Skip to main content


Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2008

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday 25 May. We owe him, and all those who have given their life in the service of our country, a huge 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.

On behalf of myself and other Back Benchers, may I add my condolences to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan? Our thoughts are also with his two comrades who were seriously injured in that explosion.

The tragic killings from stabbings are causing concern everywhere in the country, though I stress that they are not happening everywhere. Will my right hon. Friend accept that, alongside tough laws on possession and use, it is important to take action with families, schools and communities to tackle a culture that allows some people to think that it is acceptable to carry a weapon?

I, too, send my condolences to the families of those who have suffered as a result of knives and violent crimes in recent weeks. Every parent will want their teenage sons and daughters not only to be safe, but to feel safe in our neighbourhoods. That is why knives are unacceptable, and we have to do everything in our power to deter their use. That is why the average sentence for carrying a knife is rising, and that is why there are three times as many people in prison for the possession of knives. That is why we are using the powers of stop and search. In London, in Operation Blunt 2, some 4,000 people were stopped and 200 arrested. That is why wands, arches and metal detectors are being used. That is why we need visible policing to back up our safer school policy, support for parents in their communities, and the education programme that we are carrying out.

The whole House will agree on the presumption that we prosecute, on which the Association of Chief Police Officers will lay down its proposals in the next few days. It is right, when we see young teenagers below the age of 18 carrying knives, that the presumption that we prosecute should now extend to 16-year-olds as well; that is what the Government propose.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in Helmand province on 25 May. He died serving our country and we should honour his memory.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is today in front of the Select Committee on the Treasury. The next tax hike planned by the Government is to hit family cars, including those bought seven years ago, with massive increases in vehicle excise duty. Is the Prime Minister really going to go ahead with this deeply unpopular tax when families are struggling with the cost of living, or can he give us another of his trademark U-turns?

If the right hon. Gentleman looks in detail at the proposal, he will see that the majority of drivers will benefit from it. If he looks in detail at his own policy, it says:

“We recommend…changes in VED, aimed primarily at influencing the used car market where annual running costs comprise a larger proportion of total costs.”

What he proposes is a band in excess of £500; that is far worse than what he says that we are proposing.

When is the Prime Minister going to learn that new green taxes should be offset, one by one, by cuts in family taxes? The Prime Minister says that we should look at the detail; let me take him up on that, because he spews out statistics that, in any other walk of life, would result in trading standards officers coming in and clamping him in irons. He says that next year, half of all motorists will be better off or no worse off; that is what he has just said. The full effect of the tax rise is not planned to take effect until 2010, and the Treasury has said that under this regime, 81 per cent. of cars will be worse off—once again, dodgy statistics from the Prime Minister.

Let us start when the tax was first announced. Can the Prime Minister tell us why the Chancellor, in his Budget speech, made no mention of the fact that the tax would hit people who had bought a car up to seven years ago? Why no mention?

It was in the Budget documents. Twenty-four of the 30 top models, which are the most popular models, will have the same or lower tax as a result of it. The right hon. Gentleman says that he supports green taxes. He also said a few days ago that

“there will be tough choices to make for the environment and I won’t shy away from them for one moment”.

Let us assume that we both agree on the need for green taxes. Let us also agree that we need to deal with polluting cars, and let the right hon. Gentleman tell us that he now supports our policy.

If a company director got up and read out a statement like that, the authorities would be after him. The Prime Minister says, “Let’s concentrate on the detail.” Let me take one of the things that he has just said. He said that 24 out of the 30 car models will not be affected. That is what he just said. What he is doing when he uses that figure of 24 is treating the Ford Focus, for example, as one model. In fact, there are 40 models of the Ford Focus. There is the saloon, the estate, the green car—[Interruption.]

I know the Prime Minister thinks that one fills up a car with a barrel of oil, but I am speaking about the cars that people buy with their money. There are 40 models of the Ford Focus—[Interruption.] I do not know why Labour Members are all shouting at me. It is the Prime Minister who has given them the lowest poll rating since Michael Foot.

Back to the Ford Focus. There are 40 models of the Ford Focus. Only three of them are better off. When will the Prime Minister stop using such dodgy statistics to back up his figures?

As a result of the measures that are being taken to deal with polluting cars, a third more cars in this country are low polluting and a quarter are less polluting, so we are making advances in encouraging people to buy the less polluting cars. The right hon. Gentleman says that he supports green taxes. Steve Norris, who was on his quality of life review, says we should return to the fuel duty escalator. When will the Conservative party be honest? When Conservative Members say that they support green taxes and then run away from every one of them, is it not like the Leader of the Opposition when he cycles to work, with his car following? He is sounding more and more like a used car salesman today.

It is not my Back Benchers who are telling me to get on my bike. It would do the Prime Minister good to get out a bit. The tax is not a green tax; it is a stealth tax. The former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)—I do not know whether he is on the Prime Minister’s cold calling list—said:

“A ‘green’ tax that you cannot avoid by changing your behaviour is not a ‘green’ tax, it’s just a tax.”

What on earth is green about taxing someone who bought a Ford Mondeo five years ago?

Now the right hon. Gentleman says that there can be green taxes, but he excludes any tax on a car from being a green tax. Does he not know that the reforms will save 1.3 million—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is too near the Speaker’s Chair to be shouting. He should be quiet.

I was pointing out to the House that we expect the reforms to save 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 and to increase by 650 per cent. the number of clean cars that pay little or no vehicle excise duty because they are the least polluting cars. So we are making a change in the way we use energy for the environment. The Leader of the Opposition says that he wants significant incentives to encourage the ownership of vehicles. Why will he not support the measures that are before us?

That is absolutely no answer to the question of how on earth it is green to tax someone who bought a car five years ago. The director of Greenpeace says:

“It’s the kind of measure that gives green taxes a bad name because it does not change behaviour.”

A bit closer to home, we have a Government Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who asks, quite rightly

“how can you change behaviour when you are introducing a tax on an action that took place seven years earlier? ...millions…could be affected”.

The hon. Gentleman said that this is “retrospective taxation” and that it is “undesirable”. If this is the Government policy that the Prime Minister is so proud of, what is that man still doing in the Government?

We have put forward our proposals on VED. The Conservatives put forward a document suggesting even more extreme and radical proposals than this. The right hon. Gentleman is backing away from his proposals as he has done on just about everything else. I believe that we have to deal with the problems of pollution. He said that he would, but he refuses to do so.

This Prime Minister is now so weak that members of his own Government can come out and attack his policy, and they just sit there as part of his Government.

The Prime Minister keeps telling us about reports to the Conservative party; let me read him some reports to the Labour party. This is one from The Times yesterday, with quotations from Cabinet Ministers: “He’s made terrible misjudgments,”; “He’s crap at communication,”—[Interruption.] None of them have the nerve to challenge him in a leadership election; perhaps they would like to own up to the quotes. Come on—who was responsible for this one:

“the Government is being buffeted by storms rather than steering a clear course”?

Anyone? Hands up!

Why does the Prime Minister not realise that if he is still here next April, he will have to get rid of this deeply unpopular and unenvironmental tax? Does he not understand that if he does not get rid of it, they will probably get rid of him?

I now know what the head of the right hon. Gentleman’s own policy commission on the environment meant when he said of the Leader of the Opposition:

“Whether he’s riding a bike, or visiting glaciers, it’s all part of projecting a message…A lot of people will say this is just opportunism. They may be right.”

When it comes to the issue of supporting action on the environment, we now find that the right hon. Gentleman runs away at every point. When it comes to helping the poor, he says that he wants to help the poor and then does not support our tax cut. When it comes to helping the low paid, he does not support the minimum wage. When it comes to helping the environment, he runs away.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments on tackling knife crime. Will he join me in sending condolences to the family of 18-year-old Laura Thomson, who was knifed to death in a brutal murder in my constituency? Does he agree that this issue affects families throughout the United Kingdom and will he have discussions with the Scottish Government on how this can best be tackled throughout the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend and I join her in sending condolences to the family that have suffered so much as a result of a knife crime that has led to a death. As I said earlier, we have to take every possible measure to remove knives from our streets. That is why we have taken the action that we have, and that is why tomorrow we will be publishing more proposals about what we can do. I think that it is very important that every parent gets the message that they, too, are responsible when their teenage children are carrying knives. We want to support them in every effort to get knives off the streets.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick.

We have all been appalled by the grotesque spectacle of Robert Mugabe lecturing the world on food security just as his Government are blocking the distribution of food aid to his own people. What message does it send when a man who has brought ruin and starvation to his own country continues to be honoured by a knighthood from ours? Will the Prime Minister at least accept that it is difficult to put pressure on other countries to do their bit to bring the Mugabe regime to heel if we do not take this simple, basic step? Will he take immediate action to strip Mugabe of his knighthood?

I am less interested in the symbols than in the substance. We have got to get elections in Zimbabwe that are seen to be free and fair, and we have got to get international observers to be present at those elections so that they are seen by the world as free and fair. Zimbabwe deserves to have a Government who are fully democratically elected and put in place, and that is where I will put my efforts. As for the famine in Zimbabwe, and the loss of lives around the world as a result of famine, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it was important that we were represented at the United Nations conference yesterday.

Of course I agree with the Prime Minister’s tough words, but they need to be translated into action. Will he therefore make it clear that unless minimum standards are met for the conduct of the elections, including the admission of international observers and explicit statements from Zimbabwe’s military leaders that they will recognise the outcome of the poll, the UK will block all foreign currency remittances to Zimbabwe that fund Mugabe’s odious regime, and that he will request our allies in the region, and the world, to do the same?

We will of course look at every action that we can take, but the first thing to do is to ensure that these elections are free and fair. We are working with other countries to ensure that there are international observers from other parts of the world, as well as from Africa. There is a need for hundreds of observers because of the geography of the country and the threats of intimidation. I am working with the president of the African Union, the president of the South African Development Community and other leaders around the world to ensure that the offer of international observers is there and is taken up. I hope that the whole House will agree that that is the first priority to ensure that the elections are free and fair.

Will the Prime Minister accept the very wide welcome that there has been for the shift in policy by his Government that contributed to the ban on cluster munitions being agreed in Dublin last week? Can he assure us that he is determined that the British Government will be among the first 30 to sign the treaty later this year to bring it into effect? Can he give us indications as to the time scale for ratification in this Parliament, and also the time scale for the ending of the British Government’s stockpiles and the removal of the US stockpiles?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue and for his long pursuit of a ban on cluster bombs. I was pleased that the United Kingdom was able to break the deadlock in the negotiations that were taking place and pleased that other countries followed us in making their decision that they too would ban cluster bombs. I believe that this treaty can now move forward to being signed. Of course, there were countries who were not present at these negotiations and who also have to be brought in, and it is my intention to talk to all those countries to see that we can have a global treaty that will outlaw the cluster bombs that have done so much harm.

Q2. What advice does the Prime Minister have for people who receive nuisance phone calls early in the morning? The caller has a metallic voice, he just will not hang up, and he has a very repetitive message. If the Prime Minister is not able to put a stop to it, will his Cabinet? (207945)

Again, the Conservatives have the chance to ask anything on behalf of their constituencies and they reduce the debates in the House of Commons to trivia. I am happy to be in contact with and talking to people in the electorate; perhaps the hon. Gentleman should do so as well.

Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware that energy forecasters are predicting that oil prices will be $150 a barrel by the end of the year. He will also be aware that because of oil contract price indexing, gas prices follow oil prices, making windfall profits for the energy companies worldwide. Does he agree, therefore, that there is a need for a united and concerted effort to decouple gas prices from oil prices? (207946)

I agree with my hon. Friend about the problems that have been caused to every citizen of the country by rising oil prices and rising gas prices. I think that people know that oil was $11 a barrel 10 years ago; it is now $130 a barrel. That means that petrol prices have risen and gas and electricity prices have risen. There are things that we can do internationally as well as nationally. We have raised the winter allowance, taken action to help low-income households, and suspended the rise in fuel duty for the time being, but there are also things that we can do internationally. One is that the European Union sorts out the gas and electricity markets, and we are pressing for that liberalisation to go ahead in the next few months. Another is the inquiry that Ofgem is mounting into competition in the industry. I believe that we need a dialogue between all oil consumers, gas consumers and gas and oil producers so that we can get the price of oil down, to the benefit of all people in this country.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the Sinn Fein threat to bring down the Northern Ireland Assembly tomorrow. I am sure that the irony of republicans wishing to reinstate rule from London will not be lost on the House, or on the people of Northern Ireland. Will he give an assurance that the Government will not cave in to this blackmail, and that in the event of direct rule having to be reintroduced—something that my party will do its best to avoid—the Sinn Fein agenda, which it has not been able to persuade the Northern Ireland Assembly to adopt, will not be adopted by his Government or the House?

The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely sure that we will stick to the policies that we have pursued. I can also tell him that I have had talks with the leaders of all the parties in the Administration in Northern Ireland; I hope that we can move forward tomorrow, and that the new First Minister will be nominated, as will the Deputy First Minister. I believe that that can and will happen. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the retiring First Minister, who is not with us today, for all his efforts on behalf of the peace process and on behalf of reconciliation. He truly has made a historic contribution to the future of Northern Ireland.

Q4. Can the Prime Minister tell the House why his judgment is that we need 42 days’ pre-charge detention, and not to rely on the Civil Contingencies Act 2004? (207947)

This is an issue that the House will debate next week. It is important for the House to know that we have put in place what I believe are major civil liberties safeguards to prevent the arbitrary treatment of the individual. We have put in place safeguards that require any order that comes before this House to be approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions. We would require a vote of this House—a second vote—before there could be any opportunity to go up to 42 days. We are putting in place the right for the independent reviewer to examine any case where the up-to-42 days provision is used. At the same time, a judge must review the case every seven days.

I have to tell the House that for 11 years, I have been looking at these issues, whether as Chancellor or in this job, and we have seen how the complexity and sophistication of the investigations that need to be conducted have grown. We saw in one case only two years ago that there were 400 computers, 8,000 CDs and 25,000 exhibits that needed to be examined, which compares dramatically with where we were 10 years ago. If we are to take the advice of the police, the former head of the counter-terrorism command, who published an article this week, the former head of MI6, Sir Ian Blair, who is the head of the Metropolitan police, and the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, we know that this power will be needed at some time. With all the safeguards that we have put in place, I believe that it is right for the House to vote for the up-to-42 days proposal that we are putting forward.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you for all your kindness over the years.

Can I use my last few seconds in this great cockpit of our nation to ask the Prime Minister to join me in congratulating the London authorities on successfully implementing the ban on alcohol on tubes and buses, and on doubling the safer transport teams so that we will have more uniformed people on buses than at any time in the last 25 years? Can I point out to him that no matter how hard working—

Order—[Hon. Members: “More!”] I am the boss in here, not the Mayor, and I have got to tell him that he should only have one supplementary. He has had three, so we will have to leave it at that.

I am sure that the whole House is going to miss the contributions of the hon. Gentleman, not only in speech, but in writing—those have been more significant over the last few years.

I welcome the ban on alcohol. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the policy put forward by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families earlier this week to deal with the problems of alcohol among young people is a major step forward in holding parents, as well as young people, responsible for binge drinking. I hope that he will also accept that the reason why crime has fallen in London is that there are 6,000 more police officers and 4,000 community support officers. That would not have been possible without the previous Mayor and the decisions of this Government.

Q5. In the pending equalities Bill, will my right hon. Friend agree to put discrimination on the ground of age alongside discrimination on the grounds of religion, sexuality and disability and at the heart of what could be a world-beating Bill? Many people think that the claims of the elderly are only a matter of perception, but it is a true problem in the health service and in access to insurance services. I hope that he agrees that, having introduced winter fuel payments and free bus passes, it would be very sad if notices suddenly went up saying, “No old people here.” (207948)

The Government will publish our response to the consultation on discrimination law later this month, and we propose to have an equalities Bill in the Queen’s Speech when it is published later this year. I agree with my hon. Friend: 1.2 million people now work beyond state pension age and many over-60s need protection in law. That is why, in 2006, we introduced legislation to outlaw age discrimination in employment and vocational training, and it is why he can look forward to the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Q6. The Prime Minister might want to watch “Truth, Lies, Oil and Scotland” on the BBC tonight—a programme about Scotland’s oil, which is not even at its peak. But may I give the Prime Minister another truth? My constituents in Lewis, Harris, Uist and Bara are paying the greatest fuel tax in the UK, with fuel priced at £1.40 a litre—about £6.50 a gallon. Will he give some of the £4.4 billion fuel windfall to offset the cost of fuel by 3 per cent. in the Scottish islands—something that he has already agreed to do for areas of rural France? (207949)

It is precisely because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom that there are 200,000 more people in employment in Scotland today than there were 10 years ago. Just as Scotland benefits from all the measures that we have taken to deal with fuel poverty, so, too, is North sea oil part of the revenues of the United Kingdom. I will fight to defend the Union of the United Kingdom and I hope that all other parties—except the nationalists—will continue to do so as well.

Q11. The hospice in my Bolton constituency wants to take part in a national hospice lottery draw, but is prevented from doing so by the limits on proceeds in the Gambling Act 2005. Will my right hon. Friend take a sympathetic look at the legislation to allow hospices across the country to raise funds and deliver their extremely valuable work? (207954)

The 2005 Act made it possible to double the limits on society lottery proceeds to £10 million over the course of a year and £2 million for an individual lottery. I know that the Lotteries Council and the Hospice Lotteries Association submitted a request to the Sports Minister to change those limits and we will consider that proposal, but I remind my hon. Friend that the amount that can be raised has been doubled. We continue to want to do all we can, both in Government finance and in helping charitable fundraising, for this country’s great hospice movement.

Q7. Given the Prime Minister’s keen interest in constitutional matters, what is his view of the strong possibility that there will be not merely one but two unelected Prime Ministers in this Parliament? (207950)

Again, the hon. Gentleman had a chance to ask about employment, the health service or transport. The more important issue is what we do for our constituents. That is what I shall continue to do.

Q8. My right hon. Friend will be aware that many of our most prestigious sporting clubs, which have millions of young supporters, are sponsored by alcohol firms. Given the evidence that young people’s alcohol intake is influenced by advertising, will he take this opportunity to organise a review of alcohol advertising in sport, especially in the light of the welcome publication this week of the youth alcohol action plan? (207951)

My hon. Friend has great experience as a doctor and I praise him for the work that he has done in the medical profession. I agree with him that all sports should take a responsible approach to alcohol advertising. The Portman Group, which brings the drinks companies together, has agreed to place a voluntary ban on advertising on children’s football shirts, and we are undertaking a review of the relationship between the price of alcohol, promotion and harm. The very issues my hon. Friend raises will be dealt with as part of that review.

Two and a half years ago, as Chancellor, the Prime Minister signed a policy statement, which said that domestic food production was neither necessary nor a sufficient condition for food security. Given all the meetings that he has had on the subject, does he still agree with that—yes or no?

We are a trading nation and we benefit from our ability to trade with the rest of the world, and food imports and exports will always be part of what we do. I do not think that anybody believes that one country on its own, operating in a global economy, will produce all the kinds of food that it needs. We should get a trade agreement so that we can get food prices down and deal with the food shortages by encouraging production in other parts of the world. We must also look at the eco-fuel issue, which many people have raised as being a diversion from food production, but we are part of a global economy and we should accept that as a reality.

Q9. When responding to my constituents, who rightly raise concerns about the rising cost of living, does the Prime Minister agree that I should remind them of not only the practical steps that the Government are taking to help people on low incomes with their fuel bills, but the fundamental strength of our economy, compared with the crisis that we faced 20 years ago? That strength has enabled cities such as Sheffield not only to regenerate its local economy but, most of all, to create in one city, in the past 10 years alone, 72,000 new jobs. That has happened through the policies of the Labour Government. (207952)

Even in the past year, under difficult economic circumstances, 500,000 new jobs have been created in this country. People will at some time have a choice between whether to go with the policies of the Leader of the Opposition, who was economic adviser to the Government who created 15 per cent. interest rates, 3 million unemployed, the biggest tax rises in history and, at the same time, negative equity, and a Labour Government who have got more people in work than ever.