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Prime Minister

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Royal Air Force Sergeant Duane Barwood, who died in Iraq on Friday. To him and to others who have lost their lives we owe a huge 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 endorse the Prime Minister’s comments.

Poverty pay in this country was largely eradicated by the national minimum wage legislation introduced by this Government 10 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and the House that the minimum wage will continue to rise in line with average earnings, and that he will maintain his commitment to high employment and investment in our public services?

I am pleased to announce that the minimum wage will rise to £5.73 this October. That is a 60 per cent. increase on the original minimum wage introduced in 1999. Some people said that the minimum wage would cost us 2 million jobs. We have a rising minimum wage, and we have created 3 million jobs. I am also delighted to say that in contrast to what others are suggesting—£10 billion of tax cuts will be paid for by huge cuts in public spending—we will maintain public services in health, education and transport infrastructure, and those for children and pensioners. We will keep our promises on public services.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sergeant Duane Barwood, who was killed in Basra on Friday. His family live in my constituency, and our thoughts and prayers are with them as they honour his memory.

Does the Prime Minister think that if he held a referendum on the Lisbon treaty he would win it?

No country in Europe apart from Ireland is holding a referendum on the constitutional treaty—Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Members should not be shouting down the Prime Minister, or the Leader of the Opposition.

If this were a constitutional treaty, we would hold a referendum. If there were a vote on the euro, we would hold a referendum. But the constitutional concept was abandoned, and that is why the nine countries that proposed a referendum—including Ireland—are not holding one.

The question that the Opposition must answer is this. If after ratification they hold a referendum, they will essentially be renegotiating our membership of the European Union, and that would put thousands of jobs in this country at risk.

Everyone who is watching will see that the Prime Minister will not answer the question. The truth is that all of us in the House promised a referendum. We have the courage of our convictions and are sticking to that promise. The Prime Minister has lost his courage, and that lot—the Liberal Democrats—have lost their convictions. So let me ask the Prime Minister again: does he think that if he held a referendum, he would win it?

The last time a referendum was held on Europe, it was won with a massive majority. Let me also say to the right hon. Gentleman that his proposals put our membership of the European Union at risk. When will he wake up to the fact that three and a half million jobs are dependent on our membership of the European Union, that 700,000 companies are trading with Europe, that 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe, and that all that is put at risk by Conservative intransigence on Europe?

And answer came there none.

The Prime Minister says that the constitutional concept has been abandoned, yet this treaty includes provision for an EU Foreign Minister, an EU president and an EU diplomatic service. I do not think that Tony Blair is running for president of some feeble organisation. He is running for president of the United States of Europe.

This treaty gets rid of dozens of vetoes, and gives the European Union, for the first time, the ability to get rid of further treaties without another treaty. If it looks like the constitution and sounds like the constitution, that is because it is the constitution. Tony Blair found the courage to back a referendum; why will not the Prime Minister?

The Conservative party is wrong: this is not “the United States of Europe”. The Conservative party is wrong: foreign policy is decided at intergovernmental level. As far as what the right hon. Gentleman says about this institutional arrangement, a former Conservative Chancellor says:

“What we have now is far less important than Maastricht”

—and their party did not have a referendum on Maastricht.

If the Prime Minister wants to trade quotes, why does he not try this one from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who was Labour’s appointment to the organisation that drew up the constitution? She said:

“A referendum was promised. It should be delivered. If Labour can’t trust the people, why should the people trust Labour?”

Does not the Prime Minister understand that this is one of the reasons why our political system is so badly broken? All three main parties in this House made a promise to our constituents for a vote on the EU constitution. When we turn around and say, “You can’t have it any more,” it is no wonder people feel cheated and cynical because promises are being made and broken. Why cannot the Prime Minister see the damage that he is doing?

I have explained to the House that if this was a constitutional treaty, we would be having a referendum. The constitutional concept was abandoned. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to persist in talking about “the United States of Europe” and a “constitutional treaty”, he will have no support in the rest of Europe. Indeed, the only party that supports him in Europe, the Czech ODS party, says:

“The document is no constitution any more.”

If the right hon. Gentleman’s party had truly changed and moved to the centre, he would be standing up to his Back-Benchers: he would be leading them instead of following them, he would be standing up to the Eurosceptics instead of appeasing them, and he would be moving to the centre of Europe instead of being left at the margins of Europe.

The opportunities for young people to receive a higher education are greater than ever before. Is Swindon, with its high employment level but low skills base, a suitable candidate to bid for a much needed new university?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many towns and cities in this country will want a university or higher education institution in the next few years. We are expanding higher and further education because we are investing more in education and not cutting it, and as we do so there will be scope for towns and cities in this country to apply to have universities or higher education institutions. That is the right way forward for Swindon and for many other towns and cities, and I hope that people will support the increase in education investment that makes that possible.

May I add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Sergeant Duane Barwood?

The Prime Minister once said that he would,

“build a wider pro-European movement in Britain”.

How does he think he can achieve that by colluding with the anti-European Conservatives to block the in out referendum that the British people really want?

By not walking out of the House of Commons, for a start. By not saying that there is a principle in abstention when it comes to a European issue. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will lead the agenda on the future of Europe, and that we will lead on the environment, international development, the approach to globalisation and security. There is not much principle in recommending abstention.

The Prime Minister talks about leadership, but the fact is that he has bottled it and, as far as I can make out, the leader of the Conservatives wants to leave the European Union but has not got the guts to say it. Is not the truth that this country will never lead in Europe until politicians who believe in the European Union have the courage to stand up for it, and politicians who want to leave it are flushed out in an honest debate on our membership?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. The Conservative party leadership is being driven by the Eurosceptics on the Back Benches. I also agree with him that we need to put the pro-European case in the country, but I have to say that to go back to the 1970s and relive a referendum in the 1970s is not the way to plan for the future. The way to plan for the future is to have an agenda for a global Europe, which is exactly what this Government have.

Q2. In a couple of weeks’ time, free national bus travel is being introduced for pensioners. However, North East Lincolnshire council is chucking pensioners off the bus before 9.30 in the morning and blaming the Government. Will my right hon. Friend tell the residents of Grimsby and Cleethorpes that it is not the Government doing this, but a case of the Lib Dems stealing their bus passes? (191538)

I am proud that this Government have made it possible to have free local pensioner travel and now free off-peak national pensioner travel. That is why we have made available £650 million over the next three years. We consulted local authorities and we agreed to the scheme that they put forward. There is no excuse for local authorities denying pensioners their right to travel throughout the country. This is a scheme that is right, that can be done and that should happen from next month.

There are currently six police investigations under way into the conduct of government in London. The most recent allegations are that the London Mayor’s director for equalities and policing has been channelling public funds into organisations run by friends and cronies. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that is completely unacceptable?

As on any occasion when a matter referring to a police investigation is raised, I have to say this is a matter for the police. It should be fully investigated, but it is not a matter for this House until the police complete their investigations.

The point is that while these accusations are going on and this investigation is under way, the Mayor—the Labour Mayor—has said that he

“trusts Lee Jasper with his life”,

and last night he said that he is already planning to reappoint him. Does not every element of the Prime Minister’s moral compass tell him that this is wrong?

As I understand it, the person whom the right hon. Gentleman is talking about has resigned and is no longer in that employment. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to support the police in their investigation, why does his candidate for the Mayor of London say that the first target for cuts is transport and policing? That is the Conservative party—cutting transport and cutting policing.

Q3. Has my right hon. Friend seen reports in today’s press of condemnation by the United Nations drug control agency of a celebrity cocaine culture in the United Kingdom? I have seen the devastating effect of drugs on young lives in my constituency, so will he take this opportunity to agree with me that, quite simply, there is nothing glamorous about drug abuse? (191539)

One of the good things of recent years is that the number of people using drugs appears to have fallen. It is also true that the number of people receiving drug treatment is up, and we have doubled the budget available for people receiving treatment for drugs. But I have to agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important, when there are celebrities and role models for young people, that they send out the proper messages. Some of our role models and celebrities send out the right message about the damage of drugs, but I hope that those people who take a casual attitude to drugs will think again and remember the message, as celebrities, that they are sending out to young people in our country.

The Prime Minister, speaking of education, boasts of opportunity for all, but has he forgotten that under his stewardship, the number of young people not in education, employment or training has soared to 1.25 million? Does he believe that the principal reason for that failure is that nine in 10 jobs go to foreign workers, or is it that 40,000 school leavers leave at 16 functionally illiterate and/or innumerate?

The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that about 500,000 more young people are in education after school than when we came into power in 1997, so far from there being fewer young people in education, there are more. He has also forgotten that more young people are in work now than there were in 1997, and that youth unemployment has fallen by 80 per cent. Yes, there is an issue to address about young people who fall through the net and young people who leave school without qualifications, but the only way to deal with it is through the measures that we are taking to raise to the age of 18 the opportunities for young people and not to cut them, as the Conservative party would do.

Q4. In view of soaring energy costs for consumers and soaring profits for energy companies, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to imposing a windfall levy on those profits with a view to increasing the winter fuel allowance for pensioners by £200 for next winter? (191540)

As my hon. Friend knows, the head of Ofgem has set up an inquiry into the market in electricity and energy in this country. It is right that he pursues an investigation to see whether competition is working effectively in the industry. It is also true that as a result of the European emissions trading scheme windfall profits have been made by the energy companies. That is a matter on which the head of Ofgem has also commented. The energy companies have made additional money available this year to help people on low incomes pay their fuel bills, but that is a small amount in relation to what the Government are doing through the winter allowance. Our winter allowance is £200 for the over-60s and £300 for the over-80s. This winter, when people are experiencing high utility bills, the winter allowance that we are giving is crucial.

Since last November, the Government have secretly trebled the bribe offered to foreign national prisoners to go home. Have the Government done that in secret because they have failed?

Two years ago, only 1,500 foreign national prisoners were leaving and being thrown out of this country. Last year, as a result of the actions that we have taken, the figure more than doubled to 4,200. I think it is right that we get as many foreign national prisoners in British prisons back to their country of origin as quickly as possible. I would have hoped that the hon. and learned Gentleman would support the measures that we are taking to return people to their country of origin.

In the week when we are celebrating both mother’s day and international women’s day, would my right hon. Friend commit to helping improve maternal and child health programmes in developing countries through improvements in reproductive health services and, in particular, through the international health partnership?

There would be no better way to mark international women’s day than by taking action to deal with infant and maternal mortality. I would have thought that both sides of the House would think it a tragedy that 500,000 mothers die unnecessarily each year in childbirth and that in a country such as Sierra Leone one in every seven mothers dies in childbirth, bringing into life a baby while dying herself. That is why it is very important that the international health partnership that we have formed takes action to deal with maternal mortality. It needs more nurses, more midwives and more help with treatment in those countries. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she has put this issue on the agenda in this country. If the Opposition would get serious about issues relating to maternal mortality, perhaps together, as a House, we would take action on this matter.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), and First Minister of Northern Ireland, on the announcement that he made yesterday that he plans to stand down from his position as Northern Ireland’s First Minister? Will he also join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on almost 40 years in this House and on his resolve and determination not to give in to terrorism? Will he also join my right hon. Friend, my colleagues and me in reassuring all of those who want to see continuity in Northern Ireland that true democrats will have nothing to fear from the next Democratic Unionist party First Minister in the Assembly?

The hon. Gentleman is right: all of us want to pay tribute to the work that the First Minister did in making possible the final stages of the peace process, the work that he has done as First Minister, his resolute determination to stand up to terrorism at every point and his decision to work with other parties for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. I had the privilege of phoning him last night to thank him for the work that he has done as First Minister, and I hope that the whole House will join me in acknowledging his 40 years of service in this House and the historic role that he has played in the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.

Q6. In Milton Keynes, the Open university, De Montfort university, the university of Luton, University College Northampton and Milton Keynes college are already collaborating, through Universities for Milton Keynes, to provide higher education course for 700 students locally. Would my right hon. Friend agree that that is just the type of initiative that the new university challenge has been designed for, and that Milton Keynes will be successful in its bid for one of the 20 new universities? (191542)

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills made an important announcement on Monday about the designation of 20 towns or cities for new universities or higher education institutes. I hope that all cities and towns will consider whether they could add to their higher education and university amenities, and I hope that many will make submissions as part of that process. Milton Keynes has done a historic job as the home of the Open university, which is known throughout the world, and given Milton Keynes’ size, its application for university status will be welcomed in every part of the country.

To return to the European treaty, what polling or survey evidence did the Prime Minister have on what the result of a referendum would have been?

The one poll that people look at is an actual referendum. In 1975 there was a referendum that recorded a yes vote, with more than two thirds of the population voting yes. I remind Conservative Members that most of those who were here in 1992 walked through the Lobby to oppose a referendum on Maastricht, and now they want a referendum on a treaty that is far less significant. They should think again about their position.

Q7. I know that my right hon. Friend wants to engage and involve young people in their communities as volunteers and in the democratic process. Does he agree that lowering the voting age to 16 would help to bring that about? (191543)

In the White Paper on the constitution, the Government said that we would consider lowering the voting age to 16 and that is now part of the debate that will take place in the country. On Friday, we announced the appointment of Jonathan Tonge as chair of the Youth Citizenship Commission, which will consider a range of issues including not only the voting age, but the curriculum on citizenship and whether there is a case for a citizenship ceremony when people come of age. All those issues should be part of a public debate.

Q8. Is it not ironic that while our armed forces are fighting so courageously and losing lives to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, this House through the Lisbon treaty is handing powers to our masters in Brussels, thereby further destroying the democratic right of the British people to bring about change through the ballot box? (191544)

We have a Parliament, we have a democracy and we are having debates on that very treaty in this House as part of our democracy. The hon. Lady should be honest with the House, because she was a member of the campaign—[Interruption.] I hope that Conservatives who are putting the case for the referendum will tell the House what they really want. They want a no vote in the referendum and many of them want to renegotiate our membership of the EU. They are not simply anti the amending treaty; they are anti-Europe.

Ministerial Visits

I visited Leicestershire in September, when I visited policing in the community. I look forward to returning to the area soon.

When he comes to north-west Leicestershire, the Prime Minister will receive a warm welcome, not least from the area’s general practitioners, who have implemented our Government’s primary care policies very successfully since 1997. Will he meet those GPs, such as the highly respected Dr. Orest Mulka, whose experience with polyclinics abroad indicates that they will be a step too far and that they might lead to a lower regard for generalist doctors, damage the GP- patient relationship and be wasteful and demoralising as a consequence?

The key priority is that we have more doctors who are serving their communities, not just during working hours but during evenings and weekends. That is why it is right that in every area of the country we are investing more in the GP service. I hope that our GPs will vote for the three extra hours that will allow half the practices in this country to offer weekend opening or evening opening so that doctors are available for people when they need them.


Q10. Is the Prime Minister aware that St. Ann’s hospice in Heald Green in my constituency needs to raise £16,000 a day just to keep going? Is he further aware that the respected charity Help the Hospices claims that Government fund only one third of the total requirement needed? Will the Prime Minister tell us what he will do about the problem and will he agree to meet an all-party delegation to discuss the matter in more detail? (191546)

Of course, I would be very happy to meet an all-party delegation. The work of hospices and the great contribution that they make should be commended in every part of the country. It is true to say that we are providing more finance for hospices than ever before. We will continue to look at what we can do and to value the service that is given by volunteers, as well as professionals, in this area. When we meet, we will discuss the future funding needs of hospices.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree, and I think that he will, that holding a referendum on the EU treaty would be tantamount to Parliament’s abrogating its responsibilities? However, does he accept that many people in Britain regard the EU as a bureaucratic monolithic monstrosity that unduly interferes with the economic, social and political issues facing our nation? What will he do to alter that perception? (191547)

I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s second point. We are proposing major changes in the EU so that it is more outward looking, more global in its orientation, more flexible and less bureaucratic. On her first point, let us be absolutely clear that on every other amending treaty for the EU, the decision has been made by this House and not through a referendum. The Single European Act, Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht were all decided on in this House. It is the Conservative party that has changed its mind, not the Labour party.

Q12. With the prison population at record levels, Prison Service managers are understandably trying to use every available place that they can find. For Members of this House with open prisons in their constituencies, there is a concern that security vetting is being relaxed because there are spare places in open prisons. Will the Prime Minister ensure that there is an investigation and will he guarantee that security vetting will not be relaxed simply because of pressure on prison places? (191548)

I understand that security vetting does take place. The important thing for the hon. Gentleman to recognise is that we have created 20,000 more prison places over the past 10 years. Even this year there will be a rise in prison places from 82,000 to 85,000 and we will create 15,000 more prison places in the years to come. The reason that we are doing that is that we have brought more offences to justice. Five years ago, 1 million offences were brought to justice; now the figure is 1.4 million. That is a tribute to good policing in this country, and it is because we have been prepared to invest in the police services through our public expenditure.

Q13. Over the past few years, cluster munitions have killed and maimed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Now the Oslo process, involving more than 130 nations, including the UK, offers us a way of ridding the world of those weapons for ever. Can my right hon. Friend commit to showing the same sort of resolve in dealing with cluster munitions that this Government showed when we rid the world of land mines? (191549)

I can tell my hon. Friend that weapons that cause unacceptable harm are something that we have got to negotiate about. We are engaged in a negotiation on this, and of course the Defence Secretary will report back to the House when that negotiation is completed.