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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 473: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2008

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


The recent air strikes and incursions have exacerbated an already grave humanitarian situation: 80 per cent. of the population is at least partly dependent on food aid and 90 per cent. of mains water is polluted. I have allocated an additional £2 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides water, sanitation, food, medicines and shelter. That is in addition to our wider contribution—linked to political progress—of £243 million over three years.

The Secretary of State is doubtless aware that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on the situation in Gaza during the week from 27 February to 3 March recorded that, in that week alone, 107 Palestinians were killed and 250 injured by the Israel Defence Forces and that two IDF soldiers and one Israeli citizen were killed and 25 injured. It also outlines a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with some 30 per cent. of the population currently without access to a regular water supply. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a prima facie case of Israel being in breach of its obligations under article 33 of the Geneva convention regarding collective punishment? If he does agree, what action will the Government—

Of course we unreservedly condemn the rocket attacks that continue to affect Sderot and the Negev in the southern part of Israel, but we are equally clear that we do not support the decision taken by the Israeli Government to close the crossings, restricting the flow of humanitarian supplies such as the ones the hon. Gentleman describes. It is also the long-standing position of the British Government that any response by Israel should be in accordance with international law, including the fourth Geneva convention. We also, of course, deplore civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict.

I thank the Secretary of State for condemning the rocket attacks, but is it not a fact that the bulk of the responsibility lies on Hamas, which has allowed terrorist organisations to rain rockets down on Israel in an attempt to kill children there and, indeed, has undertaken terrorist activity against its own citizens in the military takeover of Gaza? Will the Secretary of State ensure that, however much aid is vitally needed by the citizens of Gaza, none of it gets to those terrorist organisations?

We are obviously keen for Hamas to accept the Quartet principles, which were set out some time ago. Equally, however, we are clear that the humanitarian situation is serious. While we unequivocally condemn both the rocket and sniper attacks, of which my right hon. Friend spoke, we are also clear that there needs to be the means by which humanitarian supplies can reach the 1.5 million people in Gaza.

The crossings are at present closed, other than for very limited entrance for certain supplies. As the OCHA report, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has already referred, reflects, there is a growing and grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. It is therefore important that all sides recognise their responsibilities and facilitate the entrance to the Gaza strip of exactly the humanitarian supplies that would address that grave situation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the real problems facing the people of Gaza is shortage of fuel and electricity, as a result partly of an Israeli air strike on their power plants and partly of the blockade? What are we doing to ensure that electricity supplies get through to Gaza, particularly when, as I understand it, we and the European Union are paying for them to get through?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that, in addition to the fatalities identified in the OCHA report, the air strikes resulted in an additional 30,000 people being cut off from water supplies—200,000 were already cut off before the incursion—and the electricity infrastructure was damaged. There are at present on average about eight hours of power cuts being suffered each day in the Gaza strip, which is why we are in regular contact with all sides and why we are encouraging through the Quartet the continued progress of the Annapolis peace process. Although there is an immediate humanitarian challenge, the long-term resolution to this conflict ultimately has to lie in the political process.

Obviously, the security of the Palestinian people as well as that of the people of Israel should be at the forefront of all our minds. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the former Prime Minister of the UK, Mr. Tony Blair, who has taken on a role in the middle east?

I last met special representatives to the Quartet last January and I previously met them at the Paris pledging conference, which is the next major step after the Annapolis conference. There, Tony Blair made clear to me his pleasure in the scale of pledging that was put behind the peace process by the international community. However, there is only so much that the international community can do to support the Annapolis process, which is why we welcome the latest indications that there will be further political discussions within the region in the days to come.

Following on from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) said, may I tell the Secretary of State that although everyone recognises the sufferings of the ordinary citizens of Gaza, some responsibility must also be placed very firmly on Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel? Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that aid given to the citizens of Gaza actually reaches those ordinary citizens rather than the militaristic Hamas? What discussions has he had with the ICRC to ensure that that happens?

I assure my hon. Friend that, once again, we have unequivocally condemned the rocket and sniper attacks on Israel. That has been the British Government’s position for a long time. As for the related issue of whether we can be comfortable about the work being done, in this instance, by the ICRC and the United Nations, there are long-standing procedures to ensure that we provide the supplies that are immediately required to meet the humanitarian need, while not providing the political support that my hon. Friend has described, which I do not think any Labour Member would be keen for us to provide.

The Secretary of State and others are right to acknowledge that the people of Gaza are victims of both Hamas and the Israeli assaults, but will the Secretary of State also acknowledge that the Bethlehem development and investment conference will have limited scope to change things if Israel has no access to Gaza? The same applies to the west bank, where movement and access continue to be restricted although no rocket attacks are being launched in the area.

I find myself in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. I travelled to the Palestinian territories in December and had an opportunity to observe the presentation from OCHA, which made clear the significance of the consequences of the blockages of movement and access that apply not just in Gaza but throughout the west bank. In our discussions both with the Palestinian authorities and with the Government of Israel, we have stressed repeatedly that if there is to be the economic progress that we should like as a result of the Bethlehem development and investment conference, there must be changes on movement and access.

According to the Secretary of State, the British Government have consistently said that Israel’s actions and response to violence from Hamas and others must comply with international law and meet United Nations humanitarian standards. Have the British Government assessed whether the Israeli Government’s recent actions meet those standards?

There are appropriate bodies to adjudicate on international law. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in conversations with Defence Minister Barak of the Government of Israel we made it clear that we are keen to see Israel adhere to international law, whether in relation to the barrier or settlements or in terms of its response more generally. The issue is the subject of continuing discussion between the British Government and the Government of Israel.

Is the Secretary of State aware that a group of leading charities recently described the situation in Gaza as the worst for 40 years? In particular, it cited shortages of essential medical supplies, electricity, fuel and especially water, which are causing increasing misery. What more can the British Government do, working with the Quartet and the temporary international mechanism, to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago, in which I announced that an additional £2 million would be given to the ICRC to address exactly those concerns. He is right to say that the crisis action report identified the grave humanitarian situation currently affecting the citizens of Gaza. That is why we not only continue to support the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the ICRC, but have today pledged a further £2 million for the ICRC in recognition of the need to respond to that humanitarian situation.

What specific representations has my right hon. Friend made concerning Hamas’s callous decision to launch its rocket attacks on Israelis from civilian areas in Gaza such as the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun?

I assure my hon. Friend that we utterly deplore the rocket attacks, not simply because of their location but because of their consequences—the bombing and casualties in Sderot and the Negev in Israel. We take every opportunity in international forums to make it clear that we unreservedly condemn those attacks, and indeed the sniper attacks as well. However, we make it equally clear that we want Hamas to adhere to the Quartet principles that we set out some time ago.

I join other Members in condemning the violence on both sides of the conflict. I also join the Secretary of State in acknowledging the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In response to a couple of questions, the Secretary of State has said that international bodies are there to judge whether Israel is in breach of its international obligations. Does he agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that Israel is in breach of the Geneva conventions, and, as I asked him when we last discussed these matters, does he think that the Israeli reaction is proportionate?

I hope that I can offer the hon. Gentleman the comfort for which he is looking in the statements that I and the Foreign Secretary issued on 11 and 21 January and 8 February, where not only did we unequivocally condemn, as he has, the rocket and sniper attacks, but we consistently made it clear that any response by Israel should be in accordance with international law. We deplore civilian casualties on both sides and it is a matter that we repeatedly bring to the attention of the Israeli Government.


3. What steps his Department is taking to promote free and fair elections in developing countries. (193264)

Free and fair elections are central to better governance and accountability in developing countries, with primary responsibility resting with the relevant Government. Support is given by the UK at elections, including election observation and voter registration, as well as in between elections to Parliaments, civil society and other institutions.

This is all very valuable work, but does the Under-Secretary think that her efforts have been helped or hindered by her boss’s involvement in elections at home, which were criticised in a report from the Electoral Commission as overlooking voter interests—[Interruption.]

Further to that, the Under-Secretary wishes to be fair. Given that the Council of Europe, for example, has taken up concerns about our own electoral arrangements in relation to postal voting, will she assure the House that when she advises foreign countries and electoral authorities, she will have regard to the need to be scrupulous in terms of best practice rather than some of the practices that may have characterised recent elections here?

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has concerns about matters in the UK, he will raise them with the appropriate Secretary of State. It is important that we support not just free and fair elections at election time, but underlying systems and processes. We work hard with Parliaments, media and civil society, and the hon. Gentleman will want to know that we have established a governance and transparency fund to support accountability and governance in developing countries. We will soon be announcing the recipients of that fund.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that we get free and fair elections in Tibet? What pressure can be placed on China to ensure that Tibet gets those free and fair elections as soon as possible?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working with, and will continue to work closely with, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on that. I will bring his concerns to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

May I caution the Minister against putting too much reliance on Governments to patrol and police their own elections and encourage her to put more effort into strengthening the capacity of Parliaments to hold the Executive to account? The catastrophe in Kenya happened when President Kibaki stuffed the electoral commission of Kenya. Surely it is for the cross-party forum, the Parliament of Kenya, and not the Government of national unity to reform the law so that the electoral commission of Kenya represents all parties in civil society and has credibility when the next elections come?

My hon. Friend has a creditable record in this area through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I commend his leadership of that organisation and the work that it does. We support the building up of the capacity of Parliaments and political parties in many of the countries in which we work. That includes transparency and support in terms of the selection of candidates and how campaign issues are articulated. I can assure my hon. Friend that we believe that continued work will be very important in building Kenya.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the hon. Lady will be aware that the Department for International Development has spent more than £50 million in Kenya this year, including £600,000 on election monitoring. What lessons have she and her Department learned from the recent events there?

Perhaps I could put on record once again the fact that nobody could have predicted the scale of post-election violence in Kenya, and our approach is very much that it is not business as usual. We did much work before the Kenyan elections, and we now need to move from the not-business-as-usual approach to a transitional period. We are currently providing £50 million in aid, and we are keeping our programme continually under review. I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not providing that assistance through a general Government budget, but instead we are ensuring that it goes direct to the Kenyan people who are most in need.

Is not one of the most significant lessons the importance of building civil society and holding politicians to account over the long term? Why then, according to the last Kenya country assistance plan, was spending by DFID on governance and accountability cut?

Of course, our key role is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people get the aid they need most, so we are ensuring that health and education are receiving such aid. The setting up of the governance and transparency fund, worth some £130 million, will ensure that we increase support for activities that focus on accountability, which I know is of great concern to the hon. Gentleman. We have had many applicants, including Oxfam and other such organisations, and I look forward to making an announcement on that soon.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many people understand that the situation in Kenya was extremely difficult and very worrying and wish to congratulate the Secretary of State and his colleagues on the British contribution to finding a solution? Is she also aware that many people would plead with the Department to continue to support Kofi Annan in the excellent work he is doing?

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s words of congratulation. We have been supporting the Kofi Annan mediation process and will continue to do so. The Government very much welcome the announcement of a peace deal. This is an optimistic and challenging time for Kenya, and it is important that we continue to work within that country to rebuild it so that Kenyans can look forward to peace, stability and further growth.

What action are the Government taking to guarantee free and fair elections in Zimbabwe? It is important that those elections are fair and free in order to bring about a change of Government in that country.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that there need to be free and fair elections, and the reality is that the conditions are not in place. I met with the UK ambassador to Zimbabwe last week, and I discussed that matter with him. The UK will continue to provide support for the poorest through non-governmental organisations and the United Nations. We do not accept the list of observers, so we are working closely with civil society organisations to strengthen the process. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we will continue to monitor and work on the situation with the international community.

Orphans (Malawi)

There are 1.5 million orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi, 550,000 because of HIV and AIDS. DFID gives £2 million a year to the National AIDS Commission, which, among things, provides education and care to orphans and vulnerable children through community-based organisations. In 2006-07, just under 1 million orphans and vulnerable children received support. The commission is also supporting a pilot cash transfer, which has helped 35,000 people in four districts, including 17,000 orphans and vulnerable children.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to a small charity based in South Ribble, the Friends of Mulanje Orphans—FOMO—which supports 4,000 orphans in Malawi? Will he also ensure that his Department gives as much support as possible to the excellent work that organisations such as FOMO undertake?

I am more than happy to recognise the excellent work carried out by organisations such as FOMO, which, as my hon. Friend says, helps 4,000 orphans with school fees, meals and health care through a network of 10 centres covering 70 villages. That is exactly the sort of vital community-based work that Malawi’s National AIDS Commission funds. It supports some 1,800 organisations, providing care for orphans and vulnerable children across Malawi.

As the Minister said, many of these children are orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. Is he therefore confident that enough of the Department’s investment in Malawi and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa is spent on preventive measures through education, rather than just on treatment? Is it not the case that we will never get to grips with HIV/AIDS unless we can empower people to make informed lifestyle choices to deal with that dreadful disease?

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Education is vital in the fight against AIDS, but so, too, is health care. It deals with the symptoms; he is talking about the cause. I am pleased to let him know that we are investing £100 million in Malawi over six years to deal with many of these issues and that antiretroviral treatments are now available to 130,000 people compared with a figure of just 3,000 in 2003.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Scottish Executive have been running a programme in Malawi for some years. Given the Paris declaration on harmonisation and alignment, does he agree that it is important that the programme should work in tandem with DFID to ensure the best and most effective aid programme for Malawi?

My hon. Friend is right. Part of the Paris declaration and its principles is that there should be alignment between different funding targeted at various areas—that would apply in Malawi too.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world—it is certainly one of the poorest countries in Africa. Does the Minister agree that the best help we can give its orphans is to reduce the number of children being orphaned in the first place? Ensuring access to antiretroviral drugs is vital; they must be properly delivered. What can he do to ensure that the numbers of doctors and nurses fleeing Malawi to come to countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America are greatly reduced?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right. A serious challenge for the developing world, and for Malawi in particular, is the fact that health workers leave those areas. I am pleased to say that between 2003 and 2007 their migration decreased by 71 per cent. The investment of £100 million to which I referred in part deals with some of those challenges. The situation has been helped by the code of conduct that this country has put together on employing overseas health workers. As a result of that £100 million investment, salaries have increased by 52 per cent. and a series of development incentives is in place for workers in Malawi. We are supporting the doubling of the number of nurses and the trebling of the number of doctors, and I am sure that he will very much welcome that.


5. What progress is being made in halting and reversing the spread of HIV and AIDS globally by 2015 in accordance with millennium development target 7. (193266)

Last year, the number of people living with HIV and AIDS levelled off for the first time. The number receiving antiretroviral treatment rose from 400,000 in 2003 to more than 2 million in 2006.

Although we all want to help people who have HIV and AIDS, does the Minister accept that we also need to ensure that proper programmes are in place to prevent the further spread of AIDS? Will she tell us what the Department is doing to help to spread the promotion of those educational programmes, in particular the further use of condoms in these areas, so that HIV/AIDS is stopped before it can begin?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, given that nearly 7,000 people are newly infected with HIV every day. Indeed, prevention is crucial to stopping and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. We need to improve people’s knowledge, change attitudes, give women more control over their own lives, promote the availability and use of condoms and boost education. On all those matters, DFID is working directly with countries and co-ordinating with other donors.

What steps are the Government taking to promote peer education on HIV and AIDS in developing countries by non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid? Will she commend the work done by the pioneering group of young people from Wales that recently visited Sierra Leone?

I do indeed endorse peer education programmes, which are very much part of the work that we do, and I commend the young people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. I have recently met groups of young people who are extremely committed to peer education. People listen to those with whom they identify.


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.

The strength of the economy, with the minimum wage and tax credits for children, coupled with my right hon. Friend’s commitment to reducing child poverty, means that in my constituency and elsewhere, thousands of young people are now free from that scourge. Given the ambitious target of my right hon. Friend and the Labour Government to eradicate child poverty by 2020, what further measures—[Interruption.]

As a result of the work of the Chancellor and the Government, there are 3 million more people in work, and half a million children have been taken out of poverty. There are 2 million people benefiting from the minimum wage and 12 million children benefiting from child benefit and child tax credits, taking more people out of poverty. As a result, the number of people in absolute poverty has halved and 600,000 children are now out of poverty. We will do more in the next few years, but this would not be possible if, based on figures that do not add up, we cut £10 billion from public expenditure to pay for tax cuts. We will pursue a path of stability and tackling child poverty.

I am not sure that the planted questions get any better.

I would like to ask the Prime Minister about something that he rightly gave a very high priority: the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Since the start of this year, another 80,000 people have been driven from their homes, aid workers have been killed, and access to humanitarian relief has dramatically reduced across Darfur. Even areas such as el-Fasher, which I visited 16 months ago, are sometimes inaccessible because of the Janjaweed militia. Seven months ago, the Prime Minister promised quick and decisive action, but will he confirm that on any objective measure, the situation on the ground has actually got worse?

There are 4 million people in famine or dependent on food aid. There are 2 million people who have been displaced, and 400,000 people have died. This is a humanitarian tragedy of colossal proportions, and the world must act. I believe that we must strengthen our sanctions against the Sudanese Government. We should have military sanctions for the whole of Sudan.

I believe also that the United Nations force—I have talked to the Secretary-General—must be in place as quickly as possible, that there should be no further delays and that the African Union must make its contribution. But I believe most of all that we must get people to the peace table. That is why it is important not only that the Government of Sudan come to the peace talks, but that the rebel groups join the peace talks, which they have not done before. We will continue to step up our efforts. The Foreign Office Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, has been there recently. We have asked the Chinese to intervene in the situation, and of course I would like the Secretary-General of the United Nations to visit the region very soon.

The Prime Minister quite rightly mentions the joint African Union-UN force that everyone signed up to. Can he confirm that although seven months ago—last July—we were told that 20,000 peacekeepers and nearly 4,000 police would be deployed, today there are only 10,000 of them there, even on the most optimistic estimates? Recent reports say that they have no military helicopters whatsoever. Does he agree with me that this is completely unsatisfactory? The Prime Minister himself said that he would consider visiting Darfur. What steps is he now proposing to make sure that the international community rises to this important challenge?

The President of France, Mr. Sarkozy, and I have discussed the provision of helicopters and what more we can do. It is not only Sudan that is involved, but Chad as well. We have also discussed the creation of a no-fly zone, but the area in question is the size of France, which makes it very difficult to police. I believe that the way forward is to move to peace talks as quickly as possible, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in pressing the rebel groups, as well as the Government of Sudan, to join those talks.

Let me pick up on one point the Prime Minister just made, about a no-fly zone. That is important. Last year, Tony Blair said clearly that

“a no-fly zone to prevent the use of Sudanese air power against refugees and displaced people”

is vital, and I agree with him. Anyone who has been to Darfur and talked to people in the refugee camps will have heard them say, “It wasn’t just the Janjaweed militia; it was the Sudanese army that drove me out of my village—they were coming out of Sudanese aircraft.” The no-fly zone is vital, but a month ago, the Prime Minister said in a written answer that there had not been an assessment of the logistical challenges of implementing a no-fly zone. Will he confirm today that he remains in favour of a no-fly zone and will press for it very hard?

I simply emphasise that the most important thing is to get people to peace talks. That is the only way to bring the situation to a conclusion. As for a no-fly zone, I have considered it and I would like to move ahead, if it were at all possible; however, we have to accept that the area to be policed is the geographical size of France and large numbers of aeroplanes would be needed. More important at the moment is to get a ceasefire and, as a result, stop the aerial bombing of civilians. I believe that we can make progress in that respect and then get people to the peace talks. That is how to solve the problem.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist party have vetoed the devolution of justice and policing to Northern Ireland. When the Prime Minister comes to Northern Ireland in May for the US investment conference, will he give a clear, positive message that completing devolution and maximising investment are the twin pillars of progress and stability in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The devolution of justice and policing will complete the implementation of the St. Andrews agreement. However, a great deal of progress has been made in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the First Minister. It is great news that the Queen is able to visit Northern Ireland in the next few days; and the conference on investment in Northern Ireland will be held in the next few weeks, with, I hope, substantial American participation. I also hope that all parties will follow the report produced for the Northern Ireland Assembly on the issues that are yet to be resolved in justice and policing, and move forward to reach agreement on those matters quickly.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that unless we get big money out of British politics, there is a real risk that our political system will end up like America’s, where influence and power are controlled by cash? Does he not understand the British people’s disgust as they see the two larger parties refusing to deliver real reform?

I agree that there should be a limit on election expenditure; it should be properly enforced and it should be lower than the previous limits. There should also be a limit on donations. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that, although I see that he has changed his policy: once, he said it should be £10,000, but I gather from his speech at the weekend that he now thinks it should be £25,000. As for the other aspects of the matter, I believe that there should be transparency in politics and that all the information should be published.

We have heard all this before. The Prime Minister is doing nothing. Why is he using the Tory attachment to big money from Belize as an excuse to sit on his hands? Is not the truth that both he and the Conservatives are so busy protecting their own vested interests that they will not do what is right for Britain?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman followed me. I answered his question and said what we should do. There should be limits on national election expenditure and on individual donations, and there should be greater transparency. I hope that we can agree on this, and that all parties will do so.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the disgraceful plight of pleural plaque sufferers in this country, who are being denied their rightful claim to compensation by the courts. Does he agree that it does not matter how the issue is dressed up: pleural plaques are a working-class industrial injury caused by negligent exposure to asbestos? Will he meet the group of MPs who have been campaigning on the issue, so that we can bring an end to this dreadful, Victorian scandal?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the House of Lords judgment, which now has to be answered. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are terrible diseases, and all of us who have seen the effects that they cause know that we have to do more to help the victims of those diseases. On pleural plaques, we are looking at the matter at this very moment. We will publish a consultation document soon. We are determined to take some action, and I am very happy to meet his delegation.

Q2. When the Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was widely spun that he gave Tony Blair only two days’ notice of his Budget proposals. Can we assume that the current Chancellor has been more co-operative? (193249)

The information that the right hon. Gentleman has is completely wrong, and it is because of co-operation in government that we are the Government who have created more stability than any Government in the history of this country.

As my right hon. Friend will know, this is prostate cancer awareness week, and 10,000 men die of prostate cancer every year, making it the commonest cause of cancer deaths in men. However, there are significant inequalities across the country in cancer death rates for prostate disease. Will my right hon. Friend commit to reducing health inequalities and improving research, treatment and awareness of that terrible condition, so that we can bring the death toll down?

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. More has to be done. There has been a 16 per cent. fall in cancer deaths, and there is more availability of help, check-ups and screening. At the same time, people who are suspected of having the disease are treated far more quickly than ever before, but we have to do more about the issue. It is only possible to do more if we continue to spend and invest in our national health service.

I believe that there is a strong case for more free votes in Parliament, and there is an unanswerable case for free votes on matters of conscience. One such example is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Can the Prime Minister explain why votes on matters-of-conscience issues were whipped in the House of Lords, and can he tell us why his official spokesman has said that the Bill will not be subject to a free vote in the House of Commons?

On the issues that arise in the Bill, one is a potential amendment on abortion, and that will be subject to a free vote in the House, as is absolutely normal. On the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the right hon. Gentleman must know that it initially came before a Joint Committee of both Houses. Recommendations were made, and they were then part of the Bill. The Bill was then put through the House of Lords. It will come to the House of Commons, and we will make a decision about the way in which votes on it will take place in due course.

Let me tell the Prime Minister what was whipped in the House of Lords: votes on the production of hybrid human-animal embryos, the requirement for IVF clinics to have regard to a child’s need for a father, and the circumstances under which saviour siblings can be created. Those were all whipped votes, and they should not have been. He says that he will make a decision. Why not break the habit of the lifetime, make the decision now and tell us what it is?

I am explaining how the Bill arose. It arose from a Select Committee, which made recommendations that formed the basis of the Bill. The Bill then went through the House of Lords. We will make our decisions on the issue in the normal way, but let me be absolutely clear that we respect the conscience of every Member of the House in this matter.

This just is not good enough. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that the Bill would be treated in a normal way: there would not be free votes. If that is to change, why cannot the Prime Minister tell us? Why does he not listen to Lord Alton, who said in the House of Lords:

“Sometimes I despair that even after such an extraordinary debate as we have had here, there are Whipped votes. I am sorry that the precedent of 1990, when the original legislation was introduced and free votes were allowed throughout on these matters, has not been followed today”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2008; Vol. 697, c. 1232.]

Tell us now: can we have free votes on all the conscience issues in the Bill—yes or no?

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to call a free vote for his party, that is a matter for him, but let me say this: he is not understanding the way in which the Bill arose. It arose from recommendations made by a Joint Select Committee of the House. As I have said before, we will respect the conscience of every Member of this House.

Thanks to the magnificent work of Kirklees primary care trust, health services have been transformed in my area. The shadow Health Minister predicted that accident and emergency would be closed by now. Instead, millions of pounds are being spent in community health and mental health services. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that success will continue to be rewarded and that sound financial management will be continued by the Government?

It is possible to spend more on the national health service in every area of the country because of our commitment to a 4 per cent. real-terms rise in health service expenditure over the next few years. That would not be possible if we accepted proposals for £10 billion of tax cuts, which would have to be paid for by £10 billion of cuts in public expenditure. That would inevitably mean cuts in the national health service. That we will not do. It is for others in the House to decide what they do on health.

Q3. For months the Government have been warned that continued unfair treatment of staff in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would lead to strike action, and last week, for the first time ever, it happened. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, but next time we might not be so lucky. Will the Prime Minister intervene to impress upon senior management in the coastguard agency the need to engage with their own staff and end this dangerous and damaging dispute? (193250)

I am very saddened by the strike. I understand that the management remain keen to talk to the unions on the issue to ensure that the situation is resolved as soon as possible. Safety at sea is a priority, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that nothing will be done to allow industrial action to affect the safety of people at sea.

Q4. Many of my constituents rely on London’s buses in order to get about and they would be greatly alarmed if they thought that the service was under threat. With pensioners across the country about to enjoy free off-peak travel, does my right hon. Friend agree that this a timely moment to remember how important it is that London has a well run and properly funded bus service? (193251)

Bus usage in London is at its highest level since 1965. In other words, there are more people using buses in London than at any time for 40 years. I understand that that would be put at risk by proposals that would cost £100 million if applied by the Conservative party. That would mean that bus fares rose. It would discourage ordinary people from using the bus service. We are determined to maintain bus services in London.

If the Prime Minister were to set about the rather daunting task of trying to persuade trade unionists back into the Labour fold, would he refer to the 40,000 job cuts under Gershon, the below-inflation pay rises in the public sector, or perhaps his Government’s support for the evil regime in Colombia? Which would be his sales pitch?

I would refer to the minimum wage that we implemented in the teeth of opposition from other parties. I would refer to the right to be a member of a trade union, which we restored after what happened at GCHQ Cheltenham, and I would refer to the 3 million jobs created by the Government.

Q5. Given the 40 per cent. increase in funding to Brent council under the Government, can the Prime Minister explain why a disabled person in my constituency is faced with a 214 per cent. rise in their cost of care, or a grieving family a 143 per cent. rise in the cost of burying a loved one? Does that not show that where there are Liberal and Tory coalitions, they always target the vulnerable and the disadvantaged? (193252)

Brent council has received extra money from central Government to enable it to undertake the public services that it should be performing. Therefore it is unfortunate that a Tory-Liberal coalition is cutting vital public services in the area. We have provided the money. They have cut the services.

Q6. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support for military personnel wearing their uniform in public. In addition, I hope for his support for an armed forces day. Will he see whether the Public Order Act 1986 can be amended to make it a specific offence for somebody to insult a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces who is wearing uniform in public? (193253)

We are proud of our armed forces. Not only do they have the right to wear their uniforms in public when they are in the United Kingdom, but we welcome the fact that they do. I know that the hon. Gentleman is proud of what happens in his own constituency as well.

I believe that the police do have powers to deal with those people who abuse or intimidate our armed forces; if they need them, they can use those powers already. The public are on the police’s side if they take action to ensure that our armed forces achieve both the recognition and the acclaim that they rightly deserve.

Q7. Will my right hon. Friend give us a bit more information on what he is doing about humanitarian aid for Darfur? At the same time, we appreciate that the Government are trying to initiate peace talks. (193254)

The UK is the second largest donor to Sudan; we have a programme of £114 million. At the same time, we have spent to date £290 million on humanitarian aid in Darfur throughout the last few years. We stand ready to provide additional assistance if the peace talks are happening and working and if we can get a proper settlement, backed by a United Nations force in the area.

Given that the Prime Minister has once again misrepresented my policy and given that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said herself last week that there was scarcely a child in her constituency who had not been mugged, will the Prime Minister now join me in agreeing to reallocate some of the Mayor’s publicity budget increment for next year to put another 440 uniformed police community support officers on some of the rowdier bus routes, to give Londoners on buses the security that they want?

There are more police in London than ever before as a result of the decision—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!]

There are more police in London, and it is the result of the Labour Mayor. If I may say so, the hon. Member for Henley must answer for what he says. He says:

“We have got to be absolutely clear where the scope for real economies is and the real big ticket for spending is the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London. That’s where the real savings, believe me, are to be found.”

It is a cuts manifesto from the Tories.

Q8. Unemployment in Ipswich has fallen by 1,500 or nearly one half since 1997. That is a success both for the Government’s economic policies and for each and every one of the individuals who have returned to work. In the face of global competition, regional cities such as Ipswich need every bit of home-grown business talent that they can acquire. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what his new national enterprise academy will achieve in constituencies such as mine? (193255)

I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has announced proposals for more universities and higher education institutes in cities and towns of this country. On Monday, we announced the creation of a new national enterprise academy, to be led by Peter Jones; we will choose a site in a part of the country that needs that enterprise academy. There will be more apprenticeships over the next few years in every area of the country. There were 70,000 apprenticeships when we came into power. There are now 250,000 apprentices. That will double over the next 10 years; that is what we mean by equipping Britain for the future.

Sutton does not get decent homes funding and its properties are in greater need of investment than those of almost any other London borough, yet from April this year £10 million of the rent from Sutton’s tenants will be used to improve housing in other boroughs. Would the Prime Minister be willing to meet a delegation of Sutton tenants to explain why this is going to happen?

We have doubled expenditure on housing, particularly social housing, over the last few years. We have made it easier for people to buy their own homes by raising the stamp duty threshold as well, and we have introduced equity sharing to make it possible for more people to buy their homes, even if they do not have that amount of money when they start to become an owner-occupier. Those are all measures that we are taking to improve home ownership. I hope that councils around the country will support us in our aim to build 3 million more houses by 2020.

Q9. Ignoring the lesser ambitions of other countries, the German Government have set themselves a carbon reduction target of 40 per cent. by 2020. Can we join Germany in a new arms race—a carbon reduction arms race—whereby we will win the new jobs, new technologies and new exports, and a clean environment? (193256)

I have to say that we are the country that is meeting our Kyoto obligations. We will continue to do so, and we will also press the international community to move to a higher level of ambition for 2050. At the moment the ambition is to reduce emissions by 60 per cent. We are asking our committee on climate change to look at 80 per cent. That is the sort of ambition that we all need, and I hope that every country in the European Union will support us.

Q10. I am holding up a can of beef from a ration pack issued to the Yorkshire Regiment in Afghanistan, where I recently had the privilege of meeting many of those there. On the base of the tin it reads, “Produce of Argentina”. Does the Prime Minister agree that our troops deserve the best, which in this case means British, or even Scottish, beef? (193257)

We continue to look at how we can improve procurement. I will take what the hon. Gentleman says and look at it with the Chief of the Defence Staff and others. It is very important that we do the best by our forces, and we will do so.

Q11. A strong economy has meant fewer unemployed young people in Slough, but many of them do not have the skills to compete for the work that is available. I am glad about the Prime Minister’s announcement of extra apprenticeships, but can he do more to ensure that employers commit to high-quality work-based training for young people so that they can compete for well-paid work? (193258)

I had the privilege of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency when we launched the new deal to give young people and adults new opportunities for employment. I still hope that there would be all-party support for the maintenance of the new deal. As far as adult learners are concerned, she is absolutely right. We need to do more to persuade employers, particularly small businesses, to train their work forces. That is why we have introduced train to gain; why we are giving every adult under 25 the right to train up to A-levels even if they have missed the first chance at school; and why all adults, of whatever age, are given the chance to train to basic level 2. We are doing more than ever to train people for what is a new economy where we are going to need the skills for the future.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be entirely wrong to devolve policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly while the IRA army council remains in place? (193259)

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has chaired the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee on these matters. The Committee debated these issues, and I gather that it reported yesterday. It agreed to forward its report to the Secretary of State. I know that decisions are being recommended by that Committee and that there are controversial issues. I think that the best thing is that discussions take place on those issues and we see how we can resolve them.

Q13. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has seen for himself the devastation that flooding causes in homes, communities and families. The Government set aside millions of pounds to assist the areas suffering from flooding. However, this is a matter not just of natural weather events, but of failing infrastructure in many parts of the country. How can people in my constituency, whether in local authorities or businesses, access those moneys set aside by Government? (193260)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a very big interest in these matters. Expenditure on this issue has risen; in fact, it has doubled in the past 10 years. We will raise expenditure further, because it is absolutely vital that we have the investment against flooding and coastal erosion risk. We will spend £800 million on that by 2011.

The official inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak at Pirbright has found direct ministerial responsibility. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how Ministers are to be held to account and when a full and proper animal tracing process will be put in place?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that report at all. What the report actually says is that the action taken by the Government was immediate and instant and was the right thing to do. It also says that we were far better prepared than for any previous foot and mouth outbreak. It makes recommendations for the future, and we will look at all those recommendations. We are already investing and changing the management at Pirbright to avoid these things happening in the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would give the House a fair reflection of Mr. Anderson’s report.

Q14. My right hon. Friend will be aware of reports this week that up to 4,000 forced marriages take place every year, and that hundreds of ethnic minority children are disappearing from school rolls, who may have been forced into marriage against their will. Will he look into the role of education welfare officers and those tasked with responsibility for children’s absenteeism from school, and perhaps look to— (193261)

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of the 3,000 young women—and perhaps many more—who are victims of forced marriages. The Home Office and the Foreign Office set up a joint unit in 2005, which is handling 5,000 inquiries a year. All the matters that she raised will be looked at carefully; this is not tolerable and we must do everything we can to support victims of forced marriages.