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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2008


The Secretary of State was asked—

Research Funding

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on funding for research for universities in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (177783)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to discuss a variety of issues affecting Wales, and Welsh universities have a vital role to play in meeting the challenges of the future, not only in increasing the knowledge economy of Wales, but in encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.

North East Wales institute in my constituency, which we all hope will shortly be a university, has a proud record of research, particularly in attracting private investment into research. Since 2001, it has raised £2.7 million for its polymer investment programme, 80 per cent. of which has come from the private sector—

I got the gist of it, Mr. Speaker; I am happy to reply. The North East Wales institute has been right at the forefront of research. It has received £120,000 from the research investment fund since 2004-05. In particular, its innovation centre has made remarkable progress through links with Rolls-Royce, Airbus UK, Siemens, Jaguar and DaimlerChrysler. My hon. Friend will continue to receive support from myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; there is no more powerful advocate for the North East Wales institute than my hon. Friend.

Despite the Minister’s professed support for research funding, is he aware of the potential cuts to the physics funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which will amount to 25 per cent. over three years, and the detrimental effect that that will have on such institutes in Aberystwyth? Will he continue his dialogue with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and his colleagues at the STFC in order to find us some alternative funding?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will always continue such discussions, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in the 2005-06 academic year, for the very first time, Welsh universities accounted for 11 per cent. of UK-wide income from collaborative research, outperforming six of the nine English regional development agency regions. Wales is doing very well in research, but it must do more, and we will continue to support Wales as it drives forward in the knowledge economy.

The Secretary of State has long been a champion of higher education in Wales, particularly with regard to its support of the knowledge economy. Does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agree that the forthcoming inquiry by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs into cross-border issues affords the Wales Office and the DIUS a unique opportunity to give evidence on how we can best address the question of the research funding deficit in Wales? In so doing, we can help to strengthen the link between technology transfer and research funding in order to advance the cause of the knowledge economy in Wales.

Indeed; my hon. Friend’s commitment to higher education and his background in HE in Wales are well known, and the Wales Office would welcome any opportunity to appear before the Welsh Affairs Committee to give evidence to that very important inquiry into the future of skills and knowledge in Wales. I know that he will welcome the recent substantial increase in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform science and innovation budget—an increase from £5.4 billion in 2007 to £6.3 billion in 2010-11. That is positive news for Welsh HE, delivered under a Labour Government.


Since the right hon. Gentleman took the position of Secretary of State for Wales in 2002, more than 23,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those who lost their jobs would not have been reassured to learn that when the Secretary of State should have been looking after their interests he had two jobs and was seeking another, the handling of which was described by the Prime Minister yesterday as incompetent. Given the Secretary of State’s growing lack of credibility and the mire that now surrounds him, would not the best prospect for new jobs in Wales be for him to quit his two jobs today?

Thanks for that supporting question. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a quote:

“Wales has got a huge amount going for it…Wales has got great universities, a vibrant business sector, a tradition of excellence in engineering and manufacturing.”

Those are not my words, but those of the Leader of the Opposition only last month.

Unemployment in Gower is now considerably less than half of what it was in 1997. However, at the beginning of this week, we learned from 3 Ms, a flagship manufacturer in Gower, that it is reviewing some operations in the Gorseinon factory. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the future of 3 Ms in Gorseinon?

I will be happy to do so. I remind my hon. Friend and everybody that Wales is a great place to do business at the moment. Only recently, the Royal Bank of Scotland found that manufacturing output continues to expand. The business climate is excellent. Wales is going from strength to strength, despite global uncertainty and financial instability. Everybody, including manufacturers, should come to Wales, because it is the best place to be.

Given that between June 1999 and June 2007 21 per cent. of manufacturing jobs were lost in Wales, does the Secretary of State agree that it is excellent news that Rigcycle Ltd has bought two quarries in Blaenau Ffestiniog and one in Penrhyn in Bethesda? Will he do all he can with his colleagues in the National Assembly to assist the company to expand even further? Does he agree that, Welsh slate, as a premier product, could do with more advertising worldwide?

I completely agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows better than anybody, the opportunity for Welsh slate is great. We should work together—I know that the Welsh Assembly Government will work with us—to advance the prospects of Welsh slate. I congratulate him on his work; we should ensure that the initiative in his constituency goes from strength to strength.

My right hon. Friend knows that General Dynamics in my constituency leads a £60 million defence research consortium with the Ministry of Defence, involving the universities of Cardiff, Cambridge and Imperial. What are the Government doing to ensure that the innovative ideas that come from that research benefit manufacturing industries in Wales?

My right hon. Friend will remember that I visited that factory with him. It is a fine example of manufacturing excellences in Wales, along with many others, such as the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company—EADS—which I visited, Airbus, the Metrix consortium and Visteon, with which I have worked. We will work closely with him and General Dynamics to see what opportunities there are. We will continue to invest in higher education and in skills and high technology to ensure that global companies such as General Dynamics continue to view Wales as an excellent base from which to operate.

When supporting manufacturing business in Wales, on what basis do Wales Office Ministers decide whether to give a personal endorsement to a manufacturing or other commercial operation in Wales, such as the Cuddy group? Does the Secretary of State have any regrets about the business endorsements that he has made as Secretary of State for Wales in the past two years?

I have absolutely no regrets—[Interruption.]—about the business endorsements that I have given in Wales. [Interruption.]

I was asked about the business endorsements in Wales that I gave as Secretary of State. I am proud to visit companies, whether manufacturers such as General Dynamics, construction companies such as Cuddy’s, or financial companies such as Picture Financial, which create more jobs. I have often accepted invitations from hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies. It is right that the Secretary of State for Wales gives his support to the growth and success of Welsh business.

Let me give the hon. Lady a quote:

“Most of the manufacturing capacity in sectors which are globally uncompetitive has already moved offshore, and the smaller manufacturing sector which remains in the UK is much better positioned to compete.”

The CBI Wales director, David Rosser, made that statement only a month ago, speaking from Wales.

In the light of the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm, will he arrange for the publication of all exchanges with the permanent secretary responsible for the Wales Office that relate to his dealings with businesses, especially those that he has endorsed, so that we can reassure manufacturing business that his Department is both competent and free of bias?

Let me say this to the hon. Lady: if she were doing my job, which she wants to do, I would perceive it as her duty to accept invitations from successful Welsh businesses—manufacturers and others—to give them support. Why is she attacking that?

She should applaud the statement that,

“the business sector in Wales seems to be going from strength to strength.”

It was made by Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, the director of the national entrepreneurship observatory for Wales and Conservative candidate for Clwyd, West in last year’s Assembly elections.

I compliment my right hon. Friend on his effective liaison with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government. What discussions has he had with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues about using the framework powers in the Education and Skills Bill to redress the gender imbalance and encourage more young women to take up apprenticeships and careers in manufacturing?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have had regular discussions—I with the First Minister and others with the Welsh Assembly Government—about the Bill. She is right: it is essential that we get more young women especially into apprenticeships. I remember visiting a training centre in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), where I had a discussion with a training official who was trying to persuade young girls to switch from hairdressing into plumbing, making it clear that it offered more opportunities for flexible working and greater wealth. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are decrying the opportunities for young women in Wales that this Labour Government are providing, when they should be supporting them.

Local Government Funding

3. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on financial allocations to local councils in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (177785)

Regular discussions take place with the First Minister on such matters. The Welsh Assembly Government have delivered, including in their announcement yesterday, a realistic settlement for local government that represents a fair deal for Wales.

Given that the Wales Office budget has doubled and that there are £40 million of reserves in the Welsh Assembly accounts, was it incompetence or intentional that the Secretary of State and the First Minister delivered a below-inflation settlement for the 22 Welsh councils, which means that front-line services the length and breadth of Wales will be at risk in the coming year?

I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to echo the sentiments of the individual who said:

“We are delighted that the many representations by the council’s elected members and others on its behalf have been recognised and responded to in this way.”

That was said by a spokesman for Powys county council yesterday. The Welsh Assembly will ensure that all councils receive an increase in funds of at least 2 per cent. An extra £4.7 million was announced yesterday by Finance Minister Andrew Davies, which will mean an average rise of 2.4 per cent. Councils such as Powys and Ynys Môn, which had been allocated 1 per cent., will benefit greatly. I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman might mention that.

My hon. Friend is right. I thank him and the Secretary of State, who has an excellent record on delivering for Ynys Môn and its people, for the flooring in the mechanism. It is important that that flooring continues over the comprehensive spending review period, as the Home Office has provided for police authorities in Wales, so that local authorities can plan year on year and deliver adequate services. Will the Wales Office liaise with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that that happens?

My hon. Friend has been one of the most powerful advocates in recent days and weeks on the issue, and I know that he will have welcomed yesterday’s announcement. We will continue to argue strongly for a fair deal for Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited my hon. Friend’s constituency, and so have I. Perhaps I could extend an invitation to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to visit Bridgend, which has one of the best settlements in Wales, but which is in the shameful position of having the lowest spending on primary schools in Wales. Will he please visit and explain to the Lib-Dem leadership there what it needs to do right?

The Minister will know that the funding formula is skewed against rural authorities in Wales, which is why Monmouthshire has had the highest council tax increase of any authority in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Will he do something about that—if in a short while he wields greater influence in the Wales Office than he does at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman fails to mention, as he once again launches into a diatribe against the Welsh Assembly and everything Welsh, that the last three financial years have seen the lowest council tax rises since the council tax was introduced in Wales. What a contrast with the Conservative years.

Despite the small improvements announced yesterday, many councils still face very tight financial settlements that are leading them to consider cuts in services or increases in council tax. What discussions has the Minister had with his Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh councils will be able to deliver on the equal pay agenda, so that women who have been disadvantaged for so long can now get equal pay for equal work? Or does he have some other funds for these progressive policies?

The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point, and I assure him that we raise these issues continually with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers and with the Welsh Local Government Association, whose representatives I met on Monday. There is a determination to deliver on equal pay, as there should be, and we will deliver it—I hope with cross-party support—because we have a Labour-led Administration with Plaid Cymru in Wales, and a Labour Government here.

The Minister will be aware that the Welsh block grant rose from £6.5 billion in 1997 to more than £14 billion this year. Yes, we need more money, but does he agree that the issue in Wales is how to get value for money from our local authorities? What discussions is he having with his Welsh Assembly colleagues to ensure that we get value for money in Wales?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct that we must not only deliver the investment in Wales, as the Labour Government are doing, but ensure that the right reforms and efficiencies are in place. In the Finance Minister’s statement yesterday, he made it clear that the extra investment will go hand in hand with efficiencies, reforms and delivery. I know that my hon. Friend will also welcome the announcement in this budget of in excess of £1.2 billion extra for health; a substantial increase in the number of apprenticeships, with an extra £25 million over the next three years; £6 million extra for alcohol and drug rehabilitation; and £120 million for affordable child care. Why are all those announcements significant? It is because they are being delivered under Labour.

Devolved Government

We are committed to giving the National Assembly for Wales new law-making powers through the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but does he accept that there has been no consultation among the people of Wales on the new powers for the Assembly? Why will he not allow the people of Wales to choose, in a referendum, whether they want the Assembly to have those powers?

Parliament is the proper source for granting extra powers and passing the legislation so to do. The powers that are now being exercised through Orders in Council and the framework powers being established in primary legislation are within the terms of the settlement endorsed by the people of Wales in a referendum in 1997, which the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly Government applied to the Wales Office for framework powers conferring legislative competence to be included in the Planning Bill. Six months later, the Bill has had its Second Reading and is now in Committee, yet the draft clauses relating to those powers have still not been produced. Will the Secretary of State please tell us whether that unacceptable delay is the product of deliberate policy, administrative oversight or simple incompetence?

As the hon. Gentleman knows—I think that he was present for it—there was a briefing on the Planning Bill given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister concerned last week. At that briefing, it was explained why the complexities involved meant that the framework clause was not yet ready. When it is ready, the hon. Gentleman will be given an opportunity, as will his hon. Friends and all other Members who have an interest, to question the Ministers concerned. The measure will be subject to proper scrutiny, as it will be throughout the process as it goes into the Bill and is debated in the House.

Ryder Cup

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government and elsewhere about issues affecting Wales, including the preparation for major events. In fact, I am planning to meet representatives of Ryder cup Wales in the near future to discuss the preparations for 2010.

Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that the great enthusiasm of all of Wales for the Ryder cup is shared by people throughout the UK? Is he looking forward, as I am, to that glorious day in 2010—a few months after the next general election—when I, the newly re-elected Member for Newport, West, will welcome the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) to Newport to congratulate him on his eighth successive year of distinguished service as Secretary of State for Wales?

My right hon. Friend, who has been a huge supporter of the Ryder cup, will indeed look forward to that glorious day and to the re-election of my hon. Friend. Certainly, the Ryder cup is welcomed across Wales and the UK—with its massive investment in infrastructure and jobs, the involvement of the private sector in Newport, and new hotel development. It is a great tribute to the work that Wales has done in remodelling itself as the venue for top-class sporting events.

Of course, the Ryder cup will not be a success if people are unable to get to it, so will the Minister give an assurance that the construction of Crossrail along the Great Western main line, which is due to commence in 2010, will not cause huge disruption to train services from Paddington to Newport?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and I am happy to take up that issue. It is important to have the infrastructure in place so that people can make use of it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome not only the massive investment in Newport but the legacy of the Ryder cup in Wales, the wider investment in golf across Wales and the fact that Wales now stages the rugby world cup, the Heineken cup final, the FA cup final and the Wales rally GB. Wales is now truly the destination for world-class sporting events.

What assessment has been made of the impact of the 2010 Ryder cup on my constituency in respect of economic, tourism, social and sporting prowess? Bridgend has some of the best golf courses in the UK, including the Royal Porthcawl, which is very popular with the Japanese ambassador, who regularly plays there.

My hon. Friend is unusually well informed about the activities of the Japanese ambassador, but it is indeed true that he plays there every month. It is estimated that the Ryder cup brought £88 million into the Irish economy in the tournament week alone and studies are progressing on how much it will bring into the wider Welsh economy and Bridgend. I have no doubt that our success in getting the Ryder cup will once again put us at the highest level in attracting investment and providing a sporting legacy for Wales.


I have regular discussions, for instance on our joint support for the Severn barrage, which will be by far the biggest renewable energy project in Britain.

How will the opening, in the teeth of local opposition, of Britain’s largest ever open-cast coal mine near Merthyr Tydfil help the UK meet its 2020 carbon reduction targets?

There is still a demand—indeed, an increasing demand—for Welsh coal and proper environmental standards apply to such applications and projects. We will need to move towards clean coal through carbon capture and storage in order to ensure that, where coal makes a contribution to our future energy mix, it is clean.

Defence Training Programme

8. What progress is being made on the Defence Training Programme at RAF St. Athan; and if he will make a statement. (177790)

I welcome the progress made so far on delivering an excellent package that meets our defence training needs. Work is expected to begin at St. Athan as early as next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and I thank him and the Secretary of State for their work in attracting this multi-billion pound investment to Wales. If all of Wales is to benefit from it, we must get the planning right. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss the local authority’s planning strategy to ensure that it appreciates the sheer scale and strategic importance of this economy-changing development?

My hon. Friend once again proves why he recently won the campaigner of the year prize at the Welsh politicians’ awards for his work on St. Athan. It was thoroughly deserved. I am more than happy to meet him once again, as will be my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The St. Athan development will bring £11 billion-worth of investment, creating thousands of direct and indirect jobs from 2013. It is the largest single Government investment in Wales and is thoroughly to be welcomed.

Is the Minister aware that, according to a recent survey by the Public and Commercial Services union, 72 per cent. of the defence personnel who are expected to move to Wales from RAF Cosford in my constituency are either unwilling or unable to do so? Is it not about time we were given some transparency in the planning problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith)?

The hon. Gentleman is a good advocate for his constituents. He will know that Cosford has been recommended for 102 Logistics Brigade and 1 Signal Brigade when they return from Germany, subject to development plans and value for money. If the defence community is located at Cosford, Metrix will remain committed to a learning centre and design facility there.

I should welcome it if, for once, the hon. Gentleman actually stood up and said what a good job this is for Wales, particularly given his role on the Welsh Affairs Committee.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Despite a decade of economic stability with low inflation and low interest rates, my constituents—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Despite those achievements, my constituents are now understandably concerned about the way in which global economic issues affect them. How does my right hon. Friend feel that these events compare with those of the early 1990s, when Britain was plunged into recession after recession?

It is right that people are concerned about what is happening in the global economy, and it is right that people want to know, as a result of global financial turbulence, what will happen to our economy over the next few months. That is why I am pleased to say that yesterday’s inflation figures showed that our inflation rate was 2.1 per cent., half the rate in America, and why I am also pleased to report that today’s employment figures showed that employment had risen by 175,000 in the last quarter, and was up by a quarter of a million over the year. Unemployment is down, the claimant count is down and inactivity is down. Under our Government, unemployment is down and employment up: we have the best employment record in history.

Last year, the Government promised that they would get back all the taxpayers’ money lent to Northern Rock. Can the Prime Minister tell us the exact amount of both the loans and the guarantees, and will he repeat today the pledge that all the taxpayers’ money will be paid back?

That is our intention. If I may say so, I welcome the chance to bring the House up to date on what is happening with Northern Rock. Northern Rock shareholders and depositors were let down by bad management. It was a bad business plan.

In September, the Leader of the Opposition was good enough to say that he overwhelmingly supported our action. The action that we took was first to ensure that there was stability in the economy, and we said that to ensure stability we would secure the deposits of all Northern Rock depositors. We also said that we would stand behind the company with support from the Bank of England. In the next few weeks we will consider how we can find buyers for Northern Rock, and I think everyone in the House would say that we should rule out no option in doing so. That is the right course to take.

Let me tell all Members what comes first. We had to intervene to ensure stability, so that the instability of Northern Rock would not spread across the economy. That is what we have achieved over the past four months, and the Opposition should be supporting us, not criticising us.

I asked the Prime Minister a very specific question about the figures. I think that the taxpayers, each of whom is currently lending about £1,800 to this bank, would like the figures to be confirmed in the House of Commons. It has been reported that the taxpayer is exposed to the tune of £55 billion: £26 billion of emergency loans and £29 billion of guarantees. Will the Prime Minister confirm those specific figures?

The Governor of the Bank of England announces the figures on what is happening every week, but I have to ask the Leader of the Opposition: he said in September—[Interruption.]

The Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly supported our action. He said that it was right to inject “liquidity to Northern Rock”. Is he changing his mind?

Let the Leader of the Opposition answer in the way he wants to answer—[Interruption.] Order. He does not have to answer the Prime Minister's question.

I asked the Prime Minister a specific question about the figures, which he simply could not bear to read out. That is what taxpayers who are worried about supporting the bank and about the extent of the support are asking about.

Let me ask the Prime Minister something else. At the time that the guarantee was given, was he advised that the level of taxpayer support could reach this huge level of £55 billion?

I have said that we will do what is necessary to protect the stability of the economy. I do not apologise for taking the action that is necessary because it has ensured the stability of the economy. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will answer the question: does he still support our action?

For once, I did not ask the Prime Minister for an apology. I just asked him a straight question about the figures and whether he was advised about how bad it could be. He will not give an answer, so we do not know whether he was advised that the taxpayer could be in to the tune of £55 billion.

Let me ask the Prime Minister another specific question and see whether he can answer this one. Can he give an assurance that the level of support required from the taxpayer cannot get any higher than £55 billion?

It is precisely for that reason that we do not provide a running commentary on figures. Under any Government, including the previous Government, it was not the practice to pre-empt what the Bank of England does, which is to announce the figures itself, but I have to return to this point. We intervened to ensure stability in the economy and to ensure that Northern Rock would not spread across the economy to the rest of the financial system. We also intervened to protect depositors. Both those objectives in the past four months have been achieved. Is the right hon. Gentleman now telling me that, from a position of wholeheartedly supporting that action, he is now against it—yes or no?

I will tell you what you did. When it came to the need for a total guarantee of deposits, you dithered and delayed. When it came to the opportunity of pushing for a sale with Lloyds TSB, you dithered and delayed, and when it came to the advice that you were getting to sell the bank straight after the bank run, you dithered and delayed. Why did you dither and delay? It was because you were planning a general election. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he received advice from his financial advisers to push for an immediate sale after the bank run?

No, and there was no offer from Lloyds TSB, as the right hon. Gentleman alleges. He should return to the substance of the issue: if we had not intervened to save Northern Rock, there was a danger that that would spread across the whole economy. He supported our doing that in September. Does he still support us now? If we had not intervened, depositors would have lost their money. Their money has been protected. He supported us in September on that. Does he support us now? I say that we have taken the right, consistent action in the interests of the stability of the economy. To go backwards and forwards as he is doing would put the stability of the economy at risk.

The substance of the issue is that it is the Prime Minister’s regulatory system, it is his bank failure, it is his dithering, and it is his failure to deal with this issue. If it is the case, as he says, that he was not advised to go for an immediate sale, can he explain why the Bank of England was quoted as saying that he was

“unable to focus because morale throughout the government is so low”?

The fact is that we have had months of dithering and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is at risk. Does the Prime Minister accept that, if nationalisation goes ahead, it will be a massive failure of Government policy and a fresh chapter in the incompetence of this Government?

The Bank of England supports our action, the Financial Services Authority supports our action, and the right hon. Gentleman used to support our action—[Interruption.]

The Bank of England supports our action, the Financial Services Authority supports our action, and the Opposition used to support our action. I have looked at the policy of the Opposition between Sunday and Wednesday: on Sunday, the right hon. Gentleman said he was against nationalisation; on Monday at his press conference he said, perhaps by mistake, that we should look at nationalisation; and on Tuesday night’s “Newsnight” the shadow Chancellor said that we should look at administration, which is a route to a fire sale of the asset. They change their position every day; the only change they represent is that they change their positions all the time. We are for stability; they would bring instability.

Were the Prime Minister and his Government aware of his predecessor’s plan to attend the conference of the main party of the French right to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the European Union, as a prelude to his candidacy for the presidency of the world, the universe and everything? Did the Prime Minister know of that intended candidacy when his predecessor was negotiating the European constitution, and did that not represent a conflict of interests?

My right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister is doing a wonderful job because he is speaking up for peace in the middle east; I approve of his taking up any opportunity he gets to put his advocacy of a peaceful settlement for the middle east, and he was right to do so.

Q3. On new year’s day, little Hermione Bateman was born, 11 weeks prematurely. She is alive today only because of the prompt expert help she received from my local hospital. Is the Prime Minister aware that in 15 months’ time a baby such as Hermione will have to be taken 21 miles to Hastings to access such emergency care? Why are babies’ lives being put at risk in this way? (179209)

I am aware of the issues the hon. Gentleman raises, but the recommendations on the reconfiguration of maternity services were made by consultants and clinicians on the ground, and they are in the interests of the safety of all patients, all mothers, and all daughters and sons who are born. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will look at the massive investment we are making in the national health service, both in his area and in other areas. There are six new hospital developments in the whole of the region that he represents, and there have been 7,000 new staff, and waiting times of six months or more, of which there were 30,000 in 1997, are down to 57. That is what the health service is achieving.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree that the security of supply of electricity generation is a priority for any country’s well-being and true independence? Can the Prime Minister assure me that the Energy Bill, which gets its Second Reading next Tuesday, will protect the Scottish economy from any political gerrymandering of the planning laws envisaged by the Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh? (179208)

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in energy matters. The availability of secure energy is one of the big issues affecting this country, and it is what led to the energy White Paper last week, to our decision on nuclear power, and to our decisions to extend renewable sources of energy, to make ourselves less dependent on foreign sources of energy and to cut the carbon that is used in energy. I hope that every part of the United Kingdom will feel able to support all those decisions.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says that home repossessions will rocket this year by 50 per cent., with one repossession every 12 minutes. What comfort can the Prime Minister offer the 45,000 British families who now face the prospect of losing their homes this year?

What I can say to them is that we are determined to have low interest rates; to have low interest rates we have to have low inflation; and to have low inflation we have to have a decent economic policy, which I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s party does not have.

The reality is that the Prime Minister allowed, on his watch, grossly irresponsible lending practices by banks to destabilise the housing market. Will he act now to ensure that mortgage lenders take their responsibilities seriously and do more to stop evictions, or will he just sit there wringing his hands while British families lose their homes?

I think that the hon. Gentleman forgets that there are 1.5 million more home owners under a Labour Government than there were before our Government started. We have extended home ownership to all regions of the country and to people who previously could not afford it.

I have been given a copy of the dossier on the hon. Gentleman that, unfortunately, was prepared by the person sitting next to him, who suggests that on every major economic and social issue the leader of the Liberal party has flip-flopped, and keeps flip-flopping.

Q4. Following on from the point raised by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware of the very positive impact that this Government’s housing market renewal programme is having in former mining areas, such as Grimethorpe and Thurnscoe in the Barnsley area of my constituency and Mexborough in the Doncaster area of my constituency, in terms of future housing provision? Does he agree that such a programme has to be built around a principle of community sustainability and against a backdrop of a sound and stable economy, which this Government have provided for the past 11 years? (179210)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as he says, massive housing investment has been made in his constituency—this is the answer to the Liberal party’s point—and that housing investment will continue with £1 billion more provided in the next three years. We are determined to remove substandard housing, to have more affordable housing and to extend home ownership, but that is possible only if we run a strong economy. I say to all Members of this House that ours is the country that has managed to have low inflation at the start of this year, half that of America, and at the same time has seen jobs expanding when unemployment is rising in America and in other countries, and that gives me hope that our economy can withstand what is clearly global financial turbulence.

Q5. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is a dead man walking, so what arrangements is he making for a competency transplant? (179211)

When it comes to the work of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, unemployment is down; employment is up; more single parents are in jobs; fewer people are claiming incapacity benefit; more long-term unemployed people are getting back to work; and, since my right hon. Friend became Secretary of State, hundreds of contracts have been signed with local employers to get thousands of people back to work. That is why I have confidence in what he is doing.


We continue to monitor the humanitarian situation in Darfur. Some 4 million people are dependent on food aid, 2 million people have been displaced and 280,000 people have had to leave the country. We continue to work with the United Nations and the African Union to bring peace to that troubled region.

The fact that the Darfur genocide is now entering its sixth year is largely down to the UN Security Council, especially China, which has blocked or diluted efforts to stop the violence, leading the Khartoum regime to treat the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur protection force with contempt. Will my right hon. Friend say how he will tackle the continued failure of the UN to secure compliance with its own edicts and decisions, so that the looming threat of the withdrawal of humanitarian organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières can be avoided?

I praise my hon. Friend for his long-standing commitment to, and interest in, the area of Darfur and the problems that people are facing. As I said a minute ago, the problems are appalling and run to hundreds of thousands of people having been displaced or being on aid.

My hon. Friend mentions China. I talked to the Premier of China this morning about this very issue, because I believe that China and the United Kingdom can work with other countries to make sure that the Government of Sudan ensure that a ceasefire is properly administered, to bring in the African Union peacekeeping force, which is supported by the United Nations—20,000 more peacekeepers—and to move towards political talks that can bring a political settlement, where all parties, including those that did not attend the previous talks, are brought to the table. On my visit to China, I intend to continue the talks with Premier Wen so that all of us, including the Chinese Government, add to the pressure for a peaceful settlement in Darfur.


Q7. The Prime Minister talks about low inflation, but the cost of living index is rising hugely. Food prices have gone up 7 per cent., energy prices have gone up 15 per cent. and petrol product prices have risen by more than 20 per cent. Why is the rate of inflation running at a higher rate now than the one his Government inherited? (179213)

But it is not. Inflation is 2.1 per cent. The hon. Lady makes an important point: energy prices have been rising—coal, oil and gas—by 60 to 80 per cent. in every part of the world. Food prices have been rising as a result of what has happened to the harvest. Therefore, it is all the more remarkable that our inflation is 2.1 per cent., when it is 3 per cent. in the euro area and 4 per cent. in America, on the same comparable index. That is why we have been able to bring down interest rates in the past few months, but they have not been able to do so in the euro area. We approach the global financial turbulence with low inflation, low interest rates and high employment, and if we can make the right long-term decisions on the economy, we can withstand the global financial turbulence. To say that oil and other commodity prices are going up and that we still have low inflation shows the achievement in getting inflation down.

Q8. On Monday, the Prime Minister said that he was very worried about the content of video and computer games. Some of those games, such as Manhunt 2, depict scenes of torture and murder using hammers, knives and guns. They seem to make a virtue of gratuitous and graphic violence. Will he meet a delegation of Members, including the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who has a private Member’s Bill on the subject, to see what further steps the industry can take to show better responsibility? Does my right hon. Friend, as a parent, agree that— (179214)

My right hon. Friend is right, and this is an issue that concerns all parties in the House and every parent. It is right that we look again at the classification system for those games and at what is happening on the internet in influencing young children. That is why the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has set up the Byron review, in which Dr. Tanya Byron is looking at these very issues. We want children to be able to enjoy the benefits of the internet and video games, without being influenced by the pornography or violence of them. Dr. Byron will report in March 2008 and while it would be premature for me to say what she is likely to recommend, the classification system is one of the things that she is looking at. I hope that when we get the report we can have a debate in this House. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend’s delegation and move forward whatever changes in the law are necessary.

Last Saturday, three children in my constituency had their grandmother murdered by their father, Gary Weddell, who then committed suicide, after he had been granted bail after being charged with the murder of his wife, the mother of the children concerned. Will the Prime Minister please ensure that the case is looked into, so that lessons are learnt and so that no other family has to endure a similar tragedy?

This is indeed a set of tragic circumstances that are almost difficult even to contemplate—that someone was let out on bail and then apparently is alleged to have murdered his mother-in-law and then to have taken his own life. The question is why bail was given. It is not in the power of the Government to give bail, although of course it is up to us to look at any laws affecting that. It was a decision by the judge, who set down an amount of money and probably took into account the fact that the man was a policeman. Those are the things that we have to look at, and if any changes in the law are necessary, we will make them.

Q9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can invest £8.4 billion in the supply of social housing over the next three years because of this Government’s sound stewardship of the economy, which is very different from the Tory record? It is because of their neglect that there was a £19 billion housing repair bill when they left office. (179215)

I hope that all parties will welcome the 50 per cent. increase in social housing that we are about to bring about through the measures that we are taking in the public spending review. I hope particularly that young couples will benefit from the supply both of affordable rented housing and of affordable housing to buy. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their policy of opposing many of the housing measures that are intended to deliver more housing space for more people in this country.

The Plain English Campaign today described the consultation on Heathrow expansion as atrocious and said:

“This document effectively takes away human rights…No ordinary person could be expected to read and understand this”.

Will the Prime Minister please instruct the Department for Transport to withdraw the consultation until it can be written in comprehensible language, and will he tell Ministers and officials that it is a disgrace that none of them will attend a single public meeting on that crucial point?

The hon. Lady gives the impression that because of the wording of the document she does not understand the issue at stake, which is whether there will be a new runway at Heathrow. The consultation is there for the public to involve themselves in. I hope that people will join it vigorously, and then a decision can be made.

Q10. Daresbury laboratory in my constituency has been carrying out world-leading scientific research for 46 years. The science and innovation campus at Daresbury is a huge success, attracting science and high-tech businesses and creating high-quality jobs. Two reviews are about to take place—the McKillop review and the light source review—both of which will have an impact on the future of Daresbury laboratory. The knee-jerk reaction of the Science and Technology Facilities Council to cut research grants by 25 per cent. and staff by 25 per cent. to meet an £80 million shortfall in its £1.9 billion budget is a cause for concern— (179216)

Daresbury is a world-class facility. I am proud that we have such a facility in our country and in the north-west region, as well as an innovation centre that is world beating and path breaking in its research. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are two reviews. The McKillop review will consider how best we can meet the future needs of Daresbury. We have increased the amount of money to be spent on the Science and Technology Facilities Council by 13 per cent. during the spending review period. I hope that we will be able to see an expansion of the work done at Daresbury, which will benefit the whole country.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. There are times when I am on another planet; that was one of them.

Will the Prime Minister assure us that Mr. Stephen Carter, his chosen nominee for Northern Rock, has no residual interest whatsoever in Brunswick Group?

Q12. In my constituency, people living in the most deprived areas have a life expectancy seven years shorter than those in the most affluent areas a couple of miles away, yet national reports have indicated that they could have many years added to their lifespan if they made some lifestyle changes. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in years to come the NHS will reach out to my constituents and advise them on how to change their lifestyles so that they can lead healthier and longer lives? (179218)

I praise the work that my hon. Friend does in the health service, in particular among carers. We attended a seminar on that issue in Leeds on Friday, where carers asked us to do more to make their lives better, particularly with respite care. As far as inequalities and life chances are concerned, we are putting forward measures for check-ups, screening and preventive vaccines so that people can identify their risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. That will save lives, particularly in the communities that my hon. Friend is talking about.

Q15. What was the point of invading Iraq, which led to the deaths of 150,000 Iraqis, just to hand over Basra to militant Shi’a militias while the army is holed up in the airport? (179221)

Violence in Basra has gone down by 90 per cent. over the past few months. Our troops there are doing a great job in training the Iraqi army’s security forces and the Iraqi police. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to diminish the effect of building economic prosperity in the Basra area. As for invading Iraq in the first place, Saddam Hussein had offended UN resolutions and the international community for more than a decade.

Q13. Although I do not foresee any great demand for my kidneys or liver, may I welcome the Prime Minister’s proposals on human transplants? On a much more serious note, will he act on the matter urgently, as people are dying every day for lack of donors? (179219)

As my hon. Friend knows, a report on organ donations is to be published today. It will recommend ways to increase the number of people prepared, under the present system, to give their organs when they die to save other people’s lives. More than 1,000 people lose their lives each year because no organs are available for transplant. Another report on this matter will be prepared later this year, and one proposal that may be worth discussing then is that, while people may opt out of organ donation, there could be a family veto on whether organ donation can go ahead. I believe that that would satisfy many religious objections, while at the same time ensuring that thousands of people are saved as a result of organ donations being available. I hope that there will be all-party support for taking action.

Following the Government’s recent naval base review, there was widespread concern at Plymouth’s Devonport naval base that ships currently based there could be moved to Portsmouth in the next few years. Will the Prime Minister reassure the base’s work force that their reward for generations of dedicated service to this nation’s security will not be simply death by a thousand cuts?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Plymouth will refit the Trident submarine, and it has a huge amount of work in the years ahead. A massive amount of investment has gone into Plymouth, and I can assure him of our commitment to the dock yard there. At the same time, he will acknowledge that that commitment is possible only because we are spending more on defence every year. We will continue to do so, and that depends on there being a healthy economy.