Skip to main content


Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday evening. We owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

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

I am sure the whole House will wish to add their condolences to those of the Prime Minister.

The fact that Labour Members welcome the decision to bring Northern Rock into public ownership may not come as a surprise. It was the right decision at the right time. However, given that the public purse is now to bear the risk of Northern Rock, can my right hon. Friend give my constituents the guarantee that when Northern Rock goes back into private ownership all the returns will come back to the taxpayer?

Yes, the benefits will return to the taxpayer. I welcome the chance to explain the background to how we will deal with the long-term interests of the taxpayer. Our first decision on Northern Rock was to ensure the stability of the economy, to prevent the problems at Northern Rock from spreading to the rest of the economy in a period of global financial turbulence—that has been achieved. Our second decision was to protect depositors—that has been achieved. Our third decision was to protect the long-term interests of the taxpayer. That is why it was right to invite bids from all quarters, to examine them thoroughly and to make the right decision on the basis of the long-term interests of taxpayers. That is why we will return Northern Rock from temporary public ownership to the private sector only when we can get the best deal for the taxpayer. Stability is our watchword. The interests of taxpayers will come first.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Damian Lawrence, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday? He died serving our country. May I also take the opportunity to wish the Prime Minister a happy 57th birthday? [Interruption.] Enough of that.

In January last year, the Government were sent details of 4,000 dangerous foreign criminals and for an entire year they did absolutely nothing with that information. Can the Prime Minister explain how such a catastrophic failure to protect the public took place?

The Attorney-General has asked the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct an inquiry into this matter. A request was made by the Dutch authorities for us to look through our DNA records. Some 4,000 names were put to us by the Dutch, and 11 cases have been discovered as a result of the investigation. The inquiry will cover all the details of what happened. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that it was possible for the Dutch to ask us to look at our DNA records only because we are keeping full DNA records. The Conservatives opposed that legislation.

The Prime Minister tells us that there is an inquiry, but there always is an inquiry with this Government—frequently it is a police inquiry. The Prime Minister is somehow pretending that the fact that 4,000 details were left on a civil servant’s desk for a year was a triumph of Government policy. I must ask some simple questions. He has told us about 11 criminals who have committed crimes in Britain this year. Can he tell us what crimes they committed?

The crimes, as I understand it, were assault and non-payment of fines. Those are the crimes that have been identified. The full report will reveal the final details, but I must ask the right hon. Gentleman again whether he now supports DNA being kept by the Government. The Conservatives voted against the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Dutch would not have asked us for those details had we not had the DNA, but the right hon. Gentleman was against that measure.

As ever, the Prime Minister is completely wrong. The first DNA legislation was passed when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary and I was working for him. I seem to remember—[Interruption.] Let us be clear: if the Government had acted on the information, crimes could have been prevented. As the Prime Minister said, some of those crimes were serious violent assaults. Why are the Government so incompetent when it comes to processing information about criminals? They failed to deport the foreign criminals; they failed to process the details of 30,000 British citizens who committed crimes overseas; and now we know that information about serious crimes sat on a desk in Whitehall for a year and nothing was done. Should not people conclude that this incompetent Government simply cannot keep them safe?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong about the deportation of foreign criminals. Two years ago, only 1,500 were deported. Last year, as a result of the action that we have taken, 4,200 were deported. We are now signing agreements with Jamaica and Nigeria, and I have raised the matter with China and Vietnam, so that we can deport foreign criminals. No records of the deportation of foreign criminals were kept under the Conservatives; we have deported 4,200.

I come back to the central question. We have tightened up the law on DNA and that is why the Dutch authorities want the information from us. The right hon. Gentleman opposed that legislation. Has he now changed his mind?

Will my right hon. Friend create a badge of honour for the women Spitfire pilots of the second world war and their male colleagues in the Air Transport Auxiliary, who came from 28 countries to ferry more than 300,000 aircraft to front-line airfields during this country’s direst hour of need?

My hon. Friend has mounted a successful campaign to raise the issue of the women Spitfire pilots in particular. We now have medals for those people who are veterans of the war and for those who served in the Land Army. It is right in my view that we have recognition for the women Spitfire pilots who did so much to protect and defend the Royal Air Force and other military services, and we will go ahead with his proposal for a medal for those people.

I wish to add my own expressions of condolence and sympathy to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence.

This being the Prime Minister’s birthday, I welcome his belated acceptance of the advice from the Liberal Democrats that the temporary nationalisation of Northern Rock was the only workable option available to him, although he now seems to be jeopardising the interests of British taxpayers all over again by hiving off the bank’s best assets elsewhere. Will he now admit that if he had acted sooner he could have saved the taxpayer the tens of millions of pounds frittered away on bidders’ costs and prevented the untold damage done to this country’s reputation as a world financial centre?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition for their best wishes on my birthday.

I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Northern Rock, which the Leader of the Opposition was reticent to raise, given that his party has six policies on the issue and has now decided on the worst possible option. As far as the Liberal Democrats’ policy is concerned, we were right to look at all possible options and we were right to invite private buyers to make offers. Because we will be subject to legal action, we were right to look in detail at every possible bid, and we were right to draw the conclusion, after considering every possible bid, that the temporary public ownership of Northern Rock was the best way forward. As far as Granite is concerned, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it will not affect the sale of Northern Rock to a private buyer.

Well, we might agree about the economically illiterate proposals from the Conservative party, but we disagree on why it took the Prime Minister so long to act on Northern Rock. Will he now agree to act in following our lead more urgently on another issue—namely, the scandalous profiteering by UK energy companies at a time when 25,000 people are predicted to die from the cold this winter alone? Does he realise those companies stand to make a £9 billion windfall profit from the European emissions trading scheme? Does he agree that that excess profit, equivalent to about £360 for every British family in this country, should be handed back to the neediest customers through lower energy prices?

I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that we were right to look at all possible options for Northern Rock before we took the decision that we did. If we had not done that, we would be subject to even greater legal action for not looking rigorously at all options. As far as energy is concerned, let me say that we are looking at the advice of the director general of Ofgem on that very matter. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour Government who introduced the winter allowance, which is helping thousands of elderly people. It was the Labour Government who raised it to £300 for the over- 80s. It was the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party who opposed the winter allowance.

The Prime Minister recently completed a successful tour of China to promote better co-operation between the two countries and their economies. Wigan council will shortly be signing an agreement with a Chinese company to bring in £125 million of investment and create 1,000 jobs in the local economy. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the council? May I ask him to use his best offices to ensure that if there are any problems, central Government will play its part in overcoming them to ensure that the development is completed as rapidly as possible?

I was talking to Premier Wen of China by telephone yesterday. I must confess that I did not specifically raise the question of investment in Wigan; I now regret that. We have excellent commercial and trading links with China. What is happening in Wigan and the new attempts at new investment in this area are to be welcomed. We have set a target of increasing trade between ourselves and China by 50 per cent. over the next two years. I believe that Wigan and the whole of the north-west will benefit from that. I shall ensure that in my next telephone call with the Premier I mention the needs of Wigan.

Q2. On Monday, the Prime Minister enjoyed the very best of British food at the hospitality of the National Farmers Union. He will be aware that the Office of Fair Trading claims that a number of supermarkets have abused their dominant position in the marketplace. Indeed, the Competition Commission has recommended setting up a supermarket ombudsman to ensure fair trade for British producers and continued British products for the British consumer. Will the Prime Minister implement that recommendation? If he is minded to do so, when will that be? (186508)

I think it is true to say that in the recent foot and mouth outbreak the British supermarkets helped the farm industry. They tried their best to ensure that British food was being sold in British supermarkets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that issues have been raised by the Competition Commission. We will look at this matter, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Q3. Climate change will create a challenging world, and all sane people now believe that. More than 600 of my concerned constituents have written to beg me—and all of us—to be brave and bold in setting more ambitious targets. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that our Government will continue to take the lead in tackling climate change by agreeing to more challenging targets lest the sea swell and sweep away Hove and Portslade? (186509)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has taken up the issue of climate change both in her constituency and in this House. I agree that we might need to be far more radical in the targets that we set for cutting carbon emissions. We have set a target of 60 per cent. for 2050. We have now set up the new committee on climate change and will ask it to look at a new target of 80 per cent., which is a far bigger cut in carbon emissions than before. We are the first country in the world to have legislation that legally requires the Government to ensure that carbon emissions are cut every decade. In particular, of course, we will take action in the next few years to get a new world climate change agreement.

Yes, Northern Rock. If the Prime Minister wants a question on Northern Rock, here is one for him. Last night, we learned that Northern Rock will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have the legislation here, and it says that, for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, Northern Rock is

“not…a publicly-owned company.”

What is the Prime Minister trying to hide?

The only reason that the Freedom of Information Act comes into this is that it would be unfair on Northern Rock if other companies knew everything about its business plan. It is surely a matter of commercial confidentiality that Northern Rock should be able to plan its business future. As far as the commercial future of Northern Rock is concerned, we have made it absolutely clear that the bank’s new head, Ron Sandler, will operate in a commercial market. He will be able to decide on repossessions and all other issues, and he will put forward his plan for the restructuring of the company.

However, it may be helpful if the Conservative party would explain its plan—which is now to run down Northern Rock and to have a fire sale of its assets and get less than market value for them. That is the worst possible deal for the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister’s answer is feeble. All other publicly owned companies, such as the Post Office, Scottish Water, the Tote and National Savings and Investments, are subject to the freedom of information legislation. Let me remind the Prime Minister, the supreme leader, of what he said about freedom of information in his lecture about liberty. He said:

“Freedom of information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians”,

but that it

“can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments”.

Is not that why he is covering things up?

Not at all, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will publish the reports from the Midlands Industrial Council, which is a Conservative organisation. Everyone in the country will know that, in a competitive mortgage market, it would be ridiculous to ask Northern Rock to publish every detail of its business plans. Commercial confidentiality has to be respected in the running of the company, and he should be the first to support it.

The Government were happy to show Richard Branson all the facts, but they will not tell the British public. Here are some of the questions about Northern Rock that the Prime Minister will not answer. What is the total liability for the taxpayer, and how much money will the taxpayer pay for the business? He will not tell us. How long are we going to hold the business? He cannot say. Should the business get bigger or smaller? He will not tell us.

Last night, at 10 minutes to midnight, we found out that half of the mortgages—the best half—are owned by somebody else. When it comes to this Government and freedom of information, they would make Fidel Castro proud. Why is the Prime Minister covering all that up?

We have acted on Northern Rock for reasons that the country supports—to secure stability and to protect depositors and the best interests of the taxpayer. We are not going to reduce the Northern Rock issue to the student politics that the Leader of the Opposition is indulging in. We are the party of stability; the Opposition would leave Northern Rock and the economy unstable.

Q4. Northampton is the home of Nationwide and Barclaycard, which yesterday announced record profits, and thousands of people in my constituency rely on the financial services industry for the security of their jobs and homes. What impact will the action taken by the Government on Northern Rock have on the long-term security of my constituents’ and jobs? What would have been the impact had the Government taken the Opposition’s advice? (186510)

The issues that concern the country are mortgages, inflation, our country’s economic growth and jobs. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken action on Northern Rock to preserve the stability of the economy. Over the past six months, when we have seen the worst of global financial turbulence in America and the rest of Europe, we have managed to isolate the problems of Northern Rock so that they have not infected the rest of the economy. The Opposition should at least understand that we are better placed to deal with those problems because of the actions that the Government have taken.

As far the general economy is concerned, we have more people in work than ever before and lower unemployment than at any time since the 1970s. Today, we published the best January figures for the public finances in our history, and inflation and interest rates are half what they were under the Conservatives.

Professor Sir John Tooke, in his inquiry on modernising medical careers, found that the United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union to apply the European working time directive in the way that we do. It is a way that endangers the delivery of consultant-led maternity and children’s services at hospitals such as mine, the Horton general hospital in Banbury. Sir John recommended that the Government look again at how the European working time directive is applied. Will the Government do so?

I believe that we are not the only country in that position, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are going to reply to the Tooke report, and that that will happen in the next few weeks.

Q5. Youth unemployment has fallen by 58 per cent. in my constituency since 1997, but there is still a resilient core of young people who are not in work, education or training and families in which a culture of being out of work and wholly dependent on benefits has been passed from one generation to the next. Do the Government accept the inevitability of the situation, or does the Prime Minister agree that we could and should be doing more to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment? (186511)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I applaud the way that she has taken up the issue of youth employment in her constituency and in the country. Youth unemployment has fallen by more than 60 per cent. over the last 10 years, but there is more to do. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is today putting forward proposals to deal with people who are long-term unemployed. That is also why we are increasing the number of apprenticeships in our economy, and that is also why, for those who are not able to get apprenticeships because they do not have the qualifications, we are going to introduce pre-apprenticeship courses so that young people without qualifications who have left school with nothing can get on apprenticeship courses. Those are the practical ways of making the new deal relevant to the new situation. The worst thing to do would be, as the Opposition want to do, to abolish the new deal.

Q6. Following the Prime Minister’s reply to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) a few weeks ago, does he now accept that there is an urgent need for reform of the British Board of Film Classification? What possible justification can there be for the board’s decision to release into British high street outlets videos and DVDs such as “SS Experiment Camp”, which shows in voyeuristic detail women being tortured to death by SS camp guards? (186512)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I think it is true to say, as I have looked at it, that the British Board of Film Classification has put a higher category on many films in a different way from that recommended by the distributor, but it is also true to say that he expresses the concerns of many people among the general public. That is why I have agreed to meet him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to talk about the issues, and why we set up the review headed by Dr. Tanya Byron. It will report very soon, and on the basis of that we can make recommendations for the future. As for the Conservatives who say it is wrong to review the issues, I say that the right thing to do is to review them and then make a decision.

Q7. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local primary care trust in Wirral on recently being voted the best primary care organisation in the country? Welcome though that success is, we can and should do more to improve primary care. What more can we do, and what more will my right hon. Friend do, to improve access to GPs, for example? (186513)

I applaud the work of my hon. Friend’s health authority. I visited his constituency and saw at first hand the improvements that have been made. In the north-west, there are 11,000 more nurses than there were when we came to power, but he is absolutely right about access to GPs. Our proposals are for practices to open for three more hours at weekends or in the evenings. That is a sensible proposal to deal with the concerns of millions of families who want access to their GPs at weekends or out of ordinary working hours. I hope that doctors will accept the proposal, which is funded by the Department of Health. That is the right way forward, so that millions of people can have access to their GPs at the time that they want them and need them.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the horrific murder of Paul Quinn casts a serious shadow over the stability of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Serious allegations have been made about the involvement of current members of the Provisional IRA in that murder. Will the Prime Minister reiterate the commitment given that if any party—in this case, Sinn Fein—is found to be in default, he will not punish all the parties in Northern Ireland but ensure that devolution continues and that only the party in default is punished? It is absolutely vital to send a clear message to the people of Northern Ireland, who are growing increasingly concerned about the seriousness of the allegations.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the Quinn murder should be properly investigated. I have reason to believe that that is exactly what is happening, and there is co-operation on both sides of the border for that to happen. There is no evidence that IRA people are involved, but of course that must be investigated in full. Once that is investigated, we will know the full results. I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that no criminals should be allowed to derail a peace process that has the support of millions of people in Northern Ireland, which he and others have played a great part in moving forward, so let us send out a message that no criminals will be allowed to derail the peace process.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that an individual who has openly admitted that he was willing to provide information to facilitate a premeditated assault on another individual should seek to stand to be chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority? What values does that promote to the public, and what does it say other than that the Tories believe that there is one rule for them and another for everybody else? (186514)

According to official Government figures—so it must be true—since 1997 the real cost of travelling by train has gone up 6 per cent. above inflation, the cost of going by bus is up 13 per cent. and the cost of going by car is down 10 per cent. Why does the Prime Minister want to penalise the public transport user? How does that help his climate change objectives and his social exclusion strategy?

We have doubled investment in railways and made it possible for hundreds of millions more people to do rail journeys in a year as a result of those decisions. The railway industry needed modernisation and that is what has been done. With reference to buses, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree with our policy whereby there is now free national concessionary travel for all pensioners.

Q9. What action does the Prime Minister plan to take following this week’s report from the Community Security Trust showing a record rise in violent attacks against Jewish people in this country? Does he agree that all police forces should record such incidents, and not only the police forces in London, Manchester and Hertfordshire, as is the case at present? (186515)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I know that she works closely with the Community Security Trust. Its recent report shows that there has indeed been a rise in the number of anti-Semitic crimes in this country, which is much to be regretted. It needs the strong action of the police and of course the public to root it out. One area where the rise has been most noted is on the campuses of universities. That is completely unacceptable, so we shall work with the Community Security Trust to do everything we can to deal with what are hate crimes that should be condemned by all sensible people in this country.

Baby Jessica Randall was just 54 days old when she was murdered by her now imprisoned father, after having been repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted. In her short life, she spent 21 days in Kettering general hospital and was seen by 30 separate health care workers. Is it right that, in cases like Jessica’s, senior and often extremely well-paid directors in our health care services and social services should collectively slope their shoulders and refuse to accept individual responsibility for their failure to protect such vulnerable children?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very sad and tragic case. I will investigate what he has said about Jessica and what happened to her, and I will write to him.

Q10. In international development, there are set millennium development goals. Unlike the goals for water and education, the goal for maternal health is revealed to be falling further and further behind. As a consistent champion of tackling poverty internationally, will my right hon. Friend ensure that poor women and mothers are no longer neglected in international development? (186516)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has taken up the issues of development across Africa and Asia and has done so in a most eloquent way. It is true to say that one of the greatest tragedies which is avoidable is the number of mothers who die in childbirth. That happens to half a million mothers a year. That means that one mother is dying every minute, and in some countries, like Sierra Leone, one in every seven mothers dies in childbirth, compared with one in over 3,000 in countries like ours. Those are avoidable deaths, which harm the very children that are being born. It is therefore vital that we do more about it. That is why we are spending more on health care systems, why we are determined to help countries to reach development goals on maternal mortality, and why we have formed the International Health Partnership. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that we are pushing forward other countries to do exactly as we are doing—that is, investing in maternal health.

Q12. The shadow price of carbon used in the Heathrow consultation was three times lower than the figure recommended in the Stern report and changed the outcome on the third runway. In future consultations, will the Government stop backtracking on the Stern report and fiddling the cost of climate change? (186518)

I am not sure whether there is universal agreement about the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of those figures, but I will certainly look at what he says. The fact of the matter is that this is a consultation process—people are free to put their views, and then a decision will be made.

Q13. Last Friday, the Prime Minister visited my constituency and met members of 22 Squadron at RAF Valley. He heard the exciting news about the relocation of search and rescue headquarters to RAF Valley. That proves, once again, that Anglesey is the heart of the British isles. Does the Prime Minister agree that any calls to loosen the ties of Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom, as advocated by the nationalists, would undermine real progress and investment, and that we need a strong Anglesey economy in a strong United Kingdom? (186519)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had a most enjoyable visit to his constituency in the best of weather. I met those at the Valley airfield and congratulated them on the great work that they are doing in air and sea rescue, including a major rescue off Blackpool, which saved many lives a few weeks ago.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 100,000 more jobs are being created in Wales, many in his constituency. That depends on having a UK Government who run a successful economic policy. There is no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solution to these issues. It is a United Kingdom economy, and under a Labour Government it will continue to do well.