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Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 30 April 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 Prime Minister is well aware that the global economic turn-down is causing concern to many in our country. Will he assure me today that his top priority will be the British economy, with stability and high employment at its core? Will he assure me that he will never make the statement that 3 million unemployed is a price worth paying?

I will never make that statement. It is because of our policies that there are 3 million more people in work than ever before, that we have more vacancies and that unemployment is at its lowest for 30 years. I am grateful to be able to say that in my hon. Friend’s constituency, overall unemployment has fallen 42 per cent. since 1997. The choice in future will be between a Conservative party that caused 3 million unemployed and was responsible for two of the worst recessions in history, and a Labour Government who are on the side of home owners facing difficulties and those facing high fuel prices—a Labour Government who have never seen repossessions reach the level that they were at under the Conservatives. We will continue to fight for every job in this country.

The planted questions get tougher and tougher.

As the Prime Minister knows, there is only one thing more uncomfortable than a U-turn, and that is making a U-turn after repeated protestations that one will not make a U-turn. May I offer him an opportunity to retract what he said last week and to admit that he will have to make major concessions on his proposals to extend detention without charge to 42 days?

No. We are going ahead with our proposal and we will put it to the House of Commons. The Opposition parties agree with us in principle that there will be terrorism cases where we will need more than 28 days to interview witnesses. The Opposition agree with us that there are certain emergency conditions in which that will be required, and so do the Liberal party and Liberty. The question is whether we have put in place the civil liberties protections that are necessary. We have done that, and that is why we will go ahead with putting the proposal to the House. The Conservative party should support it.

What we object to is new legislation that threatens civil liberties, that is not necessary and that could make the situation worse. Will the Prime Minister listen to his own Director of Public Prosecutions, who said:

“we do not perceive any need for the period of 28 days to be increased”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism Public Bill Committee, 22 April 2008; c. 53, Q136.]


“our experience is that we have managed comfortably with 28 days”?––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism Public Bill Committee, 22 April 2008; c. 58, Q150.]

He is the man responsible for prosecuting and convicting terrorists. Why will the Prime Minister not listen to him?

Will the right hon. Gentleman listen to the police, who have said that they might need the power beyond 28 days? Will he also listen to the independent reviewer, Lord Carlile, who gave evidence only a few days ago about the need for the extra power? Will he not recognise that if we were to have to come to the House in a period of emergency and ask for the extra powers, that would not be the way to go because it would give oxygen to terrorism? It is better to take pre-emptive action now. I think that the Conservative party should be ashamed of itself for not supporting the legislation.

It is not just the DPP who opposes the proposal. The former Attorney-General and Lord Chancellor do too, and the man who was chief inspector of constabulary says that it is wrong. We now know what Labour MPs think about it, as we have been sent a report about that from the Labour Whips’ Office. Only this Government could manage to send it across to us—it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “usual channels”. One Minister says that the 42-day limit has been “plucked from thin air.” Another MP says that he

“could be persuaded to stay away”—

that is straight from the Prime Minister’s book of courage—but my favourite is from the hon. Member for Ealing, who sums up the Labour party’s mood when he says that he “will support” it but thinks that it is “barmy.” Why does the Prime Minister think that he cannot persuade his own MPs?

Is it not remarkable that the right hon. Gentleman will never address the substantial issue? The substantial issue for our country is whether it is right to have the power in law that it may be necessary for the police to go beyond 28 days. The substantial issue is whether, when facing a major terrorist incident, Ministers should have to come before the House and ask for that extra power, when we could take it in a precautionary way.

I believe that we have dealt with the civil liberties arguments on this issue. We have accepted the requirement that the Home Secretary must come to the House if an order is needed in any particular case. We have given new powers to the independent reviewer, so that he can adjudicate the case. We have given new powers to the judiciary, so that every seven days the person involved must come before the judiciary before the detention is confirmed. I believe that we are protecting the country’s civil liberties and that the Conservative party is making a mistake if it believes that we should not have this precautionary legislation, in circumstances where sophisticated investigations that go right across the world, involving mobile phones, e-mails and computers, mean that the amount of police work and time needed to investigate cases is a great deal higher. I believe that the Conservatives would be making a mistake if they opposed this legislation.

The Prime Minister is wrong. We have addressed the substantive issues. We said, “Use intercept evidence in terror trials,” and he is beginning to take up that proposal. We said, “Question suspects after charge,” and that is in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We said, “Let’s have a proper border police force,” and the Prime Minister got the “border” bit, but does not seem to understand the “police” bit. The Prime Minister reels off the changes that he has made, but he has not convinced anybody. The former Attorney-General has said that

“not only is it wrong in principle but…also…counter-productive because it can lead to the risk that part of our community… sees this as an attack on them”.

How far is he prepared to take this battle with his party? Will the vote be an issue of confidence for his Government?

We will put our proposal before the House. It will be one that I believe Conservative and Liberal Members should also think carefully about. If the right hon. Gentleman had to examine the cases for terrorist asset freezes, as I did when I was Chancellor, or if he had to examine the cases that come before the police, he would know the sophistication of the investigations that are now required. They look internationally at a range of matters, including computer documents and e-mails, and that means that there will come a time when it is difficult for the police to do a sophisticated investigation in 28 days.

If I may say so, we as a House should take the precautionary position and adopt the proposed extra power. It cannot be triggered without the Home Secretary coming back again to the House to ask for it. That means that we vote in principle for a 42-days limit, but at the same time say that the Home Secretary must come before the House. I believe that the issue for the House was whether people would be subject to arbitrary detention. We have taken all the precautions necessary against arbitrary detention. We should now go ahead with this measure, and the Conservative party should support it.

The Prime Minister talks about the sophistication of the prosecutions, but who knows more about that—the Prime Minister, or the Director of Public Prosecutions? The DPP is the man responsible for trying to convict and imprison the people involved.

However, the Prime Minister did not answer my question, so let me ask him again. He tells us how much this matters and that he will not make any more concessions, so is this an issue of confidence?

We will put this before the House. If I may say so, the head of the Metropolitan police also has some idea of the sophisticated investigations involved. The independent reviewer has been examining all the cases and he is convinced of the need to go beyond 28 days. The Home Affairs Committee looked at the matter and said that there may be a case for going beyond 28 days. Equally, at the same time, the Conservative party, Liberty and the Liberal party have agreed that there might be a case, and they want to trigger the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. If there is a case that some instances will involve going beyond 28 days, surely the right thing for a Government to do is to respect the civil liberties of the individual by avoiding arbitrary treatment, but to take the power that could be triggered again only by the Home Secretary coming before the House. That is the right and responsible way to proceed. We are talking about the security of every citizen in this country.

The Prime Minister will not answer the question about a vote of confidence, so I think that everyone knows what is going to happen: another rebellion, another backdown, another U-turn, and the collapse of stout party. Is not the truth of the 42 days provision exactly the same as the fiasco of the 10p tax rate? He is pushing this not because it is right, but because it is part of a political calculation. With the 10p tax rate, it was about trying to pose as a tax cutter. This time, it is about trying to pose as being tough on terror. Everybody knows what is happening. Today, apparently, he is admitting mistakes. Why does he not admit the biggest mistake of all: that he puts political calculation and self-interest—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister is putting political calculation and self-interest ahead of the right decisions and the national interest.

The right hon. Gentleman never addresses the substance of the question. This is the man who wants to be both tough on crime and hug-a-hoodie at the same time. This is the man for whom political calculation meant that he cycled to work but, at the same time, had a chauffeur-driven car coming behind. This is the man who is a shallow salesman and never addresses the substance of the issue. The important substance of this issue is how we protect the people of this country against terrorism. That is about more than trading a few quotes in the House of Commons. It is about looking at the evidence before us, and the evidence before us is that we will need 42 days. I urge the Conservative party to think again.

May I point out that the great and noble borough of Ealing is actually represented by three Labour Members, none of whom made the statement attributed to one of them? However, may I say that the Leader of the Opposition is doing a simply marvellous job of auditioning for the sadly vacant chair of “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”?

Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be the height of irresponsibility for any candidate standing for the mayoralty of London to talk about slashing the Metropolitan police—

Order. Remember what I have said to the House. It is unfair to the right hon. Gentleman, and he should be able to put his two questions.

It is obvious why someone who is a low earner in Britain today would not support the Conservatives tomorrow. However, after doubling the tax rate for the poor, leaving more than 4.5 million people in fuel poverty and closing thousands of post offices, can the Prime Minister explain why any low earner should support his Government?

Because we have taken a million pensioners out of poverty. Because we are on the road to taking a million children out of poverty. Because we introduced the new deal to get people in work—opposed by the Liberal party. Because we have introduced child tax credits and raised child benefit, and child tax credits were opposed by the Liberal party. The reason why people should support Labour is that our policies for social justice are not only taking people out of poverty, but giving people the chance of work.

The Prime Minister is living in denial. If he wants people to believe that he cares for the poor, he should act as though he does. Is he not ashamed of the “grotesque chaos”, to quote Neil Kinnock, of a Labour Government scuttling around the country handing out closure notices to more than 5,000 local post offices? This morning, the Prime Minister said that he wants to be a listening Prime Minister. Let him prove it. Will he stop all further post office closures, right now?

Four million fewer people are using our post offices than did so a few years ago. We have put £1.7 billion into helping the post office network. Once again, the Liberal party is proposing spending huge sums of extra money without having any recognisable means of paying for it. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s shadow Home Secretary called him “Calamity Clegg”.

Q2. Gofal, Yellow, Working Links and my local youth offending team are all working hard to place vulnerable youngsters—those with mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems and low educational attainment—in work. Can I give them an assurance that despite the turn-down in the economy, work will still be available for those vulnerable youngsters, and that there is potential for their future? (202396)

I had the privilege of meeting young people from my hon. Friend’s constituency to talk about the challenges that they face in creating and getting jobs, and about the youth facilities in the area. The fact is that in Wales, employment is up 131,000 since 1997. We have helped 120,000 people through the new deal, and we continue to create jobs for young people in Wales. That would not have happened if we had taken the Conservative party’s advice and abolished the new deal. We will create jobs; the Conservatives would create unemployment.

Q3. The Public Accounts Committee has branded the Olympic budgeting process incompetent, yet Londoners are being forced to pick up the bills. Who has deceived them—the Government, the Mayor, or both? (202397)

First, we should be proud that the Olympics are coming to London. This gives me the chance to congratulate the Mayor of London on having made sure that the Olympics will come to London. The hon. Gentleman will know that a national contribution to the Olympics is also being made by the Exchequer. I believe that holding the Olympics in London will be a great boost, not just to London but to the whole of the British economy.

Q4. After years of discussion, Parliament decided that fox hunting should be banned. Is not the priority now to ensure that the legislation is implemented effectively, and not to promise that it will be repealed at some date in the future? (202398)

I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has said:

“We would let the House of Commons have a free vote…and…if there was a vote to get rid of the ban…there would be a government bill in government time.”

I believe that there is a settled view among the public on the matter and that it would be better if all parties in the House recognised the previous vote of the House of Commons on the issue.

Q5. On “The Politics Show West” on Sunday, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), whose question is, I note, next on the Order Paper, said of the Prime Minister:“He was never my choice. I made it quite clear we should have looked to miss a generation.”He went on to say: “Gordon is a tragedy”. On Friday, after the local elections, when the Prime Minister carries out an emergency reshuffle, should the hon. Member for Stroud wait by his telephone? (202399)

This Government, in the past 11 years, have created more jobs than any other for the people of this country. We have cut poverty, we have doubled investment in the health service and we have improved investment in education. The hon. Gentleman should be congratulating us on what we have done, not criticising us.

Q6. And now we get to some real politics.May I thank my right hon. Friend for the initiative that he has taken on Darfur, having called a conference in London? I believe that yesterday, he met the Sudanese Foreign Minister and the special adviser to the President of Sudan. I had the opportunity to meet those gentlemen on Monday. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what progress is being made on the conference, and in particular what opportunities are being pursued to make sure that the rebel groups, and particularly the Arab militias, are willing to come to the conference? (202400)

Our aim is not just to get the rebel parties together, but to get the Government of Sudan to be part of the discussion process. When I spoke to the Sudanese Foreign Minister yesterday, I pressed him about the need for talks to start as soon as possible. I believe that if talks started, we could achieve a ceasefire and at the same time get to the process of reaching a political settlement. The key thing is to get the talks started. That is why approaches have been made to the rebel groups, why the United Nations Secretary-General is involved, why we have offered London as a possible centre for such talks, and why I am hopeful that if we can move matters forward in the next few weeks, there is a chance of talks taking place that could bring peace to that troubled area.

Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking to the House that by the Report stage of the Finance Bill, we will see detailed and concrete proposals on exactly how his Government plan to compensate the 5.3 million low earners who lost out when he doubled the 10p tax rate?

The Chancellor has sent a letter to the Treasury Committee Chairman and made it absolutely clear what the Government are ready to do and the action that we are taking to help 60 to 65-year-olds and people who are low paid, and that is what we will do.

Q7. The faith-based sector in my community is doing a fantastic job. Its members administer half my schools, the hospice and our care homes, and they have been involved in wonderful campaigns such as Drop the Debt, but they are very concerned about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. We acknowledge that the Prime Minister has given people like me and those of religious conviction a free vote in the Committee stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House. Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a free vote when the Bill finally comes before the House? (202401)

I have made it clear that there will be a free vote for Labour Members on provisions relating to saviour siblings, mixed embryos and the need for a father or supportive parenting, because this is the first time that those ethical issues have been debated on the Floor of the House of Commons. The letter that I sent to MPs set out the reasons why we should do that. It is the right way of proceeding on an important Bill. We do not want to lose the benefits of research that is available to help people, but at the same time we wish to acknowledge that there are new ethical issues before the House that should be debated on a free vote of the House.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister recall, when he was Chancellor, appointing Sir David Varney to carry out a review of the Northern Ireland economy? Sir David’s second report is due out later today. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government’s response to that report is issued before the Northern Ireland-United States investment conference, and will he ensure that part of the Government’s response to that report deals with the commitment made by his predecessor five years ago in the joint declaration that they would hand over to the Northern Ireland Executive many of the military and police bases that are now redundant, to enhance the assets that the Executive would have? (202402)

Let me first, on behalf of the whole House, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on becoming the leader of his party. I wish him well in the task ahead as we move forward with the devolution proposals for Northern Ireland. He is right: we have talked on a number of occasions about the Varney report and what it can do to bring new investment for Northern Ireland. The investment conference, which will include representation from America, will take place next week and I look forward to meeting him and the American delegation there. The Varney report which is published today will offer a number of proposals on how we can increase the attractiveness of Northern Ireland for inward investment. Some of that is in the incentives for innovation that should be available for companies coming into Northern Ireland or developing there. Some of it is in the area of skills, where we ought to be able to increase and build on the good education offered in Northern Ireland. I look forward to talking to the hon. Gentleman about that and the military bases when we have a chance to meet soon.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the ward deep cleaning team, who won team of the year at the staff awards at the Ipswich hospital last Thursday evening, on their success and on the 68 per cent. reduction in the number of MRSA cases that has been achieved in the past two years? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the colleagues who nominated them and patients would regard that initiative and others from my right hon. Friend, such as extended GP opening hours, as anything other than a gimmick? (202403)

The deep clean of our hospitals and the doubling of the number of matrons to make sure that all hospital wards are clean are a very important aspect of making the health service better in the future. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating those in his constituency and the hospital, who have done so much good work to make their hospital a better place.

It is also true that GP access is incredibly important to every citizen in this country. That is why it is regrettable that the Conservative spokesman has said that he is against the progress on GP access that has been made, and that he would hand back to GPs the power to decide whether there was access for their patients. That would be a retrograde step.

Q10. The Prime Minister claims that he had no knowledge of the dodgy loans used to fund the 2005 election campaign, which he ran. Lord Levy has revealed that the Prime Minister knew everything. Is Lord Levy lying? (202404)

Q11. The Prime Minister will be aware that European workers receive twice as many bank holidays as British workers. Is he going to give UK workers one extra bank holiday? (202405)

We are consulting on the nature of citizenship, and one part of the consultation is on potential bank holidays. I have to say also that as a result of the changes that we have made, it will be the legal entitlement of every worker, from 1 April 2009, that statutory paid leave be raised from 24 days to 28 days. That is because of the actions of a Labour Government.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware that next week marks the sixth anniversary of the Potters Bar rail crash, yet still no public inquiry or inquest has been held? Is that not most regrettable? (202406)

We are determined to ensure the safety of passengers on the railways, and I will look into what the hon. Gentleman has said. But I believe that we are taking all the precautions necessary to ensure that our railways are safe.

Wales is a much more prosperous country now than it was 10 years ago, thanks to the policies of this Government. Does my right hon. Friend share my despair that the Welsh people will be betrayed once again by the nationalists, who will do a deal to put the Tories into government, as they put Thatcher into government? Does he agree that a vote for the nationalists tomorrow is a vote for the Tories?

There are 131,000 more people in work in Wales as a result of a Labour Government. The only way of safeguarding jobs and prosperity in Wales is to support the Labour party.

Q13. Further to the Prime Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, will the Prime Minister confirm whether there will be a free vote on Third Reading? (202407)

That is not the intention. If I may say so, for the legislation passed under the Conservative Government, there was a whipped vote on Third Reading.

Q14. My right hon. Friend will be aware that for a number of years I have been trying to get my Employment Retention Bill through Parliament. Unfortunately, on Friday the Conservatives objected to my Bill once again. Will he use his high office to talk to the Department for Work and Pensions and try to get the Bill through, to make sure that people who are disabled during employment will receive employment and be able to contribute to the rest of this nation? (202408)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing a Bill for the employment of the disabled. I also congratulate him on keeping alive the very important idea that every disabled person should have the chance to get employment opportunities in our country. We recognise the importance of helping disabled people into work, we welcome my hon. Friend’s concern and we share his aims and determination to do more. The Government launched the cross-party independent living strategy in March 2008, and we will move forward on that. I will be very happy to talk with my hon. Friend about how we can move forward with his proposals, including within the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

Q15. While the Prime Minister is on the subject of disabled people, may I ask whether he is aware that Labour’s attack on vulnerable people has been extended to disabled anglers? They have seen the cost of their fishing licence go up by 37 per cent., as opposed to 2 per cent. for able-bodied people—if, that is, they can find a post office from which to buy one (202409)

I will look at the facts that the hon. Gentleman brings before us and see what has happened to bring that about. However, I have to say to him that this Government have invested in rural communities, and on post offices we are making £1.7 billion available.

Given that crime in London has fallen in recent years, does my right hon. Friend think that it is now time to cut neighbourhood policing teams?

Neighbourhood policing has been so successful in London that it is now used in all parts of England. The reason that crime has come down is that there is a visible police presence in these areas and local people are in touch with their local police forces. That is why, under the current Mayor of London, crime has fallen by 15 per cent. and there are 6,000 more police officers and 4,000 more community support officers. The one thing that would put the policing of London at risk is the election of a Conservative Mayor.