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Volume 467: debated on Wednesday 14 November 2007

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Jake Alderton of 36 Engineer Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last Friday. He died in a tragic accident doing vital work in the service of our country, and we owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

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

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s expressions of condolence.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, resulting from the closure of the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, is the most pressing concern to be addressed at the forthcoming conference at Annapolis? Will he make that the UK’s first priority, and will he press the US Government to do the same?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a long-term interest in those matters. The 22 November meetings in Annapolis will be a unique opportunity to move forward the middle east peace process, and to bring together the possibilities for a viable Palestinian state with a safe and secure Israel. I hope that out of those meetings—and we will press for it—under the leadership of President Bush and with 22 Arab states involved, we will find a framework document that can be moved forward over the next year with a view to settling all the outstanding issues.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Gaza—let us not forget the west bank also—and if we can see tangible progress on security, the UK would be prepared to put a $500 million package of aid into the area, so that economic reconstruction can take place. We will call on the rest of the European Union and the US to join us in making it possible to show that prosperity can result from abandoning the violence of the past.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and everyone involved in Glasgow’s successful bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth games. Does he agree that that will regenerate the east end of Glasgow in the same way as the 2012 Olympics will regenerate the east end of London? Will he therefore liaise with Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive to ensure that that much needed regeneration does indeed take place?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has also been a prime mover in bringing the Commonwealth games to Glasgow. I also congratulate Glasgow city council, the Scottish Administration and all those who have played a part in securing the Commonwealth games for Glasgow. We now look forward to what I believe could be the best sporting decade in our country’s history. We have the Olympics in 2012 and the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014; I would like to see the rugby world cup coming to Britain in 2015, and England will bid for the 2018 World cup. It will be a great sporting decade, and I believe that everybody in our country will wish those proposals well.

I join the Prime Minister in congratulating Glasgow on winning the Commonwealth games. They will be a great success for our whole country. I also join him in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jake Alderton, who died in Afghanistan on Friday. Our troops there are doing vital work and we all support them.

Four months ago, the Home Secretary was told that thousands of illegal migrant workers had been given clearance to work in sensitive security posts. Why were the public not told?

Because the Home Secretary acted immediately. What she did was to put in place the security checks that mean that all new security workers are checked, and that all existing workers are going through checks. The checks will be completed by the end of the year. The Security Industry Authority wrote to employers in the middle of August to tell them that we were stepping up our checks. The checks are moving forward, and the likelihood is that they will be finished by the end of the year. Instead of just talking, she acted.

I did not ask about what the Government did; I asked about what the Home Secretary said. The Prime Minister’s explanation is simply not good enough. People were not told because that would have been politically embarrassing, as the e-mails make clear. The Home Secretary was told that

“any announcement about illegal migrant workers…would not be presented…as a positive story.”

Her private secretary said that the Home Secretary did not think that

“the lines to take…are good enough for Press Office or Ministers to use to explain the situation.”

That is why the public were not told. Have not the Government been caught red-handed putting spin before public safety?

It is what we did that matters. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman says that it does not matter what we did. What we did is important to the security of this country. It is for employers, first of all, to check whether they are employing people who are in this country illegally. That is the first responsibility. The SIA is now able to do checks of existing workers, as well as new ones. I think that the House should know that when the Bill setting up the SIA was being discussed in the House of Commons, the Conservative spokesman said:

“The Opposition’s approach to the Bill is that it should not place unnecessary, overly complex, bureaucratic or burdensome regulations”.—[Official Report, 28 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 980.]

The regulations were necessary to protect the security of our country.

That is such a contrast with what the Prime Minister told us in May, when he said that he would be “frank about problems” and “candid about dilemmas”. He has been neither. A simple question: will the Prime Minister say when he was told about the problem? When?

The Home Secretary has been dealing with it throughout the summer—[Interruption.] It is an operational question, and I am sorry—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition puts so much onus on press releases. What matters is getting things done. We checked 6,000—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has been quiet for a while, but he must stay quiet now.

We have checked existing workers as well as new ones. That process will be completed by the end of the year. The matter was the operational responsibility of the Home Secretary, and she took the right action.

Why will the Prime Minister not answer the simplest of questions? If he did not know, that is serious—but it is not the end of the world. However, does he not understand that if he does not answer a question like this, people simply will not trust him? So let me ask him again: when was he told about the problem?

The arrangements for checking— [Hon. Members: “Answer!”] The arrangements for checking had been announced to the House of Commons some months ago. The question was what happened when we tightened the regulations: that was the operational responsibility of the Home Secretary, and she took the action that was necessary. I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition thinks everything should go through No. 10; the Home Office was responsible, and it took action.

Why does the Prime Minister not want to know about a major security lapse in our country? He promised us a new type of politics. He said that he would be open, he would be honest, he would be frank and he would be candid—yet today he will not answer the simplest of questions. Should not people conclude that everything he said about openness, candour and honesty was just spin?

The key issue is what is actually done, and we took action immediately in July, August, September and October. It is for that reason that the Home Secretary was able to report yesterday that the checks on existing workers will be completed by the end of the year. We did our duty—not press releases, but action.

Yesterday, the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and I hosted the parliamentary launch of the “honour the brave” campaign, along with Pearl Thrumble and Helen Gray, two mothers who have lost sons in Afghanistan. The aim of the campaign is to secure a medal for men and women who die or are injured in combat, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to use his good offices to try to ensure that the medal is awarded to those brave men and women, whose courageous families are also supporting their efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan and Iraq?

I join my hon. Friend in passing my condolences to the brave relatives of Private John Thrumble and Private Chris Gray who were both killed in Afghanistan in 2007. The whole House will honour all those who have given their lives in Afghanistan and those in Iraq who have laid down their lives for their country. On the question of whether a new medal is struck for those who have been killed or injured, it is first a matter for the military authorities to make a recommendation. The matter is being looked at with intensity in the Ministry of Defence. We look forward to hearing the recommendations that are made, and we will of course support them. I believe that the whole country wishes to honour people who have given their lives or who have been injured in the service of our country.

May I add my condolences to the family of Jake Alderton?

This morning, the Chancellor wrote to me about Northern Rock and the Government’s commitment to minimising the cost to the public purse. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government have now lent £24 billion of taxpayers’ money to that small mortgage bank—twice the amount of public expenditure on primary schools every year, and four times the aid budget?

First of all, we are guaranteeing the deposits of savers—that is well understood—and we are bringing forward legislation in the House. That is absolutely the right thing to do, to move from the situation in 1982, when we guaranteed only 90 per cent. up to a certain amount, to guaranteeing 100 per cent. up to the amount that will be specified when the legislation is introduced. As far as Northern Rock is concerned, matters about what is actually happening within the company are obviously of commercial confidence. I gather that the stories in the newspapers this morning are about papers unrelated to the Treasury, the Bank of England or the Financial Services Authority, and only to Northern Rock itself. I cannot comment on those confidential papers.

The arguments about commercial confidentiality are absolutely bogus. Why should the taxpayer have rights inferior to those of the managers, directors and shareholders of the company? If the Prime Minister cannot tell me how much money has been lent, can he give the House an assurance that the loan will be paid back in full, with interest, in the lifetime of this Parliament?

I think the hon. Gentleman—to be fair—knows exactly what the situation is. Secured lending is being given in relation to Northern Rock, guaranteed against Northern Rock assets. However, that is a matter about the future of Northern Rock, and it would not be in the best interests of Northern Rock or its investors to speculate on possible buyers and other possible interest in the company. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that such information should at the moment remain commercially confidential.

Q2. May I add my sympathies to those of my right hon. Friend for my constituent Jake Alderton, who died in Afghanistan last week? I met the family this morning, and they are extremely proud of the work that Jake was doing. He was a credit to his family, to his regiment and to the country.May I also ask my right hon. Friend about youth unemployment? There are 810 young people in my constituency who are not in education, employment or training. Does he agree that that is an absolute disgrace? Will he reflect on how much that figure might be added to if it were not for education maintenance allowances? Does he further agree that, rather than suggesting that we might abolish that allowance, it is incumbent on every Member to ensure that we do everything possible to ensure that every 16-year-old is in education, employment or training and does not leave school for a lifetime of idleness and unemployment? (163657)

I agree with my hon. Friend. In addition to the major reforms that are bringing about more academies, more specialist schools and more trust schools, and the reform of the curriculum with the new standards and qualification authority, we are extending education maintenance allowances to enable more young people to stay on at school. We are raising the education leaving age to 18, as a result of the legislation that we are bringing before the House of Commons, for part-time and/or full-time training. At the same time, we are introducing diplomas that will have the status, we believe, to enable universities and businesses to back them. When Governments in the 1940s introduced the major education reforms—such as the 1944 Act—there was all-party consensus on them. I hope that even at this stage the Conservatives will reconsider their position, not only on education maintenance allowances and the new deal for young people, but on raising the education leaving age to 18. I hope that they will not a fall into the trap that they fell into on grammar schools. We want education for all, not educational opportunity just for a few.

The Prime Minister will be aware that today is world diabetes day. Will he commit the Government to fulfilling the objectives of the UN resolution on diabetes passed last year, which commits itself to the prevention of that appalling condition, and to treating those who suffer from it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of research into diabetes. Over the next 10 years we will be spending £15 billion on medical research. One of the areas where research is most needed is in looking for both a cure and for better treatments of diabetes. We will support all the efforts of the voluntary organisations and the charitable groups that are looking to do more to cure that disease. I believe that over the next few years we can make enormous strides forward, and I hope that both the charitable world and Governments can do so together.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree that the British Government would be left isolated and without any credibility at all if, after ratifying a treaty on Europe that had the support of this House and another place, they then ignored the authority of Parliament and called for a referendum to renege on that treaty? (163658)

If Parliament ratified the European amending treaty and then other people decided that there should be a post-ratification referendum, that is the equivalent of renegotiating our membership of the European Union. I thought that Conservative Members—I know that 49 have signed a motion saying that there should be a post-referendum ratification—will look at the damage that that will do to business, to industry and to jobs in this country. They have found a new way of creating economic instability in our country, and I hope that the leadership of the Conservative party will desist from it.

Q4. Given the rising price of food and the impact that that is having on hard-pressed families and hard-pressed farmers, what is the Prime Minister intending to do to secure a steady supply of food for this country, at reasonable prices, but with a stable income for our farmers? (163659)

The first thing that I can say to the hon. Lady is that I met the National Farmers Union on Monday, and I will keep in regular contact with it. We cannot but be impressed by the resilience shown particularly by sheep farmers in the light of the difficulties that they have had to face, as a result of foot and mouth and other diseases. As for inflation and the effect on food prices, let me just say that it is only by running a stable and strong economy that we will keep inflation low and ensure that people’s living standards can rise—and that demands that we continue to pursue the policies that have given us stability and growth over 10 years.

Further to the Leader of the Opposition’s comments about honesty and transparency, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he thinks that it would be morally right or legally possible for a political party in this country to be funded by a person who was not a resident of the United Kingdom?

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that his predecessor spent considerable effort trying to have Hammersmith resident Hani Youssef extradited to Egypt. Mr. Youssef appears on the United Nations list of those associated with, or belonging to, the al-Qaeda organisation. Can the Prime Minister tell us why the Home Office is considering Mr. Youssef’s indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom? (163660)

Is the Prime Minister satisfied with our controls on the circulation of hate material in our schools, now that a copy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has been found in the King Fahad academy in London, after Ofsted gave that academy a clean bill of health?

When I make my statement in a few minutes, I will come to an issue about propaganda of an extreme nature, designed to inflame tensions within communities, being circulated in schools. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is proposing that a group of head teachers should be brought together to look at what we can do in those circumstances, and report back about how the circulation of this unfortunate material can be removed.

Q6. In England in 2006, 4,160 children under five were taken into care and more than 60 per cent. of them—2,490—were adopted. However, in Scotland 574 left care and 373, roughly 64 per cent., went home to their parents. Can the Prime Minister explain why in England children under five who leave care get adopted, while in Scotland they go home to their parents? (163661)

Social work legislation in the two countries is, of course, different. I shall look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has put before me. But as is known, we have made strenuous efforts to try to ensure that children in difficulty are given the proper upbringing, whether that is by returning to their parents or, where it is essential, by being fostered or adopted. I will continue to look at the matter, but the hon. Gentleman has to understand that social work practice in the two countries is different.

The Airbus factory in north Wales is the largest and most expansive factory in western Europe. In the past 10 years, Airbus has taken on 1,200 apprenticeships; it is the biggest apprentice trainer in the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that apprenticeships, along with opportunities in further education and schools and in the private and voluntary sectors, are the key to giving our 16-year-olds the best chance and start for adult life?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the growing numbers of apprentices in his constituency. Ten years ago there were only 60,000 apprentices in the country; now there are 250,000. Our aim is to raise that number to 500,000 over the next 12 years. That is the biggest expansion in educational training opportunity that the country has seen, and I hope that all parties will be prepared to support the diploma, the raising of the age to 18, the growth of apprenticeships, more young people getting to university, and, of course, the reform of the curriculum that we are bringing about. That is education reform that is genuinely giving educational opportunity to all.

Lord Malloch-Brown is a Minister of the Government, representing our country. With the experience that he brings from his previous role in the United Nations, he is helping in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is doing a great job for the Government.

On Monday this week, Ronald Castree was convicted of the murder of Lesley Molseed 32 years ago. That conviction was possible only because we have introduced a national database on DNA, which the Opposition parties voted against. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to Members of the House who have been talking tough on crime this week, but when it comes to voting in the House, do not back that talk up?

The use of DNA has increased convictions for rape by a very high number over recent years. I hope that all Members of the House will reflect on this new evidence, which shows that where we are able to bring people to justice as a result of the use of DNA, that justifies the legislation that we have brought before the House of Commons. I hope that we can gain all-party support for that in future.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in acknowledging the hard work of Bexley council, in partnership with Bexley police, in being tough on licensing issues in the borough? I know that he does not like answering questions, as we have already seen today in his responses to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, but will he recognise the detrimental effect that his Government’s Licensing Act 2003 is having on town centres in terms of antisocial behaviour, binge drinking and noise nuisance—and do something about it? (163663)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review of 24-hour licences is already under way. He may also want to know that I am meeting representatives of the retail industry over the next few days to talk about practices in relation to the selling and marketing of drink, particularly the dangers that befall teenagers as a result. I also want to meet representatives of the drinks industry to see what they are doing in relation to advertising and warning young people about the dangers of binge drinking. Yes, we will examine, as councils are examining, areas where young people congregate in numbers to drink, to see what can be done about that. I agree that we need to take action on this, and we are taking action.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that although 1992 will always be remembered for being the year of Black Wednesday, it was also the year of the Heseltine pit closure plan, which marked the end of every pit in the Derbyshire coalfield? Since that time, with a strong economy, we have already got 3,000 jobs on the colliery sites. Next year, with the opening of junction 29A, there will be another 5,000 jobs. We have dragged the area from the depths of Tory degradation and brought a new lease of life to the coalfields. That is what separates us from the Notting Hill mob. (163664)

Sometimes Conservative Members are in danger of forgetting that under their Government 3 million people were unemployed; they must not forget that under this Government we have reduced unemployment by 1 million, 300,000 single parents have found work, and we are reducing the numbers of people on incapacity benefit. We can do this only because we have stability and growth in the economy—something that never happened when the Leader of the Opposition was the economic adviser to the Conservative Government.

Q10. The Prime Minister may be aware of a recent cross-party inquiry and report that examined whether our servicemen were put in danger’s way when they were present at the British nuclear tests during the 1950s. Given that other countries have much better track records in recognising their duty of care to their veterans—including the US, which makes automatic compensation—will the Prime Minister meet me and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) to try to progress this matter for the benefit of these dignified and loyal veterans? (163665)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Of course I will meet him and his hon. Friend—[Interruption]—I mean my hon. Friend. The Government recognise and are grateful to all servicemen who participated in the nuclear testing programme. Their service ensured that Britain was protected during the cold war. I have to say that well-documented procedures were in place to ensure the safety of participating servicemen, and most ex-servicemen were found to have had little additional exposure. However, if there is any new information to be brought to bear, I shall be happy to look at it.