House of Commons
Wednesday 14 May 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Fine Payment Defaults
Today 30 people are in prison in Northern Ireland for fine default. Although the numbers can fluctuate and at any time be quite low, fine defaulters represent about 2,000 prison receptions per year. Next month, I shall begin consultation on a range of proposals for dealing more effectively with fine defaulters.
Before putting my question to the Minister, may I ask the whole House to condemn unanimously the attack on a PSNI officer earlier this week? We send our support to all parties that have condemned the attack and we send our best wishes to the police officer and his family.
Will anything be done to disincentivise the sending of fine defaulters to prison? At the moment, that seems an easy option. Nine in 10 people in prison for defaulting on fines are there for fines of less than £600. Other methods must be found to make sure that people do not use it as an easy option.
First, the whole House will join my hon. Friend in condemning the cowardly people who perpetrated the dreadful attack on Police Officer Ryan Crozier on Monday. The heartfelt, warm wishes of the House go out to Police Officer Crozier and his family. He was seriously hurt, but is beginning to recover in hospital. The Chief Constable aptly described the attack as having been carried out by those who are “lashing out” because they “are in their endgame”. He is right, and we all condemn their actions.
I turn to my hon. Friend’s question. Of course we need a substantial, sustainable alternative to imprisonment for fine defaulters. We have begun that by bringing in the supervised activity order through the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. However, people should pay the fines given to them in court, and next month I shall bring forward proposals to make sure that if people will not pay, the fines will be deducted from their earnings or benefits and that there will be much stricter enforcement by the courts.
May I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the Minister about that cowardly and brutal attack on Police Officer Crozier? It was good to see that Mr. McGuinness was among the first visitors to the hospital.
I also associate myself with the other remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to understand—let alone explain and justify—the fact that people with a few hundred pounds owing are put in jail, while people who have defrauded the Exchequer of millions through fuel smuggling appear to get suspended sentences?
In individual cases, it will always be for the judges to decide the appropriate penalty. My role as Minister with responsibility for criminal justice and policing is to make sure that courts have sufficient powers and a range of powers. I want on the one hand to be tougher, but on the other to make sure that when fines and other non-custodial sentences are handed out, they are properly adhered to.
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the issue of sentencing. I am pleased to confirm that following Royal Assent for the criminal justice order last Wednesday, I shall tomorrow sign the order to commence the new indeterminate and extended prison sentences, so that anybody who tomorrow or any day afterwards commits a serious sexual or violent offence and is deemed to be dangerous can be sent to prison on an indeterminate sentence.
I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the remarks made in respect of Police Officer Crozier, whom we wish a speedy recovery.
On the remarks that the Minister has just made, I welcome the implementation this week of the new law in relation to indeterminate sentencing and the abolition of the automatic 50 per cent. remission for serious sexual offences. My party fought for that for a long time; it was also demanded by the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say what sort of impact the changes are likely to have on custodial sentences and prison places?
There is, of course, universal condemnation of the attack on the police officer, just as there is universal support for the criminal justice order and the new provisions. There will be a net increase in the number of prisoners in the system over the next few years as a result of the longer sentences and of people who do not keep their licence conditions being brought back to prison, where they will face a further period of incarceration. There will also be more people on community sentences, and that is entirely right. I say to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and colleagues on both sides of the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will begin carefully to prepare the path towards the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.
May I join all others, including the Minister, in condemning the callous and cowardly attack on the police officer on Monday night and wish him a speedy recovery? I wish equally that we will have a speedy return to justice for those who perpetrated this deed. It is appropriate that we pay tribute once again to the courage and bravery of all those who serve in the PSNI and other services.
On some estimates, the prison population in Northern Ireland will double by 2020. Given the issue of fine defaulters and the other issues raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), can the Minister be a bit more specific about how he and his Secretary of State are going to address the growing pressures that this will undoubtedly place on the Northern Ireland Prison Service?
My right hon. Friend and I have set aside some £14 million in the current spending period to commit to the Prison Service to ensure that more places, and the relevant programmes, are available. We have also invested in an unprecedented way in the delivery of the probation service. There will be more than 50 additional probation officers as a result of the investment that we are making because we need provision in the community and extra provision in prison. I can further tell the hon. Gentleman that we are investing £70 million in building 400 new prison places that will be available over the next three-year period. We are building capacity, we are building the programmes, and the message that goes out is: “If you are committing offences in Northern Ireland you will be brought to justice and dealt with appropriately.”
Sea fisheries are now a matter for the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.
I know that the hon. Lady is very well informed about these matters, perhaps far better informed than I am. I will certainly be happy to convey her comments and concerns to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, who I am sure will be interested to know about them. I can assure the hon. Lady that, particularly in relation to north-south co-operation on these issues, which is very important, there is regular contact between the Minister and her counterpart in the Republic, not least in terms of the preparations for the annual European Fisheries Council in December in Brussels, which is also very important. I am sure that that co-operation will continue, and I will happily ensure that the hon. Lady’s remarks are given to the Minister.
Does the Minister know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reports to the European Union in the context of fishing? Along with the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I ask the Minister to agree that the fishing industry in Northern Ireland has experienced unparalleled decline in recent years, that all measures within the power of this Government must be taken to ensure that the industry remains viable, and that the UK Government should follow the lead of the French and Spanish Governments and take advantage of measures such as those provided for through de minimis arrangements to assist UK fishing fleets as a whole, but particularly in Northern Ireland, where the industry is on its knees.
Again, the hon. Lady is very well informed on these issues and cares passionately about them. One of the things that I have discovered in recent days is the complexity of the responsibilities in relation to marine matters. I know, for example, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is responsible for the sea bed, but what swims around in the sea above it is a devolved matter. We are absolutely at one—this was evident in the very successful investment conference that took place last week—as to the need to have a thriving and vibrant economy in Northern Ireland. That includes the fishing industry, and we will continue to lend what support we can.
Gang violence in Northern Ireland has traditionally manifested itself through paramilitary activity and organised crime. While the latest Independent Monitoring Commission report indicates a general downward trend in incidents of paramilitary violence, Monday’s cowardly attack on the young police officer, Ryan Crozier, reminds us of the continued threat posed by a small number of dissidents who today have no support whatsoever throughout the community.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Can he tell the House when paramilitary groups such as the Irish republican liberation army will no longer have the umbrella of decommissioning to hide under and instead be charged as criminals for holding weapons?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the long term, the kind of structures that we have introduced to ensure that we could get to the peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland of today will be phased out. When that moment comes, I am more than prepared to work with all hon. Members and political parties. I hope that we are beginning to approach the moment when we can signal that we will do so, but I still regret that, unfortunately, a small number of people continue to operate in such a way. Although we are nearly in a normalised society, regrettably we are not quite there.
I also would like to be associated with the earlier speakers in their sympathy for Constable Crozier, who to me was an expression of the new dimension in Northern Ireland. That young man joined the police force only three years ago, and he is the expression of our hope for the future. I hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice as soon as possible.
On the Government’s intention to address the root cause of gang violence, particularly the knife-wielding culture, does the Minister agree that there must be a combined approach between Government and community? If so, how does he reconcile that intention with the recent decision to withdraw extended schools funding in Northern Ireland, which was used by schools to put in place innovative and inclusive programmes for disadvantaged areas? A cross-cutting policy simply does not exist in that area.
Like all hon. Members, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Police Officer Crozier. Although we no longer have specific responsibility for schools in Northern Ireland, it none the less falls on us to have responsibility for criminal justice and policing until hon. Members and political parties are ready to assume devolution of those matters. That is why in the new Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order we will be introducing specific powers to deal with knife crime in relation to gang culture, raising the age at which knives can be purchased and, critically, dealing more severely with those who abuse that. Regardless of when the devolution of policing and criminal justice takes place, it will fall on the community itself, as well as those elected from the community, to deal with the issue. It is one that we should all feel responsibility for.
Is it not the case that in several locations major gangs that were formerly associated with paramilitary organisations are operating major criminal enterprises? Could the Secretary of State indicate what plans the Chief Constable has to ensure that those gangs are broken up and the perpetrators, who are well known not only in the local community, but to the police, are put behind bars?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, since I think that this is the first time I have had the chance to do so in this House, on having been made leader elect of his party. I am sure that we all look forward to working with him when he assumes that office at the end of the month, and we will again give our very best wishes to his predecessor—when that moment comes; he is, of course, still very much a presence.
I am conscious of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course the Chief Constable has operational independence on these matters, but we do consult him. I am confident that he is more than aware of the need to break up the gangs. He and his officers have achieved some spectacular results, but we have to remain ever vigilant and deal with the issue, which as the hon. Gentleman said is regrettably still a vestige of the paramilitary past of Northern Ireland.
We on the Conservative Benches also condemn the attack on Officer Crozier. I am afraid that the Independent Monitoring Commission report, which shows how far Northern Ireland has come with regard to violence, is still littered with examples of offences. We are told that the ONH—Óglaigh na hÉireann—is
“more seriously active in the six months under the review”
of the report, and carried out its first murder on 12 February. The breakaway south-east Antrim faction’s dispute with the Ulster Defence Association led to the shooting of a police officer. Those are very worrying trends, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares our concerns about them. What extra measures can he take to stamp out that criminal and deadly violence?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the 18th IMC report, which deals with matters relating to organised crime, too. I am sure that he will have noted that significant progress has been made on a number of fronts. However, it is perfectly clear that in one specific area—that is, in relation to Óglaigh na hÉireann—as well as others, we now need to take steps. That is why I am laying before the House today a new order that will take into account specified organisations. The order will result in the de-specification of the UVF Red Hand Commandos, but it will now specify Óglaigh na hÉireann.
Parades (Drumcree/Garvaghy Road)
We remain committed to finding a successful resolution and we support the position of the Parades Commission that local dialogue is the best way to achieve this.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in trying to achieve dialogue between communities on matters relating to parading, and particularly the work that he has done with the Portadown District Orange to encourage it to enter into dialogue—he was referring specifically, I think, to the Garvaghy road residents. He has helped to move the order to engage without preconditions or a predetermined outcome. I praise him fully for his work with the community. I hope that others in the community will now recognise that they should match that transformation and engage in the dialogue. I encourage all members of the community, regardless of the history, to enter into that dialogue.
Bloody Sunday Inquiry
So far, the cost of the inquiry has reached in excess of £182 million, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. However concerned all hon. Members will be about such costs, we should be careful not to confuse the cost with the value and the huge importance of the inquiry.
Let me put it to the Secretary of State that there is no question of our confusing cost and value. We can spot the fact that the process is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that if we had known at the beginning how much it would cost, particularly with legal fees, we would not have proceeded? The process has done a great deal of harm in Northern Ireland, not the good that we hoped.
Far be it from me to wish to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that in this case I must. The inquiry has been essential in enabling us to reach the point in Northern Ireland where we can enjoy the peace, prosperity and devolution that we have witnessed and the remaining stages that I am confident will take place. As he rightly says, the inquiry has taken a lot longer and cost a huge amount more than we thought. However, that is why the Government introduced the Inquiries Act 2005—to control the cost of inquiries. Although I regret the spiralling legal costs, which we have tried to control, I in no way wish to confuse that with the value of the inquiry, which has been essential to the peace process.
The families of the Bloody Sunday victims share that frustration at the length and cost of the Saville inquiry, but understand better than others the reason for them. When the Secretary of State receives the report of the Saville inquiry, will he allow lawyers acting on behalf of the Government and military days and weeks to go through it before publication, and if so, what equal consideration will be extended to the families of the Bloody Sunday victims?
The hon. Gentleman has long made a sincere and deeply felt argument on behalf of the families who are affected by the inquiry. All hon. Members recognise that the issue is sensitive, especially for those families. My hon. Friend the Minister of State met the families only last month. We have committed ourselves to involving them in the arrangements for the publication of the report, which must be presented to the House first, and I will hold them uppermost in my mind.
One of the consequences of inquiries such as Saville is that they put enormous pressure on the resources of the police service. The Secretary of State has reduced the budget for the police service in the current year, and the Chief Constable has indicated that he is close to the tipping point in regard to his ability to deliver the necessary police input for these inquiries. Will the Secretary of State look again at increasing the budget in order to offset the cost of the PSNI’s role in these inquiries?
I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I must of course disagree with the idea that we have reduced the budget. The fact is that the PSNI will have a budget of nearly £1 billion for this year. That is an extremely large budget, and I am confident that every penny of it will be well spent. The PSNI has to spend a great deal of time dealing with the past, and it matters that it should do so. I believe that it is appropriately funded to do that work, despite the pressures that it faces. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with the Eames consultative group on the past, to see whether we can find other, more effective ways of dealing with some of the issues that are undoubtedly a legacy of the past.
I should like to associate Her Majesty’s official Opposition with the comments made by the Secretary of State on the disgraceful attack on Police Officer Crozier. We wish him a speedy recovery, and we pay tribute to the bravery of all PSNI officers. We also congratulate the passer-by who showed great courage in rescuing him.
The Saville inquiry was set up 10 years ago. It last took evidence in 2004, its costs are heading towards £200 million, of which nearly half has been paid to lawyers, and there is no sign of the report appearing. Does the Secretary of State really think that that is acceptable?
The hon. Gentleman will know that, because the Saville inquiry was set up before the Inquiries Act 2005, the Government are ultimately unable to control the legal costs involved, despite the constant pressure that we are bringing to bear on the inquiry to be cost-effective. However, for the families involved, and for the nationalist community, which was so unsettled by the way in which the matter had been dealt with historically, it was absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister committed the Government to conducting the inquiry. It has taken longer and cost more than we wanted it to, but at the end of the day we have to separate cost and value, and the value of this inquiry is incalculable.
That was an unsatisfactory reply, because it showed that the delay has been caused by the manner in which the Government set up the inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give the House a guarantee that no future historical inquiry will be as open-ended and extravagant as Saville, given his new remit under the Inquiries Act 2005?
It is perfectly clear that the Inquiries Act has set out precisely how any future inquiry should be conducted. The hon. Gentleman will also know that, in all the conversations that I have had about inquiries, I have insisted that any future inquiry would have to be held under the terms of the Act.
Criminal Damage (Compensation)
I intend to issue a consultation document in June on proposed changes to the criminal damage legislation as it applies to community halls. Subject to that consultation, I intend to lay a draft order in the autumn.
I thank the Minister for the series of meetings that have taken place between my DUP colleagues and the Orange Institution on this serious matter, and also for the positive outcomes that have been achieved thus far. Can he confirm that he would expedite the process, should there be a continuation of this despicable campaign to destroy Orange halls?
I welcome the constructive engagement of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and of the leadership of the Orange Order. The most important thing was to ensure that we minimised the attacks on Orange halls, and I am pleased to say that, to date this year, there have been only eight attacks, compared with 58 last year. That is an improvement. We will bring forward the proposals for proper consultation and bring them into effect in due course.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is long past time for meaningful change to be made to facilitate the claims of victims, who up to now have had to prove often impossible parameters in regard to their claims? Does he agree that, where there is clear evidence of a co-ordinated attack on an Orange hall or on Gaelic Athletic Association premises, for example, a statement from a senior policeman to the effect that there has been a co-ordinated, syndicated conspiracy should be enough to prove entitlement?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of my prime objectives over recent months has been to ensure that the existing compensation scheme works more effectively so that where there is evidence of an illegal organisation’s involvement, a Chief Constable’s certificate should be issued, and where three or more people are conspiring to create damage, compensation should be paid. I am trying to make the present system work more effectively, as well as to extend the provisions as I have outlined.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Draft Legislative Programme
Building a more prosperous Britain and a fairer Britain is the purpose of the draft legislative programme that is published today for debate in the House and in the country. In this statement I will focus both on immediate action that the Government are taking to help steer the economy safely through the current global economic problems, and on the changes, including a new welfare reform Bill and a new education and skills Bill, that are needed to make Britain a fairer, more prosperous society and to meet the challenges of the future.
Our immediate priority for the coming Session, at a time when food and fuel prices are rising and mortgages are more difficult to obtain, is to help family finances. In the next few weeks we will set out the elements of our economic plan as we steer our economy safely through the global downturn, the credit crunch and international oil and food price rises. Legislation on the economy in the Queen’s Speech will include a banking Bill so that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors.
In addition to action that we will take on fuel bills, to help small firm finance, and internationally on oil prices and food prices—and the benefit that we gain in stability from three-year public sector pay deals that now cover 1.5 million workers—my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister is today announcing a £200 million fund, re-allocating money to purchase unsold new homes and then rent them to social tenants or make them available on a shared ownership basis; £100 million pounds for shared equity schemes to allow more first-time buyers to purchase newly built homes on the open market; and for the first time an offer of shared equity housing open to applications from all first-time buyers, subject to a household income limit.
The Queen’s Speech will also introduce a savings Bill to help not only home ownership but wealth ownership generally, giving 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government. We will look at whether further action on housing is required in light of the study by the Office of Fair Trading into the sale and leaseback market and the rise in second charge mortgages to ensure that, as should happen, customers are treated fairly.
With a second public sector efficiency review under way, we are setting the objective of value for money and greater efficiency in public administration, as we move to achieve the lowest civil service numbers since 1945.
Advancing our enterprise agenda, the Government will also consult on the idea of regulatory budgets, for the first time giving Departments that seek new regulation a strict annual limit on what they can impose.
As well as taking decisive action to help families and business weather the current economic storms, the Government have a duty to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future, with welfare and education reform to help people rise as far as their talents can take them, and in the education, health, policing and community empowerment Bills that we are announcing today, a commitment to new standards of excellence in services and to the transfer of more power and resources to parents, patients and citizens—measures which, alongside our constitutional renewal Bill, reshape for a new age the respective roles and responsibilities of citizen, community and Government.
In the next two decades the size of the world economy will double and 1 billion new skilled or professional jobs will be created. The new legislation that we propose today is founded on the new economic truth that the countries that have the best skills and the best education systems will reap the greatest rewards. So attaining the highest standards of education as we expand opportunity is the theme of the new education Bill for schools and lifelong learning.
It is unfair to consign any child to a poor school or even one that is coasting along without the ambition to do better. So after legislation this year for education to 18, there will be a second education Bill to support our plan to ensure that, by 2011, no school is underperforming: the first independent qualifications system to guarantee to parents the highest standards; more power for parents to receive regular information on their children’s progress; and, as we expand academies, reform to strengthen the accountability of schools to parents, giving them a bigger say on how to raise standards and whether new schools are needed in an area.
It is unfair, and a threat to our country’s future prosperity, that many qualified young people are still denied access to an apprenticeship. By deciding to legislate for the first time in the Queen’s Speech for the statutory right of every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship, we expect the numbers of people starting an apprenticeship to rise by 2011 to more than 200,000—three times as many as in 1997.
Every adult should have the right to a second chance in education—to have the chance to make the most of their potential. It is not only a threat to prosperity but unfair that adults—in work or looking for work—are denied the opportunity to get the training they need to advance their careers, or even the time needed to do a course. So my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is proposing today for the first time a major change in workplace rights that will benefit both employees and employers—giving every worker the right to request time off to train. And we will offer every adult a personal skills account so that they can access the training they need, with resources tailored to the individual—[Interruption.]
Order. It is bad manners—[Interruption.] Order. These are things that I cannot do right away. I know about the statement’s availability. The Prime Minister is delivering a statement to the House—[Interruption.] Order. I am looking into the matter and I ask hon. Members to let me deal with it. While the Prime Minister is addressing the House, hon. Members should allow him to be heard. Some hon. Members are complaining that the statement is not available, and I am dealing with that matter. The Opposition often tell me that Ministers should come before the House: the Prime Minister is here and I do not want any interruptions. It is unfair.
Leaving the unemployed without the skills they need to obtain work is costly for our prosperity and unfair to both benefit claimants and those who pay taxes. So as part of the next stage of welfare reform, emphasising obligations as well as rights, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will legislate to impose a duty on the unemployed to have their skills needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will also consult on further radical reforms to ensure that no-one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life. Those who can work should work, so new and existing incapacity benefit claimants will be required to go through a medical assessment and will be given a personalised programme to help them back into work.
Fair treatment also means respecting people’s need for flexible arrangements to care for their children, especially as evidence now shows that flexible work is no obstacle to business success—fairness and efficiency advancing together. So my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will announce tomorrow that we will take forward the recommendations of the Walsh report to extend the right to flexible working to parents of older children. We will consult on the details of implementation, with the aim of introducing new rights from next April.
Since last year we have secured in the NHS cleaner hospitals, better access to GPs, and progress on waiting times. It is right, as we celebrate 60 years of the NHS, to introduce a new NHS reform Bill to continue the change and renewal of the health service so as to equip it to offer a higher standard of care; to focus it on prevention as well as treatment; and to make it more accountable to local people, giving patients real power and control over the service they receive.
We will establish a constitution for the NHS that sets out what patients can expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. For the first time, payments to NHS hospitals will be adjusted according to patient satisfaction and health outcomes—deepening our commitment to a patient-focused NHS.
In the same way as we are tackling underperforming schools, we will take new powers, as part of a comprehensive NHS performance regime, to ensure that no health care provider falls below the minimum standards that we require. Just as we will consult in education on giving more rights to parents, we will bring forward radical proposals in health to put more power in the hands of patients, including new rights to information about their care, to control their own personal budgets and to have more say over the decisions of their local primary care trust.
Just as we will give both parents and patients more control, so we will give social housing tenants more say—greater choice over where they live and new rights to independent information on landlords' performance. We will look at ways of rewarding good tenants and hold to account those who do not meet their responsibilities, as we crack down further on antisocial behaviour in our estates.
Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for every Government. Since 1997, we have increased the numbers of policemen and women; introduced new community support officers and new powers for police and the courts to target antisocial behaviour, burglary, car crime and street crime; and taken action against terrorism. Our aim is not just a reduction in crime, but that people feel safe in their homes and in their neighbourhoods. One way forward, as with education and health, is to empower citizens, giving them more direct say on how crime is tackled in their areas, so the Home Secretary will bring forward proposals for directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness.
We will legislate so that neighbourhood police teams have to meet tougher national standards to ensure the high visibility and responsiveness of local police and community support officers. Legislation will also give the victims of crime more legal rights, including protection for vulnerable victims and witnesses of gun and gang-related crime during investigations and trials. The Home Secretary will set out shortly further detailed plans to allow police time that is now spent on paperwork to be spent on the beat, liberating the police from needless red tape, and she will announce new measures to improve police performance.
Organised crime, particularly in the areas where there are serious problems with drugs and illegal immigration, must be dealt with severely. It is right to close every loophole to prevent criminals from retaining the proceeds of their crimes, so the policing and crime reduction Bill will legislate to speed up the recovery and seizure of assets obtained through criminal acts.
If our crime policy is to punish and prevent, our migration policy is to ensure for Britain the benefits that migration brings while managing it securely and ensuring that expectations for newcomers are clear. We have already introduced the Australian points system to ensure that only those who contribute can come to Britain, and we have integrated the vital work of the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs and UK Visas into a single border agency. After a consultation that finished this week, the Home Secretary will legislate to put in place our new and tougher test for permanent residence or British citizenship. The requirements in law will be that newcomers learn English, play by the rules and show they are making an economic contribution to the UK. Only full citizens will have full access to benefits or social housing, and newcomers will be required to pay into a migration impact fund to help local communities deal with changes in population.
We will also take new powers in legislation to enhance airport security and protect against terrorist acts at sea.
We will take further steps in the next Session of Parliament to safeguard and enhance our heritage and our environment. For the first time in 30 years there will be legislation to increase protection of our historic sites and buildings. This will include reforms to the planning system to improve the protection of old buildings, and new rules to make it an offence to deal in cultural property illegally exported from occupied territory.
We will consult in draft on the legislation necessary to implement the recommendations of the Pitt review into the 2007 floods, and so better protect vulnerable communities in the future.
We have already legislated this Session to put a legal limit on Britain's carbon emissions—the first country in the world to do so—and we will bring forward a Bill in the next Session to protect our seas and shores. There will be new powers to designate marine conservation zones and to create a path around the whole of the English coastline, with public access for walking and other recreational activities.
Last year, we announced new measures, including restricting the royal prerogative, to make the Government more accountable to Parliament, and those will be taken forward in a constitutional renewal Bill. But we will go further and consult on a major shift of power directly to citizens themselves. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will set out proposals, to be taken forward through a new community empowerment Bill, to give people greater power to influence local decisions—local spending decisions, local council agendas, the use of local assets—that affect them as citizens.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice will publish a White Paper on reform of the House of Lords and details of our proposals to reform the system of party finance and expenditure. He will also bring forward proposals for consultation on a Bill of rights and responsibilities.
We are committed to both flexibility and fairness in the workplace and we will do nothing that jeopardises jobs and businesses taking on new workers, but most people agree that it is not fair that, even after months in a job, agency workers can currently be paid less than the staff they work alongside, and as a result permanent staff can feel they are being unfairly undercut. Therefore, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform plans to bring forward legislation—subject to an agreement between employers and employees, and in Europe—that will for the first time ensure new rules for fair treatment of agency workers in Britain.
Discrimination anywhere is unacceptable and a new equality Bill will compel public bodies to take seriously the requirements of both their work force and the communities they serve, sending a clear message that in the 21st century prejudice in Britain is no longer acceptable.
Therefore, we will have a banking Bill to support financial stability; an education Bill to ensure that every school is a good school; an NHS Bill to improve the health service and to entrench patients’ rights; an immigration Bill so that people earn their citizenship; a welfare reform Bill to help people into work; and reforms on agency workers, on skills and on flexible working. Those are the priorities, and I commend the statement to the House.
We had a discussion during Prime Minister’s questions about whether the Prime Minister could be straight with people. It turns out that the Government cannot even make a statement in a straight way, distributing it to the press before they give it to Members of Parliament.
There are lots and lots of things in the statement that we welcome, not least because we proposed them. We welcome the constitution for the NHS. That is an idea that we set out last June. We welcome the extension of the right to flexible working. We announced that in September 2006. We welcome the independent exam regulator. I raised that and proposed it in 2005. The list is enormous. A simple saving scheme was in the 2005 Tory manifesto. We proposed regulatory budgets in 2006—I think. The list is almost as long as the draft Queen's Speech, so I hope that, when the Prime Minister gets up, we will get a bit of gratitude for all that. He cannot say that we have not got any substance when he has taken it all and put it in his Queen's Speech.
We particularly welcome what the Prime Minister had to say about shared equity. Those proposals are being pioneered in record numbers by the record amount of Conservative councils up and down the country. Most of all, we welcome the welfare reforms. The Prime Minister has stuffed No. 10 full of spin doctors and pollsters. Why not just get a shorthand typist and send them to the Tory conference to take it down? It would save a lot of money.
Now we hear that the Prime Minister is going to accept our proposals for elected officials to make the police accountable. That is the proposal that his Government called “completely daft”. I think that they meant “completely draft”. It is a great idea that officials who hold office and wield power should be elected. Who knows—it might catch on and one day we might have an elected Prime Minister. The grin is back.
Look at the Bills that are to clear up the mess of the last decade. Do we not have a banking Bill because the regulatory system that the Prime Minister created 10 years ago failed on its first test with Northern Rock? Do we not have an NHS Bill because a decade after the Government promised to end mixed-sex wards they are still there, the promise has been broken and people are not getting the care they need? Are we not getting an immigration Bill because the Government completely failed to prepare for or even anticipate the scale of immigration that is taking place? Are we not having a welfare Bill because, after 15 years of global growth, Britain has 5 million people on out-of-work benefits?
Let us be frank about what today's statement adds up to. It is another re-launch, and the Prime Minister has had to bring it forward. The Government are still struggling to implement—[Interruption.] Hang on a second; Members will have their turn. The Prime Minister is still struggling to implement last year's Queen Speech. There is no solution to 42 days; last year’s Budget is still being rewritten; badly drafted Bills are stuck in the House of Lords—no wonder he wants to talk about next year’s Queen’s Speech. However, the draft Queen’s Speech has nothing to do with the country’s long-term needs and everything to do with the Prime Minister’s short-term political survival.
The draft Queen’s Speech reveals the Prime Minister’s deeper problem. On the progressive goals that we need to achieve in this country—unblocking social mobility, beating poverty, taking people out of persistent deprivation—his ideas have run out of steam. He no longer has the solutions. Instead of more redistribution, more tax credits, more top-down state control, we need a Government who tackle the underlying causes of poverty, fight family breakdown, break the monopoly of state education and can work with the voluntary sector. Is not it the case that he cannot do that and we can?
One positive aspect of the Prime Minister’s statement is the claim that he wants personalised public services. If that is true, why does he not accept our plan to bust open the state monopoly in education and allow new schools to open? Why does he not scrap the restrictions on the right to buy and accept our plans to extend it to all council and housing association tenants? He does not believe in giving people genuine choice and control over their lives. If he did, he would give the country a referendum on the EU constitution. Watching the Prime Minister talk about personal choice, giving people more freedom and letting them have more control over their lives is completely unconvincing. The supreme leader just does not do freedom. Will not people rightly conclude that, if they want a Government who give people more freedom, choice and competition, why not vote for the real thing?
Is not there a negative side to the Prime Minister’s comments? It is his usual trick of political positioning and setting the false dividing lines, with which he is obsessed. When will he learn that the political positioning and fake dividing lines have landed him in the mess that he is in today? He faces defeat on banging people up for 42 days without charge. He proposed that not because it is the right thing to do, but because he wanted to try to look tough. The shambles of yesterday occurred because the Budget was not about helping the poorest people but about posing as a tax cutter. That is why he had to execute such a big U-turn.
We will fight tooth and nail against one part of the Queen’s Speech: the Prime Minister’s plan to enforce polyclinics and close GP surgeries up and down the country, although it will be noted that there will be none in his constituency. We will continue to fight the Government’s real agenda of closing post offices, thus tearing the heart out of communities; releasing prisoners, thus making our streets more dangerous; and taxing businesses into moving abroad.
After yesterday’s U-turn, today’s draft Queen’s Speech is simply another attempt to save the Prime Minister’s skin. It will not wash. People can see a Government—not only the Prime Minister—who have run out of road, run out of money and run out of ideas. Seven months ago, the Prime Minister cancelled the election because, he said, he needed more time to set out his vision. Now we can see that there is no vision, so when can we get on and have the election?
This morning, we read about a new plan from this great man of substance—to appear on a new version of “The Apprentice”. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in her place, blushing slightly. I am not making it up, but she said that it would be “The Apprentice” meets “Maria”, meets “Strictly Come Dancing”. I expect that there is probably a role for the Liberal shadow Chancellor.
I have a better idea for the Prime Minister. Why not take part in a reality show that involves the whole country? It is called the general election. Would not that give everyone the chance to square up to him and say, “You’re fired”? Is not that the only way to get a Government who genuinely give people control over their lives, strengthen our families and our society, and make our country safer and greener?
If we had taken the Conservative party’s advice, none of this year’s major Bills would have got through. We would not have decisions on energy, planning, airports and many major issues that face the country, and we would not have the ID cards that we need for the security of our people. If we had taken the Conservative party’s advice, we would have put all the tax cuts into stamp duty on shares and inheritance tax instead of helping 22 million people, as we have done today.
The Conservative party should face up to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman says that he supports flexible working, but he voted against it. He says that he supports families, but he voted against longer maternity and paternity leave. He says that he supports banking regulation, but a Conservative party report called for even more deregulation. He says that he cares about people on low incomes, but he opposed the minimum wage, tax credits and the new deal. The Conservatives now say that they want to help children, but they also want to cut Sure Start. The right hon. Gentleman says that he is tough on crime, but he also wanted to hug a hoodie. He claims that he is tough on immigration, but he does not want ID cards for foreign nationals. He says that he is interested in the environment and cycles to work, but the chauffeur follows behind. The Conservative party is so full of contradictions that it is unable to put forward a policy for the future of this country.
Today, we have presented our proposals for the economy—and there was nothing from the Conservative party. We presented our proposals for greater opportunity for young people—the Conservatives opposed the last education Bill and I presume that they will oppose the next one. We presented proposals to improve rights for parents, patients and citizens—the Conservative view on that is not clear.
When we talk about police officers, the Conservative proposal is to elect one chief police officer in every area—just one person. Our proposal is for directly elected individuals from their communities. That is a far better way of local democracy working. The right hon. Gentleman should read our proposals before criticising them. He is a salesman without substance.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement—[Interruption.] Well, it was only a few minutes before Prime Minister’s questions, but let us be thankful for small mercies.
It has been a desperate week for the Prime Minister. Yesterday, he brought forward the Budget by a full 10 months and borrowed £2.7 billion to dig himself out of a political hole over the 10p tax rate, yet still managed to leave a million people worse off. Today, he has brought forward the draft Queen’s Speech, producing it a full two months before he did it last year. I have no idea what we can expect him to bring forward next—Christmas, perhaps. How desperate is he?
We already knew that the Conservatives would say anything to get elected, but it is now clear that the Prime Minister will try anything to cling to power. He has scraped the legislative barrel to save himself. The long legislative list is a rag-bag of proposals in which he either addresses things that the Government said were not a problem, such as the economy, or tries to turn around problems that the Government created, such as over-centralisation.
The Prime Minister established the banking regulation system. Is he not embarrassed to come here today and tell us that it does not work and that we need a new one? Is he not even more embarrassed to announce a £200 million fund to purchase unsold houses, when, by my reckoning, that will cover only 1,000 homes—far too little to make a genuine impression on the deep crisis in the housing market? He allowed irresponsible lending to over-inflate the housing market. Is he not embarrassed to admit that it needs propping up because of him?
Is the Prime Minister not embarrassed that the statement contains nothing—not a word—on the growing crisis of fuel poverty in this country, which will soon have 5.5 million people in fuel poverty?
How could the Prime Minister tell us, with a straight face, that he wants to empower people and communities? Let us remember that he was the man who turned Britain’s doctors and nurses into bean counters and took away our freedom of speech and right to protest. The new Labour Government have made more than 3,000 new things illegal since 1997. By my reckoning, that is two new illegal offences for every day that Parliament has sat since new Labour came to power. They capped communities’ council tax and imposed mass centralised school testing. Most shamefully, they took money from the pockets of the poorest workers. Since 1997, the Government have passed 65 home affairs Bills. Today, we are considering six more. If legislation made us safer, we would have been the safest nation on the face of the planet years ago. The NHS—shoved from pillar to post—will get a 14th reform Bill in 10 years.
If the Prime Minister wants to devolve power, why is he introducing so much more central legislation? Another stir of the legislative pot will not save the Prime Minister. If he wants to devolve power and protect us from the economic downturn, he will have to do much better.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would say that he supported what we propose on the environment, on giving more power to local people, on the community empowerment Bill, on the Constitutional Renewal Bill and on all the changes that we are making that make for a better relationship between individual citizens, communities and the Government. I thought that the Liberal party was supportive of those proposals, and I hope that when it looks at them in more detail, it will support them.
The gist of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks was about the economy. It is right to protect banking depositors; it is right to take new action to do so, given what has happened over the last few months. I do not think that it is a criticism of previous Governments that everywhere in the world people are looking at strengthening financial services regulation after what has happened in the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States of America.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about fuel poverty, but we are the party that introduced the winter allowance; the Conservative party opposed it. We are the party that has raised the winter allowance in the last few weeks to help people who are in difficulty as a result of fuel bills. We are the Government who have negotiated a new deal with the oil, energy and utility companies so that £100 million, and £150 million in future years, will go to help people on low incomes pay their fuel bills. The right hon. Gentleman should be praising us for the action that we are taking to try to protect people against the difficulties of rising fuel costs.
As for housing, the important thing, which the Conservative party forgot when it was in power, is that we can keep mortgage rates low. Some 1.8 million more people have homes as a result of a Labour Government, and the right hon. Gentleman should recognise the fact that that was possible only because we have kept mortgage rates low. Mortgage rates are half what they were under the Conservative Government. It is because we have run a strong economy, with economic stability over the past 11 years, that while other countries have had recessions—and the Government of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) had two recessions—we are in a position to continue to grow as an economy.
We will take every action necessary to help home owners and others who face difficulties as a result of the world economic downturn. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) should be supporting us, not criticising us.
I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate him on his comments, particularly those on the housing market, and on his recognition of the importance of action. Although I welcome the proposals to introduce the new scheme to assist shared ownership, I put it to him that the scale of the problem, in terms of the withdrawal of lending facilities and the collapse of confidence among many house builders, is such that more intervention will almost certainly be required if we are to restore prudent lending at a level that will ensure that the market recovers. I urge my right hon. Friend to do everything in the coming weeks to achieve that, and to avoid the situation deteriorating to a point at which there would be parallels with the dreadful experience that we all saw when the Conservative party was in power.
My right hon. Friend is an expert on the housing market, and I am grateful for his remarks. The £50 billion that was injected as liquidity into the economy in the past few weeks is a means by which we can restore the flow of funds from banks and building societies to home owners. We will not hesitate to take the necessary action to deal with that.
However, I would disagree with my right hon. Friend on interest rates. At the moment, they are at 5 per cent.; in 1992-93, when the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was advising the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, they were at 15 per cent. That was a shameful episode, from which the country took years to recover. We are not going to get into that position again.
This morning, the Prime Minister spoke about his defence of the Union. He is now faced with a referendum in Scotland. I remind him that in 1997, during the Scottish referendum Bill, he did not vote, or abstained, on a three-line Whip when I tabled an amendment calling for a United Kingdom referendum. About 400 of his colleagues voted against my amendment. Does he now agree that there should be a referendum of the United Kingdom with respect to the Scottish question?
There was no support for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment in 1997, as he confirmed by having 400 people vote against it. But I have to tell him that no legislation is coming forward for a referendum in Scotland now or in the immediate future. It is not coming forward in Westminster and it is not coming forward in Holyrood in the immediate future, as far as I can see. So the hon. Gentleman’s question is posed on a misunderstanding: there is no proposal for a referendum now or in the immediate future.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for the advance procedure in which we are engaged today. I will not dwell on the questions that some of us might have about the worth and workability of an immigration impact fund. However, when it comes to the new Bill to protect our seas and shores, will the Prime Minister’s Government use the British-Irish Council to work with all the other Administrations on these islands so that all the Governments and Chambers with responsibility for a common marine environment adopt a compatible, co-ordinated and coherent approach?
May I say on behalf of my party and the Scottish National party that we were rather disappointed not to have been given an advance copy of the statement? If the Prime Minister seriously wants to engage, providing advance copies is a prerequisite.
Several things in the Prime Minister’s statement will no doubt be useful when we look at the detail. However, given the global downturn and the credit crunch, will he consider some form of equitable lending Bill that outlaws illegal lending? While I am on the subject of poverty, may I ask him again to reconsider the civil service job cuts in Wales, the vast bulk of which will fall within objective 1 areas, undermining all the good work that has been done there to try to raise gross domestic product?
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman did not receive the statement in advance, and I shall look into that; I shall also look into what happened to prevent Members from having the statement early enough for them to be able to look at it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about lending and what he wants to be done, and I shall consider what he has said. As for civil service jobs, we have to recognise that new technology is making possible major changes in how occupations are constructed. That was the purpose of the Gershon report, and now a second Gershon report is to be done. We have to catch up with the changes in technology that are taking place, and I believe that we can make major changes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that although jobs are being lost in certain areas of the civil service in Wales, overall a substantial number of additional people are in work as a result of the other policies of the Labour Government.
When banks get into trouble, directors and shareholders tend to make decisions in their own interests, rather than those of depositors. Will my right hon. Friend say whether the new banking Bill will include a power, similar to that in the United States, that will allow an independent authority to override the shareholders and insist that decisions are made in the interests of the people who have their money in the bank?
I shall certainly look at what my hon. Friend says and pass his comments on to the Chancellor. The purpose of that particular clause of the banking Bill is to make sure that there is adequate and full financial protection for depositors in the event of a banking crisis or failure. As we dealt with Northern Rock, we found that more had to be done to make sure that depositors were properly protected. We raised the ceiling of protection and at the same time gave wider guarantees, and the purpose of the Bill is to put those into legislation.
At the beginning of his statement, the Prime Minister made it clear that the draft legislative programme would be debated in the House and the country, and I welcome that. However, will he reflect on whether it then makes sense in November, when we have the Queen’s Speech proper, to spend another five days debating a legislative programme that we will already have debated? Would it not make more sense to reinstate into Government time debates that we used to have on public expenditure and the economy, which have mysteriously disappeared from the programme?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. Last year and this year we published the Government’s legislative programme in advance, and that is unique. We are allowing for an early debate about its merits so that a full consultation can take place. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, that raises questions about the nature of the Queen’s Speech debates that follow.
As far as debates on the economy are concerned, we welcome those at any time, because the choice is between a policy that has worked for 11 years and one that failed when it was last tried.
My right hon. Friend’s statement on assistance for people buying houses through shared equity schemes and for people to enter the housing market is welcome. However, I stress to him that even with that assistance, house buying is out of the question for many of my constituents in London. If we are to provide affordable housing for young families who are trying to set up their own homes to bring up their children, we will need more affordable rented accommodation. Will he bear that in mind?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has brought this issue to my attention on many occasions. One of the purposes of the £200 million fund is to purchase unsold new homes and then rent them to social tenants, which would, in the short term at least, increase the amount of rented accommodation. He is absolutely right that our plans for increasing affordable housing over the next few years involve a substantial increase in rented homes, and that is the right thing to do.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. I am sure that everyone would wish to see a successful policy implemented that will steer us through the current global economic crisis. However, examination of the detail does not seem to live up to the headline that he has claimed. On the housing market, does he agree that the funding he announced will result in about 1,000 new houses being bought and about 2,000 people being helped through shared equity schemes? Will he explain how, given that it takes three or four years to turn round failing schools, he can claim that by 2011 there will be no failing schools in this country?
It is an ambitious programme to turn round all underperforming schools, but we are determined to do it. I do not think that a child who is not benefiting from a good school should have to wait longer than is necessary to get the best schooling possible. We have set an ambitious target, and it is one that we want to achieve. I hope that there will be support for that in all parts of the House.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments on housing, the two additional proposals about extra resources for a purchasing scheme and a shared equity scheme are on top of many other initiatives that we have announced before. An open market homebuy scheme and a second shared equity scheme are already allowing thousands of people to take the first step on the housing ladder. Those policies are on top of the huge amount of money that is spent on social housing by the Government as part of the public expenditure plans. If we are going to deal with the problems of the housing market, it is important that interest rates remain low. What really did the damage in the early 1990s—I know that the Conservatives do not want to hark back to this, because there were 200,000 repossessions—[Interruption.] I do not think that they have learned from the past—that is the problem. What really did the damage in the 1990s was that interest rates—
It is important that interest rates can stay low, and that demands that we bear down on inflation. Even facing huge increases in world oil prices, as is happening in every country, inflation is currently at 3 per cent., while it is 4 per cent. in the United States and about 3.5 per cent. in the rest of Europe. We will continue to bear down heavily on inflation so that we can keep interest rates low. That is the best thing that we can do to help potential home owners.
Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents will very much welcome the protection that he is giving to consumers, particularly in his announcements on banking and on fuel bills? On banking, the Government have been supportive, and it is perfectly right that consumers should be protected. The leader of the Liberal Democrats did not seem to hear the part of the statement where my right hon. Friend referred to fuel bills. It is right that he should do so, and may I say that he has the moral authority to ask the energy companies to make their contribution—for example, in terms of their competitiveness and accountability?
My right hon. Friend has been a great campaigner on behalf of people who have been affected by poverty. Obviously, high fuel bills are a determinant of poverty and that is why we wanted to increase the winter allowance, which was announced in the Budget, why the low income households deal has been done with the utility companies, and why we will not hesitate to take further action to protect people against high fuel bills. It is in the interests of the country that people are protected at a time when oil prices have trebled.
According to the National Audit Office, the chances of an unemployed person getting a job when coming off the jobseeker’s allowance programme vary between one in five and one in 40 depending on their age, sex and where they live. What will the new proposals do to help people in my constituency, for example, where we have lost 4,500 jobs in the past five years and unemployment is on the up? What is the Prime Minister going to do to help those people?
Employment is still rising—that is why there are 600,000 to 700,000 vacancies in the economy. Our desire is to help people who are unemployed or moving between jobs to fill the vacancies that are available. The hon. Gentleman will know that in his constituency there is still a high number of vacancies, as there is across the region. Through the welfare reform Bill, we want to make it an obligation on people to undergo a skills test and then for them to be advised as to whether they need to acquire further skills, because we know that the number of unskilled jobs in the economy is falling but the number of skilled jobs is rising. We want to help his constituents and all other unemployed constituents to get the skills that they need for the future.
My right hon. Friend’s proposals mean that Swindon will be an even more prosperous community in future. We are a proud industrial town and we have a proud industrial heritage derived from the railways. Would his proposals to protect historic buildings help the mechanics institute in Swindon, which is in private hands, and is a crumbling but beautiful building that we seek to protect? Will he help us by ensuring that people who are private owners of such buildings are included in that protection?
My hon. Friend has been most innovative in citing the new Bill as a means by which we might support what is obviously an historic building of great value in her constituency. We will certainly look at what we can do. Swindon is a community that has benefited from the expansion of investment over recent years. That is why there are more people in jobs there than there have been previously, and why people in Swindon will think twice about a Conservative Government who caused so much unemployment.
Is the Prime Minister aware that his conversion to Conservative policies would be welcome—there is, after all, more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents—if only he understood them. How does he reconcile his welcome proposal for “directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness” with the very next sentence, which proposes statutory, national, top-down legislation defining how police authorities should employ their resources and ensure their visibility and responsiveness? Is not the difference between karaoke Conservatism and the real thing that he can recite the words but he does not know what they mean?
It is pretty clear that the right hon. Gentleman has learned nothing from his years in opposition. While it is right that people are elected at a local level to discharge representative functions in their area, it is also right in certain circumstances to set down minimum national standards. I hope that he will continue to support the setting of a minimum national standard in respect of policing as in other matters.
I think that when the NHS constitution is published and subject to debate my hon. Friend will find that it does give patients new rights. I have mentioned access, safety and care—clearly, people want those things when they use the national health service. For the further details, he should wait for the statement by the Health Secretary.
Why should we believe the Prime Minister on apprenticeships and lifelong learning given his history? When Chancellor, he predicted that by 2006 there would be an average of 320,000 apprenticeships—in fact, there were 235,000—and on lifelong learning the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education reports this week that in just two years the number of adult learning places has been cut by 1.4 million. Does not the Prime Minister realise that in anticipating the future we do not need a crystal ball when we have his dismal record book?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to point out that apprenticeships were dying out under the previous Conservative Government. There were barely 70,000 in the country when we came to power. If the figure was 235,000 a year or two years’ ago, that represents a trebling of apprenticeships under Labour.
May I warmly welcome the extension of rights to temporary workers, which adds to the protections offered by the minimum wage, the extension of maternity pay and rights at work? Does my right hon. Friend agree that although that is a priority for this Government, it is something that we would never have seen under a previous Tory Government or see even under a future one?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On all the major advances in rights, including the minimum wage, the social chapter and maternity and paternity pay, we have had very little support from the Conservative party. That is totally in line with the history of the Conservative party that opposed the national health service in the first place.
The Prime Minister has spoken of a migration policy based on an Australian-style points-based system. A fundamental feature of the Australian system is an annual limit on migration. Does he have any such proposals for a limit on migration?
I do not think that any party has an annual limit on migration, and no political party has proposed one. We are saying that we reserve the right to set a limit for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but if skilled workers have a contribution to make to the country, they should be allowed in. Any business that the Conservative party talks to—I know that it wants to put a cap on this figure as well—will tell it that it wants to be able to draw on the skills of the world when it is necessary to do so, and I would have thought that that is the sensible way forward.
Did the Prime Minister share my concern that neither Opposition party leader noted the valuable initiatives in his statement about protecting the natural environment? The marine Bill is much appreciated and widely anticipated. It also contains measures to extend access to the countryside and the coastline, something for which working people have campaigned for 100 years and which a Labour Government have delivered.
I was surprised that neither the Conservative nor Liberal party welcomed this—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Witney could not list all the things that we were suggesting. This is an important part of legislation about the environment, and his party says it cares about the environment. Perhaps it should be consistent in its support for the environment.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During his response to the Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) accused the Prime Minister of distributing speeches in advance to the Press Gallery. I have seen that practice going on for several years. Could you, Mr. Speaker, clarify the position through your good offices? It is a practice that has grown up over time, and we need some clarification.
Management of Dementia in Care Homes
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the prescription of anti-psychotic drugs for people with dementia in care homes; to require the introduction of protocols for the prescribing, monitoring and review of such medication; to make dementia training, including the use of anti-psychotics, mandatory for care home staff; to require care homes to obtain support from specified external services; and for connected purposes.
One third of all people over 65 will be suffering from dementia when they die. Their condition will touch the lives of millions more families and friends, who will provide care and support to the victims of that cruel and relentless disease. Care homes have a large and increasing amount of responsibility for caring for our population of dementia patients. As the all-party parliamentary group on dementia, of which I am a member, has observed, two thirds of the care home population suffer from a form of dementia. Dementia sufferers in care homes are more likely to be in the advanced stages of the disease.
Our recent inquiry and report, “Always a Last Resort”, into the prescription of anti-psychotic drugs to care home residents with dementia reached some startling conclusions that I feel the Government must take into account before publishing their national dementia strategy later this year. I must pay tribute to the Alzheimer’s Society for its support and to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) who chaired the inquiry and guided our deliberations with élan and verve. The team also included my hon. Friends the Members for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), as well as Baroness Thomas of Walliswood and Baroness Greengross from the other place.
The report reached a number of conclusions that informed its five subsequent recommendations to the Government on the issue and my Bill seeks to implement those recommendations. First, we noted the consensus among patient and professional organisations, the regulators and the care home sector that over-prescribing is a massive problem. The evidence testified to the significance of external behavioural symptoms, not only resulting from the condition, but from wider and more complex environmental problems.
In the awful psychological limbo of dementia, communication with the outside world is unavoidably basic. Too often and too quickly it seems that anti-psychotics are prescribed to manage such behavioural symptoms, banding together types of behaviour that can differ in their seriousness. Witnesses repeatedly stated the importance of not trivialising the challenging types of behaviour demonstrated by care home residents with dementia, such as aggression, which can have serious consequences for the individual and the care home environment. However, in many instances quoted to us, anti-psychotics were prescribed to treat behaviour that is neither distressing nor threatening, such as restlessness or being vocal—often basic expressions of need.
There is justified concern that care homes resort to the use of anti-psychotics as a response to this behaviour, misinterpreting its cause. A mandatory course of training in caring for dementia patients would enable staff to discriminate better between the types of behaviour exhibited by residents with dementia. Indeed, a lack of dementia care training for staff, high staff turnover and inadequate leadership in a care home setting can partly explain the current excessive and inappropriate use of anti-psychotics.
With scant time or training to provide alternative treatments, care homes have a default switch to “quick”, more accessible methods of managing behaviour that is broadly and often inaccurately, categorised as “difficult”. As the Royal College of Nursing points out, inappropriate prescribing of anti-psychotics can be reduced by ensuring an appropriate environment, activities, and the correct staffing levels and skill mix. It clearly follows that care homes themselves need better support from external services to improve the quality of care provided to residents with dementia. That would reduce the widespread use of anti-psychotic drugs through cutting the number of new prescriptions and ensuring that residents with dementia have access to the sort of prescribing process that we expect from our own GP.
As Help the Aged states, care staff are often in the best position to recognise when a treatment is not working for a patient, so we need to develop the link between care home staff and local GP surgeries. That demonstrates with particular clarity the benefits to be gained from training care home staff in dementia treatment. Not only would staff be able to recognise and treat appropriately behaviour in dementia patients that might currently be referred to GPs or treated with anti-psychotics, but alternative treatments that have genuine benefit to dementia patients would also be used more effectively and successfully.
Our report found that people with dementia and their carers are being excluded from decision making, a direct contradiction of the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The present system permits care homes and some external providers to prescribe without fully assessing and discussing the individual’s situation, including the risks and benefits of the drugs—a situation that would be both unthinkable and illegal anywhere else in the health or social care system. Of course, there are some circumstances in which the use of drugs is appropriate to treat dementia sufferers. Nevertheless, the use of anti-psychotics should always be the course of last resort—as in the title of our report—taken only in times of severe distress or critical need.
Anti-psychotics are powerful drugs that GPs do not prescribe lightly. They can have destructive side effects, such as increased risk of stroke. The joint National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and Social Care Institute for Excellence 2007 guidelines are recognised as both effective and appropriate guidance, but there is significant evidence to show that they are not working in practice, with obstacles to implementation. As one would anticipate from excessive use of and over-reliance on anti-psychotics, inappropriate prescribing is widespread in the care home sector. It is estimated that these drugs are wrongly prescribed in 70 per cent. of cases—an incredible figure.
Even dementia patients with very mild behavioural symptoms are being prescribed lengthy courses of anti-psychotics, with no regular checks to establish whether the patient is deriving benefit from such a serious course of treatment. Urgent and immediate action is needed to correct that bad practice through the implementation of existing guidance. It is of concern to me, however, that the Commission for Social Care Inspection washed its hands of that scandal as being “outside their remit”. It is important to acknowledge, as our report does, that more appropriate ways of dealing with challenging behaviour exist and have been deployed to good effect in some care homes. The use of individually tailored care plans and the promotion of care home based activities, for example, should be used in every care home, as every care home will have dementia patients among its residents.
Essentially, the national dementia strategy for England must have plans to reduce the present number of prescriptions, and there are five steps that the Government can take to end the “chemical cosh” approach to elderly care home residents with dementia, which are the requirements spelled out in my Bill: dementia training to be mandatory for all care home staff; care homes to be properly supported by external services, including GPs, community psychiatric nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, with regular visits to the care home and its residents; the use of anti-psychotics for people with dementia must be included in Mental Capacity Act training for all care home staff; protocols for the prescribing, monitoring and review of anti-psychotic medication for people with dementia must be introduced; and finally, the regulation and audit of anti-psychotic drugs for people with dementia should be compulsory.
It is now almost five years since June 2003, when I introduced a related piece of legislation—my ten-minute Bill advocating the establishment of an older people’s rights commissioner. That has been overtaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose overarching equality scheme has emerged in the last few weeks. I hope that the EHRC will give high priority to the frail elderly in our population, who far too often have no one to speak for them, who are being disgracefully and unfairly treated when at their most vulnerable with some type of dementia.
We cannot continue to speed the decline of dementia patients through poor management with expensive and often inappropriate anti-psychotic drugs in care homes. We know that the number of people with dementia in the United Kingdom is expected to reach 1 million in 2025. Last year, care homes spent £60 million on anti-psychotic drugs, even though they were not appropriate forms of treatment in most cases.
As the dementia population continues to grow, we must equip care home staff with the skills necessary to identify different forms of behaviour among dementia residents. To do that, we should ensure that the funds saved from accurate and appropriate drug prescription are ploughed back into the continuing care scheme, in order to provide individualised care for all care home residents, particularly those in need of the most care, and understanding and support.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has responsibility for care services, has said that he wants to bring dementia out of the shadows. I hope that the Bill and our report will pierce the Stygian gloom and illuminate one of the bleakest and darkest recesses of that dire and degenerative chamber that faces one in three of us in this House. There is much good practice out there in dealing with the behavioural symptoms of dementia in a non-pharmacological manner. We need to spread and entrench that in all care home settings. That is currently happening at far too slow a rate and demands urgent action now.
The 1,000 or more people in each of our constituencies with dementia—750,000 people nationally—deserve better. My Bill, like our all-party group report, aims to flag up some suggestions on the way ahead for the crucial national dementia strategy in a few months. In the interests of those hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by David Taylor, Jeremy Wright, Mr. Eric Illsley, Mr. Gordon Marsden, Mrs. Betty Williams, Mr. Paul Truswell, Mr. Gordon Prentice, John Bercow, Lynne Jones, Bob Russell, Mr. David Drew and Colin Burgon.
Management of Dementia in Care Homes
David Taylor accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the prescription of anti-psychotic drugs for people with dementia in care homes; to require the introduction of protocols for the prescribing, monitoring and review of such medication; to make dementia training, including the use of anti-psychotics, mandatory for care home staff; to require care homes to obtain support from specified external services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 109].
[12th Allotted Day]
I must advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House is gravely concerned by the immense suffering and damage caused in Burma by Cyclone Nargis; notes that 200,000 people may have died and that two million people lack access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation, food and shelter; salutes the work of the Department for International Development’s staff and British NGOs, including Save the Children and Merlin, in responding to the disaster; is further deeply concerned by the restrictions placed on the international humanitarian relief effort by the government of Burma; asserts that the international relief effort is motivated solely by humanitarian concerns; calls on the government of Burma immediately to grant unrestricted access for the international humanitarian effort, including the delivery of aid supplies, and the admittance and free movement of aid workers; further calls on the UN Secretary General to visit Burma immediately to make clear the united desire of the international community to secure access for the international relief effort; further calls on China, India, Thailand and other countries with influence over the Burmese regime to make every possible effort to persuade the Burmese government to allow the international relief effort full access; prefers that humanitarian action should be supported by the government of Burma and believes that this approach is more likely to be successful but concludes that the international community has a responsibility to protect the Burmese people and should consider all options for getting help to those who need it, including using direct aid drops.
As the House debates the situation in Burma today, we are equally aware of the terrible earthquake and awful loss of life in China, particularly among children. However, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the responses of the Governments of China and Burma to the terrible disasters that have hit their countries. The Chinese Prime Minister led the humanitarian relief effort to the earthquake in his country. The full power of the state has been used to rescue and protect the citizens of China, but the position in Burma could not be more different. The regime has not only proved unable to handle the challenges it faces, but actively turned its back on helping its own citizens. Indeed, it has willingly and systematically blocked an unprecedented global humanitarian coalition—a coalition motivated not by politics, but by a desire to help those who are suffering.
Britain’s citizens, through the Disasters Emergency Committee, have raised some £6 million to help save lives. I welcome the funds released in the name of the British people by the Department for International Development. I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on how much of the £5 million he pledged last week has been released to organisations on the ground and on how it is being spent.
Members of the Burmese diaspora throughout the world are responding by sending money to members of their extended families in Burma. Earlier this week, the American Department of Treasury eased financial sanctions against Burma to let individuals send money to friends and family there. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that everything possible is being done to assist members of the Burmese community in Europe who want to send money home? Could the European Union do more on that? Will he update the House on the aims of the forthcoming visit of the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, who is due in Burma for talks tomorrow?
Night is now falling in Burma. The situation in the Irrawaddy delta is almost unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of people will spend another night without shelter. We hear reports of massive makeshift camps for survivors, where tens of thousands of people gather on high ground, waiting in the hope of assistance. Today, 11 days after Cyclone Nargis hit, hundreds of thousands of people lack the basic necessities for human survival—food, clean drinking water, shelter and any form of basic medicine—and another cyclone is feared in the area.
What we are seeing in Burma is a double tragedy. The cyclone was obviously a natural disaster for which no one can be held responsible. However, we are now seeing a second tragedy unfold, as relief is barely trickling through to those who desperately need it. I know that the skilled staff of the Department for International Development are doing all that they can. Their disaster assessment team arrived in Rangoon earlier this week. We look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State on what it found. The team is led by Rurik Marsden, the head of DFID in Burma, and Britain’s outstanding and experienced ambassador, Mark Canning.
British NGOs and their local partners are doing extraordinary work. Save the Children, whose efforts I saw for myself during my visit to Burma last year, has some 500 staff and 35 offices throughout the country. It is led by Andrew Kirkwood and has managed to reach 100,000 people. The British charity Merlin and others are doing all that they can.
There has been some late, limited improvement in access to aid. An American plane was given permission to land earlier this week and two United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees truck convoys have managed to cross the border from Thailand. I am advised that by 11 o’clock today seven or eight planes carrying aid had landed in Rangoon, among which I understand is one British plane. The World Food Programme reported some easing of access to incoming supplies. I am informed that there has been some progress with the granting of visas. However, that limited progress is nowhere near enough. The Burmese Government continue to cut their people off from the lifelines being offered them. The World Food Programme estimates that it has been able to set up only 10 per cent. of the logistics required for the response and has provided only 20 per cent. of the required food. There is no expectation of a visa waiver.
Although this was not made entirely clear when the subject came up at Prime Minister’s Question Time, my understanding is that before the tragedy in China, China and Russia were the two countries at the United Nations standing in the way of UN action to force the Burmese Government to give better access. In the light of the second tragedy—the one that has hit China—is there any prospect of a renewed effort to mobilise the United Nations being more successful?
The hon. Gentleman did not extend or develop his point about the parallels between the tragedy in China and the one in Burma. The Chinese have demonstrated that they understand the need for experts in humanitarian aid to be on the ground immediately, in the place where they are needed. The key issue is not aid, but aid plus people. In the light of their experience, perhaps the Chinese could be encouraged to tell the Burmese to allow the experts in.
The hon. Gentleman, who knows what he is talking about in this matter, makes an extremely good point. I hope that it will be heard clearly by those making Britain’s contribution to the discussions in New York.
I was talking about the situation on the ground, and my understanding is that the authorities still insist that NGO workers should not operate outside Rangoon. Indeed, we have heard today that those restrictions are reported to have been tightened, and foreign NGO workers in the delta will now be required to remove themselves within 48 hours. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to comment on that. If he, understandably, does not have full details of the issue, I hope that he will urgently seek to find out what is happening.
Over the past year, the Burmese Government have sought further to weaken and downgrade United Nations structures in Burma, not least by kicking out Charles Petrie, the able UN head in the country, and by denying visas to key UN personnel. Meanwhile, the price of rice, which was already high due to world conditions, has rocketed, and the price of fuel has increased by 500 per cent., further hindering the relief effort.
The view of the House on the nature of the Burmese Government is well known, but that is unquestionably a matter for another day. Now is not the time to pursue that point. Our position bears repeating. Our motives for wanting to get aid through to those who most need it are not political. The sole aim of the international humanitarian workers on the ground is to save lives. The international relief effort is motivated by simple, common humanity. Our clear preference is for aid to be delivered with the co-operation and active support—or at least the passive acquiescence—of the Burmese Government. It is right that, to date, most of the world’s efforts have been focused on securing that outcome.
The international community has learned from bitter experience what has to be done in these circumstances. The UN has conducted a comprehensive needs assessment to identify what materials and skills are most needed, and the world is responding generously. On this point, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), should be given credit for instigating the central emergency response fund at the UN. The British taxpayer should also be credited for being the largest contributor to it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much money has been drawn down from it so far to assist in this emergency?
Unfettered access to the people who need help is now required. The UN Secretary-General has expressed his frustration at the slow pace of the aid effort. As we made clear last week in the statement to the House, we believe that the Secretary-General should travel to Rangoon today to see the situation for himself and to remonstrate with the military junta and demand action on behalf of the international community. I was pleased to hear, during Prime Minister’s questions today, that the Government have adopted that idea.
Everyone knows that time is running out for the Burmese people, so we now need to consider every available option to get help to those who most need it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said earlier this week that only a defined and limited amount of time should be allowed to pass before the international community takes direct action to reach the people whom humanity demands we assist. If it becomes clear that the Burmese Government remain unco-operative despite continued, concerted pressure from the international community, while people are dying from disease and exposure, the moral imperative to save lives will be overwhelming. The test of our policy must simply be: what will help the people of Burma the most?
The Conservatives are well aware of the complexities and difficulties inherent in attempts to provide aid from the air. Reaching the most vulnerable, ensuring that the aid gets to the people who need it the most and is not seized by the strongest or by the military, and simply finding a suitable place to drop the aid are all very real challenges. However, if we face a choice between getting aid through, even in this imperfect way, and aid not getting through at all to the people who desperately need it and who will die without it, we will have a clear moral imperative to act.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that he is making a very serious point. I have not met any representative of an NGO who takes the view that he is expressing. The NGOs realise that the best way to deliver humanitarian aid is by land and by water. Has he really thought through the implications for the personnel who would be expected to deliver the aid if, at this comparatively early stage—despite the seriousness of the problem—we were to involve ourselves in air drops?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the difficulties that would accompany such action, but he must bear it in mind that we are not at an early stage. Without any aid or support at all, hundreds of thousands of people in Burma could die. Although the aid agencies and NGOs are sceptical about the case that I am putting, it must nevertheless be considered. If we cannot get aid through by any other means, we should get it through directly.
Following on from the previous intervention, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that certain things cannot be dropped from the air? Safe water systems and other equipment would be badly damaged if they were dropped in on a pallet. The real solution would still require people on the ground who were able to get the resources in by other means.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, to some extent. We are not suggesting dropping water from the air; no one has suggested that. Water purification tablets and equipment could be dropped in that way, however. There are many people stranded on the ground who are starving and who are going to die, and we need to reach them. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) referred to access by sea, and we should also consider that method. The UN has called for a sea corridor to be established to assist the aid effort. Will the Secretary of State update us on what progress has been made in that regard?
Are we not in danger of getting into a false argument on this matter? I was in Ethiopia during the famine in 1985. Because of the desperate situation, it was necessary to deliver a lot of the aid by air. RAF Hercules planes, working with Russian cargo freighters, did fantastic work getting food and other supplies into difficult parts of Ethiopia. That was an example of an airlift being used to the best advantage. This is not a false dichotomy. Given the scale of the disaster in Burma, we are almost certainly going to need air support at some stage. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that there comes a time at which the international community has to say, “We have a responsibility to intervene if the Burmese Government are not willing to look after their own people.”
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I seek to carry the House with me when I say that no one believes that delivering aid directly, whether by sea or by air, is easy. However, the House must consider what we should do if we cannot get aid through in any other way.
I am keen for the hon. Gentleman to clarify the position of his Front Bench on this issue. My understanding is that the Leader of the Opposition set yesterday as the deadline when contemplating air drops during an interview on “The World at One”, but that position now seems to be shifting, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that they should be contemplated for the future. Who is correct: the Front-Bench spokesman or the leader of his party?
I strongly urge the right hon. Gentleman not to abuse his position by trying to make party political points on this matter. I heard the interview that my right hon. Friend gave yesterday, and the point that he made is precisely the point that I am making. If, after a period of time—which my right hon. Friend rightly argued should be defined—the aid is still not getting through, the international community must address the issue of getting it through directly.
Does it not illustrate just how callous the Burmese regime are when the small trickle of aid that has finally got through is halted by the Burmese junta and repackaged to make it look as though it has come from the junta itself? Surely the important thing is that we get the food and aid through to the people who need it most as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend is entirely right.
I was referring to the issue of access by sea and to the UN sea corridor, which has been called for to assist the aid effort. I invited the Secretary of State to update us on any progress that has been made in that regard. The House would also like to hear what steps are being taken in consultation with Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, for Britain to join up with the French vessels that are currently approaching Burma. What plans do the Government have to use HMS Westminster in the relief effort? Will the Secretary of State set out exactly what supplies the ship is carrying and what plans have been made to use them?
In 2006, amidst much self-congratulation, the leaders of the international community in New York embraced a responsibility to protect people whose Governments failed to do so. The UN Security Council referred to the “intentional denial” of humanitarian assistance. The responsibility to protect focuses on genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Lawyers might say that the situation in Burma does not currently fit the technical definition that triggers the responsibility to protect. Conservative Members say that it should and we say further that the international community, through the UN, must revisit this failure to protect as part of the reform of the international architecture so that regimes cannot obstruct and frustrate with impunity the common humanitarian responsibility of the international community. For now, there is one thing and only one thing that matters—the saving of lives, which will surely be lost in their thousands unless international aid reaches those in such peril in Burma tonight.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“notes with horror the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis upon the people of Burma; recognises the vast scale of humanitarian assistance needed urgently to prevent further loss of life; is appalled at the unacceptably slow pace at which the Burmese authorities have so far allowed in international expertise for the relief effort, and at their lack of capacity to distribute aid to the affected areas; calls upon the Burmese authorities to allow immediate and unfettered access for both the delivery of aid and for its distribution inside Burma; strongly welcomes the UK Government’s initial £5 million pledge to the relief effort for emergency items; strongly supports the UK Government’s exchanges with key international partners in order to bring about a concerted international effort for access for humanitarian assistance; in this regard, welcomes the visit to countries in the region by Ministers from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; urges countries in the region to increase their efforts to persuade the Burmese authorities to allow in unfettered international assistance and to ramp up the delivery of aid; and strongly supports continued efforts of the United Nations to secure access and ensure aid is delivered to those in need.”
Let me begin by associating myself with the statement of sympathy offered by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) to the people of China in light of the terrible earthquake that has afflicted the country. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s points in the course of my remarks, but let me start by updating the House on the latest assessment of the situation in the affected areas of Burma. Then I will share with the House the efforts we are making to provide humanitarian relief, before detailing our political and diplomatic efforts to secure further access for aid and, indeed, for humanitarian workers.
As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield described, the situation in the disaster zone of the Irrawaddy delta is rapidly deteriorating—largely, and tragically, because of the inadequacy of the Burmese regime’s response. People are dying now not because of a natural disaster, but because a disaster has been turned into a man-made catastrophe. The state media in Burma are reporting that some 28,500 people have died, 1,400 are injured and more than 33,000 are missing. However, we believe the true figures to be far greater.
I spoke only this morning to Rurik Marsden, the head of the Rangoon office of the Department for International Development, and some agencies in the field are now estimating that the number of dead and missing is rising to more than 200,000 people. At least 1.5 million people are in need of assistance, and for 300,000 of those the need is desperately urgent.
The likelihood of widespread infectious disease as a consequence is increasing fast. The initial risks are diarrhoea and water-borne disease. One aid agency to which we have spoken reports that one fifth of the children it has reached already have diarrhoea. In time, there will be an increased risk of the spread of malaria due to the large amounts of standing water following the cyclone.
There have been some signs in recent days that the amount of aid reaching Burma is increasing. As of Monday, just 35 flights had arrived in the course of the preceding week. In contrast, two US military flights arrived in Rangoon this morning, along with eight aid flights, and we expect a total of 23 flights to arrive in the course of today. One of the eight aid flights to arrive this morning was carrying UK assistance—36 tonnes of plastic sheeting, which is enough to provide shelter for many thousands of people. That shipment was consigned directly to the UN World Food Programme—not, of course, to the Government of Burma—and distribution within Burma will now be taken forward.
Four further UK aid flights are expected to fly out this week, with shelter and blankets as well as flat-bottomed boats to help those most in need. We will also supply experts, both in Bangkok and in Rangoon, to ensure the smooth running of relief flights into Rangoon, and I have also requested the Ministry of Defence to direct HMS Westminster to the region to assist in any appropriate humanitarian response. That request has been approved, and HMS Westminster is now on its way to international waters off the coast of Burma.
The Secretary of State will recognise that much of what he is describing is precisely reflected in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Given that the right hon. Gentleman has moved an amendment to the motion, from which we can take it that the Government will be voting against the Opposition motion, will he explain in the course of his remarks precisely what it is in our motion that he disagrees with?
As I made clear earlier before I embarked on my substantive speech, there is some confusion about the Conservative position. The Conservative party leader declared that there was a deadline at the close of play yesterday, whereas that deadline is not set out in the Conservative motion; indeed, its existence appears to have been contradicted by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. In such circumstances, I do not think it unreasonable for the Government to table an amendment, which I hope will secure the support of all hon. Members.
I too am a little confused about what it is in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by Conservative Members that the Government disagree with—other than the fact that our motion
“salutes the work of the Department for International Development’s staff and British NGOs”,
whereas the Government’s amendment replaces that with praise for
“Ministers from the Department for International Development”.
The confusion is among Front-Bench Conservative Members. Only this afternoon, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield singularly failed to back his own leader’s call for setting a deadline, ending yesterday, for the Burmese regime. Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers will clarify that in the concluding speeches. The responsibility for the confusion rests entirely with them.
The Secretary of State offers the House a most unusual—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) says, the right hon. Gentleman’s explanation is pathetic. What the motion says is very clear. It does not deal with the issues that the Secretary of State has raised. As my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) both made clear from the Back Benches, the motion we tabled is perfectly reasonable, so will the Secretary of State identify which aspects of its wording he disagrees with in order to explain why he is whipping his party to vote against it this afternoon?
I have been clear that the confusion rests with Conservative Members; they failed to back up their own leader who in the course of an interview yesterday—as confirmed by the Conservative Front Benchers—talked about yesterday as a deadline. That position appears to have been resiled from by Conservative Front-Bench Members today. If that is a matter of dispute within their ranks, it is for them to defend and explain it.
I have been generous in giving way and I am keen to make a little progress—[Interruption.] Before abuse is hurled across the House, it may be appropriate for the Conservatives to deal with the confusion—[Interruption.] With the greatest respect—[Interruption.]
Order. There are too many sedentary interruptions. This is an extremely important matter and many people will be watching the House today, so we really should address the central issue before us.
I am keen to make a little progress, but I will be happy to give way again in due course.
A complex picture is emerging in relation to access for international agencies. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked about reports emerging today of further constraints on access for international NGO workers within the delta region. I can confirm that we have received indications that that direction has been offered within Burma by the Burmese regime. Similar directions offered have been circumvented on the ground in recent days, but only time will tell whether this will result in the removal of international aid workers. I sincerely hope not.
From my discussions with British NGOs working on the ground, it is clear that a number of them have been able to secure access to the affected areas recently, and I hope that that will continue. This is obviously a worrying development and we will monitor it closely. In the course of the morning, I met British NGOs working on the ground and they offered different accounts of the level of access that they were able to secure to affected areas.
I am sure that there is consensus among Members across the House in commending the considerable efforts of UN agencies, international NGOs and British agencies to deliver aid to those in need, often in extremely difficult circumstances. The World Food Programme reports that it has dispatched 426 tonnes of food to affected areas and distributed enough food to reach nearly 74,000 people. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now has two water purification units in Rangoon and expects two more by the end of the week. When all four are operating at full capacity, they will provide minimum daily water rations for up to 200,000 people.
I am still looking at the motion and the amendment. In view of the wording, can the Secretary of State offer any reasons why my hon. Friends and I should support the Government’s amendment, as opposed to the Conservative motion? I cannot see any difference.
At the hon. Gentleman’s request I shall return to the subject of the Conservatives’ lack of clarification of their policy on responsibility to protect, given that divergent opinions have now been offered by their Front-Bench spokesman—the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—and the leader of the Conservative party.
The right hon. Gentleman is beginning to get into the Prime Minister’s mode of failing to answer a specific question. May I make the question a little more simple? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me which part of the Opposition motion he has a problem with, and which part he will urge his colleagues to vote against?
The Opposition motion refers to the responsibility to protect, which reflects an enduring apparent inconsistency on the part of the Conservative party. In recent days the party leader has said that a deadline should be set for the regime—the deadline was yesterday, and it has now passed—but today, when the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman had an opportunity to suggest when such a deadline should be reached, he was unable to confirm that he adhered to a position that involves very serious consequences in relation to whether or not there should be immediate air drops.
I have read both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. The phrase “responsibility to protect” appears in the motion, but not in the amendment. Let me try to clarify the position. Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister, has written that dangers will be posed in the international community if we use the term “responsibility to protect” so loosely that it undermines the necessity of such action when it is sanctioned by the United Nations in the context of crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Is that the reason for the Government’s amendment?
My hon. Friend brings his considerable experience in the Foreign Affairs Committee to bear on these discussions of international relations. I think that it would send the wrong message to the regime in Burma if we suggested the endorsement of a deadline which has already passed, and which is the subject of confusion in the Conservative party.
I am certainly happy to stand by the terms of the Government amendment, which I think offers a judicious way forward. It recognises the need for continued international pressure, pays due acknowledgement to the work that is under way, and makes clear our continued determination to secure access by all appropriate means.
When the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) quoted Mr. Gareth Evans, he should not have quoted selectively. Mr. Evans wrote in his article:
“But as the days go by, with relief efforts impossibly hindered, only a trickle of the government’s own aid getting through, and the prospect of an enormously greater death toll looming acutely with just a few more days, they”
—that is, the arguments that the hon. Gentleman says Mr. Evans supports—
“are sounding less compelling, and at least need revisiting.”
That is the case that Conservative Members have made.
As for the responsibility to protect, I urge the Secretary of State to return to a bipartisan approach. The issue is currently being debated. The British ambassador to the United Nations has said that he does not think the responsibility to protect is relevant, while the Foreign Secretary said in an interview last night that it should indeed be considered. Rather than making cheap political points, the right hon. Gentleman should focus on the needs of the Burmese people at the moment.
I think the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. It is for him to account for the disparity between the position that he set out today and what was said by his party leader on “The World at One”. These are serious issues, which is why I am keen for an approach to be adopted that is clearly set out to the regime in Burma, and why it is important not to retain the kind of inconsistency that still haunts the Conservative party. Has the deadline for responsibility to protect passed, or has it not?
I regret that the House appears to have been invited to choose between a motion and an amendment. We can make up our minds later on how that came about, but may I suggest to my right hon. Friend, who has put a specific question, that the non-governmental organisations surely have a say in the matter? The Opposition motion ends with the words “using direct aid drops”. As my right hon. Friend may be aware, Jane Cocking of Oxfam has said:
“The biggest risk is that aid air drops will be a distraction from what is really needed”.
She has also referred to the huge importance of diplomatic efforts. Does that not demonstrate that my right hon. Friend is being entirely responsible?
I recognise the significant contribution that can be made by NGOs, given both their knowledge of what is happening on the ground and their well-established understanding of the need to deliver aid in an effective way. That is why I agreed with what the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister’s Questions today. Of course we take no option off the table, and of course we continue our discussions with the Security Council. That hardly comes as a revelation: it was said by the Foreign Secretary last night, and by the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box today. It is fundamentally different from suggesting that a deadline has already passed and that air drops should therefore follow immediately.
I think it right to make it clear that there continues to be pressure from the international community, that we continue to examine all options with our partners in the Security Council and the international community, and that in the meantime we are unstinting in our efforts to convey aid to the people who require it. That is the Government’s approach, and the approach of the amendment.
The Government should be commended for moving quickly and offering material aid, but as the Select Committee on International Development made plain in its report on humanitarian responses, we cannot focus solely on such aid. We must focus on getting people to Burma to ensure that aid is delivered properly. One of the problems with air drops in such circumstances is that the aid would be dropped on water rather than land, which was not the case in Ethiopia. We should concentrate on access, and the need to persuade the Burmese to admit independent experts from the United Nations and the NGOs to ensure that aid reaches people on the ground, because no one is in a position to deal with that now. That should be the focus of the efforts of Members throughout the House.
I entirely agree, which is why I am not convinced of the case that a deadline of yesterday should have been set. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of flights. As I have said, there have been more than 30 over the last week, and 27 are due to enter Rangoon today. That is why I feel that the sensible approach is to continue the dialogue with the British NGOs—I met representatives only this morning—and to continue to make all possible representations both at the United Nations and internationally, which we are doing. At the same time, we should proceed with the work of our assessment teams on the ground.
Now is the time to take a considered approach, and to make what I accept are difficult judgments on the most effective way of securing aid on the ground. It is for others to account for their own position, but I stand by the terms of our amendment.
I have been generous in giving way, and I want to make a little more progress before taking further interventions.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on Monday, it is clearly still the case that not nearly enough aid or aid workers are reaching those in need. The United Nations staff on the ground are grievously overstretched, and the Burmese Government continue to deny visas to foreign aid workers. As a result, the United Nations has been able to reach fewer than a third of the total number of people at risk, estimated by the United Nations secretariat to be some 270,000.
Since the onset of the tragedy, the British Government have been clear that the Burmese regime must allow international agencies unfettered access and freedom to travel to the worst-affected areas. Let me describe the political and diplomatic actions that we have been taking in pursuit of that objective. As I told the House last week, we have already committed £5 million for humanitarian relief, and we stand ready to provide more assistance in due course. Our ambassador in Burma, Mark Canning—to whom I spoke this morning—is raising the question of access directly with the Burmese authorities, and I have personally raised my concerns with the Burmese ambassador here in London. However, as chair of the United Nations Security Council, we are also pressing for unfettered humanitarian access. The UN Secretary-General is galvanising the international response, and for some days we have been encouraging him to visit the region as soon as possible. That is not a new position of the British Government; indeed, I argued for it several days ago. The Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General yesterday, and pressed him to call a high-level meeting to discuss the crisis. I understand that the Secretary–General is to convene a meeting later today.
We and others, including Burma’s regional friends such as China, India and Thailand, all agree that the Burmese Government must open up to international assistance. I have spoken to the Chinese ambassador in London, and our ambassador in Beijing is lobbying the Chinese Government directly. As the most important friends of the Burmese regime, they must ensure that the aid begins to flow and the experts are allowed to start their work. The Foreign Secretary is in dialogue with his Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Australian, American and French counterparts. Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), are today on the ground in Bangkok, both assessing the co-ordination of the regional effort and meeting the Thai Prime Minister to press the case for action.
Over the weekend, I requested the European Union presidency and Commission to convene a meeting to galvanise the EU’s efforts in response to the crisis. This British initiative met with support, and yesterday I was in Brussels to meet European Development Ministers. The conclusion of that meeting reinforced the statements made by the United Nations in support of increasing access, and the European Development Commissioner, Louis Michel, is now travelling to the region to press the views expressed by the Council yesterday. In recent days, I have also been in touch with John Holmes, the UN emergency co-ordinator, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, and Henrietta Fore, director of USAID.
As has been made clear in this debate—and as was raised in Prime Minister’s questions—some are advocating direct action and the application of the responsibility to protect doctrine. As I have stated, we rule nothing out, and we must do all we can to resolve this crisis. We continue to argue vigorously in New York for UN Security Council engagement, and we are supporting the continued efforts of the Secretary-General to resolve this crisis.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, because this is an important issue. Britain chairs the Security Council. This emerging norm of the responsibility to protect has been developing for a long time within the UN. If we were to listen to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, our understanding would be that the Government are deliberately not including this concept of the responsibility to protect in their amendment because they are in some way resiling from it. If that is the case, as we are chairing the Security Council, it is a very serious issue indeed. Will the Secretary of State therefore please explain what is the Government’s understanding of the concept of the responsibility to protect?
I was endeavouring to do so when that intervention was made. Let me seek to make a little more progress on the matter.
There are very strong differences of view within the Security Council on whether it should play any role in this crisis, as there is an issue of national sovereignty in the minds of some of its members. There is also division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect doctrine to the present crisis. We have made it clear—the Prime Minister did so at the Dispatch Box today—that we will continue to consider all options, including using military assets to help deliver aid, as was the case in the tsunami response, and retaining the option of invoking the responsibility to protect. That is not a straightforward or easy option, and it could delay the delivery of aid, but if the Burmese regime continues to fail to help its own people, we will consider all options, including the options I have set out.
The UN 2005 millennium summit resolution defines narrowly the meaning of the responsibility to protect, and it does not include general humanitarian issues and other non-specific issues. Is it likely that the Security Council would agree to such action when there is already difficulty over the interpretation of the current narrow definition? Also, will the British Government in any circumstances support—or oppose—unilateral action by a group of countries, which seems to be what is implied by the Opposition motion?
First, given my hon. Friend’s knowledge of, and expertise in, foreign affairs, he will be aware that the Canadian commission that preceded the establishment of the responsibility to protect doctrine anticipated that there could be circumstances following a natural disaster where that doctrine might be applicable. There will, of course, be legal arguments and debate about such points, but some authorities have suggested the potential applicability of the responsibility to protect.
As I have made clear, there are at root two legal issues in the context of the discussions that have taken place in the Security Council on this issue. The first of those is whether the Security Council itself is the appropriate body to discuss this matter, because some have argued that it is not, given that this is essentially a matter that comes under the national sovereignty of Burma, while others have argued that there are broader concerns in terms of regional international security which make the Security Council an appropriate forum in which to discuss it. There has also been dispute and division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect. Notwithstanding that, given our position as current chair of the Security Council, we continue to engage actively with our partners on the Security Council and we seek to find consensus and a way forward. It is for the Opposition to explain the terms of their motion, but we are clear that, while we rule no option out, we will continue to pursue this matter within the Security Council and actively engage in discussions with our colleagues.
In addition to the political and diplomatic hurdles that I have described, it is also right to assess the effectiveness of any direct action in getting assistance to the people who need it. This morning, I met representatives of British NGOs working in the field, and received no request for immediate air drops. That reflects some of the sentiments in discussions that have taken place, and some of the difficulties in relation to air drops—which were, indeed, anticipated by those on the Opposition Front Bench. Air drops have proved successful in the past where it is possible to have an identified drop zone and aid workers are waiting to distribute the aid to the most vulnerable within the communities. If such aid workers are absent, not having been deployed to the drop zone, the aid can end up in the hands of the strongest rather than the weakest. Secondly, one would need to identify suitable drop zones in an area of the Irrawaddy delta that is now largely under water as a consequence of the cyclone, with large areas of standing water.
Therefore, as I have said, this is not an easy or straightforward option, and while we take no option off the table, it is interesting that the organisations that are currently making efforts to get aid to those who need it most are making no request to the British Government for such drops at present. Indeed, in recent days the World Food Programme has said that aid drops could be “dangerous and counter-productive” without the proper ground support available, and Jane Cocking, humanitarian director of Oxfam—with which I understand the Leader of the Opposition was in touch only yesterday—has said:
“The biggest risk is that aid air drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground.”
Let me be clear, however, that we will consider all options in getting aid to those affected, and continue to apply the highest diplomatic effort to ensure that international aid and aid experts are allowed to get to where they are most needed.
The UN Secretary-General has said that we are at a “critical point” in the response to this grave humanitarian crisis. It is, indeed, the case that the lives of many thousands depend now on the actions not only of the Burmese regime but of the international community. There is no difference in the world’s willingness to help, compared with either the tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake. It is the military regime’s chilling indifference to the plight of the Burmese people that has been laid bare. Yet we must balance our outrage at the Burmese junta’s response so far with a clear-headed sense of what will actually make a difference on the ground. While we are not ruling out any action, we are working every available diplomatic channel to provide both unfettered access for international aid and aid workers, and an international community that speaks with one voice—and says that we must work together to avert any further human catastrophe following this natural disaster. I commend our amendment to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. Like him, I join the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), and others across the Chamber in expressing sympathy for the people who have lost family members and friends and who even at this moment have no idea what their future will be after this unimaginable disaster of the past 10 days.
I welcome the statement that was part of the Secretary of State’s speech today, and acknowledge his intention to come back to the House and make a statement in his own time at some point this week. The official Opposition have however provided us with a good opportunity to air all the different issues and to examine thoroughly what has been going on and what can still go on. I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s decision to move this motion.
On the vexed issue of the motion, I have listened carefully to the contributions from both Front Benches and I wish to make it clear that we will support the motion. It is a shame that the Secretary of State cannot bring himself and his colleagues to support it. I recognise that they have some concerns about the language, but surely what matters is the message that this House sends to the outside world, rather than a dispute about who said what and when, and what represents a particular point of view. In the past few minutes, the Secretary of State has said that we rule nothing out, so I do not understand why the Government cannot accept a motion containing the words
“should consider all options for getting help to those who need it, including using direct aid drops.”
The Secretary of State has helpfully updated us, although starkly so, about the situation on the ground—it is under water, tragically—in Burma. Some 200,000 people may have lost their lives, and that is a staggering figure—it represents nearly every person who lives in my part of the south of Scotland—and 1.5 million people are homeless or in need of emergency assistance, 300,000 or 400,000 desperately so.
As the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State said, there are some urgent priorities: clean water, food, shelter and medical assistance. The World Food Programme estimated the other day that it was able to deliver only about one fifth of the 375 tonnes of food required each day and that instead of two to three aircraft landing each day, one needed to land every 45 minutes or so.
We should be encouraged, to a certain degree, by what the Secretary of State just told us. He said that about 25 to 30 aircraft are landing today. We must hope that that level will be maintained and that the aid can be used immediately and responsibly. It should not, as others have highlighted, be hijacked by the generals and their acolytes, and then be rebadged or simply not distributed.
Food prices in the region were already climbing astronomically—they have increased by 30 per cent. this year alone—and this situation can only worsen that trend. Let us not forget Burma’s tragic recent history. The Saffron revolution of only a few months ago started on the back of fuel price increases and other problems in the country, as well as the fundamental flaws in the regime. The country was desperate before these past few days.
Dr. Gareth Price and Tamara Lynch of Chatham House—I declare an interest as, like the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I am a member of its council—have stated:
“It is pretty clear that the government in Burma focuses more on remaining in power (and self-aggrandisement) than on responsiveness to people’s needs.”
Those two people do not have an axe to grind; they are not party politicians or non-governmental organisations, but individual experts making a damning indictment. Their assessment highlights the fact that despite the arrangements made by neighbouring countries in the region facing the same risk of cyclones, Burma has had no cyclone warning system. It also has no system of building cyclone-safe houses. Although such houses have not protected Bangladesh in every last respect, they have brought about a major improvement there in recent years. Even the Burmese military—the much-vaunted 500,000 people who are the regime’s elite—has been forced to feed off the land; vegetables are being grown beside airstrips and there are chicken coops behind the barracks.
Burma is a country with a twisted set of priorities that has never got things right, and in this moment of crisis, we have not seen a proper response. Indeed, we have seen the absolute obscenity of proceeding with a referendum on a constitution to which nobody can give any credence—it is simply designed to entrench the power of the military. Above all, we have seen the disgraceful and unbelievable response to the cyclone: the refusal of all outside assistance. That assistance ought to be making the difference in saving lives that are at risk.
At this time, we learn that the generals’ preoccupation is that somehow outside assistance would strike at the heart of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s national sovereignty. For that reason, the generals feel that they must reject the assistance, but I suggest that the regime has no legitimacy to lose. The very nature of the military dictatorship goes against every standard and norm that we would support. The reaction to the democracy protests both a few months ago and over many years, the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime’s complete failure to prepare for events such as these are sadly predictable. It is not outsiders who are undermining the regime’s legitimacy; the regime itself is doing so.
That whole debate has enlivened the broader one that we are having internationally—we have also heard it here this afternoon—about the responsibility to protect. We are arguing over how formal that responsibility is and what it has meant in the past few years, but surely that fancy new phrase simply formalises the basic humanitarian instincts that we all have and to which we respond on occasions such as this, when we expect Governments, as a basic part of their duty, to protect the people who live in their countries. The responsibility to protect, as formalised and debated in recent years, has been clearly based around the ideas of the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react and the responsibility to rebuild. On all those grounds, the Burmese regime has failed, not just in the past 10 days, but over many years.
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, of which Gareth Evans was a member, published a report in December 2001 and kick-started this debate more broadly at the United Nations. It stated:
“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of…state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”
So, we cannot pretend that this is not a legitimate area for debate, and we must be clear that in our deliberations we are examining where we can go using that new authority. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Prime Minister and others have recognised that it is a legitimate part of the process. I equally acknowledge that it is not straightforward, to put it mildly, to move the debate through our partners in the United Nations Security Council, and I hope briefly to discuss that in a little while.
We must not assume in this debate that that responsibility means an automatic rush to have military action, or military or another assertive form of intervention. Military action is an option, but it must only be a last resort and it is not what is contemplated in this situation. As the shadow Secretary of State made clear, and as the motion sets out, our instincts and objectives are humanitarian. Inevitably, military assets and military assistance will be necessary and useful in making the humanitarian intervention more effective, so we must be prepared to argue the case in not only this Chamber but the broader international community.
The international response has been patchy. We can be encouraged by the fact that in this country and many others there has been a good response from the public to the appeals made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and others. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House would encourage everybody who can to contribute to that assistance. We know that major NGOs, such as Save the Children and Merlin, which are mentioned in the motion, and others, are making strenuous efforts as we speak to minimise the cost to lives and the quality of lives in Burma.
Thailand, as a neighbouring state, has been as supportive as it can be and is hosting much of the international support network. China, we have seen in recent months, is more willing to play a quietly assertive role with the Burmese. We must hope that China will not stand in the way of the international community’s making it plain to the Burmese that their attitude is not acceptable or sustainable.
As we sympathise with the Chinese about their terrible loss over the past couple of days following the earthquake, we must also congratulate them on the speedy way in which the Chinese Prime Minister and others have been at the scene of the disaster and on how they have encouraged others to contribute to what they are seeking to do. That lesson might have been very painful for them to learn, but I hope that they will see the logic of extending that lesson to their neighbour. India, too, surely has an important role to play, and has been sadly too quiet in its comments thus far.
On such occasions, we are used to turning to regional bodies and wondering what they are doing. I do not think that I am alone in being frustrated at the slowness of the response from the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, of which Burma is one. It is deeply alarming that it has taken them so long to gather. It was good to hear that they will have a mercy mission and that they will hopefully ratify that on the 19th, but surely this disaster needs not bureaucratic responses but political pressure, applied quickly and now, to make the Burmese change their minds.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State talked about bringing our European partners together and the fact that the commissioner is to visit the region. Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate might also brief the House on the extent to which European funds and other forms of support have been offered by our partners. It is important to demonstrate that Europe can come together on these issues and be more effective than we are bilaterally. In particular, the UN reckoned a few days ago that $187 million of support might be needed—although the figure might have changed—but we have not heard thus far how much of that has been delivered. It would be helpful to know what will happen.
Ministers, officials and others are to be congratulated on the efforts that they have made so far and on their steadfastness. We know that they were working over the weekend to brief colleagues in the House as well as attending to the details of what was going on. We cannot criticise them on that level. We want to know if they believe that as a result of their actions, in Europe and elsewhere, the funding and logistical support will be in place for that moment when, we must hope, the Burmese change their attitude and allow things to move on.
In particular, may we have an assurance that the money that has been pledged is additional to that that was already in the budget for the region or for Burma—that it is not replacement or accelerated funding, which would otherwise have been given later in the year? It is important that we have that assurance, and a statement this afternoon would be helpful.
I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he was looking for. The funds that we are providing for immediate humanitarian assistance to Burma are additional to the programme funding that we would otherwise have provided. That will continue to be the approach as we reflect on the flash appeal and the need for further assistance in the days and weeks to come.
I am sure that that is welcome on both sides of the House; right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to have heard that.
We cannot imagine what it is like in Burma or China at present. It is incumbent on us all, however, to ensure that our support, our suggestions, the questions that we ask and the things that we do are dedicated to one objective: minimising further humanitarian suffering and death in that region. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak this afternoon and to support the motion.