Skip to main content


Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

Before listing my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the UK serviceman killed doing his duty and serving his country in Afghanistan on Monday. We owe him, and all others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

May I add my condolences to the family of the brave serviceman killed in Afghanistan this week? In the last few weeks, the world has seen the devastation by a cyclone in Burma, earthquake destruction in China, and now the spectre of the possible return of the famines of a generation ago in Ethiopia and the horn of Africa. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the test by which the international community and developed world will be judged is how they respond to those crises and the cries from some of the poorest in the world?

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me and others in sending condolences to all those who have lost their lives in China, where 40,000 people have died as a result of the earthquake, and in Burma, where we estimate up to 200,000 people have now died as a result of the cyclone, and to all those who are suffering as a result of famine, which is now hitting Africa again in this generation. The rescue effort in China has been heroic, and thousands of lives have been saved. We are now sending aid for shelters to China, as well as giving help with equipment. The progress in Burma remains slow, however. We have worked with the Association of South East Asian Nations—ASEAN—and the United Nations Secretary-General, and I believe that ASEAN aid will now flow into Burma with the permission of the Burmese Government. There is also to be a donors’ conference this weekend in Rangoon, headed by the UN Secretary-General. We continue, however, to hold the Burmese Government accountable for the loss of life and the suffering of their people.

As far as Africa is concerned, the Secretary of State for International Development will be announcing new aid for Ethiopia and other countries that are hit by famine. Six million children are likely to be affected over the next few months, which makes the case not only for action on food shortages, but for the proposal put by the Foreign Secretary at the UN Security Council: that we now need a civilian stand-by humanitarian and reconstruction force that has the necessary funds to move immediately whenever disasters are threatening in the world.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the British soldier who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday. He died serving our country and we should all honour his memory.

May I return to the issue of Burma? Everyone is grateful for the efforts the Government have made over the last week, and it is good news that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is visiting Burma later this week. The donors’ conference the Prime Minister spoke about is also very worth while, but the situation on the ground remains desperate. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of the percentage and number of people who are still without aid three weeks after the cyclone hit?

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition; it is still a small fraction of people who are getting aid. Aid agencies, particularly British ones, are getting aid to people, but the key effort will now rely on an ASEAN-mobilised effort, as a result of the decision of its Foreign Ministers on Monday. We will put our resources behind that, as will the Americans, the French and the ships that are now off the coast of Burma. We hope that, as a result, aid will now get very quickly to the people of Burma. It is the combination of the ASEAN aid effort—I have been in touch with the Prime Ministers of India, Singapore and Thailand and the President of Indonesia asking them to move things forward as quickly as possible—which the Burmese Government are now prepared to accept, and the push from the United Nations at the conference this weekend that can start to make possible the biggest difference.

As I said, I hold the Burmese Government responsible for what was a natural disaster turning into a man-made disaster, but, at the same time, we continue to look at all the other options, as I said last week. The general view of aid agencies on the ground is, again, that it is better to work through the Burmese Government to get the aid to people as quickly as possible, rather than to use the other options that may be available to us in the future. In the next few days, that is where all the efforts will be focused.

Clearly we all agree about the frustration with the slow progress; the UN estimates that fewer than a quarter of the people affected are receiving aid. I put a question to the Prime Minister: is there not a danger that the junta in Burma is doing just enough each day to prevent the international community from taking those further steps to make sure the aid gets through on a huge scale? He said last week that he does not rule out direct aid. I think that he is absolutely right that the efforts by ASEAN to open up the country are the best route forward, but can he give us his latest assessment on how direct aid could be delivered if it had to be delivered? Is it not the case that for too many people in Burma time is just running out?

What has changed in the past few days is the determination of the ASEAN countries to take action. I spoke to the Prime Minister of India, and he has moved to agree to the action that is necessary and now agreed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. I spoke to the President of Indonesia and the Prime Minister of Singapore, and they, too, are behind the major effort that ASEAN will now mount. Britain, France and America have been pushing for aid to be delivered, but what has changed in the past few days is that the ASEAN group of countries will now co-ordinate action, which will be backed up by the donors’ conference.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that aid has been too slow and I agree with him also that the Burmese regime has made it impossible, in some cases, for aid agencies to do their work. But what I do believe is that, as has happened in the past few days, the ASEAN countries have been seized of the necessity to take action—every phone call that I have had suggests that, as do Lord Malloch-Brown’s visits to the region—and that is what we must monitor over the next few days. I do not rule out anything, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that, in talking to aid agencies—Save the Children, Oxfam and the World Food Programme, which is acting on the ground in the area—they still believe that food drops or other drops of aid would be counter-productive and that they still believe that military intervention would be counter-productive at this time. Let us hope, and let us push the ASEAN effort forward. Given the scale of the loss of life of which we are now aware, the whole House would wish that effort to move forward very quickly now.

I wish the Prime Minister well with his efforts, and I thank him and the Government for keeping us regularly updated on this issue in the House. What has happened in China is also a huge tragedy—the Prime Minister and I both went to the Chinese embassy yesterday—but we must not let it knock off the front pages what is happening in Burma.

I shall turn, if I may, to an issue of domestic politics, which may explain the slightly emptier House of Commons today. Tomorrow, people in Crewe and Nantwich will go to the polls in a by-election. The abolition of the 10p tax rate is clearly a huge issue, so can the Prime Minister tell us whether the £2.7 billion compensation package will be continued into the next financial year?

We have already said that we want to continue to help those affected by the 10p rate, and the Chancellor will make an announcement in the pre-Budget report. Perhaps there is a question that the right hon. Gentleman might answer. [Interruption.] We have announced a £2.7 billion package to help 22 million people in this country and to give lower taxes to those who have been hit by food and fuel bills, and the Opposition cannot tell us whether they support it or not. The reason why they cannot tell us whether they support it is that their priorities for tax cuts are not our priorities. Their priorities are inheritance tax, stamp duty on shares and corporation tax. Let us give the tax cut to those who need it: lower and middle-income families in this country.

The whole House will have noticed that that was no answer to the question at all. The man sitting next to the Prime Minister gave a slightly straighter answer when on “Newsnight”. Jeremy Paxman asked:

“So this is for one year only?”

The Chancellor said:

“Yes I made that clear this afternoon.”

So, should not everyone conclude that this is a one-off, one-year-only change, whereby the Government give some people some money this September and take it all back again in April? It is just one tax con followed by another. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said today that even after the changes almost 1 million families will still be worse off—and they are among the poorest—and a total of 18 million families will be hit when the changes are reversed next year. Will the Prime Minister confirm those figures?

The IFS has also said that in the past 10 years the group that has benefited most from this Labour Government are the lowest income groups who are more than 10 per cent. better off. They would not have been better off if we had taken the advice of the right hon. Gentleman, who tells us that he wants to introduce a Budget that abolishes all of the endless reliefs and tax credits to create a basic rate of tax and abolish the top rate of tax at 40p. That is the policy of the Conservative party. We want to help lower and middle-income families: they want to help other people. He still has not answered our question: does he support the £2.7 billion?

The last time I looked this was still called Prime Minister’s questions. This is not like his thing on YouTube where people ask questions now and he gives an answer after 21 June. He absolutely would not confirm the figures, so will he tell us this? He brought forward his draft Queen’s Speech and he introduced a mini-Budget, all because of the by-election. Why has he not had the courage to go to Crewe and Nantwich to explain those points to people on the streets of those towns?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that it is the tradition that Prime Ministers do not go to by-elections. Like the people in the rest of the country, the people of Crewe and Nantwich know that 22 million households are better off by £120 as a result of the tax changes that we have made. They also know that we have put £2.7 billion into that. What they do not know is whether the Conservative party will support the changes. We are the party for low and middle-income families, making them better off: the Conservatives are the party that would prefer tax cuts for the richest.

The Prime Minister must know that the Labour party will never be taken seriously again as the party of low and middle-income families. It was 5.3 million low income people whom he hit in order to clamber aboard the premiership. The Prime Minister talks about the great tradition of Prime Ministers not going to by-elections. I remind him of what his predecessor, Tony Blair, said on his way to a by-election:

“I’ve never understood the recent convention that Prime Ministers stay away from by-elections. I am joining the campaign trail… because this by-election matters…I believe in leading from the front.”

Instead of leading from the front, has not the Prime Minister just put himself in his bunker?

The right hon. Gentleman never addresses the questions of importance. He wants us to believe that the Conservative party is the party that helps the poor, but he opposes tax credits. He wants us to believe that his party would help the low paid, but it opposed the minimum wage. He wants us to believe that the Conservatives are the party of the family, but they voted against maternity leave. He wants us to believe that they are the party of £10 billion of tax cuts, but they will not tell us the consequences in public spending cuts. He can get by without substance for some of the time, but he will never get by without substance all of the time.

May I advise the House that this morning I withdrew my Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, following yesterday’s ground-breaking agreement between the Government and the social partners? That is surely the best way to address unfairness in the workplace. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to continue in this vein and demonstrate the differences between us and the official Opposition, who said in Committee that they were opposed to equal treatment in the workplace?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of agency workers in the House of Commons through his Bill. He will be pleased that it will now be possible for us to legislate in the next Queen’s Speech for an agency workers Bill. I am pleased that the CBI and the TUC could reach agreement about a way forward to deal with what was an unfairness practised against agency workers that allowed British and other workers to be undercut as a result. I hope that all parties in the House will welcome that agreement between the CBI and TUC, and I hope that the Conservatives will change their minds on the agency workers Bill. But of course their stance is very much in keeping with a Conservative party that still wants to get rid of the social chapter.

I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the British serviceman who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan. I am sure that the whole House agrees that a failure of our mission in Afghanistan would be catastrophic and would lead to an increase in terrorism, more hard drugs on the streets of our towns and cities, instability in the region and more suffering for the Afghans. Will the Prime Minister accept that perhaps more could be done to explain to the British people why success in Afghanistan is so vital and that we perhaps need to be more candid about how long we will have to stay there? Does the Prime Minister agree that stabilising and rebuilding Afghanistan could take 30 years and that Britain must be ready to make that commitment?

It will certainly take time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what we are doing in Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban and their ever returning to power. It is a battle against al-Qaeda and those people who want to use Pakistan and Afghanistan to bring al-Qaeda back into power. It is also a fight to re-establish government in Afghanistan under President Karzai. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with our strategy, which is to use military force, while also building up national and local government in Afghanistan and giving people a stake in the future by promoting the economic development of the country. The strategy that we announced for Afghanistan, backed up by 7,800 very brave troops there, is to move not only through military means but through civilian and local government reform and economic development that will bring hope to people in the country.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that reply. That being the case, does he share my concern that much of our defence expenditure continues to be misallocated on cold war priorities? For example, we are committed to spending £6 billion on the Eurofighter but are failing to deliver enough of the right kinds of armoured vehicles to our troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Will the Prime Minister commit to undertaking the first strategic defence review in 10 years to ensure that our troops are properly equipped for the new kinds of conflict that they now face?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will know that we have spent £6 billion on urgent operational requirements in addition to the ordinary defence budget for the work that is being done by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will also know that when it comes to giving our fighting troops the equipment that they need, we have made major investments now and for the future including in tanks and helicopters for Afghanistan. Eurofighters are strike aircraft, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that they are of use in the theatres of war in which we are operating. He will also welcome the announcement yesterday that the aircraft carrier order will go ahead, benefiting almost every shipyard in the UK.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister recall that 30 years ago, the then Labour Government introduced what is known as Short money, which enables the Opposition parties to have £4.7 million in the Conservatives’ case and £1.7 million in the case of the Liberal Democrats? Does he know, too, that a top Committee of the House recently uncovered large donations to the Tory shadow Cabinet? Is it not like the old familiar story—claiming benefits from the state while making money on the side? (206731)

It is true that the Conservative party receives £4.7 million from Short money. Perhaps its new value for money inquiry can look at whether that is money well spent.

The 10p tax con has been an unmitigated fiasco, not least for hard-working low-income families. Will the Prime Minister accept personal responsibility for the whole sorry episode?

Perhaps, if the hon. Gentleman holds those views, he will support our measures. Some 22 million people will get £120 as a result of the tax change announced by the Chancellor. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will break with those on the Opposition Front Bench and give us full support for the measures that we are bringing forward.

Q3. Thales is a global company that produces aerospace technology and engineering for all our constituents. It has 9,000 staff in the UK, and 2,500 in Crawley, and a thriving apprenticeship scheme and graduate programme. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is a true reflection of what is going on in our constituencies up and down the country as training opportunities are provided for our young people so that they can get into decent jobs? (206732)

I welcome the work that Thales does, both in my hon. Friend’s constituency and around the country. Incidentally, it is part of the aircraft carrier order as well. I welcome most of all two things that are happening in the British economy: first, we have more jobs in Britain than ever before in our history—29.5 million—and, secondly, we have restored the apprenticeships that were dying out when we came to power in 1997. Now there are 180,000 apprentices in the country, and that number will continue to rise, in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in other constituencies. It is unfortunate that the Conservatives cannot support the increase in apprenticeships that is taking place.

The decisions that we made on the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill on Monday make it possible for researchers into motor neurone disease to explore new options for a cure to what is a dreadful and invariably terminal illness. The Prime Minister will be pleased to know that the international symposium to consider options for cures is coming to the UK later this year. If I make representations to him on behalf of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, will he consider addressing that symposium?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have met him and members of the association to which he refers, and we have talked about how we can work together to increase research in the future. The benefits that come from Monday’s decisions on the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill will not go just to research into that disease. We can now look forward to achieving potential cures for many other life-threatening conditions in the future, and I look forward to talking to him about addressing the association.

Q4. There is a growing disparity between the doom and gloom in the national media and the independent economic forecasters who are still forecasting that there will be growth in the economy this year. Who are we to believe? (206733)

The British economy was one of the fastest growing economies last year— [Hon. Members: “Was!”] This year, the estimate is that it is still going to be one of the fastest growing economies in the G7. The reasons are that we have lower inflation than other countries and that we have more jobs than at any time in our history. We will continue to take the right decisions to keep inflation and interest rates low in this economy, and to keep employment up. While unemployment is at 8 per cent. in France and Germany, and rising very fast in America, employment in Britain is at 29.5 million, the biggest number in our history. I would have thought that Opposition Members would welcome the fact that the British economy is creating jobs, not criticise us.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that many Commonwealth nations—and especially the old ones—are our stoutest allies, for longstanding, kith-and-kin reasons. However, a number of those nations, especially Australia and New Zealand, are extremely upset at the Government’s proposals to cut visitor visa times by half, and to remove patrial entry into this country. Will he heed those protests, remove those proposals and revert to the present arrangements?

Obviously, we will look at these issues carefully. We have had representations from the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are introducing an Australian-style points system for migration into this country. A lot of the changes that we are making flow from that.

Q5. Thousands of workers every year contract pleural plaques. They are an early sign of asbestosis, which leads to a long and horrible death. Can the Prime Minister give the men involved any hope of compensation in the future? (206734)

I met a delegation of hon. Members concerned about pleural plaques. It is a serious issue that has arisen as a result of a High Court judgment, and the Government are proposing to bring forward a consultation document on it in the next few weeks. We are looking very carefully at the representations that my hon. Friend and others have made. We are very sensitive to the fact that people with pleural plaques may suffer from asbestosis and other diseases as a result of their exposure to asbestos, and we are determined to do what we can to help them. I think that he will look forward to the document that we will bring forward in the next few days.

There is to be a presidential election run-off next month in Zimbabwe. Given the result of the last electoral contest there, what plans does the Prime Minister have to hold discussions with leaders in southern Africa to make sure that on this occasion corruption, bribery and the brutality of the regime are brought to an end, through the freely expressed views of the people of Zimbabwe?

In the last elections, the main observers were those from the Southern African Development Community—from the south African countries themselves. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that people expressed a huge amount of disquiet, not just about some of the practices in the election, but about the huge delay in publishing the election results. I think that he will find that the international community, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is pressing the Zimbabwean electoral commission and the Zimbabwean Government to ensure that there are international observers from a far wider range of countries than previously. I believe that there are now discussions about observers coming from the Caribbean countries, and perhaps from Canada and other parts of the world, to add to the international observers from the south African countries.

I think that it is very important that if there are to be elections, given the violence that has happened in Zimbabwe and given the fears that people have about the role of the military in the elections, that there be sufficient observers, so that the process is seen to be free and fair. We are determined to back up all countries that are pushing for the process to be free and fair.

Q6. May I ask my right hon. Friend what more he can do to help small businesses and, more importantly, look at the question of cutting red tape? (206735)

The best help for small businesses is to keep interest rates low, so that they are able to invest for the future in an expanding economy. The best thing that we can do to help small businesses is make sure that our economy continues to grow as a result of all the decisions that we make. As far as bureaucracy and red tape are concerned, my hon. Friend will know that we are moving towards what is called risk-based regulation, in which instead of 100 per cent. of forms being filled in, 100 per cent. of information requirements having to be met, and 100 per cent. of firms having to be inspected over a period of time, we proceed on a risk basis, so that only a fraction of firms need submit information, be inspected or meet the information requirements. I think that risk-based regulation for small businesses is the way forward. We are in discussions with the CBI and other organisations about implementing that.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the fact that, according to Home Office figures, domestic violence has almost trebled from 241,000 to 658,000 instances in the past year alone, yet the conviction rate has fallen from 11 per cent. to a paltry 5 per cent.? (206736)

One of the reasons why more people are coming forward to report domestic violence is that we are making available far bigger advice services and far more support for the victims of domestic violence. When it comes to taking action and the expenditure that is necessary for those advice services, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will renounce his membership of the No Turning Back group and support the additional public spending that is necessary.

Q8. Millions of people, both in this country and around the world, are concerned about, or suffering from, rising food prices. What can the Prime Minister tell us about the prospects for an early agreement in the world trade talks? (206737)

The World Trade Organisation yesterday published its papers, so that we can move forward in getting a world trade deal. If we could get a world trade deal, we could resist the protectionism that is now about in America and in Europe, and we could move towards a greater degree of free trade, which would benefit the poorer countries of the world. Indeed, if agricultural subsidies were reduced, it would help us to deal with some of the problems of food shortages. I hope that we will now get support from the Governments of the world in order to conclude a world trade deal. I will be working very hard with our G8 partners and others at this, the eleventh hour—we need a trade deal now or it will be delayed for a great deal of time—in the hope that we can make urgent progress in the next few days.

As a Scottish Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister will know that the Scottish Executive have postponed much-needed capital investment in order to work up their own alternative Scottish Futures Trust. Yesterday they published details of outline proposals for £150 million—a fraction of what is required. Will he confirm whether that requires Treasury approval, if that approval will be forthcoming, and how much-needed projects such as the Aberdeen bypass, which have been delayed by the Scottish National party Executive, are to go ahead?

It is true that the priorities that I believe many people in Scotland want to see followed—that is, new investment in health, transport and education—are now the victims of SNP policies that are being adopted in the Scottish Parliament. I believe that public opinion, whether that of the local authorities or of the public round the country, will press, as the right hon. Gentleman is doing, for the education programme of expansion to go ahead, for the transport programme to go ahead, and for the health programme to go ahead. Unfortunately, the rate of increase in education and health expenditure has been cut to below that in the United Kingdom as a result of decisions of the SNP Administration.

Q9. According to an answer in Monday’s Hansard, employment numbers in my constituency, Vale of Clwyd, went from 23,000 in 1997 to 29,000 in 2007. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that Labour is working? (206738)

One hundred and forty thousand more people are employed in Wales now than in 1997; 3 million more people are employed in the United Kingdom now than in 1997. The reason why the Conservatives do not like hearing that is that there were 3 million unemployed under a Conservative Government.

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister was kind enough to agree to look into his Government’s attack on disabled and elderly anglers. He said that he would look into it, but I still have not had a reply from him. Please will he see what he can do for those people, who have seen the cost of their licences go up by 37 per cent.?

Q10. Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to examine the surveys, by Mencap and others, that highlight the huge variation among different local authorities in the levels of social care for elderly and vulnerable people that they provide? Does he share my concern that it is mainly Conservative authorities, including Wokingham and West Berkshire, that are refusing to support vulnerable people at substantial or moderate risk? Does that not speak volumes about the callous face of Cameron’s Conservatives? (206739)

We have set aside a 45 per cent. increase in resources for social care up to 2011. Many of these decisions have to be made by local authorities, to implement the spending allocated by the Government. We will be looking week in, week out, at what Conservative councils are doing. We will be looking at what they are doing in practice and in action and at whether they are serving the needs of elderly people in their areas.