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Engagements

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2009

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.