Skip to main content


Volume 479: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2008

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

As a constituency MP as well as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the problems that people face with rising household bills, including rising fuel bills—[Interruption.] May I say that Labour Members are aware of the problems faced by people outside the House, even if Conservative Members are not? Does my right hon. Friend share my assessment that while most people understand that the roots of those problems are international in nature, and therefore the room for any single Government is limited—[Interruption.]

The public also have a better grasp of economics than Conservative Members.

While most people understand that situation, do they not also want to be assured—

We will continue to help hard-pressed families who are facing high fuel bills and high food prices because of what is happening in every country in the world. That is why we are raising the winter allowance for 11 million families, from £300 to £400 for the over-80s. That is why we are providing help for low-income households with their fuel bills. In recognition of the problems that people face with petrol, we are freezing petrol duty for the full year. We will bring forward further measures to help families in due course.

It is a wonderful thing; you do not have to finish a planted question to get a planted answer.

Since this is the last Prime Minister’s questions before October, may I take the opportunity to clear up some important issues? First, this week’s relaunch was based around the plan to march knife criminals into accident and emergency departments to meet their victims. Can the Prime Minister tell me who came up with that bright idea?

Everybody must be concerned about knife crime. Everybody in the House must want to take all the action that is necessary. That is why we propose tougher punishment, tougher enforcement and tougher prevention. On prevention, I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the main proposal this week is that 20,000 families that are in great difficulty will have to sign contracts of good behaviour, and that 110,000 families will be subject to parental supervision. For the first time, we are taking action on all the antisocial behaviour families, and trying to deal with the root cause of the problem.

But why cannot the Prime Minister be straight with people and tell us who thought up the idea? The Home Secretary was asked on television,

“one of those proposals is that people caught carrying knives should be taken to see people in hospital who have been stabbed…is that correct?”

She answered yes it is. The next day, in the House of Commons, she was asked the same question, and she said no, it was not. Does the Prime Minister not understand that he will not get decent policies until he works out what went wrong last time? So let me ask him again: who thought of this bright idea?

It is right that people should have to face up to the consequences of their crimes. But I am saying—and I hope that there is all-party support for this—that there should be tougher penalties, tougher enforcement with visible policing in our communities and community support officers, and tougher prevention. The main proposal is that every problem family, where action must be taken, should be subject to parental supervision. I would have thought that that should have the support of the whole House.

Once again: absolutely no answer—no one owns up in this Government. Let me try another issue to see if he can be straight on this one—it is car tax. The Prime Minister told me last month at Prime Minister’s questions that

“the majority of drivers will benefit from”—[Official Report, 4 June 2008; Vol. 476, c. 765.]

his changes to car tax. It is now clear that that was simply wrong. Will he admit that he was wrong and apologise?

I told him in the House in the exchange that we had last week that the majority will be no worse off or better off as a result of what happened. If I may say so, the Conservative party said it would support action against pollution. The leader of the Conservative party said:

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

The principle is that the less-polluting cars pay less, the more-polluting cars pay more—that is what he said to the House. On 19 March 2007, he said:

“telling people…that you can go green without paying the price. That’s not leadership. That’s not substance”.

But that is what he is trying to do now.

This is not a green tax—this is a stealth tax. The Prime Minister has a nerve to lecture me on consistency. I said he was useless a year ago and I have not changed my mind since. But once again: absolutely no apology, no answer to the question. Let us see if he can give a straight answer on something else. The Government announced today that after months of dithering they are scrapping the 2p tax rise on fuel. Can he tell us whether this decision had anything to do with the Glasgow, East by-election?

It is right to announce, as we have done previously, our decision before the House rises. Let me just deal with this vehicle excise duty point and then excise duty. The former Conservative environment spokesman, the Chairman of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, said:

“If we are going to use bigger differentials in vehicle excise duty…they have to apply to existing secondhand cars as well”.

He said:

“the principle is the right principle”.

The Conservatives said “vote blue, go green”. They said they were going to take action against pollution. The minute they are challenged on it, they walk away—that is the history of the Conservative party.

The message is vote blue and get rid of this useless Prime Minister. So the fuel duty had nothing to do with the by-election, where it is a massive issue, just as, presumably, the 10p tax U-turn had nothing to do with Crewe and Nantwich, just as the plan to call off the election had nothing to do with the polls. Once again, he cannot be straight with people. Let us try another issue—one that we are debating in the House today. The Prime Minister said MPs’ expenses and allowances needed sorting out by this House, yet when there was a vote in this House, leading members of his Cabinet voted against reform, and he did not turn up. So can he tell us why he was not there?

It is very unfortunate that the actions of a few people have brought into disrepute the whole House of Commons. It is very unfortunate, because the vast majority of people who come to this House want only to engage in public service. The principles that underline the approach that the Leader of the House is announcing are that there has got to be the maximum transparency, the maximum external audit and the end of the so-called John Lewis list, and to refer these matters to the Commons Committee looking at these very issues, with a view to having a cap on mortgage interest relief and a cap on other expenses. That is the right way forward, and the right hon. Gentleman should admit that there have been problems that he has got to deal with.

The Prime Minister had a chance to vote against the John Lewis list and he funked it—he stayed in the Downing street bunker. He could have come across and voted for it. Yet again—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the right hon. Gentleman speak. [Interruption.] Be quiet; let the right hon. Gentleman speak.

Yet again, when leadership was required, he would not provide any. I am beginning to think the only thing in Downing street with a spine is his book on courage. As Parliament rises for the summer, should not the Prime Minister reflect on this: everyone knows there are tough times ahead and everyone knows difficult decisions have got to be taken. Is not the one thing the British people are entitled to is a Prime Minister who can provide leadership and who can tell us the truth?

That is why, while the right hon. Gentleman continues to duck the difficult decisions, we will take them. Action against terrorism—he ran away. Education to 18—he ran away. GP access—he ran away. Action against pollution—he ran away. There are all those issues. Nuclear energy—he runs away. During the recess, he needs to address the big substantive issues. This is a Conservative party that gives no answers, offers no solution and has no substance. [Interruption.]

A group of my constituents will be visiting the House today with a petition opposing a proposal associated with the expansion of Heathrow to drive a road through our cemetery, where many of our loved ones are buried. Does the Prime Minister appreciate that the Government now remain, apart from the most rapacious sections of the aviation industry, virtually isolated in their support for expansion of Heathrow? Can I ask him to think again and reassess the environmental, social and economic consequences of a third runway at Heathrow? This will not be interpreted as running away; this will be interpreted as being on the side of our community.

It is right to listen to communities when these big decisions are made, and it is right to take into account what local people are saying on these matters. But this is also a big strategic decision for the country and we cannot afford to duck a decision about the future of airports for many years ahead. That is why it is right in principle to go ahead with airport expansion.

The Prime Minister promised to abolish boom and bust, but now we have got both: inflation is booming, the economy is bust. Energy prices are rocketing, house prices are collapsing, thousands of jobs are on the line, and food prices just go up and up every week. When will the Prime Minister accept that a winter of discontent is just around the corner?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has seen the employment figures today, but employment in this country is at its highest level ever. There are 61,000 more jobs in the economy during the last three months, and while, yes, there are problems, we have inflation that is lower than the rest of Europe and lower than America, we are taking action to take people through these difficult circumstances, which the previous Conservative Government never did when there were problems, and at the same time we are creating more jobs in this economy and we have the flexibility to enable us to withstand events. I would have thought that he would see the economy in its proper context.

The Prime Minister is so out of touch he does not understand the scale of the problem: 5.5 million British families are in fuel poverty and all he can squeeze out of the energy companies is 26p per week for each of those families; 1.7 million people on low incomes are still waiting for a decent home, and his only feeble response is to buy up fewer than 1,500 empty properties. He is tinkering at the edges, obsessed with details. Will he take a summer break, take a step back, see the big picture and come up with real answers to prevent a winter of misery for millions of British families?

The big picture is taking action to help hard-pressed families. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about fuel poverty, he omits to mention the winter allowance paid to 11 million pensioners in this country and costing over £2 billion. When he talks about the utility companies, he is omitting to tell us that there is £100 million to help low-income families, and he fails to mention that 22 million families will receive £120 in a tax cut over the next few months. All these things are necessary to help people through difficult times, but I think that people would prefer our solutions to the problem than his.

Since most European Governments are now seeking to take joint action both to stop oil speculation helping to drive up petrol prices and heating costs and to stop vast City bonuses driving unregulated financial markets, is there any reason why our Government should not support both such joint actions from Europe?

We are, as I told the House last week, looking at this whole question of speculation in the oil market, but my right hon. Friend has to face up to one fundamental fact that is true: demand for oil, both now and in the medium term, exceeds supply. It is a reasonable expectation that more oil will be wanted in the years to come, and that is the main factor driving the price up. What we have got to do about this, as he would agree, is lower our dependence on oil. That is why we have made the big decision on nuclear power, opposed by the Opposition. That is why we also believe in renewables, including wind power, often opposed by the Opposition. That is why we want to make cars more efficient, and that is why we have incentives for fuel-efficient cars, opposed by the Opposition. These are the measures that we can take and will take, and we will take them with our European partners—again, co-operation opposed by the Opposition.

Q2. This week the Government finally acknowledged major affordability gaps in the delivery of the defence training review programme. Given the worsening of public finances, would the Prime Minister give an undertaking to have a review of this undeliverable and unaffordable project, and for once admit he has got it wrong? (218930)

Our defence budget is rising every year, and it will continue to rise. We will not allow the training of our defence forces to remain inadequate. We now have the second biggest defence budget in the world—[Interruption]—as a percentage of national income. We want to ensure that our troops are properly staffed and equipped, and that is what we will continue to do. That is why we continue to spend money not just on defence but on all the urgent operational requirements of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Q3. I am sure the Prime Minister will wish to join me in congratulating—and perhaps will even visit—the Larwood surgery, which won a top NHS award for drug treatment last week. The system that it uses is the same GP-led model that has been introduced successfully by the Social Democrats in Sweden, the Socialists in France and Labour in New South Wales. Is it not time that we considered introducing it throughout the United Kingdom? (218931)

The Government have funded a number of initiatives relating to drugs, one of which is intended to support the rising number of GPs who are able to help with drug treatment. About 2,000 health care professionals have undertaken the Royal College of General Practitioners’ primary care certificate course, which deals with drug issues.

We will learn from what is happening in Sweden, and we will continue to increase the number of people who are receiving drug treatment. I can tell the House that, even in difficult times, the number of drug misusers being helped by treatment has doubled to nearly 200,000.

Does the Prime Minister believe that his party’s wilting membership in Wales and my party’s increasing membership in Wales are due to the coalition between Plaid Cymru and Labour in the National Assembly, or to his leadership here in Westminster?

The fact that there are 100,000 more jobs in Wales is due to a Labour Government and Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly; the fact that more children have been taken out of poverty in Wales is due to a Labour Government and Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly; and the fact that there are more public services in Wales is due to the funds provided by a Labour Government from here.

Q4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people who cannot afford to buy houses should not pay the price for the current economic turmoil and the tightening of credit in the housing market? His announcement today that hard-pressed families will be helped to get on to the housing ladder is welcome, but does he agree that we must encourage local authorities and housing associations to do more to make affordable houses available for rent? (218932)

We are using £200 million of public funds to buy up unsold houses in the market. That will help people to rent their homes, particularly people who, on the existing waiting list, cannot obtain homes. We are announcing today that five local authorities throughout the country will be able to set up housing companies to build houses for the first time, and we will support those councils in their efforts to make more stock available for rent. We are also announcing today that, under a rent to home-buy scheme, people who cannot afford to buy a house initially under the shared-equity proposals will be able to start by renting. That is another move forward to help the rented housing sector in Britain.

Q5. The current focus on knife crime makes it easy to forget that there are more than 5,000 violent assaults each year involving the use of broken glass. One positive step would be to support the campaign led by my constituent Marjorie Golding, and encourage late-night clubs and bars to replace glass with polycarbonates. Will the Prime Minister be decisive, show some leadership and support the campaign, or does he need more time to ponder? (218933)

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the question of injuries caused by glass. I will look into what he says and come back to him on the matter.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of volunteers and the voluntary sector in our communities, as amply demonstrated by the Sunlight Development Trust in my constituency, which is leading on social enterprise work and campaigns locally. However, there is concern that central Government support for the third sector must continue, so what steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that third sector organisations are reassured about the commitment of this Government to their neighbourhood campaigning and the delivery of complementary services in neighbourhoods? (218934)

By increasing the grants that we are making available for grassroots community action, £130 million is being provided directly to small community groups, and we are establishing a £70 million community builders scheme to help community-led organisations become more sustainable. At the same time, we are helping youth volunteering by giving more money to the v organisation to encourage young people to get a step on the ladder to community action. I should also remind my hon. Friend that we have strengthened gift aid, which gives millions of pounds to charities by virtue of tax relief. But we will not see the charitable sector, as some Opposition Members do, as a cut-price alternative to public services. We will reinforce the work of the voluntary sector in partnership with Government.

It is too high, which is why I am trying to get the oil price down. That is why I went to Jeddah—so that we can have a dialogue between producers and consumers. That is why I am meeting the Nigerian President this afternoon—because there are 1.5 million barrels of oil that could be produced from Nigeria but that, as a result of violence, are not being produced. That is why we met the North sea oil producers a few weeks ago to talk about how they might develop fields in the North sea that are either small fields or fields that are difficult to get at. It is precisely for these reasons that we are taking the action to reduce our dependence on oil overall. It is just unfortunate that the Opposition will not support these actions.

Q8. The announcement last Friday by the Government and the Association of British Insurers that flood insurance will be widely available long term will be greatly welcomed in constituencies such as mine that border the Severn, where people naturally are concerned about the effects of climate change, but can the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that developing an adequately funded long-term flood defence strategy will remain the priority? (218936)

We will be spending £800 million on the flood defence strategy by 2011—raising the amount from £400 million a few years ago to £600 million now, and then to £800 million over the next period of time. Last week, we also finalised the agreement with the insurance companies that my hon. Friend mentioned, and it is because we are investing in flood defences that they were prepared to say that insurance against floods will be widely available for homes and small businesses, so that fear that people have had has been removed. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right—she has campaigned on this—that we must make the investment in flood protection for the future.

As the Budget continues to fall apart and the Chancellor has had to abandon yet another badly targeted tax, have the Government yet decided how the unfortunate taxpayer will eventually have to pay for the mess he has made of the public finances?

I remember when we inherited debt at 44 per cent. of national income and reduced it to 38 per cent. I remember when we inherited rising inflation and brought it down. I also remember that we inherited from the previous Government large numbers of people who were unemployed and have made them employed. When will the right hon. and learned Gentleman remember the fact that 3 million people are now in work as a result of a Labour Government? As for taxation, 22 million people will receive £120 as a result of decisions that we have made.

Q9. The Prime Minister will be aware that, following the publication of “The Governance of Britain” White Paper, the Modernisation Committee has heard overwhelming evidence confirming the urgent need for effective parliamentary scrutiny of regional development agencies and other key regional bodies. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the Modernisation Committee’s report and its recommendations both to fill the accountability gap at regional level and for us as Members to be able to question regional Ministers? (218937)

We spend about £2.3 billion through our regional offices and the regional development agencies in each of the regions of England. It is right that there should be proper accountability of that, which is why we are proposing the regional Select Committees. I believe that the Modernisation Committee supports that approach, and I hope that it will be given a welcome from both sides of the House. It will enable regional Members to examine and hold accountable the offices that exist in the regions.

Q10. The most rapidly increasing type of cancer in this country is skin cancer, of which there are more than 80,000 new cases each year. As the Prime Minister heads to Suffolk for his bucket and spade holiday, I am sure that he will be stocking up on sun cream. How can his Government justify charging VAT on that essential health protection item? (218938)

This issue is looked at from time to time, but I say to the hon. Lady that the more important thing that we are doing is investing £15 billion over the next 10 years in trying to find cures to diseases including cancer and skin cancer. The action of the national health service in making it possible for people to be seen quickly when they are diagnosed with cancer means that 99 per cent. of people suspected of having cancer are seen within two weeks. Those are the actions that we can take, and they will get rid of skin cancer in the long run.

Following this week’s welcome publication by the Sentencing Guidelines Council of a report on the sentencing of people convicted of causing death by careless driving, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the section of the Road Safety Act 2006 on causing death by careless driving is quickly enacted and that tough guidance is sent out to the courts so that people who lose their loved ones as a result of accidents caused by such driving know that justice will be done?

It is a tragedy to meet people who have lost their loved ones as a result of careless driving; they are innocent people who suffer as a result of someone else’s failure. That is why we will implement these guidelines and why my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary will be going ahead immediately with these proposals.

Q11. The Prime Minister may have seen in today’s press the admission by the airline BMI that it intends to fly empty planes this autumn in order to keep its slots open, and that Flybe, for the same reason, is even hiring actors to fly between Norwich and Dublin to boost passenger numbers. Given the massive carbon emissions for which aviation is responsible, is that not an environmental disgrace? Will the Prime Minister take action to prevent those ghost flights, or will he cave in to the aviation industry, as usual? (218940)

It would be clearly unacceptable if airlines flew without any passengers whatsoever, simply to maintain their slots. We shall look at the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises and talk to the airlines, and I shall write to him in due course.

Q12. It is now a year since the introduction of legislation creating smoke-free workplaces and public places. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what assessment he has made of the level of compliance with the legislation, of the public health benefits and of what measures he thinks can be taken further to reduce the level of smoking in this country? (218941)

The evidence is very interesting: nearly a quarter of a million people quit smoking with the help of their smoking services between April and December 2007—that is a 22 per cent. increase in the number of people who have quit smoking, and it must be directly related to the ban on smoking in public places. We are also investing a great deal more in research into this matter. Cancer Research UK estimates that 40,000 lives will be saved over the next 10 years as a result of this smoke-free legislation, and I believe that there is increasing public support for the action that was taken.

On Friday, staff in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will begin a 48-hour strike. During the previous 24-hour strike, the contingency cover that was put in place was barely adequate, and it would not be sufficient to cover a 48-hour strike—as a result, lives will be put at risk. Will the Prime Minister intervene to solve this dispute? Will he pay our coastguards a decent wage, or will he sit on his hands until lives are lost?

I will certainly look at the issue of contingency cover to see what is being provided in the event of this dispute. I would, even now, call on the people who are engaged in planning the dispute to cease this action. I think that it is very important that employers and employees get together to find a solution to these disputes. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that 1.5 million workers in the public sector have already signed, or are subject to, three-year pay agreements, including nurses, teachers, and those who work in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the Inland Revenue. Never before have we had three-year agreements during difficult times such as these, and I believe that there should be support for other groups of workers in the public sector signing up to long-term pay agreements.

Q13. During his richly deserved holiday in Southwold, will the Prime Minister reflect on present Government proposals that would evict parents from local authority accommodation when their children caused problems in the vicinity? Those of us who were brought up on local authority estates believe that there is a risk that that might demonise such areas. Our experience as MPs tells us that problems with young people originate as often when parents live in owner-occupied accommodation. What will he do in those circumstances? (218942)

I have looked at the work of the family intervention projects that my hon. Friend is talking about. I have been to see at first hand how families have been brought round, as children who were engaged in vandalism and antisocial behaviour live decent and normal lives as a result of changing their ways. The whole point of the family intervention projects is that families sign a contract to say that they will change their ways in return for 24-hour help in doing better. That is the proper way forward in order to deal with the worst problems of antisocial behaviour. I would have thought that there would be massive support in the country for extending that project to the 20,000 families who will be helped as a result. In the end, if we are to tackle crime we need tougher punishments, better enforcement and action on prevention. Action on prevention will be stepped up over the next few years so that every child is given opportunity but expected to behave properly in our communities.