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Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

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”


“‘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.