that all Members of Parliament will be able to help their constituents to visit it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Iraq. As I have said before, the numbers go down from 5,500 to 2,500 by next spring. They go down from 5,500 to 4,500 and then to 4,000 in southern Iraq over the next few months.

Q4. In view of the appalling ongoing situation in Burma, I welcome yesterday’s announcement by European Ministers of stronger sanctions against that country, but I especially welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s promise of aid if the Burma regime moves towards greater democracy and reconciliation. What more does he think that we can do to help the people of Burma? (158505)

I think that hon. Members of all parties in this House will agree that the Burmese regime is repressive, illegal and undemocratic. The sanctions agreed by the EU this week are an important way to deal with the export and import of timber, but we must move forward and look at investment sanctions as well. Members of the Burmese regime must know that unless they change, we will step up the sanctions against them. At the same time, we support the efforts of Mr. Gambari, the UN envoy who is now in the region. I hope that he will be given the chance to meet a wide range of people in Burma so that he can assess the situation.

My hon. Friend has taken a big interest in these matters over the years and, as she said, we are ready to support a reinvestment programme with funds so that the poverty, injustice and inequality that exist in Burma can be tackled if there is a move towards reconciliation and democracy in that country. Our strategy is not only to push the regime to change, but to offer to a new regime and Government our support for economic development and social improvement. I believe that all countries around the world, including China and the Asian countries, will be prepared to support that initiative.

Q5. This week an English Heritage survey found that 75 per cent. of respondents felt that seaside towns were shabby and unattractive, and that the Government should invest more to preserve what is distinctive about them. My constituency of Torbay works hard to upgrade its facilities and to make it an attractive place, and I am sure the same is true of all our seaside towns. What are the Government going to do to help the renaissance and regeneration of these important contributors to the British economy? (158506)

I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do more for our coastal towns over the next few years. We must make them more attractive for tourism and we must aid their economic regeneration. That is why we have increased real-terms expenditure on coastal towns by nearly 40 per cent. over the last 10 years. As a result of employment growth, there has been a 12 per cent. rise in employment in coastal towns over the last decade, compared with 7 per cent. for the economy as a whole. Regional development agencies and local government will be given the resources that are needed so that we can regenerate, where it is necessary, the coastal towns that can serve our economy by being great tourist attractions as well as lovely places to live in.

Q6. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency 7 per cent. of people were claiming jobseeker’s allowance in 1997 and that the figure is now just 3.1 per cent.? Does he agree that the main reason for that success is the implementation by the Government of the new deal and the creation of better pathways into work? (158507)

There are two and a half million more people in jobs than in 1997. Two million people have been helped by the new deal since 1997 either to get training or a job. A large number of people are coming off incapacity benefit as a result of the measures we are taking. More single parents are going into work; there are now 700,000 single parents—not more than 1 million—on the inactive register. We have taken the number of people on income support and other benefits down by 1 million over the last 10 years, but that is possible only because we have a new deal that is able to help people get back into work. Unfortunately, the Conservatives would scrap the new deal. Let the debate begin: do we want a new deal that will help people to get jobs and equip them for the future so that British workers can get British jobs, or do we want a £6 billion black hole in public expenditure?

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that during the past year Army families were forced to call the Ministry of Defence special housing helpline 400,000 times? After 10 years of Labour Government, how does that dreadful state of affairs square with his pledge in Basra to uphold the military covenant? (158508)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Ministry of Defence accommodation, because as part of the spending round we have agreed that over the next 10 years £5 billion will be spent on accommodation. That is not simply for renovating existing barracks; it will also make it possible for young servicemen and their families to become owner-occupiers for the first time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support the additional expenditure. I have to tell the Conservatives that when we decide to make additional expenditures on defence, housing and health—where I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he had to apologise for the Leader of the Opposition when the right hon. Gentleman said that hospitals would close—I hope that the Opposition, instead of having a black hole in their figures, will support that extra public investment.

Q8. Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend visited Ceres Power in Crawley, which is developing a low-energy fuel cell that will probably make sure that many of our homes have low-energy output in the future. In last week’s comprehensive spending review, the important environmental transformation fund was announced. How will Ceres Power and similar companies be able to take advantage of it? (158509)

I was very grateful for the chance to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency; she is a wonderful MP, representing the interests of her constituents. Last week, we announced that we will continue with our programme that is doubling science investment, and one of the major beneficiaries will be the environmental and energy industries. I see not only British inventions flowing from that but new British jobs in the years to come. Again, I hope that there will be all-party support for the rapidly increasing science budget so that British inventions can create British jobs for British workers.

Q9. Is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and concern about the proposed changes to hospital provision in south-east London, particularly the cuts and downgrades proposed to our own hospital, Queen Mary’s, Sidcup? Can he confirm that the consultation will not be a sham and that he will actually listen to what local people say—or is this just another example of London being let down by Labour? (158510)

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that in London alone there have been 27 new hospital schemes over the past few years; there are 44,000 more NHS staff; there are 650 more dentists; and there is more investment going into the hospital service than ever before. I hope that he will not fall for the scare stories peddled by the Leader of the Opposition about hospitals that are not closing and about the effects of the Darzi report. We are investing more than ever in hospitals and the health service in London, and that is possible only because the economy is moving forward and we are able to create the wealth in this country as a result of a Labour Government.