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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2009

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the constitutional settlement on devolution in Wales. (270717)

My assessment of the devolution settlement is that the Labour-led Assembly Government are delivering real policies to underpin the lives of the people of Wales.

As a committed Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he believes that to make devolution work for all the people of Wales there needs to be constructive, open dialogue between Cardiff and Whitehall? In what ways can that dialogue genuinely be improved?

As a committed Unionist myself, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be constructive dialogue between Whitehall and Cardiff. That is accomplished in a number of formal ways, including regular meetings between me and the First Minister, and between Ministers and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, together with a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members of all parties. It is vital that the people of Wales understand that the best way forward for the Welsh people is through a partnership between this Parliament, the Assembly in Cardiff, this Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s observations, particularly his emphasis on partnership. One of the key elements of the Government of Wales Act 2006 is the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in pre-legislative scrutiny of legislative competence orders. We have worked effectively with colleagues in the Assembly, especially Ministers, and we are committed to increasing that participation and partnership. Does he agree?

Yes, I do, and I think that the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee is, in many ways, more significant following devolution than before it because there is a huge role to play, certainly in dealing with the LCOs—my hon. Friend’s Committee does a good job on that, I know—but also, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, in maintaining a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members, particularly by way of scrutiny. The Welsh Affairs Committee does a great job and my hon. Friend does an outstanding job as its Chairman.

As a descendant of Owain Glyndwr and yet another proud Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he shares my concern at the taxpayer-funded All Wales Convention? It is going round demanding extra powers for the Welsh Assembly, which I and most of the Welsh people know will cost more money and inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom? What is he doing to ensure that the other side of the argument is put?

I do not think that I need do very much, as long as the hon. Gentleman remains the Member of Parliament for Monmouth. I am not a descendant of Owain Glyndwr, certainly not with a name such as mine, but I agree that the convention should be open to everybody in Wales to put their points of view. It is, in effect, testing the water. If the convention believes that a referendum is necessary, the people of Wales will decide. In the meantime, right across Wales, people have the opportunity to put the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, and indeed the opposite.

Speaking as a Euro Unionist, not a British Unionist, and as a supporter of Owain Glyndwr, but also not as a descendant of his, and in the spirit of partnership between the nations of these islands, what does the Secretary of State think of my party’s proposal that each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom should take its turn in nominating the UK representative as commissioner in the European Commission?

Not much, really, but I do think that there is a case for Assembly and Scottish Government Ministers sharing with British Government Ministers representation at meetings in Brussels, Strasbourg and elsewhere. That has happened over the years and there is an important role to be played. However, in my view, only the sovereign state Government is able to nominate for the role of commissioner.

May I add that I agree with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the previous question?

The reality of the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff Bay is not quite as cosy as the first two questions perhaps suggested. Now he has had a chance to work with the LCO process, and bearing in mind the sudden rush of LCOs coming through, is he entirely happy with the procedures: the scrutiny process, which affects the Welsh Affairs Committee’s work load by giving it a lot of heavy work; and the public and political intervention from the Assembly’s Presiding Officer, or does the system need improving?

I think that the system needs monitoring all the time, and that there is room for improvement all the time. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and members of the Welsh Affairs Committee are considering, for example, how to improve the speed with which LCOs are dealt with. I commend them for that. I note the hon. Lady’s comments about the role of the Presiding Officer, and I will pass on her views when I next meet him.

Cross-border Health Services

2. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on treatment in hospitals in England of patients resident in Wales and in hospitals in Wales of patients resident in England. (270718)

4. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on treatment in hospitals in England of patients resident in Wales and in hospitals in Wales of patients resident in England. (270721)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on such matters. The discussions include the new cross-border protocol for health care services of Wales, which, I am pleased to say, has been agreed between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. He will be aware of the recent Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border health policy, to which he referred in his preliminary comments. He will also be aware that there should be clinical excellence for all those who wish to have medical treatment, as close as possible to their homes. Does he acknowledge that that would mean Welsh patients ending up having medical treatment in English hospitals? Will he do all that he can to urge the Welsh Health Minister to abandon her so-called in-country policy, which is causing so much distress to neurosurgery patients in Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is correct in referring to the Welsh Affairs Committee interim report on the provision of cross-border health services in Wales. We have considered that important report, and the Department of Health will respond to all its points in due course. It is important to recognise, however, that devolution is about addressing particular needs. The Welsh Assembly Government have clearly defined and articulated their policy, and we are seeing consistent and radical improvements in the health care of the people of Wales. Obviously, given the unique situation with regard to the Welsh-English border, a close working relationship is needed. I am absolutely confident that the protocol that is now in place and is being implemented will ensure effective co-operation and cross-border flow to the benefit of English and Welsh patients.

The Minister has referred to the difference between health care in Wales and England. With the outbreak of swine flu, and the possibility of a pandemic, is the Minister confident that the people of Wales will get the same treatment as in England?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. Only yesterday, I had a telephone conversation with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister, and I am absolutely confident that the greatest co-operation is taking place between central Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. I am pleased that she will make a statement to the Welsh Assembly this afternoon outlining her measures in some detail. She is participating fully in Cobra in London, and I am told that £59 million has been earmarked in Wales for effective preparation and response.

I very much welcome the protocol and agreement reached between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health on such important cost and funding issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that, prompted by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into health and cross-border issues, it is now essential to make it a principle that access by Welsh patients and my constituents to English hospitals must be on the basis of clinical need, not geography? Is it not also important that Welsh Members of Parliament have the opportunity to discuss those issues in this House? That would be under threat if the Tories’ English-only policy were to come into effect.

My hon. Friend makes important points, and I congratulate him on his excellent work to ensure an effective relationship between England and Wales on the important matter of the health service. He stresses rightly that we have a national health service in this country covering both sides of Offa’s dyke, although devolution means that there is a variation on that. The principle of clinical need is cardinal to the operation of the health service in both our countries. I also agree strongly that ongoing dialogue on cross-border health is very important. It is vital that Welsh MPs, in the number that there are, contribute effectively to that debate. We would strongly oppose any attempt, suggestion or move to reduce the number of Welsh MPs, particularly with regard to this important issue.

The Minister referred to the Select Committee report and concerns about the lack of co-ordination between the Department of Health in London and the Welsh Assembly Government, and, in particular, the strains that the previous arrangements placed on clinicians and patients. Is he satisfied that the new protocol, which amounts to an interim protocol, is robust enough and, crucially, transparent enough to assuage the concerns of many of my constituents—and doubtless his—who seek treatment in Gobowen, Frenchay, Hereford and elsewhere? A lot of early misinformation was provided about cross-border health flows.

A revised cross-border protocol for health services has been agreed with the health service in Wales and the Department of Health here in London. It has rightly taken a long time to formulate, because the issue is far from straightforward and both parties wanted to be absolutely certain they were taking the best possible approach. I believe that that is what is now contained in the cross-border protocol, which has been well received. I am confident that it will be effective for patients in Wales and England.

The Minister will be aware of the recent media attention on the concerns expressed by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign over the lack of specialist care in Wales for people with neuromuscular conditions and their difficulty in obtaining treatment in England. The MDC has argued strongly for the establishment of a UK-wide national commissioning group for specialist diagnostic services. Is he willing to approach the Secretary of State for Health to explore the possibility of establishing such a service, which would very much benefit the people of Wales and would be very much welcomed by his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue with regard to muscular dystrophy. By definition, the issue is a cross-border one, and I would of course be more than happy to have discussions with the Department of Health and with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister. One of the positive things over the past few months has been a growing partnership between health services. It is true that things can be done differently—that is what devolution is all about—but it is essential that in these post-devolution times we have a constructive dialogue at all times. I shall ensure that this issue is taken forward, as he suggested.

Industrial Injuries

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the compensation scheme for persons with arthritis of the knee arising from industrial injuries sustained in former Welsh coalfields. (270720)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues relating to the former Welsh coalfields. He and I warmly welcome the announcement made on 15 April by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. From this summer, sufferers of miners’ knee will be able to apply for industrial injuries disablement benefit.

Following the announcement, to which my hon. Friend has just referred, that miners who suffer from beat knee will be compensated, the National Union of Mineworkers in south Wales is warning that some solicitors are trying to cash in by persuading miners that they have to go through them to make a claim. That is untrue, so what are the Government doing to protect claimants from those seeking to make another fast buck on the back of sick miners?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, to which the NUM in south Wales has alerted MPs; we view with some concern the fact that certain solicitors—one in particular—have written to recipients of vibration white finger compensation and other compensation and offered their services. They are perfectly entitled to do that, but it is very important to recognise that there is no need for claimants to operate through a solicitor, because they can go directly to the Department for Work and Pensions. We must ensure that that message is made crystal clear to all people who have received vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compensation.

Slate quarry workers have received compensation for dust diseases since legislation brought in by the previous Labour Government in 1979. However, although coal miners have received compensation for emphysema, bronchitis and now for knee injury, slate quarry workers have not. Will the Minister examine this issue with a view to addressing what some people see as an anomaly and what some, myself included, see as an injustice?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue, and he accurately points out that it was a Labour Government who introduced this compensatory measure. Of course, as we all realise, these processes can be extremely complicated and can contain anomalies and gaps. I give a commitment that we will do everything we can to ensure that there is maximum coverage for everybody who desires and is in need of the compensation that is intended.

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), I can tell the Minister that this Sunday a firm of solicitors from Cardiff was touting for business in Grimethorpe working men’s club in my constituency to try to get miners to pay £300 up front for its services in claiming for miners’ knee. Will the Minister join me in frowning on that practice, and will he raise the issue with the Law Society to try to outlaw it?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, which show that this issue extends way beyond Wales. Solicitors can tout for business in that way, but it is important to recognise that charging £300 or even £345—as in a case that I know of—to expedite a claim is morally wrong, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that our constituents know that Members of Parliament will do everything they can to expedite claims and will forward claims to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that no charge will be made.

Unemployment

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to reduce unemployment in Wales. (270722)

Last week’s Budget announced a further employment package, building on steps taken in the pre-Budget report to respond to rising unemployment, including an extra £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Five years of jobcentre closures and staff cuts have meant that Wales now has 144 jobseekers for every personal adviser, which is nearly double the figure a year ago and means that each adviser has only about 15 minutes a week to help each person into work. Given that unemployment in Wales is likely to rise by a further 50 per cent. over the next year, will the Secretary of State speak to his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that Jobcentre Plus has people in place with enough time to help those who are unemployed find work?

Of course I will, but the hon. Lady will accept that a percentage of that £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus will go to Wales, and the whole purpose of that spending will be to do the sort of things that she mentioned, with proper advice and sufficient time to talk to people who come to Jobcentre Plus about their own particular difficulties.

My right hon. Friend will recall the devastation that was visited on communities in west Wales and the valleys during the 1980s and the early 1990s as a result of two Tory recessions. Does he agree that the policies that were followed then were wrong and left a lasting legacy that meant that under the Labour Government we qualified for special European aid? The way to get out of a recession is not to cut our way out, but to grow our way out.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He will know that long-term unemployment was a scourge in the 1980s and 1990s, and that the Government cannot be an uninterested observer. Government, both in Cardiff and in London, must act, and that is the opposite of what the Conservatives stand for.

Further to the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), the Secretary of State will know that last year it was announced that 12,000 jobs would be lost in the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions, the equivalent of losing 200 offices. Some 33 towns in Wales are currently without offices. Given that a further £15 billion of cuts are on the way, how many more jobs will be lost in that sector in Wales?

Obviously we have to try to preserve all jobs, whether in the public or private sectors. The Government measures announced in the Budget include the money for Jobcentre Plus, the money for the under-25s in Wales and the measures taken over the last couple of months, and they are specifically designed to ensure that jobs are protected. Of course, we cannot avoid some job losses, because they are inevitable in a downturn such as this, but we have to do all that we can to ensure that other jobs are available—thousands of jobs are still vacant in Wales—for people to take.

This has not been an easy time for anybody seeking work, and we in Swansea, East have also faced challenges. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the work that Jobcentre Plus has done is absolutely fantastic. I want to commend the work of our local Jobcentre Plus in Morriston. Will the Secretary of State ensure that publicity and promotion is made available, both for employers experiencing difficulties and for those seeking work, to promote the work of jobcentres?

Yes, of course I will ensure that that message is put across. My hon. Friend does a great deal for the people of Swansea in this regard. She will know, of course, that the Labour party conference met very successfully last weekend in Swansea. All the policies to which I have just referred also refer specifically to the problems faced by her constituents in Swansea, East.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the latest job loss figures from Wales are dire. Unemployment in my constituency has gone up by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. On Friday, I was at my local Jobcentre Plus, which is doing valuable work, but will the Secretary of State say what additional support can be given to those new victims of the recession who need targeted and specialist support? They have a solid and continuous work history, and often a good education, and they might never have been inside a jobcentre in their lives. They need targeted support and they face a very bleak set of circumstances right now.

I quite understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he follows the proceedings of the Budget last week and the announcements that followed, he will see that some 7,500 new jobs for young people in Wales could be created by initiatives that the Government have taken over the past couple of days and the money that is going in. At the end of the day, the Government are tackling these issues in a manner that is entirely different from the non-policies of the Opposition.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Defence about the Ministry of Defence’s policy of sustainable procurement in the defence technical college contract in St. Athan in my constituency? If that policy is adhered to, it will have a dramatic effect on unemployment in south Wales, with planning taking place next month and construction starting next summer.

My hon. Friend is aware that I am in constant contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, particularly on the subject of the defence training academy that is coming to my hon. Friend’s constituency. My hon. Friend has done a great job in this respect, and this is the biggest single public procurement project ever in Wales.

On 6 November, the Secretary of State announced that a £150 million investment fund to help businesses would shortly be operated through Finance Wales. The chief executive of Finance Wales said that the scheme had been planned for some time. Why did it take six months to launch it, why was it left until the Welsh Labour party conference to do so, and what does he say to the thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the meantime whose businesses might have been helped by that fund? Does “shortly” mean “when politically convenient”?

I think that the hon. Lady understands that much of the finance that goes into these schemes comes from Europe. That includes money for Finance Wales, and this week—she is aware of this, as she just made reference to it—£150 million of new money has come into Wales as a consequence. She asked what I would say to the people of Wales with regard to these issues of unemployment. I would say that her party was in government for 215 months, and that for 205 of those 215 months unemployment levels in Wales were higher than they are today in Welsh constituencies.

Small Businesses

I am in regular contact with Welsh businesses and key stakeholders in Wales, not least at the all-Wales economic summits that I attend regularly.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome Government measures such as the exemption on business rates for vacant business properties and the additional time allowed to pay taxes. We still need to unblock bank lending. Will the Secretary of State say what he will do to achieve that in order to help enterprising people through these tough times?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the key to small business success is the unlocking of funds from the banks. In Swansea a few weeks ago, the all-Wales economic summit met leading bankers in Wales to encourage them to do precisely that. In addition, the new enterprise guarantee fund scheme in Wales has already paid out £8 million to help 90 Welsh firms. That is real action for people in Wales.

Heart of Wales Railway

7. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on developing and improving the Heart of Wales railway line. (270724)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including railways. I should like to pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) has done in campaigning to raise the profile of this extremely important railway line.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he agree that this beautiful railway route through Wales and England is not delivering to its full potential at the moment, especially in green tourism? In future, will the UK Government co-operate with the Welsh Assembly Government in developing a strategy to improve the line?

Co-operation on this issue is vital. I give a commitment that we in the Wales Office will ensure that there is maximum co-operation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government. However, I point out that the Welsh Assembly’s Rail Forward programme has set aside some £50 million for investment, which implements the political agreement that has been struck.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. All those who have lost their lives in conflict deserve our profound gratitude for their service, and we will never forget those who have shown such dedication to our country and to the people of Afghanistan.

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 join the Prime Minister in his condolences to the family in question? Given his recent comedy turn on YouTube, when can we expect another performance?

YouTube is one of the most important mediums of communication and, even if the Opposition will not use it, I shall continue to do so.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the cases of swine flu that have been diagnosed at Monklands hospital. To reassure my constituents and many other people, will he tell us what plans are in place to deal with this very worrying problem?

In addition to the two members of the public in the Monklands area who have contracted swine flu and who I understand are getting better, the House will want to know that there are three further confirmed cases. One is a 12-year-old girl from Torbay, and the other two are adults, one from Birmingham and one from London. All of them travelled recently from Mexico and have mild symptoms. They are all receiving Tamiflu, the treatment that has been effective so far, and are responding well to it. The school in Torbay at which the 12-year-old is educated will close down for the time being, and all pupils will be offered the Tamiflu antiviral.

I believe that we are making the necessary preparations and taking the precautions that we need to take to prevent the incidence of the disease in this country. I can confirm that we have enhanced airport checks, and that we are advising people not to travel to Mexico unless it is necessary. We will continue to review the position, and at the same time we have decided to build up stocks of antivirals from 35 million doses to 50 million. We are ordering a great many more face masks, and we will send out public information to all citizens in this country. By Tuesday of next week, an information leaflet will be available for every family.

The World Health Organisation has said that we are one of the best prepared countries. We intend to keep it that way, and to do everything in our power to make sure that people are safe from this worldwide flu.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday? He died serving our country, and we should honour his memory.

The whole House will share the Prime Minister’s concern about the cases of swine flu and what he has just said, and the whole House will also welcome the steps that the Prime Minister and the Government are taking. May I ask a number of specific questions? First, may I ask about the national flu line? That was supposed to be up and running already, but instead we are currently told, I believe, that it will not be operational until the autumn. Given the importance of making sure that information is available for people, can the Prime Minister tell us what the Government are doing to speed that up?

Yes, I am very grateful for the opportunity to explain that, and to thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said about both our best wishes for those who are affected by the flu and the preparations that we are making to deal with the problems that arise from it. I can say about the flu line that interim arrangements are being made. We signed a contract with BT last year. It is not simply an information line; it is about the availability and distribution of antivirals to people in the country. If that is necessary, that will be done, and we have made arrangements so that that can be done, but of course over the longer term we want to create the flu line, which is to be brought into being when it is necessary. I have to say that the circumstances in which it would be used are not yet reached, and we hope that they will not be reached, but arrangements have been made. If I may say so, the Health Secretary will make a fuller statement to the House this evening about those very issues.

I am grateful for that answer. Clearly, everyone will be concerned that without a flu line, there is a danger that NHS Direct could be swamped.

There are two further issues on preparedness that I would like to ask about. First, the Prime Minister said that the Government are ordering more stocks of antivirals. Currently, those stocks cover half the population. The Government have accepted that it would be useful to have antivirals not just for treatment, but for prevention. He gave some figures earlier; could he tell us the time scale for getting up to those figures, and what percentage of the population would then be covered?

The second issue is about face masks; again, the Prime Minister mentioned it. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, has, I believe, raised the matter 15 times in the last four years. The Health Secretary said on Monday that the Government have not yet done enough. Again, could we have a time scale on the issue of face masks as well?

I am grateful, again, for the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about this, because it allows me to explain to the public everything that is being done, and everything that we intend to do. As far as the antivirals are concerned, we are increasing our order from the 35 million that we now have to 50 million. These are brought into use, normally, only where symptoms of the flu are discovered, so we feel that we are well prepared at the moment, but it is right to increase the coverage of the population, and of course it is right to help national health service staff who may be exposed to the flu.

As far as face masks are concerned, let me say that there are large numbers in stock but we have got to do more, and we have now ordered, and are ordering, several million more masks. These orders will come in over the next few days and weeks, and we are determined to have what is necessary. May I say, so that there is no confusion on this, that the face masks are what are necessary for the NHS staff? The guidance that has been given by the chief medical officer about what the public can do, and the guidance that we will send out in the information note from next week—it will be on the website a lot earlier—will not refer to a need for the public to have such a face mask. This is for NHS staff who are in circumstances where they come up to people who are perhaps facing, or suffering from, that flu. That is what the face masks are for. I hope that there will be no doubt in the public’s mind that the advice given by the chief medical officer over the last few days about how people can best prevent the flu and prepare themselves for it is the advice that we stand by, and the Health Secretary will reinforce that this evening.

May I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and that information? I am sure that at this time, the whole country and the whole House of Commons will want to wish the staff of our national health service well in what may be difficult days ahead.

May I turn now to the issue of the Gurkhas? The leader of the Liberal Democrats should be congratulated on proposing the Opposition day debate that we are having later today on the Gurkhas. Everyone in this House, I believe, wants to meet the obligations that we owe the Gurkhas. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a solution that can be introduced rapidly, but that is consistent with fair and managed immigration? Does the Prime Minister now accept that the proposals that he has put forward are too restrictive, and as a result will neither honour our obligations nor command public support?

May I just reply to the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the national health service before I come on to that? We have, of course, issued guidance to every health authority—they are all involved in dealing with this, even though cases have been confirmed in only four areas of the country. The advice to nurses and other members of the health service is that the antiviral will be available to them. The Health Secretary will give more details on that this evening. We want to protect the staff of the national health service, and as everybody recognises, they do a great job. We are very proud of them, and we will continue to support them in everything that we do with the funds that are necessary.

Coming on to the subject of the Gurkhas, which has been raised in the motion tabled for debate today, since 1997, we have taken the first action to give justice to the Gurkhas. During that period, the first ever rights of settlement for Gurkhas in Britain have been agreed, and 6,000 of them have applied successfully and have come into the country. Secondly, we have introduced equal pay and pensions for the Gurkhas—something that had not happened before—and, thirdly, we doubled the pensions of people staying in Nepal and increased the pension for Gurkhas, especially those at a senior age. I respect the fact that this is a matter of great concern for everybody in the country, but we have to balance our responsibilities to those who have served our country with the finance that we need to be able to meet those obligations, and therefore not base our offer on money that we cannot afford.

The proposals that we have introduced will increase the number of Gurkhas who can come into this country by 4,000 or, including families, about 10,000 people. We keep the matter under review, and we will review it over the course of the next few months, as the Home Secretary has said. There are 1,300 cases in the pipeline, and we have promised that we will review them by 11 June. So that there is no misunderstanding, let me say that the majority of the 4,000 who are coming into this country are below the rank of officer, and the suggestion that that is not the case is not, from the information that I have, correct. We will continue to review the position over the next period of time, and we will look particularly at the conditions applied to riflemen for their years of service. We will continue to report back to the House on the issue, but I hope that everybody agrees that this is an advance on where we were. Given that there were no rights of settlement for Gurkhas before 1997, within the public spending constraints that we face, we are taking another big step forward.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s proposals is that those representing the Gurkhas believe that only 100 or so will be able to settle under his proposals. May I suggest a more straightforward way, as he said that he is prepared to review it, which would be to introduce a new category in the immigration system for people from overseas who have served in the armed forces, principally the Gurkhas? That would give the right of settlement to pre-1997 Gurkhas in an ordered way. Is that not a fair and managed way to maintain the integrity of the immigration system, while allowing those Gurkhas to settle in the UK, dealing with the 1,300 and more besides, because we owe them a debt of gratitude?

First of all, the figures that we have announced are 4,000, not 100. They include the families of Gurkhas—their children and descendants—making 10,000 in total. I do not accept the figure of 100, and I do not think that it bears mention, given the fact that on past experience, the 6,000 who have come in represent a very high number of the people who had the right of entry for service after 1997. I believe that those figures are realistic, and we are talking about several thousand people coming into the country. The total number of Gurkhas is 36,000, and the estimated public expenditure is about £1.4 billion for meeting those costs.

We have to work this in stages by balancing the need for the Gurkhas to receive recognition for everything that they have done with the finances that are available, given that we have other problems with which we have to deal at this time. Those who have given 20 years’ service, those who have been injured or disabled, and those who have won special honours for gallantry will be welcomed into this country, and I hope that the House recognises that while not everyone is satisfied with what we have done, we have made progress. We can work through this in stages, and continue to review what the right policy is for the future.

I have to say that if the figures were robust, there would not be a huge number of Gurkhas gathering outside the House, including elderly and frail people who served our country, who do not believe that the Government are playing fair. Is it not the case that maintaining the Government’s approach will simply mean more delay and more elderly Gurkha veterans dying as they wait for an answer? May I ask the Prime Minister one last time whether he will at least consider the idea of introducing an additional category into the immigration system? There is an immigration Bill passing through Parliament to which it could be added. This would be a responsible and reasonable way of achieving a more generous settlement, which Members right across the House would support.

If the right hon. Gentleman is proposing this, presumably he knows the numbers involved, but I do not hear either him or the Liberal party saying the numbers that would be involved in this cause. Of course I am prepared to look at it. I will always look at suggestions that are made, so that we can see whether they are applicable, but what I would like the House to consider is that in stages we have made great progress; we must balance the public expenditure requirements of this country with the needs of those who want to come into our country. There are 1,300 cases under review, so I accept that people are waiting for results, but we have promised that these results will come by 11 June. We are determined to honour the service that the Gurkhas give. We have been very proud of what they have done for our country. We have made major changes over the last few years. We are prepared now to make major changes again, and we are prepared to continue to review the situation for the future, but that must be based on proper facts and figures and on the ability to make decisions that we can afford.

Last December it was my sad duty to attend the funeral in Reading of campaigning Gurkha war veteran Bhim Prasad Gurung, who died in abject poverty while awaiting the outcome of his appeal against the refusal to offer him settlement in the UK. The Prime Minister should be aware that Bhim would have faced deportation under the new guidelines announced on Friday, as he was made redundant after 12 years of brave service and denied his Ministry of Defence pension. Will the Prime Minister be more specific about how quickly he will bring forward his promised 12-month review of the policy, finish the job that the Labour Government started in 2004, and deliver justice for Gurkhas at last?

Let me say first that my hon. Friend has been a campaigner on behalf of the Gurkhas, and he has raised the matter with me not only on many occasions, but recently. I can also say that I sympathise with the case of his constituent and the difficulties that he had faced. In the cases where no answers have been given, we have promised that the answers will come by 11 June. On the further reviews that are taking place, the Home Secretary has made it clear that she will continue to review the position. I am very sensitive to the position of the rifleman whom my hon. Friend mentioned. We will look carefully at that over the next few weeks.

I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family of the unnamed soldier who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan yesterday. I thank the Prime Minister for the information that he provided to the House on the measures that are being put in place to deal with swine flu. I join in lending the support of all of us to those working in the health system to deal with the crisis.

The Prime Minister’s answers on the Gurkha issue are deeply, deeply evasive. How is it honest or decent to say that Gurkha soldiers who have served 20 years can come and live in this country, when he knows full well that the majority of ordinary Gurkha soldiers serve only 15 years? How is it honest or decent to say that Gurkha soldiers must prove that their illness was caused by their military service, when he knows full well that the frailest Gurkha veterans cannot do that? Can he not see that there is a simple moral principle at stake, and it is this: if someone is prepared to die for this country, surely they deserve to live in this country?

It is precisely because we have accepted the importance of treating the Gurkhas well that we made changes in the past few years. We equalised pay and pensions and we doubled the pensions of Gurkhas who are retired in Nepal. It is precisely because we take seriously the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has raised today that we have increased the numbers of those who can come into this country. I have been given the information that half of the 4,000 are below officer class. It is not right to suggest that everybody who can come into the country must be a commissioned officer in the first place.

I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that we are making progress stage by stage on the matter. He has to bear in mind, as he constantly says, that there are public expenditure issues involved. At the moment, £1.4 billion would be a very big sum of money indeed for us to guarantee. We are taking the steps that are necessary, there is more justice for the Gurkhas than there ever was in the years before 1997, and we will continue to do our duty by the Gurkhas who have served this country.

What kind of answer is that? It is the answer of a man who seems to know that he is doing a shameful thing, but does not have the guts to admit it or change it. It is the answer of a Government who have no principles and no courage. I ask the Prime Minister again: surely simple, ordinary British decency means that soldiers who are prepared to die for this country deserve to live in this country.

That is why we have taken the actions over the last few years that we have done. Let me just repeat: we led the way in giving Gurkhas right of settlement in this country, we led the way in equalising pay and pensions, and we led the way in doubling the pensions of those who are in Nepal. Now we are making sure that people with medical conditions and awards for their service to this country, as well as those with 20 years of service, can come into this country. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we believe that large numbers of people will take up that invitation for themselves and their families. But I have to put it to him that Governments must always balance the need to take action in stages with the resources that they have available. It may not be a problem that he has to face: it is a problem that we have to face and we will take the right decisions.

Given that the Government are a little strapped for cash at the moment, might this be the moment to reconsider our commitment to spend £20 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons?

As my hon. Friend knows, that expenditure is over more than 20 years. As he also knows, we wish to use the fact of our deterrent to bring about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world and to persuade other countries to be part of a process of nuclear disarmament. At the moment there is an opportunity for the major powers to reduce their nuclear weapons and in return we could get agreements about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons from some of the major powers, while at the same time offering them the right that they should have to civil nuclear power. He may remember that the non-proliferation treaty was based on two principles: first, that countries with nuclear weapons would cut their nuclear weapons, and, secondly, that we would give non-nuclear states access to civil nuclear power. Given the pressures that exist at the moment, that is an even more relevant position than it was 50 years ago.

Two and a half million extra jobs in 1997, 1 million extra young people in further education and training, 1 million more adults getting education and literacy, a doubling of the national health service and education—all would be put at risk by a Conservative Administration.

Eight hundred employees of the LDV van-maker in Birmingham, together with thousands more in dealerships and suppliers, face new worries today with the announcement that the company has applied to go into administration in a week or so. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will do everything that they can, proactively as well as reactively, to secure a viable owner for the company, with the backing that it needs to allow LDV to realise its potential, including the production of a new generation of electric vans?

Yes, we will. My hon. Friend is right. He has taken up the case of the car and vehicle industry in the midlands over many years. We have had substantial talks with the company, LDV, and we have tried to be of help to it. We have said that a range of Government support is available if it has a business model for moving forward that we can work with and support. Obviously, the responsibility for putting the company on a firmer footing has rested with the owner and potential investors, but we have already set aside money to make it possible for the car industry to receive support from Government.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister accept responsibility for the months of chaos, uncertainty and confusion which surrounded schools in my constituency when post-16 education funding was removed at short notice? (271546)

We are the party that is offering the guarantee of education to 18 for every young person; we are the party that is bringing in plans from this autumn that every teenager can have education as of right to 18; and we have announced in the Budget the money that will be made available to do so. It is a bit much for the Conservative party to complain about education funding when the first thing that the Conservatives would do is cut it as a result of their plans.

Q4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s votes on Sir Christopher Kelly’s review of Members’ allowances, one thing that the public have the right to expect is full disclosure of all outside influences, including income, who employs Members, who pays them, for how long and also— (271547)

There is also the value and income from blind investment trusts, such as the ones held by millionaires’ row on the Opposition Benches.

I think that Members should remember that the whole country is looking at our proceedings, and I think also that the whole country wants us to take the action that is necessary to clean up any problems and any abuses that exist in our system. [Interruption.] I must say to all Members who are shouting that they should have some humility, because the public are the taxpayers, and the public pay for the expenses of MPs. We have a duty to put in shape the best measures possible for dealing with that.

In the last week, we have made more progress than we made for many years. First of all, we are dealing with problems of employment of staff. We are dealing also with the problems that arise from outside interests, and I know that there is a lot of sensitivity on the Opposition Benches as we talk about that. Equally, we are dealing with the problems of London Members living in London at the same time as being in Westminster; we are dealing with the problems of grace-and-favour residences; and we are dealing with a review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life of the problem of the additional costs allowance. That should be based on transparency and attendance in the House, and a lower amount of money should be spent on it than is now. That is the way forward, and I hope that Members will all support the Government’s proposals tomorrow.

Q9. The regiment with which I had the honour of serving, the 14th/20th King’s Hussars, now the King’s Royal Hussars, is able to wear the Gurkhas’ cross kukris on their uniform, because of the operations on which we jointly serve. Does the Prime Minister not accept that a huge number of people in this country believe that we must be much less restrictive on allowing Gurkhas, some of whom have sacrificed their lives for this country, to come and live here? On that point, I fully support my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. (271553)

Yes, we should be less restrictive. That is why we have put forward the proposals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we can move in stages on this matter. This is a proposal that will allow 4,000 more Gurkhas to come into this country and mean that 10,000 people—their families included—will be able to reside in this country. That is the purpose of our proposal. I hope that he will support it.

Q5. In my area of Teesside, the chemical industries made tremendous progress thanks to the policies pursued by our Labour Government, but recently industry has been going through very tough times and there have been plant closures as well as short-time working practices for employees. What policies, support and hope can my right hon. Friend give to my constituents, so that we can deal with the problems that we face and have a successful chemicals sector in the future? (271548)

We are taking action instead of the Opposition’s policy of doing nothing. Some 100,000 companies have benefited from our tax deferral, 350,000 workers are on short time and are getting benefit from our tax credits system, and we are ready to do more to help small, medium-sized and large businesses to look at the provision of guarantees and loans for the future. All over the world, I see Governments who are prepared to act and increase public investment to help people through the recession. The only party I know that refuses to do that is the Conservative party of Britain.

Q6. At the last general election, the Labour party promised that it would have a referendum on the European constitution and that it would not raise the higher rate of income tax. Given that the Prime Minister is now going to break both those promises, why should the British people ever believe a word he says again? (271549)

On the first question of the European referendum, in the German summit to discuss the constitution-that-was, it was decided that the constitutional concept should be abandoned. That was the issue before us. If I may say so, the shadow Business Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is not here today, accepted our view that the referendum was not necessary as a result of the changes that have taken place, and he said—this man is a Front Bencher—that the people who put forward the idea of a referendum were crackpot and daft.

As for tax, the Conservatives have to make their own decisions, but I believe that at a time when the nation faces difficulties, it is right that the people who have benefited so much as a result of their increase in income over the past few years should pay a little more as a contribution to helping this country through. That money will help people to get jobs, help young people to get training, help to build a low-carbon economy, and help to build our public services. I believe that the majority of people in this country will think that that is the right decision to make for the future of Britain.

Q8. In all the complex issues that the Government have to deal with, all the international discussions that have gone on over the past few months, and all the important questions that have to be addressed, is there a single question of any significance whatsoever to which the answer is the Conservative party? (271551)

No, there is no economic problem we face to which the answer is the Conservative Leader of the Opposition.