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Volume 473: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2008

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.