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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Sentencing

1. What measures he is taking to improve the effectiveness of community sentencing and to encourage public support for it. (160183)

3. What measures he is taking to improve the effectiveness of community sentencing and to encourage public support for it. (160185)

Community orders are an effective way of reducing crime. The Government have ensured that more than 7 million hours of unpaid work are completed by offenders every year, with increasing visibility of projects in the community.

Some 18,000 children are affected every year when their mothers are sent to prison, yet 70 per cent. of those mothers receive sentences of less than a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Baroness Jean Corston’s recommendation that community sentencing should be the norm for those mothers? Does he also agree that their particular vulnerabilities and their caring commitments should be taken into account in sentencing?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As she knows, Baroness Corston has produced a report, which I intend to respond to before Christmas. The report recommends strongly that community sentences should become the norm. We have accepted in principle a large number of the recommendations and we want to explore how we can work those through, but I agree that we should try to find as many community sentences as possible for women, to reduce the number of women in prison and to ensure that their needs are taken care of.

The rehabilitation of offenders should be a key part of any sentence. Will the Minister confirm that when there is a short custodial sentence, it is difficult for the Prison Service to organise effective rehabilitation, and that a community sentence may allow better rehabilitation over a longer period?

My hon. Friend is correct, in the sense that people who receive short prison sentences, particularly sentences of less than 12 months, have a high rate of reoffending; she will know that it can be as high as 75 per cent. Community sentence statistics show that in 2000, 53 per cent. of people undertaking a community sentence had reoffended within two years. That figure dropped to 50.5 per cent. in 2004, so there is a clear correlation showing that community sentences help to prevent reoffending more successfully than short prison sentences.

Does the Minister agree that support for community sentences is greatly strengthened when they are associated with restorative justice, particularly among victims and their families? That being the case, will he look carefully at the threat to the Thames Valley restorative justice scheme because of a funding problem, and ways in which restorative justice could be encouraged and funded throughout the country?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that restorative justice is an important element in working through community sentences. He will know that the Liverpool and Salford community court options allow local people to be involved in deciding some community pay-back schemes, which are effectively restorative justice, whereby individual offenders look at the impact of their offences and how they can support the local community. I will look into the Thames Valley scheme that he mentions, and follow up with a letter to him in due course.

As a long-term supporter of community sentencing, may I suggest to the Minister, in direct answer to the question on the Order Paper, that if he wishes to increase the effectiveness of community sentencing and popular support for it, the National Offender Management Service—NOMS, or the national offender management scandal—should be dead and buried, and we should go back to resourcing and training probation officers properly, thereby doing exactly what the question asks.

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The National Offender Management Service tries to match offenders through the system, from pre-sentence report, through sentencing, custody or community sentence, and onwards into probation and supervision afterwards, with the sole intention of preventing reoffending. However, I agree that community sentences can provide a better form of prevention of reoffending than can short custodial sentences. They are not appropriate for everybody, but they are a positive means of bringing offenders face to face with the consequences of their action and providing a way in which they can be punished and rehabilitated without some of the difficulties that a short prison sentence brings.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the particularly difficult situation for the families of women offenders in Wales who do not receive community sentences but are imprisoned, because there is no women’s prison in Wales. In the Government’s response to the Corston report, will he consider particularly the situation in Wales and the need for a special unit there to deal with women offenders?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in such matters. She will know that I intend to respond to the Corston report shortly, before Christmas. That response will consider a range of issues. She will also know that the Welsh Affairs Committee has produced a report recommending consideration of custodial facilities in Wales—particularly north Wales, because of the difficulties faced by women who, in almost all circumstances, have to travel out of Wales for custodial sentences. I am currently assessing both reports. I have said that I want to investigate potential alternative facilities for women in Wales and elsewhere—a theme that arises throughout the Corston report. I shall certainly keep my hon. Friend informed of progress on those matters.

The Minister knows that we strongly support effective community sentencing. May I draw his attention to the multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—figures released this week? They show that one in 10 of those under supervision commit a breach of their licence within a year. Last year 83 committed a further serious offence—murder, violent assault or rape—within 12 months of release. Does that not show not only that prison is failing to rehabilitate or deter those offenders, but that supervision needs greater resources to ensure public safety?

I accept that the figures produced this week have caused difficulties concerning some individuals who have committed further crime. I want to take all possible steps to ensure that the public are protected when individuals are released on licence. Given the number of offenders going through both community sentences and prisons, there will always be the likelihood of some reoffending by some individuals.

We have to put in place proper supervision, and I believe that the probation service is doing that. However, I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s points. He has my assurance that the top priorities for the Government team are public protection, prevention of reoffending and stopping serious crime being committed by people on licence.

British Statement of Values

The process for developing a British statement of values will involve local, regional and national events, and opportunities for the public to deliberate and debate, using a wide range of mechanisms.

I appreciate the value of the exercise as a way of crystallising some of the issues that have been debated concerning Britishness and citizenship for the best part of a decade. However, how will the Minister ensure that once the statement of values is agreed, it will achieve some purpose and be disseminated to the wider British public, rather than just being an intellectual exercise?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is not just the formulation of the statement that matters, but what it will be used for. That will be for the British people themselves to decide. They are going to deliberate and debate, and in the final stage of the process—a citizens summit—they will decide not only what the statement should be, but what it should be used for, subject to the views of Parliament.

Does the Minister agree that with any statement of British values, it would be absolutely fundamental that communities across all regions of the United Kingdom would embrace and cherish that sense of Britishness—and it would actually mean something?

I completely agree; it is vital that the process be inclusive and involve every part of the United Kingdom. We are making great efforts to ensure that the process of deliberation and debate reflects that.

Is not fair play a quintessentially British value? How can the Minister justify the introduction by the Ministry of Justice of regional pay banding, in which people doing exactly the same job in adjacent towns are paid different rates?

I pay tribute to the ingenuity of my hon. Friend’s question. Of course he is right; most people would agree that fair play is an important British value. However, I am not sure how he is arguing that the system to which he alluded transgresses that fundamental principle.

Will the Minister please translate his first answer into plain English? Will he tell us how much all this gobbledegook is costing, and precisely what the nonsense of a citizens summit is supposed to mean?

I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who has a distinguished history of democratic participation, sees so little value in the process on which we are embarked. We very much hope that all Members of this House will take part in that process. I would have hoped that he would want to look for a statement that can bind this country together at a time of rapid change. Unfortunately, I think that he wants to make a political point, and I am sorry about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about how much this is costing. We are still working out the process, so we do not have a specific figure to give him, but he can be assured that we will look for value for money. I shall be happy to write to him in due course when we have a figure.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the strengths of the UK is that we are made up of many cultures and many nations, and that central to any British statement of values should be a recognition and endorsement of the multicultural and multinational nature of our society and our country?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. It is precisely because we are now a very various and diverse nation undergoing huge changes that we believe it is important to embark on this process of trying to find what binds us together. As I said, we want the process to be inclusive and we want all Members of this House to participate in it; I very much hope that they will do so.

As part of the citizens summit, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the contents of my private Member’s Bill about burglary—the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill—particularly in relation to ensuring that having a go, and the right to defend oneself and one’s property, family and possessions against burglaries will form part of the British statement of values?

My right hon. Friend is nodding vigorously, and I think that the hon. Lady can take that as assent.

Sentencing Policy

A major review conducted by Lord Carter of Coles is currently considering sentencing policy as part of the wider examination of prison and probation services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response; the review will be very welcome. We have already had a serious debate in this Chamber about the need for non-custodial sentences for those who do not pose a major danger to the public. Does he accept, nevertheless, that there is public disquiet about those who pose a serious threat to the public—those who have been found guilty of crimes involving great violence or unreasonable cruelty—but whose sentencing does not always seem to reflect what the public would see as the need for salutary deterrent sentences? Can he refer that to the review body?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the need to ensure that the committing of a serious sexual or violent offence is properly punished. Whether in respect of the review of indeterminate sentences for public protection or in other ways, we have no intention of seeing any cuts in sentences for rape. He may also wish to know that between 1996 and 2004 the average sentence for rape increased from six and a half years to seven years, and that the minimum recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in any circumstances is four years.

In considering any proposals for changing sentencing policy, will the Minister ensure that the lack of capacity in the prison estate does not influence the length of sentences given and the proportion of those sentences which are served?

Any prison system has to take account of total capacity. We have increased capacity by 20,000 places over the past 10 years—twice as fast as the rate under the previous Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, with 2,000 places a year compared with 1,000 places previously. We have already announced plans for an additional 9,500 places over forthcoming years. In his review, which will of course be published first to this House, Lord Carter of Coles is considering what further capacity is needed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges of sentencing policy is to educate the public about the sentences passed by our courts? In discussions with my constituents, it is clear that there is an under-appreciation of the length and nature of sentences. Will he take every opportunity to inform the public better about sentences that are actually passed?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons has pointed out, we have greatly toughened up the effectiveness of community sentences, particularly for prisoners who might otherwise be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. A point frequently made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is that community sentences are often more effective. I would also point out that over the last 10 years, a major effort by the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and local authorities throughout the country has ensured that crime has come down. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that there has been a 40 per cent. drop in crime since 1995, with even bigger drops in burglary and vehicle crime.

Political Party Funding

5. What recent consideration he has given to proposals to limit funding to local parties between electoral periods. (160187)

This is one of the issues currently being considered in the inter-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Government very much hope that a consensus can be reached between the parties to restore public confidence by tackling the spending arms race.

An opinion poll commissioned earlier this year by Unlock Democracy showed that 76 per cent. of the public support cross-party talks on party funding. Would the Secretary of State agree that it would be a grave error of judgment if one political party were to withdraw from the commitment on party funding for reasons of petty political advantage?

I would, and I hope that no party withdraws from the talks. The last time we reviewed the issue of party funding was in 2000, and I led those discussions. We were able to reach all-party agreement. The problem, however, was that Lord Neill recommended a tightening of expenditure limits in his report in 1998, and we all thought that that was agreed. However, it has not turned out to be the case, and as Sir Hayden Phillips made clear in his report in May, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sought to control the level of spending but has proved inadequate to the challenge. The changes in respect of local spending have had the consequence—entirely unanticipated by all parties—of leading to more lax controls on local spending rather than the reverse, which was what all parties at the time intended.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to plug this local loophole before politics descends into a mercenary battle to see who can raise the most money? There is an urgent need for a Bill in the Queen’s Speech to extend the current limits on national campaign expenditure to local parties and candidates.

I remain hopeful about that. I draw to the attention of the House, and of my hon. Friend, the fact that when we discussed this issue on 15 March 2007, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), on behalf of the official Opposition, said:

“we are happy to discuss spending caps on all year round non-election campaigning”,

as well as other controls. I hope that that is still the position of the official Opposition.

Most people will be astonished by the front of Labour Ministers, such as the Government Chief Whip, who call for controls on party donations but want to exempt unions from those controls. We have called for a comprehensive cap on all donations so that individuals, companies and trade unions are treated equally. Is it not obvious why the Government have rejected this? They do not want to give up the £17 million of funding they received from the unions last year. In exercising his responsibility for policy on party funding, will the Lord Chancellor be acting in the interests of the public or the interests of his party?

I am tempted to descend to the level that the Conservatives have now reached on this issue. However, I live in hope that the constructive, consensual approach that they were taking under the Leader of the Opposition only a few months ago will continue. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not been party to the all-party talks. Those of us who have know well that each party has had to accept significant compromises to reach a consensus. That remains my hope and desire, but it can be achieved only if the spirit in which we entered into the talks, and which continued until July, goes on. I greatly regret that, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Conservatives cancelled the next meeting of those all-party talks, which was due on the 3 September, and that they have had the most extraordinary difficulty in finding a date to suit them since then.

The Lord Chancellor conspicuously failed to answer the question. There is no possibility of achieving consensus while union barons control affiliation fees. By not counting £8 million of donations, he drives a coach and horses through the principle of capping donations. Is it not clear from his answer that the Government have not the slightest interest in securing a level playing field for party funding? Is it not also clear that their only interest in the conduct of elections is exactly what the Electoral Commission’s report described yesterday—partisan interest above the public interest?

I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Before he starts examining the mote in our eye, he should look at the beam in his own. He totally misunderstands the way in which individual union members have a choice—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] They have two choices. First, under Conservative legislation, they vote in ballots at least every 10 years—[Laughter.] I do not know why Conservative Members are mocking—I am taking about their legislation. Secondly, unions can make a voluntary decision about whether to pay the political levy or opt out of it.

Only one party has ever sought to act in a partisan way on party funding—the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We sought to act on a consensual basis in 2000, and we achieved that consensus with the Conservative party and with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that we can reach it again.

Is it not clear that the official Opposition are so hooked on their regular injection of funds from the gentleman in the other place that they are not interested in consensus, and that to satisfy the public that democracy is not being bought, we will have to introduce legislation in the next Session?

It was understood by the Conservative party when it entered into talks—it may have forgotten about it since then—that the fundamental problem with the regulation of party funding at election time and between elections is the need to control total spending. I hope that nobody in the House, or any British political party, supports uncontrolled spending reaching the levels that we see in some other countries, including the United States.

Let me repeat the point that I made a few moments ago. When the House implemented the Neill committee report on a consensual basis, it was agreed that party funding at elections between the two main parties would total £40 million. As Sir Hayden Phillips’ report makes clear, spending at the last election was £95 million. It is not in anybody’s interest for that “arms race” to continue. I therefore greatly hope that the Leader of the Opposition will instruct his representatives on the Hayden Phillips working party to revert to the constructive approach that the Opposition had until the summer.

Devolution

6. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. (160188)

I have had no formal discussions with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution has strengthened the Union between Scotland and England. We are happy to engage in constructive dialogue with those who support the current settlement.

Given that the Labour party in Scotland now favours further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, will the Minister accept that that includes an allocation of taxes raised in Scotland to fund services in Scotland? Is it not also time that the Government recognised that they need to address the English dimension and move towards consultation for a full federal constitution for the United Kingdom?

I certainly do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s last remark. I do not believe that having separate votes on England is a sensible policy. The Union is made stronger by us all being together. As for the issue in Scotland that he raised, I do not believe that there is consensus on that matter either

What the Minister has just said is simply wrong. How can the Government continue to ignore the effect that the devolution settlement has on the House of Commons? The West Lothian question will not go away. That great Labour parliamentarian Tam Dalyell was right to ask it 30 years ago, and we will continue to ask it. When will the Government take steps to strengthen the Union by ensuring that Members of Parliament who represent English constituencies have a decisive say when we make laws for England?

The hon. Lady cites Tam Dalyell. Let me put it to her in this way:

“This proposal risks creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion. Either you are a member of parliament or you are not. If you go ahead with this, you will have 100 MPs—including those from Wales and Northern Ireland—who are second-class legislators.”

That was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked

Engagements

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

The whole House will have been shocked and saddened by the tragic drowning in the Algarve of my constituents Bob and Debby Fry, and of Jean Dinsmore. Luckily, their home town of Wootton Bassett has a powerful sense of community, and I know that people there will rally round in every way and offer the children every possible support. In offering his sympathy, will the Prime Minister also be ready to offer every practical help and support to the children in Portugal now and, perhaps more importantly, when they return home, to help to address the problems that they will face then?

The whole House—indeed, the whole country—will join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of Mr. and Mrs. Fry and Mrs. Dinsmore, who died in such tragic circumstances. Our first thoughts—indeed, our heartfelt thoughts—are with the children of those who died. I can tell the House that the consular services in Portugal are giving every support already to family and friends. At the same time, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We will do everything that we can to support the children on their return to this country.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could help me with a little problem that I have been wrestling with. [Interruption.] If the Government were to abolish public service targets, how would we know how well they are doing?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of the targets that we have set, cancer is down 17 per cent. in this country and there has been a huge cut in cardiovascular disease. Targets have enabled us to move to our 18-week target, which we shall reach during the course of the next year, made it possible for there to be 1.5 million more admissions to hospitals and made it possible for us to be able to give people the most modern treatment, with the most modern equipment. I fear that if there is a black hole in different parties’ finances, that would enable them to cut spending on the health service when it needs to be increased.

There is nothing more important for our future than raising school standards through real school reform. An important part of that reform involves being prepared to give schools real freedom and autonomy, including over their budgets. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would fly in the face of such autonomy to punish schools that budget carefully? Will he explain why his Government are pressing ahead with a plan to confiscate 5 per cent. of the surpluses from good schools that have planned carefully?

There is £1.7 billion of surpluses in our schools at the moment. Many schools have planned to use those surpluses and will be enabled to do so. We are consulting on how we can best use those surpluses for the benefit of children’s education, and the Secretary of State for Children will report back in the next week. We are determined that that money should go to the pupils, and to their parents, to improve their education.

But why does the Prime Minister think that he knows best how to spend that money, rather than the head teachers? This is a serious issue for schools up and down the country. Let me quote some head teachers. They say that it is “unjust”, and “an ill-conceived idea”. One says that it “undermines” governors’ authority, while another says that it “destroys the trust” between schools and the Government. Why does the Prime Minister think that those head teachers are wrong and that he is right?

I do not think that they are wrong. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to what I am saying—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Sometimes it is better if he does his research. I am saying that there is £1.7 billion in surpluses, that we are consulting on how we can use them to the best effect for pupils and teachers, and that the consultation will come out in the next week. The only reason that there are surpluses in schools is because of the payments that we make directly to those schools, and the only reason that there is extra investment in education is that we made a decision to raise the amount of money spent per pupil in our schools. If the Conservatives persist with their policy of taking £6 billion out of the public services, it is our schools, our teachers and our pupils who will suffer.

Why does not the Prime Minister just scrap this consultation and let the schools keep their surpluses? Another head teacher has written that

“there is no single Government measure which I have found as depressing or potentially repressive”.

When is the right hon. Gentleman going to learn that real school reform means giving real autonomy, including over budgets? When is he going to give up his mania for state control and start trusting head teachers?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is not listening to what I say. The only reason that the schools have that money in their surpluses is because of the special payments that we have made, and because they have added to those special payments by their efforts. That means that £1.7 billion is now able to be used for pupils, parents and teachers. We want to see that money used to best effect. It is because we gave money to the schools and allowed them to spend it that it is possible for them to have that £1.7 billion. Our consultation will finish in the next few days and a decision will be announced.

Given that we are being asked to reduce our carbon footprint as part of energy saving week, has the Prime Minister had the chance to see the WWF report that came out yesterday, which ranks Newport as the joint No. 1 greenest city in the UK? Will he commend the residents of Newport and its Labour city council for their efforts to cut their carbon footprint?

I applaud Newport, and I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing to promote energy saving. I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday to talk about the measures that we can take in the future. A huge amount of effort is being made this week to persuade people to take the necessary steps to save energy, whether it involves boiling a kettle, putting things on standby or changing the electric bulbs that they use. I believe that the combination of personal responsibility, public investment in energy saving and the new energy policy that we are adopting will be the best way to secure our climate change agreements. We are also absolutely committed to the European 20 per cent. renewables target.

On that specific point, the Prime Minister’s predecessor made a very firm commitment to that 20 per cent. target for renewables by 2020. The Prime Minister’s own Ministers are now trying to renege on that commitment. Does not that suggest that Brown is less green than Blair?

To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased to see him back in his place this week. Given the turnover of Liberal Democrat leaders, it is great that he is still here. However, I think that I answered his question in my last reply.

We are committed to the targets agreed in the European Union. The European Union will now publish what it believes that each country is able to do, and we will engage in a consultation. However, I must tell both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives that that will lead to difficult decisions that they will have to make. First we have a feasibility study on the Severn barrage, secondly we wish to extend offshore wind turbines, and thirdly we wish to extend onshore wind turbines. I believe that the Conservative party has been totally opposed to something that is necessary to meet our renewables targets.

If the Government are fully committed to the 20 per cent. target for Britain, why did the Prime Minister’s own energy Minister go on television yesterday and say that he wanted it to be cut to 10 per cent., under pressure from the nuclear lobby? Does the Prime Minister not realise that if he rats on renewable power, not only will that damage the environment, but he will drag his own environmental reputation down to the level of that of his friend George Bush?

Perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman what has happened. Europe has agreed on a 20 per cent. renewables target, and each member state will be given a target that it is supposed to agree to and meet in order for the 20 per cent. target to be reached. That has not yet happened; when it happens, we will report back to the House.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what makes it possible for us to achieve our energy targets is the renewables obligation, which the Conservative party voted against when it came to the House, the climate change levy, which the Conservative party also voted against, and wind power. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting wind power and its development for the future through wind farms and turbines.

Given the increasingly belligerent noises from the White House, will my right hon. Friend give a clear commitment that if there were a United States or Israeli military attack on Iran he would not support it militarily, logistically or politically?

We pursue a diplomatic course of action. I believe that we will have to step up our sanctions over the next few weeks. I have already told other countries that we are prepared to lead the way to a third resolution of sanctions, and at the same time support tougher European Union sanctions. I will rule nothing out, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I believe that both the diplomatic route and the sanctions are having an effect and, if stepped up, can have an even bigger effect in the future.

Q2. Why should my constituents pay more tax so that the Prime Minister’s constituents pay no prescription charges? (160145)

The Welsh Assembly made a decision on prescription charges, and the Scottish Parliament made a decision. They make decisions within their own budgets, and their budgets are allocated under a formula agreed by both parties in this House over the past 30 years. No more money goes to Scotland or Wales as a result of their decisions on prescriptions. That is the Barnett formula that has been agreed by all parties over the years. [Interruption.] If the Conservative party wishes to change its policy it should tell us now, but its policy throughout has been to support this funding formula.

Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the eradication of child poverty? Does he agree that for many people the best path out of poverty is through work, and that if the welfare to work green paper proposals are to be implemented there is an urgent need to expand the supply of affordable, reliable out-of-school provision, particularly for children aged between 11 and 14? There is currently less than one place for every 10 children in that age group. Will my right hon. Friend talk to his colleagues on an urgent basis to ensure that the service is expanded?

My hon. Friend has been a campaigner for child care over the years. I visited a Sure Start centre in her constituency only a few months ago.

The children’s plan will outline what is necessary to expand both child care and education in future years. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the expansion of opportunities for work is the best means by which we can relieve people of poverty. That is why, in providing British jobs for British workers—[Interruption.] Oh yes. That is why, in providing British jobs for British workers, we have been determined to sign agreements with 110 companies, and will sign agreements with 300 in future. Those agreements are designed to provide 300,000 new jobs, and that is one way in which we can get unemployed workers in Britain into the 600,000 vacancies that exist in the economy.

We have created jobs, we will create more jobs in the future, and we will honour our promises to the unemployed.

The independent report on the Scottish elections was published yesterday. It found that the Labour Government put party interest before voters’ interests in conducting those elections. Will the Prime Minister now offer his own personal apology for the unacceptable conduct of Ministers?

I do not accept that at all. What the Gould report said was that some decisions about the elections could have been better made. [Interruption.]

These decisions were supported by the Conservative party. The Conservative spokesman on Scottish affairs, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), said:

“I accept that the Scottish Conservatives acceded to a single Scottish Parliament ballot paper”—[Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 26.]

That was the first decision that was made. The Gould report does not put the blame on any individual or any institution. What it says is that all political parties must take their share of responsibility for what happened.

How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly deny that that report says that Ministers put political interests ahead of voters’ interests? I thought that politics was going to be different under this Prime Minister. [Interruption.] The report says that Ministers in the Scotland Office—[Interruption.]

Order. I asked for quietness on the Opposition Benches, and I also want quietness on the Government Benches. Once again, Mr. Austin, the best place—[Interruption.] Order. Let me deal with this. You said a lot, and the best thing for you to do is stay away from my Chair, because my hearing is bang-on.

That is another one of the Prime Minister’s cronies who will not behave properly. Let us just listen to what the report said. It said that Ministers in the Scotland Office

“frequently focused on partisan political interests, overlooking”

voter interests. In a democracy, that is a complete scandal.

The right hon. Member who was responsible for this fiasco as Secretary of State for Scotland is now the International Development Secretary and the Government’s election co-ordinator. How can he possibly go around the world lecturing other countries about probity in their elections?

Because the right hon. Gentleman is misleading people about the conclusions of the report. Let me actually—[Interruption.]

I will be temperate by quoting from the report itself:

“Throughout the review…we have had no intention of—and in fact have scrupulously sought to avoid—assigning blame to individuals and institutions or questioning the legitimacy”.

The Gould report conclusion refers to the good intentions of those involved in assembling and conducting the elections. He then says in the interviews he has done that

“‘Party self-interest’…is not necessarily related to one party”.

He does not assign blame to one party or one institution. What he is saying is that the political system must change, and that is why we have accepted his recommendations.

I do not know how the Prime Minister has the gall to accuse me of misleading anybody. He should take a look at page 17 of the report, which says that there

“was a notable level of party self interest evident in Ministerial decision-making”.

Is not the least we deserve that the Minister who took the decisions explains himself to the House of Commons and is stripped of his responsibility for elections? The Prime Minister promised us a new type of politics. He said that he would be more open and honest. He said that he would be frank about problems. He said that he would be candid about the dilemmas. That is what he said in his leadership speech of 100 days ago. After his performance today, does that not feel like 100 years ago?

They were agreed after a long process of consultation involving all the parties. I have just quoted the Scottish Conservative leader saying that he supported the single ballot paper, and let me quote Mr. Gould again. He says:

“I don’t think I would absolve any party”

and

“‘Party self-interest’ in this context is not necessarily related to one party.”

This was not a failure of one party or one institution; it was to do with decisions that we should have made together and with decisions that we have now made to change the system.

Whilst not wanting to be a killjoy on the question of fireworks, I do however think that further restrictions on their sale are necessary and that the existing self-regulation is not meaningful, given their wanton use or misuse by certain elements in our society. Does not my right hon. Friend believe that it is time to revisit that legislation and to ban the sale of fireworks to the public?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue at this time of the year. The first thing to be said is that we have already made changes in the legislation governing fireworks; secondly, we will continue to keep it under review; thirdly, all Members of this House should send a message out that we expect people to exercise the use of fireworks with care and caution.

Q3. Last night, BBC1 featured an extraordinarily talented 16-year-old constituent of mine, Henry Perkins, who is one of only two British boys in the 230-year history of Moscow’s Bolshoi ballet school to have secured a place there. Is the Prime Minister aware that Henry’s mother, Sue, has been denied regular child benefit? Is this not a shameful way to treat a real-life Billy Elliot, at a time when migrant workers in this country are able to claim, in thousands of cases, child benefit for children who have never set foot on these shores? (160146)

Let me first applaud Henry’s achievement, and let us all wish him well in his future career in ballet. I cannot know the direct information about the individual case relating to child benefit. I shall look into it and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government’s target is that carbon dioxide emissions from this country should be reduced by at least 60 per cent. by 2050. Does my right hon. Friend accept that a growing body of informed scientific opinion suggests that this target is perhaps insufficiently ambitious, and will he agree to review this matter in the context of the climate change Bill?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a huge interest in environmental matters. I have already said that I believe that this target may not itself be ambitious enough for our future energy needs in relation to achieving our climate change goals. I can assure him that, as part of the work that we will do, the climate change Committee will have the power to review that target.

Q4. This afternoon, I am meeting Mrs. Phyllis Webb and a delegation from the Braintree pensioners action group to discuss the Government’s failure to deliver on a promise to build a community hospital in Braintree. Would the Prime Minister care to join us at that meeting? (160147)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making me aware of his programme of events for the rest of the day. I understand the frustrations of people in local areas when they want facilities. I shall certainly look at what he says to me on this matter, but I think that he will agree that if we are to spend more on community hospitals and more on hospitals generally, we will need to fund the health service properly. He should agree with us on the funding of the NHS.

Q5. May I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention the case of Gemma, a 19-year-old student nurse in Northampton who was referred by her GP for breast cancer screening last year, but who was put on a non-urgent list and so had to wait for a routine appointment—it was an agonising wait—to be given the all-clear? In this breast cancer awareness month, can my right hon. Friend assure Gemma and the many other women referred for breast cancer screening that they will all be seen—whether or not their case is judged urgent—within two weeks? (160148)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a long-standing interest in the development of better health care in this area. We are determined to go further on meeting better cancer waiting times, improving early detection rates and, therefore, on increasing the amount of screening done. It is important in this breast cancer awareness month to be able to say that we can do more in the future. I know that women who visit their GPs are not always referred urgently for investigation of suspected cancer, and that is why we are prepared to say now that all women with breast problems will have a guaranteed appointment with a specialist within two weeks of referral, not just those with suspected cancer. I hope that that goes some way to allay the fears that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Q6. I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in condemning the brutal murder of Paul Quinn at the weekend in County Monaghan. His predecessor gave a commitment that if any political party failed to uphold the rule of law and the democratic process in Northern Ireland, that party alone would be sanctioned, rather than all of the parties in the Assembly. In the light of the killing of Paul Quinn, will the Prime Minister now reiterate that commitment from the Government that only parties in default of their commitments will be sanctioned, and not everyone else in Northern Ireland? (160149)

And that is the position of the Government. This was a brutal and horrific crime. I have already talked to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland about this. I am sure that the sympathies of the whole House will go to the family. I echo the widespread condemnation of this atrocious event and the desire that those who carried it out should be brought to justice as quickly as possible. The Chief Constable has stated that there is an ongoing investigation. It obviously would be inappropriate to speculate on responsibility at this time, but I believe that the police on both sides of the border are doing everything in their power to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Q7. My right hon. Friend will be aware that some two years ago, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence restricted the use of Aricept and other drugs used in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That decision has been subject to a judicial review and has been upheld. However, NICE has never released the data modelling on which it based its decisions and still refuses to release that model for further scrutiny. Will my right hon. Friend use his influence to persuade the institute to release that data model, so that that decision can be checked? (160150)

I know that my hon. Friend has taken up this issue and has raised it in this House before. We established NICE so that it could make its decisions transparently, independently and free from political interference. I think that in the light of the current legal action relating to this, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the specifics of what he has said. However, I can say that the Department of Health is investing £20 million in a new national research network on neurological disease, which will expand the number and range of clinical trials on treatment. Alzheimer’s disease is one of those areas that will benefit, and I hope that he will join me in welcoming this new addition to the research.

Q8. More than 140,000 Scottish voters lost their franchise in the Scottish parliamentary elections in May because of the monumental bungling and clumsy attempts at gerrymandering of the Scotland Office. Is it not therefore time that a Scottish Parliament takes responsibility for Scottish elections? Will the Prime Minister do what the Scottish Secretary failed to do yesterday: offer an unconditional and unreserved apology to those who lost their vote? (160151)

We do regret the fact that people were not able to vote, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that his party also supported the system that was adopted. There was a consensus on what the system would be, so it is no good coming and saying now that somehow that party knows better that the system was wrong. His party supported the system at the time. As Mr. Gould has reported, all parties must take their share of the responsibility.

Will my right hon. Friend consider adopting the feed-in tariff system for renewable energy generation, which has been so much more successful in stimulating investment in renewable energy in other European countries, such as Germany? Given this country’s vast resources of renewable energy, does he agree that it should be taking the lead in meeting the European 20 per cent. target, rather than leaving it to other countries to do more?

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that we have led the way on climate change and will continue to lead the way. Yes, we will review the feed-in tariff proposal that she puts forward, but I must say that our decision to have a renewable obligation on the companies has been one that is yielding results and that will continue to yield results in the future. I do not hide from the House the difficult decisions that will have to be made about how we reach our targets on renewables. People will have to face up, as she has said, to the need to use wind turbines both on land and on sea.

Q9. The Health Secretary has made the welcome announcement that if local communities have concerns about a hospital reconfiguration, he will routinely allow an independent review. Frenchay hospital in my constituency is faced with the threat of closure and the local community and the local authority have asked for an independent review, so that it can be looked at in a balanced way. Will the Prime Minister allow us an independent review? (160152)

The hon. Gentleman’s hospital issue predates the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Health. However, when an appeal is made to the Secretary of State it is looked at on medical grounds. There are medics who look at the specifics of any appeal that is made. If that appeal comes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be looked at by the medical experts.

My right hon. Friend will recall the misery that resulted from the collapse of the Independent Insurance company a few years ago. Will he welcome the conviction yesterday of Michael Bright and Dennis Lomas in that case, and will he assure the House that the failure of reserving that took place in that company could not happen again in the market today?

The Financial Services Authority looked into the matter, as I recall. It has to satisfy itself, as it is the insurance regulator, that insurance companies have sufficient reserves. If my hon. Friend has any further evidence to bring to me, I will ensure that the FSA looks at it.

Q10. Last week, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to me with his estimate of the losses suffered by farming and rural businesses because of the foot and mouth outbreak. His best guess was £100 million, but that differs sharply from the figure that emerged from a meeting in my constituency last night, which suggested that the sheep industry alone would lose £520 million. The outbreak is fundamentally different from previous outbreaks. The Government are responsible for this outbreak because they licensed the premises— (160153)

We have set aside additional money to help farmers. We have also reduced the amount of regulation that farmers have to undertake. We have also slowed down the demands from the Inland Revenue for taxation from farmers. We have done what we can, in consultation with the National Farmers Union, to help farmers. I realise that this is a difficult time, especially for sheep farmers and hill farmers, but we will do everything in our power to help them..

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be unacceptable for rapists to be released from our prisons because of a capacity issue? Will he look at releasing and deporting foreign prisoners first, and also ensure that we build more prison places to achieve fairness and justice for the victims? (160154)

I can assure my hon. Friend that this matter comes under the Parole Board and it will not release rapists who are in any way likely to harm the community. We are building more prison places and we are continuing the prison building programme at a faster rate than before. This year, we will deport 4,000 foreign national prisoners. Two years ago it was only 1,500 and last year it was only 2,500. We will deport 4,000 foreign national prisoners and we will do more, by signing agreements with countries such as Jamaica, which has 1,400 nationals in British cells; Nigeria, which has more than 1,000 nationals in British cells; and Vietnam and China, which have 400 and 300 nationals in British cells. We will sign agreements with those countries so that we can return prisoners from our cells as expeditiously as possible. We will increase the number of foreign national prisoners who are deported from our country.