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Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2009

Last night and this morning, I have been meeting the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland. I have been in touch with all party leaders in Northern Ireland, and I am now sending to all of them and placing in the House of Commons Library my proposals for a financial settlement that is designed to make possible the completion of the final stage of devolution in Northern Ireland. We will of course keep the House fully updated. Our aim is a peaceful, more secure and more prosperous Northern Ireland.

In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings today.

Reigate is proud to be home to 579 bomb disposal squadron of the Territorial Army. Last Wednesday, when the Prime Minister was making his statement on Afghanistan, it was being told that it could not train until 1 April next year, and its TA centre is under threat of closure. What effect does he think those measures will have on the recruitment and retention of those vital volunteer specialists?

I made it clear last Wednesday when I made my statement that we would ensure that our resources were devoted to the campaign in Afghanistan, and any member of the Territorial Army who is going to Afghanistan in the next few months will secure the training that is necessary. As the Chief of the General Staff has made clear, the reason why the changes have been necessary is that the Army has recruited more regular soldiers in the past year—9,000 extra compared with 7,000 in previous years. That is why, with those resources being devoted to Afghanistan, we have to focus on those people who are going to go to Afghanistan. They will not only have the pre-deployment training—I have answered the Leader of the Opposition on that—but everybody who is going to Afghanistan will be individually assessed to make sure that they have all the training that is necessary.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the NHS in Fife on its preparations for swine flu vaccinations, and can he update the House on progress on such vaccinations across the UK? [Interruption.]

It is right that the House learns the progress that is being made on vaccinating those people who might be at risk of swine flu, and it is right that I tell people that for both those who are at risk and health service workers we are starting the process of vaccination immediately. It is also right to say that we have been ahead of the world in purchasing the vaccines that are necessary and in making sure that those people who need treatment with antivirals have it available at the earliest opportunity. I hope that there is all-party support for making available those vaccinations to people who need them.

The planned strikes at the Royal Mail will be bad for the economy and business, bad for customers and, above all, bad for all those who work for the Royal Mail and care about its future. Will the Prime Minister condemn these strikes and join me in sending a direct message to the trade union to call this strike off?

I said exactly that last week—that it was counter-productive for there to be a strike—but I think it is right for us in this House to urge negotiation and mediation. Our role must be to encourage the negotiations that are taking place, to urge people to go to ACAS when that becomes the right thing to do and to make sure that we do everything in our power to get a negotiated settlement to something that arises from the 2007 modernisation plan. It is in nobody’s interest that this strike goes ahead.

Peter Mandelson said that abandoning part-privatisation of the Royal Mail would be

“irresponsible and an abdication”

of an important “commitment”, and that it

“would…threaten the sustainability of the network—[ Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 834-848.]

Yet five months after the Postal Services Bill left the House of Lords it still has not come to the House of Commons. Can the Prime Minister tell us why he has allowed this appalling display of weakness?

There is no commercial buyer for the Royal Mail—the right hon. Gentleman must understand that. This is nothing to do with the dispute which, as I am trying to explain to him, is about the 2007 modernisation plan. In most areas of the country, the 2007 modernisation plan has been implemented. In some areas, it still has to be implemented. We must encourage all those in the postal services to go ahead and implement it. We are the Government who made possible £1.2 billion in loans for that to happen. Let us—on both sides of the House—urge the negotiation and mediation that is necessary to avoid an unproductive strike.

What the Prime Minister has just said is complete nonsense. He did not stop the Bill because he could not sell the Royal Mail; he stopped it because he could not sell it to his own Back Benchers. Only last week he was telling us what a wonderful time it is to sell the Tote, the Dartford crossing, the channel tunnel rail link and the student loan book. Everybody knows that the reason why he dropped the Bill is that his Back Benchers will not support it. Just for once, why does he not admit that?

We have—rightly so, and it should be acknowledged—announced a disposals programme for all the assets that I mentioned last week, and we will go ahead with that. However, I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is nothing to do with the dispute at the moment. The dispute is about the 2007 modernisation plan. He had a shadow Minister yesterday saying that he did not know whether, if a Conservative Government came into power, they would be able to sell the Post Office either.

The Prime Minister gesticulates, but our view is very clear: bring forward the Bill and we will support it. Why has he not got the guts to do that? The fact is that this Prime Minister is incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question. By the way, he says there is no connection between the strikes that we see and the weakness he showed in withdrawing that Bill. Does he agree that since the Government abandoned part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, union militancy has actually got worse?

As a result of the modernisation plan, 40,000 jobs have gone in the Royal Mail. The right hon. Gentleman may wish to seek to bring the industrial relations of the Royal Mail into the political arena in the way that he is doing now, but it would be far better if the Conservative party and other parties encouraged negotiation and, if necessary, arbitration on this matter. I repeat to him: the 2007 modernisation is at the heart of this dispute and that is what has got to be moved forward. Already, large numbers of jobs have had to go as part of that. I also say this to him: the Bill that came before this House is nothing to do with the dispute.

The Prime Minister says that we must not bring this strike into the political arena, but the fact is that it is in the political arena, not least because the communication workers pay half his bills—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister keeps saying that there is no connection between the Bill and the action that we are seeing from the trade union, yet his own Business Minister, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), said yesterday in the House of Commons that

“since the Government said that we would not proceed with the Bill…we have seen…a return to the destructive pattern of industrial disputes”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 789.]

Even his Minister says that there is a connection. Is it not the case that this trade union can sense weakness, and it sees weakness in this Prime Minister and this Government?

I would have thought that a Conservative Opposition would be trying to ensure that this strike did not take place. I would have thought that they would say that people should negotiate and that there should be arbitration if necessary. I would have thought that they would have repeated with me that this is a counter-productive strike and that it could be resolved only by proper negotiation and arbitration. I would urge the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on his comments as to whether anything that he is saying is making it easier for us to solve what is a difficult dispute.

The way to stop these strikes and this militancy is to show some leadership, some backbone and some courage. Are we really going to spend another six months with a Prime Minister who cannot give a straight answer, who cannot pass his own legislation, and who sits in his bunker not even able to decide what sort of biscuits he wants to eat? Does he not understand that stopping these strikes will take some courage and leadership, and is it not clear that he has none of that to offer?

The Conservative party has been wrong on every issue affecting the British economy. Conservatives were wrong on the nationalisation of Northern Rock; they were wrong on the rescue of the banking system; they were wrong on tackling unemployment; they were wrong on helping to protect people against mortgage repossessions; they were wrong on the fiscal stimulus; and they were wrong on international co-operation. On every economic issue, they have not shown any leadership. They were wrong on the recession and they are wrong on recovery.

May I begin by thanking the Prime Minister for meeting some West Lancashire residents and discussing their issues? They told him about the failure to develop the town centre in Skelmersdale and transport issues such as the Ormskirk bypass—really important local issues. Does he agree that we must continue to invest in people and communities and in delivering such services, aiding regeneration and growth and not cutting services, which should not be on the agenda today?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I was pleased to visit her area in the past few days and talk about regeneration there. I appreciated the opportunity to meet the West Lancashire residents in her constituency and talk about the challenge of regeneration for the future. We can regenerate our economies only if we invest in recovery. We cannot do so with a party that says all the time that we should remove the fiscal stimulus. The only way forward for this economy at the moment is to maintain the fiscal stimulus and ensure that we have growth in the economy.

In June, and again in July, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would do the right thing and break up the biggest banks. Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England also repeated his view that the banks should be split up. Is the Governor wrong?

The reforms that we are bringing into the banking system will include greater competition in banking. We will have a judgment from the European Commission soon, which we are supporting, that will allow more competition in British banking. As for the restructuring of the banking system and whether there should be investment banks on one side and retail-only banks on the other, the right hon. Gentleman must remember that Northern Rock was effectively a retail bank and it collapsed. Lehman Brothers was effectively an investment bank without a retail bank and it collapsed. The difference between retail and investment banks is not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem is that banks have been insufficiently regulated at a global level and we have to set the standards for that for the future. We will be doing that at the G20 Finance Ministers summit in a few weeks’ time.

The basic failings that let the banks bring this economy to its knees are still in place. In fact, the position is worse than it was before. The banks are increasingly operating like a cartel, they are underwritten by the taxpayer, they have fewer competitors and they are now paying themselves eye-watering bonuses while the taxpayers who bailed them out are losing their jobs. If the Prime Minister will not make up his mind about splitting up the banks, does he at least agree that as long as those banks have a blank cheque from the taxpayer it is right to consider imposing an additional tax on their profits?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts, and wrong again. The basic fact is that we expect that when we have completed the restructuring of the banks the taxpayer will benefit financially from that, not lose money. His assumption that somehow we will lose money is wrong: we are determined to make money out of this. On the restructuring of the banks, competition regulations will require the competition that is necessary in the banking system.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the situation is worse than it was last year, but last year banks in Britain threatened to collapse entirely. We have restructured the banking system and we will continue to do so, so that it serves customers properly. I hope that he, unlike the Conservatives, will support our measures to stimulate the economy.

I do not accept what my hon. Friend is saying. We have an electoral process in Afghanistan that has revealed that, where there is fraud and where there has been malpractice, there has to be a new election. We have an election process in Afghanistan that, despite the fact that the Taliban insurgency tried to prevent an election from taking place, had millions of people voting. Our job is to help the infant Afghan democracy, and that is what we will continue to do. I think that hon. Members will have seen, from the comments by President Obama and all the European leaders yesterday, that we are determined to do what we can to support the security during that election period, and to make sure that, by training the Afghan forces themselves, our troops can eventually come home.

Q2. Springhill hospice, in my constituency, last week celebrated its 20th anniversary. I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to join me in congratulating Margaret Geoghan and others on their work. However, hospices are struggling in the recession, due to dwindling fundraising. What additional help can the Prime Minister offer the hospice movement? (294237)

I understand the work of the hospice movement. Obviously, I have been in contact with many people who work in it, and try to help. We are trying to give the hospice movement more money to enable it to do its job, and we are looking at what more we can do in future. I thank the hon. Gentleman’s constituents for the work that they do. I understand that this area of health care has not had the resources that it needs in the past and will need greater support in the future. We will do what we can to support a movement that gives dignity to people in the last years and months of their lives.

Will the Prime Minister commit all Departments and Government-controlled organisations to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent. by the end of 2010? After all, what chance do we have of achieving challenging targets for later years if we do not take this opportunity now?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Departments have a responsibility, and so do all public organisations—and I know that many commercial companies want to do this—but there can be no substitute for an agreement in Copenhagen. If we do not get an agreement in Copenhagen, the world will drift backwards, not move forwards, so I am determined to work with other leaders over the next few months and to go to Copenhagen to make sure that we can make progress at this vital time. I believe that there is support in all parts of the House for doing so.

The purpose of devolution, whether to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or London, is to allow those people in those areas who are represented to make the decisions that affect their lives. If they make these decisions by doing one thing, it is at the cost of their ability to do other things.

Q4. Over the past month, I have been able to visit every Sure Start children’s centre in my constituency and to hear the parents’ and children’s wishes for the future of those centres. One of the children wished that his centre could get a rabbit; one of the parents wished that every child could achieve their potential but many parents are fearful about the plans of the Conservative party to cut support for their children. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that their wishes can be fulfilled, but that their fears will not be realised? (294239)

This allows me to thank my right hon. Friend for everything she did to make Sure Start possible in the first place. I think that all Members of the House will acknowledge that Sure Start has been pushed forward in the past 10 years. There are now 3,000 Sure Start centres across the country; our aim is 3,500 Sure Start centres. That means roughly five or six in every constituency. I would say to those who are thinking of cutting the Sure Start budget that they are making a grave mistake—for the education and learning of young children, the needs of their parents and the stability of these communities. We will keep the Sure Start centres; I am afraid that the Conservative party wants to cut them.

Q5. It is nearly 30 years since the Conservatives decided that pensioners did not deserve the same annual increase in their incomes as people who were in work. Does it not pain the Prime Minister that after 12 years of a Labour Government, pensioners are being told that it may still be six years before the earnings link is restored? (294240)

As a result of the other measures that we are taking, pensioners have received more than an earnings link would have granted them, because they have the winter allowance, free television licences, national concessionary bus travel and pension credit, and this year, even though inflation is around zero, the pension will rise by 2.5 per cent.

I welcome the fact that pleural plaque victims in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been promised the right to compensation. May I ask the Prime Minister what he is going to do for the pleural plaque victims in England and Wales?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I offered yesterday to meet a delegation of Members of Parliament concerned about pleural plaques, and that I will do in the next few days.

Q6. In 2005 Tony Blair surrendered Mrs. Thatcher’s EU rebate. Next year we will be paying £4 billion more to the EU than we did last year. Is that (a), because we want to be seen as good Europeans; is it (b), because we want to subsidise French, Spanish and Irish farmers—or is it perhaps (c), because that is the price that we have to pay to let Tony Blair become El Presidente of Europe? (294241)

It was a negotiated settlement, because we are part of Europe: 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe, 3 million jobs depend on our membership of the European Union and 750,000 companies trade with the European Union. I would have thought that at this time, when we need an export-led recovery which will include trading with the rest of Europe, instead of disparaging our membership of the European Union the Opposition should be saying that it is an absolutely important element of the economic future of our country.

Q7. I declare a personal interest in the subject matter of this question. The Prime Minister will be aware of a report launched this week by Diabetes UK that indicates that up to 7 million people have contracted pre-diabetes, which makes them 15 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. What can the Government do to encourage our communities to eat more healthily throughout the coming years and try to prevent this serious illness? (294242)

Our proposal to deal with type 2 diabetes is to offer adults between the ages of 40 and 74 an assessment of their risk of developing it. That will be a major means by which we can identify the disease, help people to get on better diets and, potentially, deal with kidney failure as well as diabetes. There is a nationwide drive to deal with obesity, which is an issue that my hon. Friend has raised. A key factor, of course, is type 2 diabetes. The Change4Life programme, which was set up by the former Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), is one of the means by which we can address this. I hope that we can publicise the existence of that programme for everybody who is a diabetes sufferer.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to publish his proposals for funding policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Setting aside how he intends to assist in dealing with foreseeable but inescapable pressures, would he give us his views on how the Government will assist if unforeseen emergency circumstances arise, so that the Northern Ireland Executive will not have to raid their budget for health, education, housing and other critical elements?

I praise the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland for the way in which we have discussed all the issues that will affect the devolution of policing and justice. I also praise all the party leaders in Northern Ireland, whom I have met to discuss this issue, and thank all those who have been involved in meeting me and others to discuss how we can progress the devolution of policing and justice. This is the final stage of the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland, and it must be accompanied by a financial settlement that makes it possible for Northern Ireland to address its security and policing needs. We have made provision in the letter that I have sent—I believe that the Opposition parties will now have a copy available—for the reserve to be available if exceptional security needs arise in any one year. We have done so this year because of what happened with the killing of soldiers and the killing of PC Carroll; we will do so in future years if such an emergency or difficulty arises. I have made that clear in the letter that I have sent to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. A secure Northern Ireland is the key to a more prosperous Northern Ireland. We will take no risks with the security of Northern Ireland.

Q8. The capitalist system and the banks have made a gigantic mess not only of the world economy but of ours as well, so why are the public services, the pensioners, the poor and the working class people of this country having to pay for it? Will the Prime Minister ensure that the next Labour Government will do something about the banks, so that this never happens again? (294243)

The reason why we took action on the banks was not to save the bankers but to ensure that ordinary people’s savings, jobs and mortgages, and the businesses on which jobs depend, were secure. There is not one saver who has lost money as a result of the failure of a British bank to make good its promise to pay money to savers. Equally, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the banks have failed us in many ways. That is why we are making the necessary reforms, but we have to make these changes globally to make them work. Otherwise, banks will just move from one country to another. We have to create a system of remuneration that has global implications for all banks, rather than one that applies to just one country. We have to ensure that the banks will again lend the money necessary for industry and for home owners, and that is exactly the Government’s policy.

Q9. The Prime Minister has often emphasised how important it is that all the participants in the forthcoming and vital Copenhagen talks should be ready to compromise in order to achieve consensus. Will he tell us on which British principle he is ready to compromise? How about the third runway at Heathrow? (294244)

Aviation emissions will come within a total of emissions that have to be met. We have said that if we can get a climate change agreement and Europe is able to sign up to it, we will go to 30 per cent. emissions instead of 20 per cent. emissions. So we are prepared to go further on the level of emissions that we will agree to, if we can get a global agreement. Far from not being ready to compromise, we are therefore ready to do so further if we can get an international agreement. I hope that, instead of criticising us, the hon. Gentleman will support us in the negotiations.

Will my right hon. Friend make a commitment that he will do nothing to make it more difficult for women approaching state retirement age to secure their state pension?

It is absolutely remarkable that a political party can say that it is going to tell people in their 50s that they have to retire later, while at the same time insisting on giving the richest estates in the country £2 billion extra in tax cuts. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Q10. The Director of Public Prosecutions recently published his interpretation of the law on assisted suicide. Whatever his views on the subject, does the Prime Minister agree that it is not for the public prosecutor to decide on the criminal law of this country? Will the right hon. Gentleman table a substantive motion on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ proposals so that we can ascertain the will of the House on this matter? (294245)

The process that we have is right: the law is settled by Parliament. I have made my views clear on this, and there have been debates in Parliament. The law is settled by Parliament, and if people interpret that law, it must be in line with the decision of Parliament. That is where I stand.

As someone who was engaged with working people in Northern Ireland for 20 years, may I tell my right hon. Friend how much I welcome his statement? I congratulate him and the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland on the great work that they have done to get us to where we are. Will he tell us exactly what we are going to do next to ensure that the plans are implemented as quickly as possible?

I hope that, when the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties take the proposals back to their parties, they will find that they command support. The next stage is a consultation with the community in Northern Ireland, and that is for the Northern Ireland Executive themselves to trigger. I hope that, in addition to the legislation being passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the community consultation will yield the ability of the Northern Ireland parties to have a cross-community vote and to go ahead with the devolution of policing and justice. I believe that we in this Parliament will do everything in our power to make that possible, with legislation that would necessarily come to this House, but it is now for the parties of Northern Ireland to respond to the proposals that we have made. I have seen from the speech made this morning by the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and from the response of the Deputy First Minister, that they are ready to move forward now that the financial proposals have been agreed.

Q11. Given that teachers’ pay is set nationally, can the Prime Minister explain why Devon schools received £375 per pupil less than the national average? Will he look again at the funding formula and bring to an end this discrimination against children educated in the rural south? (294246)

I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s question in relation to his constituency, but perhaps he would look at the bigger issue. If his party goes ahead and cuts education dramatically, not just his constituency but every constituency would be affected. At some point, the Conservative party has to face up to the fact that it is ready to cut Sure Start, cut educational expenditure in schools, cut the capital building programme, cut education maintenance allowances and, of course, cut away all help for the unemployed. They have been wrong on the recession and they are going to be wrong on the recovery.

The Prime Minister will be well aware of the long campaign to get employment rights for temporary and agency workers. Will he indicate when we are going to get that legislation on the statute book?

A consultation period has started. I gather it finishes in the next few weeks, and then we will make the final decisions.

Q12. The Government’s cancer reform strategy states that no cancer patient should live further than 45 minutes’ travelling distance from their nearest cancer treatment unit. Yet in my constituency, no cancer patient lives within 45 minutes’ travelling distance of the nearest cancer unit, in Preston. We as a local community are campaigning to bring a cancer unit to our hospital in Kendal. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet cancer patients, myself and local NHS workers to ensure that we get a cancer unit in Kendal as a matter of urgency? (294247)

The Secretary of State for Health will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but he knows that these decisions are made by local clinicians, not by central Government. We have made proposals to bring diagnostic services nearer the community, so that people may not in future have to travel to hospital for their diagnosis and care. That is something that we have proposed should be introduced in future years, but again, that depends on our willingness to fund the capital investment in the national health service, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will support.