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Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 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.

Will my right hon. Friend join me and the House in wishing every success to Rangers football team, which is proud to be Scottish and British, in bringing the UEFA cup to Glasgow?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 1.5 million survivors of the cyclone in Burma are facing starvation, disease and, ultimately, death. Will he tell the House what the Government are doing to get aid through to those people who are in desperate need?

I think the whole House will, of course, want to send best wishes to Rangers football club, which is playing against St. Petersburg in Manchester this evening.

My hon. Friend raises a point that is touching the conscience of the whole world: a natural disaster in Burma has been turned, by the actions of a despicable regime, into a human catastrophe—a man-made catastrophe as a result of its actions. While there is a huge debate about some of the issues surrounding it, the key thing for all of us is to get aid to the people of Burma as quickly as possible by the means available to us. That is why, over the last few hours, a British plane has arrived in Rangoon and three others will arrive very soon. More planes will be sent over the next few days. The first will provide shelter for 45,000 people. That is also why, over the next day or two, about 60 flights in total will have arrived in Rangoon. There has been an improvement, but it is not good enough.

It is not good enough because of the needs of the Burmese people—the one and a half million who face famine and other distress—and it is not good enough because the regime is still preventing aid from getting to the rest of the country. That is why I asked Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to convene an emergency summit and why I asked him—I believe he is considering it now—to go to the country and also why Lord Malloch-Brown has gone to Asia to talk to Asian Ministers about how they can co-ordinate action. While it is right to debate the responsibility to protect as well as air drops, the key thing at the moment is to pressure the regime by getting all countries in Asia uniting with all of us to make sure that aid gets as quickly as possible to the people of Burma. We are ready to do everything in our power—HMS Westminster is in the area and we are working with French and American ships—to do so. At the same time, we have a humanitarian team in Rangoon ready to do everything it can in the future. I hope that the whole House will unite in saying that the Burmese regime must let into the country all aid workers and all aid immediately.

I join the Prime Minister in wishing Rangers well. I am sure he is right to say that the whole House will support that, but I wonder whether the Prime Minister’s former ministerial colleague who was the chairman of Celtic football club would take the same view. We will see.

More importantly, the whole House will want to express our sympathy for the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. Everyone will have seen the very swift response of the Chinese Government, which is in stark contrast to the reaction of the regime in Burma, where the neglect of the military junta is turning a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his update. He rightly says that the Burmese Government must let aid through, but may I push him a little further on that? If that does not happen, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to take further steps, including raising the issue of the responsibility to protect at the UN and supporting international efforts to deliver aid directly?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the action that we have already taken. Of course we will raise the issue of responsibility to protect at the United Nations, and of course we will leave ourselves open to considering the issue of air drops. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that everyone on the ground and every aid agency that is advising us says that the best way of getting aid to the Burmese people quickly is to continue the pressure on the Burmese Government—which has yielded some results, but not sufficient results, in the last few days—so that Asian countries are in a position to help us to convey the aid that is available to those people.

I must also tell the right hon. Gentleman that when we have tried to arrange a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the issue, we have been blocked by other countries. That is why I have asked Ban Ki-moon to hold an emergency summit of the kind that Kofi Annan held at the time of the 2004 tsunami. I believe that progress is being made in regard to the summit, and I hope it will be a means of bringing additional pressure to bear on the Burmese Government through Asia. I do not rule out anything, and no one should rule out anything, but let us be honest. All the aid agencies and others are telling us exactly the same: we must intensify the pressure to get more aid in through the Burmese Government as quickly as possible.

Of course the Prime Minister is right to say that the best way of providing direct aid is to persuade the Burmese Government to open up the country to allow the aid agencies in, but I think it is worth setting a deadline for when we must say that not enough has got through and more should be done. It is true that the experts say that only a fifth of direct aid will get through, but a fifth of something is better than 0 per cent. of nothing.

Can the Prime Minister clarify an aspect of the responsibility to protect? The British ambassador to the UN has said that the UK’s responsibility to protect does not apply to natural disasters, but yesterday the Foreign Secretary said that it certainly could. Will the Prime Minister make it absolutely clear that, in our view, the responsibility to protect should be extended to Burma and to Burmese people at this time?

There are two ways of proceeding. There is the responsibility to protect and there is the right to humanitarian intervention, which was invoked in 1999. We are leaving all the options open.

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman: we must not fall for the impression that there is some easy answer in air drops. Like others, I am prepared to consider them, but Save the Children said this morning:

“Right now, talk of air drops is a distraction. Air drops are an ineffective way of delivering aid. We must continue to push for access. We are exploring other creative ways”

to get rid of the blockages

“such as boats.”

Oxfam too has said that air drops are a distraction, and the World Food Programme, which is co-ordinating aid in Rangoon, has said that they would be “counter-productive”. Water supplies cannot be dropped from the air without putting people in the country at risk.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I rule out nothing, but we must not give the public of Britain or other countries the impression that the best course is not the one that we are proposing: to intensify pressure on the Burmese Government, and to ensure that aid reaches the people of Burma.

Every year thousands of little angels are supported by children’s hospice services, but funding levels are often far lower than those for comparative services for adults. In my constituency, the Grace House appeal is selling crystal angels to raise funds to build a hospice. Will the Prime Minister give his support to the campaign, and also take steps to improve funding levels for children’s hospices?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Last week I met a delegation to discuss how we could improve funding for hospices in the future. We have set aside additional money to support all hospices and “hospice at home” services for children for up to five years, with funding of £10 million a year until 2011, and we are publishing “Better Care: Better Lives”, which was launched in February and which is our strategy for children’s palliative care.

This is a vexed issue for many parents. I recognise that, and I know that Governments must do more. We will continue to look at what more we can actually do.

Yesterday’s announcement was a complete charade. The Government pretend to have solved the 10p problem when they have not, and the Conservatives seem only to be concerned about the effect on their chances in a by-election. How can they all ignore the fact that even after yesterday’s announcement, more than 1 million of the poorest people in the country are still worse off? Do they not matter?

I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman. His party’s former acting leader and current shadow Chancellor welcomed our announcement yesterday. He welcomed it because 22 million people will be better off. No Government have a better record of tackling poverty than this Government. We have taken 600,000 children out of poverty, another 300,000 children are to be taken out of poverty, and 1 million pensioners are being taken out of poverty. No Liberal policy would ever have achieved that.

The fact remains that under a Labour Government the worst paid are worse off. Why do they have to pay for the Prime Minister’s incompetence? They cannot wait any longer, so when will he come back to the House with specific proposals to compensate in full the 1 million people he has betrayed?

We have said that we will come back in the pre-Budget report, but the right hon. Gentleman must not forget the fact that every person in the country who is an income tax payer at the basic rate will receive £120. Twenty-two million people will receive that money, and households in which there are two such people will receive £240. We have done what we said we would do to offset the average losses, and we are the only Government who are taking people out of poverty—poverty trebled under the Conservative Government.

Q2. Thanks to Government investment, Hastings will soon have a new state-of-the-art health centre where GPs will be working together to provide and extend access to people in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the proposals made by some to limit the contract already made with GPs for weekend and evening access would undermine— (205272)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the advances that have been made in GP services in this country. There is now weekend opening in places where there was not weekend opening before. There is now access to GP after-hours services where there was not such access in the evenings before. The party that would put this at risk is the Conservative party, which says it would backtrack on the promise that has been made and voted on by GPs.

Yesterday, it was revealed that in private the Housing Minister told the Cabinet that house prices would fall by up to 10 per cent. this year, house building was stalling and further falls were predicted. Yet in public the same Minister said the housing market was strong. Does the Prime Minister agree that she was not being straight with people?

It is because of the condition of the housing market that I will be announcing new measures in my statement after Question Time. The housing situation has deteriorated in the last few weeks, and we will be taking measures to protect first-time buyers and give them new opportunities, to take out stock that is not being bought so that housing associations and other authorities can buy it, and to help people who are facing repossession. I thought the Opposition would support that, but perhaps they do not remember that 15 years ago they caused the most repossessions we have ever seen in our history.

People want to hear about the future, and people want some answers from the Prime Minister. Yesterday, we all paid £2.7 billion to keep the Prime Minister in his job; the least he can do is earn it by answering some questions. Does he not understand that he is never going to get out of the hole he has dug for himself unless he starts being straight with people? In all other walks of life, if someone said something like that, the boss would say they should not have done and they got it wrong. So let me try another question: did the timing of the tax announcement yesterday have anything to do with the by-election?

As the Chancellor said yesterday, he had to bring forward his proposals if they were to go into the Finance Bill to be legislated now. I thought that the Conservatives would welcome our announcement that 22 million people will benefit, but they have not even told us yet whether they support our plan. The reason for that is that their tax priorities are further cuts in inheritance tax and stamp duty on shares—giving money to those people who are already rich. They have never at any time said that their priority is the low paid and the poorest members of our society. That is the Conservative party that caused 15 per cent. interest rates and 3 million unemployed, and we will never forget the record repossessions that happened when the right hon. Gentleman was adviser to the Chancellor.

There we have it—the cancelled election had nothing to do with the polls, and yesterday’s announcement had nothing to do with the by-election; another day, another complete failure to be straight with people.

Let us try another one. Last week, the Prime Minister claimed that Wendy Alexander was not calling for an early referendum on Scottish independence. Will he now admit that she was calling for an early referendum and that on this issue they simply do not agree? Can he take this one chance to be straight with people?

I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman last week immediately after Question Time to point out, when he challenged me, that there is no plan for legislation for a referendum in Scotland; there is no plan at Westminster, otherwise we would have heard it; and there is no plan to put legislation through the Scottish Parliament, now or in the immediate future.

I thought that the Conservative party would want to join the Labour party in supporting the Union. I thought that it would want to support the integrity of the United Kingdom against the nationalist parties, but all we have is petty point scoring when what we actually want is a defence of the Union. It is about time the leader of the Conservative party made one.

The party that is putting the Union at risk is the Labour party, by playing games for an early referendum at a time when Wendy Alexander and the Prime Minister are the two most unpopular politicians on the planet. What could do more to put the Union at risk? Is not a big part of the disastrous premiership his failure to be straight with people? He will not be straight about the election; he will not be straight about the European treaty; he will not be straight about the 10p tax losers; and even on the one thing that people thought he would care about—the Union—he will not be straight. Is that not what we are seeing: a Prime Minister putting short-term decisions before the national interest?

It is the right hon. Gentleman who is playing politics. He never told us whether he supported our tax package and he does not tell us now whether he is supporting us on the Union. It is about time that instead of being the salesman, he started showing some substance about policy. We are the party helping 22 million people; we are the party with record employment figures in this country; we are the party taking more people out of poverty; and we are the party expanding the national health service. His policies would put all that at risk.

May I tell the Prime Minister that foreign investment in Yorkshire and Humber has increased by a staggering 80 per cent. in the past 12 months? That is mainly thanks to the sound economic policies of this Labour Government and the good offices of Yorkshire Forward. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Barnsley-based company Lubrizol on winning Yorkshire Forward’s best exporter of the year award?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a champion of new industry for Yorkshire, and I want to congratulate Yorkshire Forward on the work that it does. The fact is that even in a difficult world situation, when unemployment has been rising in other countries, the level of employment in Britain is rising today to 29.5 million people, and half a million more people are in employment than there were a year ago. That is partly because of the new deal and the regional intervention that we are taking. We do not shirk from the necessity of intervening to protect, safeguard and advance jobs in the economy. I hope that other parties will join us in supporting the new deal in the future.

Q3. As the Leader of the Opposition has “fessed up” to breaking his promise to end Punch and Judy politics, does the Prime Minister still think that this weekly knockabout is the best way for MPs to hold his Government to account? (205273)

Yes, and I hope that there will be a vigorous debate on our legislative programme when we put it forward in the next few minutes. I hope that there will be a debate in this House, and in all regions and nations of the country, about what we are proposing. That is the proper way to make decisions about the future of the country.

Q4. Temporary workers have been exploited for years and years, through low wages, long days and atrocious conditions. Will the Prime Minister think about introducing legislation to give those workers some real rights? (205274)

There is a general worry in all parts of the country about vulnerable workers and temporary workers who are not given proper protection. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will look forward to the draft legislative statement, when I will have something to say about the future of the agency workers directive.

Listening to the Prime Minister, one could be forgiven for thinking that we are living in some sort of utopia. Without giving us another boring history lesson, will he tell us whether he has made any mistakes recently?

I did say about the 10p that we should have done things better. I made that clear at the time, but what I am not going to do is make the mistakes that the Conservative party made: 15 per cent. interest rates, inflation at 10 per cent., 3 million unemployed and record repossessions. We will not go back to that.

Q5. The east midlands regional spatial strategy, which will be published next month, will contain proposals for more that 60,000 houses in Greater Nottinghamshire. Will the Prime Minister ensure that development takes place on brownfield sites before greenfield sites and that a high proportion of the new homes go to hard-working families through social housing? (205275)

The vast majority of housing built in the past few years has been built on brownfield land, and that is how we intend to continue. At the same time, we want to see affordable housing—that is, housing that will help people to reach the first rung of the housing ladder. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that the proposals that we have put forward in the public spending review are to build substantial numbers of affordable houses in his area and elsewhere, including housing to rent, over the next few years. I hope that he will welcome the announcements that will be made later today about more funds for housing.

Q6. The UK motorist is the most highly taxed in the world. Will the Prime Minister listen to the motorists of this country? In many areas, particularly rural areas —including those in my constituency, Macclesfield —there is little, if any, public transport and a motor vehicle is essential. Will he review the proposals contained in the Budget dramatically to increase vehicle excise duty, which is unfair and penalises rural areas? (205276)

I take seriously the needs of motorists in this country. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the Budget proposals, he will see that the majority of motorists benefit or pay no more in vehicle excise duty as a result. He should look at what the chairman of the Conservative transport group, Steve Norris, said. He said that under the Tories

“you will pay more in green taxes. You will, for example, see the reintroduction of a fuel duty escalator”.

The hon. Gentleman should be talking to his Conservative colleagues about the mistakes that they are making.

Q7. First, may I welcome the Government’s announcement this week of a review of the services for social care for the elderly and disabled? The all-party local government group is conducting its own inquiry into services for the elderly. Two things are emerging from that. First, there should be a basic citizens’ entitlement for the elderly to receive social care. Secondly, when the elderly receive social care they should be treated as individuals with their own personal budgets so that they can make their own choices about their lives. Will my right hon. Friend take account of those two principles when coming to the conclusions on his own review? (205277)

That is precisely what the debate is about. When I launched the debate on social care on Monday, I was able to say that we will face rising demands from a rising population of elderly and rising aspirations, too, on the part of elderly people who want better choices and better opportunities in old age to make the right choices for themselves. We expect more than 1.7 million more people to have a need for care and support over the next 20 years and that is why the review should take place. I hope that it will be possible to get consensus on future funding and my hon. Friend should also note that we will publish a programme for carers in the next few weeks to back up everything that we are doing on social care.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he will not take any lessons from the people who created two recessions, with 3 million people unemployed, and who gave us 15 per cent. mortgage rates, slashed public services, doubled national debt and trebled the number of children in poverty? Stick to prudence, not empty promises. (205278)

That is what the debate in this country is now about. When we debated Northern Rock, we were prepared to intervene; the Conservatives backed away from it. When we debate how we can help people who are hard-pressed with their fuel bills, we are prepared to give more money to people, with 22 million people benefiting yesterday; we still do not have an answer from the Conservative party. That is what people will remember about the Conservatives: they are the 3 million unemployed party, they are the 15 per cent. interest rate party, and they are the party of record mortgage repossessions. The country is not going to forget.

When the Prime Minister’s predecessor, Tony Blair, met the Dalai Lama, he met him in Downing street. When his predecessor, John Major, met the Dalai Lama, he met him in Downing street. Will the Prime Minister confirm that when he meets the Dalai Lama, he will do so in Downing street?

What matters is not in what part of Westminster we meet, but what issues to do with the future of Tibet are discussed. I am meeting the Dalai Lama with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am also attending, at Lambeth palace, a conference of faith groups involving the Dalai Lama, and I can tell the House that all issues of substance relating to our views on what is happening in Tibet will be discussed and on the table. We will be pressing the Dalai Lama to join us in facilitating negotiations between the Chinese Government and the Tibetans. That is the important way forward, and it is issues of substance that matter in this.

Q9. What message does the Prime Minister have for the thousands of young people who are sitting GCSEs this week? Will he join me in congratulating teachers in my constituency, where the percentage of students achieving five A* to C grades has risen from 44 to 74 per cent. under this Government? (205279)

This is another example—I applaud my hon. Friend for pushing the issue—of the progress that is being made in education in this country. Let me just say that the proposals that take us forward for the next year are: education until 18, opposed by the Conservatives; educational maintenance allowances expanded, opposed by the Conservative party; and expansion of the school building programme, from which the Conservatives want to take money. If we want investment in education, it can happen only under a Labour Government.

Q10. Our new London Mayor is off to a courageous start. After only nine days in office, he is already taking on the scourge of youth crime, he is scrapping The Londoner newspaper and planting 10,000 trees, and getting alcohol off our buses and tubes. The Prime Minister talks about courage—he has even written a book about it—but when will he pluck up the courage to call Boris in person and congratulate him on taking office? (205280)

When the Mayor of London came to the House of Commons last week, I did congratulate him, but I also said that he would be judged by his record. He has got to show that he can expand transport, expand the service of policing, and do something about affordable housing in London. That is what he will be judged on.

Q11. Free national bus travel for older people was greatly appreciated by my constituents. However, they were less delighted when they were told by West Lancashire district council that if they used that free bus service, they would no longer be able to have free local rail travel, unlike people in the nearby local authorities of Merseyside and Manchester. What can the Prime Minister do to ensure that when the Government give, Tory local authorities do not take away? (205281)

I applaud my hon. Friend’s campaign on behalf of the elderly people of her constituency, on that issue and in so many other areas. I can confirm that West Lancashire was allocated a grant of almost £250,000 to pay for the new all-England concession for transport. That represents an increase of more than 20 per cent. on what was previously available and spent on concessionary travel. I am confident that that is sufficient to meet its needs, and that is why the local authority should give pensioners the travel that they want.

Which country or countries blocked a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Burma, and what diplomatic pressure are we applying on them?

We are applying a great deal of pressure, and I think it would be in our interest to apply that pressure rather than to name names at present. If I may say so, the pressure on those countries continues. That is why I have called on the Secretary-General of the UN to hold an emergency summit. The way forward is an emergency summit, hopefully held almost immediately. That will get the international community organised so that we can get supplies to Burma. We will not rest in our determination to get a concerted international response, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support that.

Q12. My constituency, Brent, South, has been described as many things, but one of the most offensive is being described as broken. My community and families in Brent are not broken. In 2003 the Government introduced double maternity pay and pioneering paternity leave. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now time to review these measures? (205283)

I hope that over the course of the Parliament we can move forward with our plans on maternity pay and maternity rights, and I hope that all parties in the House will come to the view that paternity leave was also a good thing. It is unfortunate that although the Conservatives present themselves as a family-friendly party, they voted against the extension of maternity leave, they opposed paternity leave, and they even opposed the right to flexible working. That is not a family-friendly party.