The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government and I are extremely concerned about the situation in Gaza and we are monitoring it closely. Gazans scrambling over the Rafah border last week secured essential supplies, but the underlying humanitarian situation is still dire. Although we understand Israel’s security concerns, we do not support the decision to close Gaza’s crossings. The Foreign Secretary and I have called on Israel to open them and to lift immediately all restrictions on humanitarian supplies. So far this financial year, the UK Government have given more than £11 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the west bank through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the temporary international mechanism. The majority of that money went to Gaza.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s answer. Does he agree that it is completely unacceptable for the Israelis to stop goods coming in, in particular for the Umm al-Nasser project? That project is needed to drain a lake to prevent potential flooding for 10,000 people in Gaza, but the Israelis are blocking the supplies that are coming in for that. The Israelis made a commitment to the special envoy to the middle east that they would honour the project, but what is the point of having a special envoy and getting him to do deals with the Israeli Government if they will not deliver—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a supplementary question, not making a speech.
I have had the opportunity to discuss with the Quartet’s envoy the quick impact projects, including the project in Gaza. He is determined to continue his work to ensure that those projects are taken forward. Ordinary Palestinians should not suffer because of the actions of extremists, and any response by the Israeli Government to the rocket attacks by militants should be in accordance with international law. We are therefore keen not only that humanitarian supplies should be able to enter Gaza but that we have the kind of economic progress that is necessary to support the peace and reconciliation process in the middle east that we all want to see.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Israel’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza is probably illegal under international law and the fourth Geneva protocol? The closure of the Erez crossing means that basic humanitarian medical supplies and all food supplies cannot get through to Gaza. Even a humanitarian convoy put together by Israeli human rights organisations has been blocked at the Erez crossing. Will the Secretary of State put immediate pressure on Israel to open the crossing, allow medical and food aid to get through and allow the humanitarian supplies to arrive quickly? Israel’s refusal to do that means that the anger and poverty of the people of Gaza simply gets worse and worse.
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I travelled to the Palestinian Authority’s territory in December and took the opportunity to meet Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister who is responsible in the Israeli Government for the policies about the crossings. I impressed on him the long-standing position of the British Government that, notwithstanding the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, we believe that the crossing should be open. We recognise that there are deficiencies in the medical supplies available in Gaza and continuing requirements for fuel for generators, not least for the hospitals. That is why I and the Foreign Secretary have made repeated pleas to the Israeli Government to recognise their obligations and ensure that the crossings are open for humanitarian supplies.
I welcome the pressure that the British Government are putting on the Israeli Government to reopen the crossings and the humanitarian support that we are giving through the non-governmental organisations in Gaza. However, what steps and systems has the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is not being diverted in Gaza to be used to create rockets to be fired into Israel?
I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. There are clearly established mechanisms, principally through the UN and the ICRC, to provide support. We are providing about £100 million through UNRWA to the Palestinian territories over a period of five years. However, in addition to those assurances, we continue to speak to the Palestinian Authority, principally to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and to impress on them the importance of taking forward the work in the Palestinian community to find a way forward, not least in relation to Gaza.
While the Government’s actions on this matter are impeccable and the efforts of Tony Blair are wholly admirable, is it not a fact that only international action can bring to an end the humanitarian disaster caused by collective punishment imposed by the gang of amoral thugs who comprise the Israeli Government and violate not only international law but the historic Jewish conscience?
I know of the long-standing concern about and the interest in the middle east with which my right hon. Friend speaks. The British Government have been unequivocal in stating that Israel should abide by its commitment under the fourth Geneva convention. We recognise the legitimate security concerns of the people of Israel, but it is vital that the Israeli Government act in a way that is consistent with their obligations under international law.
My right hon. Friend made another substantial point about international action, and I welcome the steps taken by the Quartet’s special representative and the recent visit to the region by President Bush of the US. The whole international community should speak with one voice to impress on both the Israelis and Palestinians the urgency of finding a way forward in the middle east.
We are appalled by the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, but does the Secretary of State agree that we have reached an extraordinary state of affairs when a UN representative can say:
“Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the...acquiescence…of the international community”?
We all condemn the rocket attacks on Israel, but does the Secretary of State think that the scale of the Israeli response is disproportionate?
I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his Front-Bench post as Liberal Democrat spokesman on international development. We are extremely concerned by the humanitarian situation. I have seen the reports to which he has referred and which were written by an UNRWA representative. Since July 2007, when the closure regime was tightened, we have made active diplomatic efforts to ensure that the humanitarian situation has eased. In December, I took the opportunity to discuss the Israeli Government’s defence posture and humanitarian obligations with Ehud Barak. As recently as last weekend, my colleague the Foreign Secretary raised those matters directly with Minister Livni, the Israeli Government’s foreign affairs spokesman.
At least no one in the House of Commons is trying to defend the Israeli Government’s inexcusable actions. Cannot the western powers—certainly this country, and I would hope the US—be much firmer with Israel and say that its actions cause dismay throughout the civilised world? How would Israeli citizens like to be subject to what the citizens of Gaza are subjected to by Israeli occupation?
As I said, we have been unequivocal in urging the Israeli Government to recognise their humanitarian obligations in Gaza. We have also been unequivocal in our support for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts over recent months to reform the system of governance in the west bank and to take the peace process forward. Ultimately, both the Palestinians and the people of Israel have legitimate security concerns, but that is no reason why humanitarian supplies should not reach Gaza, nor why rockets should be fired on the Israeli population. It is imperative that all sides recognise their responsibilities, and it is essential that the international community communicates that with one voice.
I next anticipate holding comprehensive discussions on aid to Afghanistan with my European counterparts at a conference on Afghanistan to be hosted by France this summer. The conference will take stock of achievements to date and donors will make pledges of support to the Afghan national development strategy, the Government of Afghanistan’s own five-year strategy for reconstruction and development that is due to be finalised in March.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but does he agree that it is most unfortunate that President Karzai first criticised British intervention in Helmand province and then vetoed Lord Ashdown’s appointment as UN special representative? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure better co-ordination of the aid efforts undertaken by his Department and the hundreds of other aid agencies in Afghanistan?
First, I am sorry that Lord Ashdown has felt obliged to withdraw his candidacy for the post of UN special representative, as he would have served with great distinction and ability in that role. Before he withdrew his candidacy, I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Karzai at the end of last week. Although the question of who should be the UN special representative should be discussed with the Afghan Government, the judgment ultimately rests with the UN Secretary-General, with whom I have also therefore taken the opportunity to speak. It is right to recognise the urgency of stronger co-ordination within the donor community, but ultimately the initiative rests with the Secretary-General of the UN.
What role does my right hon. Friend think that specific and targeted EU and UK aid can play in reducing Afghan farmers’ reliance on growing cocaine and poppies, and in reducing the level of violence in the country?
Inevitably and appropriately, because British troops are serving with such distinction in Helmand, much of the coverage of Afghanistan in British newspapers focuses exclusively on the counter-insurgency campaign. It is right to recognise that there has been a significant uplift in poppy production in Helmand but, at the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan. That speaks to the fact that the key to eradicating opium, which will be a long-term endeavour, is making the environment secure and ensuring the rule of law. That is why we stand four-square behind the Afghan Government in their efforts to find a way forward, not simply in the areas affected by the insurgency but more broadly across Afghanistan.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the recent criticisms voiced by President Karzai and other members of the Afghan Government might have something to do with impending elections? Figures suggesting that UK aid is three times more efficient than American aid reinforce the need to co-ordinate aid and its impact on the ground. Will the Secretary of State use his offices within the international community to engage with other partners to ensure local impact and an understanding by the people of Afghanistan that there is real benefit in partnership, and that a long-term commitment has been made?
The right hon. Gentleman speaks with obvious authority as Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, which recently visited Afghanistan. I assure him, as I assured the Committee, that we are engaging actively with our American partners. When I visited Afghanistan, I met the American ambassador, and I am in regular contact with Henrietta Fore of the United States Agency for International Development. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that discussions with the Americans are going on at every level about how we can ensure maximum impact for international development assistance to Afghanistan.
In his discussions with his European counterparts, will my right hon. Friend ensure that much greater priority is given to reforming the justice system in Afghanistan? Women there are still arrested and routinely jailed for years simply for running away from home or choosing not to marry the man their families have chosen for them. I ask that the issue of gender be given much higher priority as well.
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority and expertise on these matters. The Americans have led on issues relating to the Ministry of Interior while, within the European Union, our German colleagues have done much on police reform. An active dialogue is taking place in the international community about how best we can support the Afghan Government’s efforts. I am encouraged by the recognition at senior levels in that Government of the importance of both the issues identified by my hon. Friend.
During my service in Afghanistan, I experienced at first hand the challenges of trying to deliver meaningful development on the ground. The keys to success, as highlighted by the Afghanistan compact, are capacity building, co-ordination and a bottom-up approach through the production of community development plans. Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the signing of the compact, yet the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development remains the only vaguely functioning Department in the provinces and only a tiny percentage of communities have produced meaningful plans. Why has so little progress been made, and what specific action does the Secretary of State intend to take to address the situation?
I do not share the universally negative view suggested by the Opposition’s Front-Bench spokesman. Of course there is a long way to go and a great deal of work to be done in terms of building the capacity of the Ministries, as I just acknowledged in the case of the Ministry of Interior. On the other hand, real progress is being made. Back in 2001, 900,000 boys were in education in Afghanistan; there are now more than 5 million children in education, and more than 2 million of them girls. More than 9,000 km of roads have been improved since 2001. One force commander told me when I visited Afghanistan that where the roads end, the Taliban begin. Both physical work and social and economic development are under way, but I fully recognise that there is still a long way to go.
Aid to the occupied Palestinian territories is subject to the highest possible level of scrutiny. Projects are run by internationally respected organisations, with rigorous checks on each payment and independent auditing. UK aid is spent on helping Palestinians pay for their doctors and teachers, maintain water and electricity supplies and support refugees. In addition, the Department for International Development is supporting programmes to tackle corruption and improve the management of public funds.
But on 29 December a lorry was found to be taking 6.5 tonnes of bomb-making potassium nitrate into Gaza, disguised in a bag labelled “EU sugar”. Again on 14 January a lorry was found to be taking bomb-making equipment into Gaza disguised as aid. In view of that, does my hon. Friend not think that more urgent attention should be given to ensuring that only humanitarian aid goes into Gaza, so that the very genuine needs of the people are met?
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the need for constant vigilance where aid is concerned, but it is important to put the matter in context and in perspective. The Israeli authorities accept that the bags had nothing to do with EU projects and were fraudulent. EU aid was thus not misused. Such opportunistic frauds are an attempt to undermine the peace process. There is also the problem of weapons smuggled through tunnels, and I take her point about vigilance. We are clear that the Palestinian Authority are committed to the middle east peace process and to tackling extremism and terrorism.
What assurances can the Minister give that, contrary to recent reports, no British aid whatever is being used to fund extremist educational materials in the Palestinian territories that indoctrinate children and young people in Palestine with the belief that martyrdom or the murder of apostates is a legitimate political or religious aim?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, which has been raised a number of times over the past 10 years or so. I can categorically say that UK aid does not fund textbooks or the Education Ministry. The allegations relate to textbooks that were used pre-1994. Since 2002 the Palestinian Authority have had a new national curriculum that is hatred and violence free. Importantly, that has been confirmed by both the European Commission and an Israeli civil society organisation that was commissioned by the US. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which we support, supports education in the occupied Palestinian territories and produces textbooks, but they are UN approved and endorsed and are free from extremism and violence.
My hon. Friend mentioned UNRWA. Is he aware that John Ging, the UNRWA director of operations in Gaza, came to Parliament in the autumn? Was he not right when he said that the problem with Israel’s action is that it
“presupposes that the civilian population in Gaza are either themselves responsible for, or somehow more capable of, stopping the rocket fire than the powerful military of the occupying power”?
Is not the collective punishment being imposed by Israel unjustified? What are the Government doing to ensure that the United Nations passes an appropriate resolution to bring the situation in Gaza to an end, or at least to express much firmer international disapproval of it?
We constantly call on all sides in the dispute and conflict to adhere to international law and to respect human rights. Israeli security and justice for the Palestinians will not be achieved by cutting off fuel, closing crossings, or firing rockets. That is a recipe for continued misery on all sides.
Given the nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza, can the Minister explain to the House whether the controls on aid going to Gaza are tighter than the controls on British aid going to the west bank?
The hon. Gentleman will know that aid to the Palestinian Authority was suspended following the establishment of the Hamas Government in March 2006. All aid to Gaza goes via the temporary international mechanism and is checked and audited by the World Bank or the European Community. Payments for salary allowances are checked against five different internationally recognised terrorist lists. UNRWA also works in Gaza and the budget is approved by the United Nations General Assembly, which has a strong audit unit. Donors such as the UK receive regular financial reports. We are as assured as we can be under the circumstances that aid is going to the areas where it needs to go.
Children, including those orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, are at the heart of the UK’s strategy for tackling the epidemic and its effect in the developing world. We are committed to spending £150 million to help meet their needs over the three years to 2008.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position, which I am sure she will find rewarding. It is a very important role. Is she aware that the non-governmental organisations that work on these issues particularly want to see the UK devote 10 per cent. of its funding stream on HIV/AIDS to support for orphans and vulnerable children? Furthermore, they want Government systems to improve to make sure that the aid gets to the orphans. What assurances can she give those NGOs?
Order. This is a supplementary question.
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words of welcome. She is a tireless campaigner on this issue; just last week, she met my predecessor to discuss it. I assure the House that following the public consultation on the UK’s strategy for tackling HIV/AIDS in the developing world, we will continue to work and build on what works best so that the needs and rights of orphans and vulnerable children remain absolutely central as we move forward to tackle the issue.
Will the hon. Lady, whom we congratulate on her promotion, look carefully at the valuable report produced by Business Action for Africa, and note the enormous importance of business and the private sector in the fight against HIV/AIDS—a recognition that has not always been part of the Minister’s Department’s DNA?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my post and look forward to working with him and his team. I certainly agree about the importance of economic development and growth in combating HIV/AIDS and I look forward to considering the report to which he refers.
My right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party and I have been pressing for clear, interim targets for scaling up access to HIV prevention and treatment. Some 93 countries have now set such targets and 60 have developed national action plans. Does the Minister accept that, without those targets, we will miss the goal of universal access by 2010? Will she ensure that her Department encourages all developing countries to set such targets and develop those plans?
I assure the House that we lead the world towards achieving universal access to comprehensive prevention programmes, treatment, care and support by 2010. We remain firmly committed to that goal. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember that the UK has made an unprecedented, long-term commitment of £1 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Indeed, in wanting to strengthen health care systems across the world, our Prime Minister launched the international health partnership initiative in September last year to improve the co-ordination of donors working on health and to support countries to develop better health care systems.
My hon. Friend will know that accessing health care sometimes depends on being literate. In many developing countries, the level of literacy is incredibly low. In the measures that she is proposing, will my hon. Friend ensure that, as well as the provision of registered sister nurses, there is some incentive to improve literacy in those countries?
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s views; a boost to education is the most effective and cost-effective means of HIV prevention. We promote that as a major part of our international work in addition to improving people’s knowledge, changing their attitude and behaviour, giving women more control over their own lives and promoting the availability and use of condoms.
Sudan received the most humanitarian assistance from the UK in each of the last three financial years. It received £78 million in 2004-05, £98 million in 2005-06, and £84 million in 2006-07.
What steps is the Minister taking to secure greater and far more effective international co-ordination of humanitarian assistance?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We have been working with a range of other donors to raise more resources for the United Nations central emergency response fund, to secure more effective humanitarian co-ordinators on the ground, and to enable aid agencies to work much more effectively together in response to emergencies.
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.
Why do the people of Wales have a full-time Secretary of State, while our armed forces and the Scots must make do with a part-timer?
The new Secretary of State for Wales has responsibilities in addition to his responsibilities for Wales. He is overseeing the British-Irish Council, he is responsible for the joint ministerial committees on devolution, he is the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, and he is responsible for data security and information assurance. Those responsibilities are in addition to his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Wales.
We want 90 per cent. of our young people to be in apprenticeships, at college or at university by the end of the next decade, and we are doubling the number of apprenticeships so that we can give young people those opportunities. I want to see every young person who has the skill to do so acquire an apprenticeship, whether it is in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England.
I believe that our policy of expanding investment in education and training is the right one for the future of the country. It is unfortunate that the Opposition are not supporting us, and do not even support education up to the age of 18. We want opportunity for all, not just for some.
For more than three years the Conservative party has argued that we should scrap the form—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman must be allowed to put his question to the House.
—that we should scrap the form that the police must fill in every time they stop someone. It is a foot long, and takes seven minutes to complete. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will now scrap the “stop” form?
It is true that for the last three years members of the Conservative party have been arguing among themselves, about Europe and about many other issues. The Flanagan report, published in November, recommended that we reduce and remove the bureaucracy associated with the filling in of forms. Flanagan will publish his final report next Monday. We are taking the action that is necessary, and the right hon. Gentleman should be supporting us.
I know that the Prime Minister is physically incapable of answering a straight question, but this is such a straightforward question. In just one police area in one year the police had to fill in 79,000 forms, using 9,216 hours of valuable police time. Does the Prime Minister accept that the form, introduced five years ago, has been a colossal waste of police time?
Let me ask the Prime Minister the question again. This is the form; will he scrap it?
I can only refer the right hon. Gentleman to the Flanagan report, which we accepted in November. It states that the form can be better administered, and that bureaucracy can be significantly reduced. We will publish the conclusion next week.
The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is happening. We are taking action.
Why does the Prime Minister not stop flannelling about the Flanagan report and answer the question? This is the form; we think it should go. What does he think? Will it stay—yes or no?
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has prepared his questions yesterday and cannot react to the situation today. The issue is this: our Government are taking action to reduce bureaucracy in the police. There are more police officers than ever before in the history of the country. We have more police officers and more community support officers. That is why, last week, crime was down. Crime is now down 30 per cent. We are the first Government since 1945 to see crime down. He should be congratulating us, not condemning us. [Interruption.]
Mr. Ruffley, I cannot always see you because you are behind me, but I recognise your voice. You have got to be quiet.
What people will have heard is that the Prime Minister cannot answer a straight question.
Let us try another one. Keeping our streets safe also means tackling terrorism. Two months ago, I identified and named in this House a number of specific preachers of hate who should not be allowed into this country. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government have accepted that as well, and that he will not allow Yusuf al-Qaradawi into Britain—yes or no?
An announcement will be made on that very soon. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we do not expel people from this country other than through proper judicial process. In the last two years, 200 people have been expelled from the country: 70 per cent. for unacceptable behaviour, 130 on grounds of national security. We are not slow to expel people who should not be in this country. The fact of the matter is that we have got to go through the proper judicial processes, and he, for one, should appreciate that.
This is not about expelling someone. This guy wants to come to our country, and we do not think that he should be allowed in. He was banned by a former Conservative Home Secretary, so why will the Government not ban him? Let me explain what this man, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, believes. He thinks that gay people should be executed, and encourages people to turn their bodies into bombs. Why can the Prime Minister not tell us his decision now? Does he think that Yusuf al-Qaradawi should be allowed in or not? A simple one—yes or no?
He is not in our country; the issue is—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the Prime Minister answer the question—[Interruption.]—in his way, without jeering him down.
In 2006, a decision was made not to exclude al-Qaradawi. We are looking at that again. He has applied to come into this country, and a decision will be made in due course. I have to say that it has to go through the proper judicial processes, but he has not been allowed into this country at this stage.
I think that people watching this will just conclude that this Prime Minister cannot answer a question and cannot make a decision. People are starting to say about this Government, “Never mind the complete lack of vision, never mind the relaunches; just focus on keeping us safe.” In a week when the prisons adviser says that they have got no prisons strategy, when President Musharraf says that they have no terrorism strategy and when the only good idea that they have about police reform has come from the Conservative party, should he not just accept that people are not safe under Labour?
I want everybody to be safe and feel safe. Crime is down 32 per cent. under Labour. Violent crime is down 31 per cent. under Labour. It is precisely because we want people to feel safe that we are introducing neighbourhood policing. In every area of the country, neighbourhood policing will be introduced over the next few months. The Conservative party should be supporting that. More police than ever before, more community support officers than ever before, more people brought to justice than ever before—that is a record that they could never boast of, but we can say is working.
The most recent figures on teenage pregnancy show that Britain has the highest rate of any country in western Europe. It also shows that the map for teenage pregnancy is the same as that for poverty and deprivation. Do not we need to do more to tackle those high rates of teenage pregnancy—I see that the Leader of the Opposition is sniggering; he should not do that because the people of Britain will not take him seriously if he does not take such issues seriously. Do not we need to ensure that every youngster has a chance?
As my hon. Friend says, rates of teenage pregnancy are too high in too many areas of the country and we need to take action to deal with that. He has presented proposals this week and we shall look at each one. I believe that the whole country will benefit from a better strategy on teenage pregnancy.
Does the Prime Minister think it acceptable that, at a time when British soldiers’ lives are at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, half their single living accommodation is still of the lowest standard, half our Apache helicopters remain unfit for service, and more than 60 per cent. of Army officers cite military overstretch as a reason for leaving the Army? Is he surprised at the widespread view that he simply does not care about our armed forces?
It is precisely because of the backlog in accommodation over many decades that we are spending £5 billion to improve service accommodation. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the fact that, as a result of the spending review, an announcement was made to do that. He should also know that we have ordered additional helicopters for both Afghanistan and Iraq and that there will be more helicopters in the field in the next few months. We are therefore taking action on each of the matters that he mentioned.
I should also remind the hon. Gentleman that defence spending has risen every year under this Government and it will increase in the next few years as a result of the spending review. Defence spending was cut by 20 per cent. between 1992 and 1997 and it is rising under us, but under no Liberal policy could that party ever afford to spend what is necessary on defence.
Why should any British soldier’s family take the Prime Minister’s word seriously when they feel so let down? Only this week, the Defence Committee produced a report that highlighted drastic shortages in Army medical services. There is a 46 per cent. shortfall in anaesthetists, a 62 per cent. shortfall in orthopaedic surgeons and an 80 per cent. shortfall in radiologists. If the Prime Minister cannot be bothered to provide decent medical care for our servicemen and women, how can he ask them to put their lives on the line for our country?
We have been spending substantially more on medical services. I have visited some of them and seen the improvements that have been made. Many people say that Britain has some of the best medical services for members of the armed forces in the world.
I repeat that we are spending more on defence, and we will continue to do that, and that every urgent operational requirement of the armed forces is being met. The hon. Gentleman would not be able to provide the necessary money for the defence forces; because of our economic success, we have been able to do so.
I am in correspondence with the Police Federation about police pay. I have explained to the federation that, as a result of staging public sector pay awards, it was not possible to pay in full the police pay award over the past year. However, I look forward to discussing with the Police Federation a long-term pay deal, which is based on the arbitration award.
The Prime Minister knows that, this time last week, almost a sixth of the entire police force of England and Wales marched through the streets of Westminster. May I take what he has just said as an assurance that future awards will be made not on an annual but a longer-term basis, and that they will recognise that, every day, police officers put their lives at risk to protect him, us and the rest of the country in the fight against organised crime and terrorism?
I not only have great admiration for the police, but, as I said before, we wanted to pay them more. A national policy to cut inflation meant that every national public sector pay award in which the Government had a role to play was staged over the past year. That is one of the reasons that inflation was brought down. However, I said to the Police Federation in my letter to Jan Berry that I hope that the police will enter into a long-term agreement on pay, based on implementing future years’ arbitration awards. The Home Secretary has asked the police negotiating board to consider a multi-year deal. Teachers have already agreed a three-year deal, and the process of agreement will start when the police negotiating board meets on 6 February. I hope that we can make progress.
It is nice to welcome the hon. Gentleman back. Even his own party may be pleased to see him back in the position of asking me questions. However, he has misunderstood yesterday’s Financial Services Authority report. The fact of the matter is that mortgage repossessions over the past four years are a fifth of what they were in the early 1990s, that mortgage rates have averaged 5 per cent. where they averaged 11 per cent. in the period before 1997, and that there were half a million people in negative equity under the Conservative Government. There are more home owners in Britain now than ever before. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see on reflection that it is because we have a policy for low inflation, have maintained low interest rates, have rising employment and have avoided any quarter of recession in the past 10 years that we can tell people that we will steer them through the difficult times. That could not be said of any other party in the House.
Since June last year, we have put in an extra £50 million, so that we could inspect wards and improve infection control. We doubled the improvement teams in our hospitals and we have now introduced a new dress code. There will be screening in the future, while deep cleans, which the Opposition described as a gimmick, are already under way. We will always be vigilant. Matron numbers are to be doubled to 5,000. For those reasons, we can now report that MRSA infections are down 18 per cent. on the last quarter and that C. difficile infections are down 21 per cent. We are making progress and we will continue to make progress in the next year.
Is the Prime Minister aware that when the Defence Committee visited Afghanistan last summer, President Karzai made it clear to us that he wanted a high-profile international envoy to help co-ordinate the international effort there? Will he convey to President Karzai our disappointment that Paddy Ashdown has been refused? Will he also explain to the House what action will now be taken to co-ordinate the international effort in Afghanistan, for which so much sacrifice has been made?
I met President Karzai last Friday and talked to him about those very issues. The fact of the matter is that the decision is for the UN Secretary-General, after consulting all the coalition forces. That consultation is still taking place. I believe that Lord Ashdown would have been a great candidate for the job, but there has to be agreement among all those people involved, and that includes the decision by the UN Secretary-General. I hope that we will have a strong development co-ordinator, as the hon. Gentleman wants.
In the London area alone, there are 6,000 more police than there were in 1997. As my hon. Friend rightly said, in graphic detail, crime is down in his constituency. The choice in London will be between an administration that wants to employ more police and wants to get crime down, and what the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has said, which is that he wishes to cut spending on the Metropolitan police. That would be disastrous for the police, disastrous for London and bad for the whole country.
Before Christmas, the Justice Secretary said that his Department would be building three so-called titan prisons. This morning, he said that those prisons “may” now be built. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether this is a titanic failure or a titanic U-turn?
We will go ahead with these prisons following the consultation that my right hon. Friend said would take place.
It is because there are 80,000 more nurses and 20,000 more doctors that we are making progress on waiting times and waiting lists. It is because of that that the rates of cancer are down and we are making progress on stroke and heart disease. My hon. Friend is right to refer to the award that has been won by the trust in his area. I congratulate the trust, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on pushing for more resources for the health service.
In light of the Government’s decision to ignore the findings of the independent arbitration tribunal on police pay, will the Prime Minister please explain to the House what would be the point of any future pay disputes being taken to independent arbitration?
We made it clear throughout the whole year that we were staging public sector pay awards in the interest of getting inflation down. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the Bank of England, in its recent report, said that this was one of the reasons why inflation now stands at 2 per cent. in Britain while it is 4 per cent. in America and 3 per cent. in the rest of Europe. While we wanted to pay the police more, it was necessary in the interests of national policy to get inflation down so that we could reduce interest rates, as we have done over the last few months of the year. The Home Secretary has, however, written to the Police Federation, and I have followed that up with a letter in the past few days in which we say that we look forward to a long-term pay deal based on the full implementation of the arbitration award.
We are building Sure Start centres in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we will continue to invest in under-fives provision. I congratulate him on pushing for that in his constituency.
The Prime Minister is aware of the massive financial costs of failing to raise our young people properly. These include the cost of prisons, policing, drug rehabilitation and a lifetime on benefits. Does he agree that a better way is to intervene early and invest to save, by providing effective prenatal services and intensive health visiting and by comprehensive parenting skills being taught to all teenagers? Will he consider making such an early intervention strategy the centrepiece of the next comprehensive spending review, so that we can tackle once and for all the intergenerational nature of these problems that afflict our young people?
Let me say also that I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency. I pay tribute to the work that he has done on making an issue of greater provision for the under-fives. This is part of the work that we are doing as a result of the comprehensive spending review. Our aim is to ensure that, for those children under five, any disadvantages that were previously built into their upbringing and prospects are removed as a result of Sure Start and other measures. I gather that there are 11 Sure Start centres in Nottingham already, and we are going to improve the numbers over the next few months. I also believe that Nottingham will be one of the first local authorities to benefit from the Every Child a Reader programme. We will do everything that we can to give more chances to every child under five in the country.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has taken a long-term interest in Kenya and in what happens in Africa. I talked to Kofi Annan and to Graça Machel, the mediators, last evening. I wanted them to send three clear messages to the Kenyan regime. The first is that democracy is not defended by killing people, and that those who are behind the violence will be held to account in the future. Secondly, dialogue and negotiation are the only way forward in resolving this crisis, and Kenya’s politicians must now show the leadership that the Kenyan people want. European Foreign Ministers have made that clear, as did European leaders in a statement last night. Thirdly, the international community will not let the people of Kenya down. We have given £2 million to the Red Cross to help to relieve urgent humanitarian needs, and we will do everything we can through the Department for International Development to provide help to those who have been displaced and harmed. We also stand ready to provide financial support to a genuinely representative Government who are prepared to put the interests of the people of Kenya first.
How does the Prime Minister reconcile his assertion that Parliament should be at the centre of our national life and his promise that the European Union (Amendment) Bill would have full consideration in this House with the draconian timetable motion that we have had thrust upon us this week?
The Bill is being discussed in very great detail. It was discussed last week, it is being discussed this week and it will be discussed next week and the week after that. I think that the country will know that there has been full and detailed discussion of every aspect of this legislation.
The regulator has been asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look into all those matters. The fact is that there has been a 60 to 80 per cent. increase in coal, gas and oil. We cannot deny that those increases are taking place in every country in the world, causing inflationary pressures, including on ordinary consumers. We have the winter allowance in place, which provides £300 for pensioners over 80 and £200 for those over 70. The energy companies have been asked to provide additional money, which is being raised from £40 million to £56 million, to support consumers and we will also do more to help fuel-efficient provision of energy services for households under the Warm Front programme. That will help people to insulate and draught-proof their homes. More money will be going into that in the next few years. We continue to look into all those aspects of the problems people face as a result of energy bills and we will make further announcements to the House.
The Prime Minister may be aware that the Post Office earmarked four post offices for closure in the Mid-Sussex constituency. It invited a detailed consultation for six weeks, to which there were more than 6,500 replies—all unreservedly in favour of retaining those post offices. On Tuesday, however, the Post Office announced that they are all to be closed. Why does the Prime Minister allow his Government to be party to such a rotten deceit of the public in respect of that consultation?
We have made available £1.7 billion to help post offices in this country and we will continue to make money available for Post Office services. There is a process of consultation and an appeals system, although I do not know whether it was taken up. I urge the hon. Gentleman to meet the Minister in charge of the Post Office. We are listening to what people say, but the fact of the matter is that many post offices are not used in any great detail. We will continue to put the money in to help the Post Office service.
I am extremely concerned by what was said there and by what my hon. Friend now says. I believe that Ministers with responsibility for schools will want to look further into this. Indeed, we will do so and report back to the House.
The Prime Minister will understand the importance for his constituency and mine of the construction of the two new aircraft carriers. Will he therefore explain why, although the Defence Secretary agreed the go-ahead for those aircraft carriers last July, the contracts for their construction have not yet been signed?
We were able to announce the two new aircraft carriers. They will benefit not only Rosyth, but many shipyards around the country. We are in the process of agreeing contracts to go ahead with them, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is our intention to go ahead with those contracts.
I gather that the Scottish National party does not want this issue to be raised in the House of Commons. I have some knowledge of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. It has given service to the community over many decades, and it is valued in the community. Unfortunately, the rate of increase of expenditure on health care in Scotland is not now the same as the rate of increase in England. That is the unfortunate result of policy decisions made by the SNP.
I must tell the Prime Minister that Shropshire’s local education authority is ranked 145th out of 149 LEAs for funding, and that all Shropshire MPs have to fight tooth and nail to save our primary schools in small rural villages. When will the Prime Minister give fairer funding to rural shire counties such as mine to sustain rural village schools, and not pour money into Telford? Why should Telford have £200 more than Shrewsbury?
We have doubled expenditure on schooling. We continue to increase the amount of money that is spent on education. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to increase expenditure on education, he had better change the policy of his Front Bench, who have opposed our increases in money for schools.