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Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the members of our armed forces who have given their lives on behalf of our country in Afghanistan. Today we mourn the loss of Corporal Thomas Mason from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Corporal James Oakland from the Royal Military Police. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with the families and friends of those brave men. They will not be forgotten for the service that they gave. On behalf of the British people, this morning I have also sent a message to the UN Secretary-General offering our condolences and support, following the Taliban attack on the United Nations in Kabul this morning.

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.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the people he mentioned?

Will the Prime Minister ensure that any announcement by the Justice Secretary on pleural plaques will ensure a commitment to compensating pleural plaques victims from the past, the present and the future?

I know the anxieties that people who are diagnosed with pleural plaques have. I know also that there have been a huge amount of medical inquiries into this big issue. I know too that those who end up suffering from asbestosis suffer from one of the worst and most painful diseases imaginable, and it is right that we have the proper compensation in place for them. I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend and a group of MPs tomorrow to discuss this very issue with the Justice Secretary. It is important, after the legislation that has come before the House, that we get a resolution soon.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal James Oakland and Corporal Thomas Mason? They died serving our country and our thoughts should be with their families and friends. As the Prime Minister said, we should also think of those six UN aid workers who were killed in that dreadful attack in Kabul.

Before I get on to other questions, may I welcome the Government’s complete U-turn on cutting £20 million from training in the Territorial Army? That was brought about after questions by Conservative MPs and Labour MPs, and from this Dispatch Box. Can the Prime Minister tell us what on earth he was thinking of when he was thinking of cutting Army training at a time when the country is at war?

First of all, let me repeat my condolences, as the right hon. Gentleman has, to those people who have died, one of whom was injured in the summer and subsequently died in Birmingham. Our thoughts must also be with the United Nations and the relatives of those staff today. I will be speaking to the UN Secretary-General to tell him that no terrorism should deter us from our actions in Afghanistan.

As far as the training for Afghanistan is concerned, there are three stages to it and all are important. First, we have to ensure that our regular Army has the numbers that are necessary. That is why an additional 9,300 people have been recruited to the Army over the past year. That means that Army numbers are now at 101,000, which of course means more money. The second thing was to ensure that the Territorial Army, which was sending people to Afghanistan, had them going to Afghanistan properly trained and equipped. I was sure when I reported to the House two weeks ago that that is what we would do.

The third thing is that, having spent an additional £1 billion on Afghanistan this year and spending £1 billion extra on defence for costs associated with Afghanistan and other things, we could or would be able to spend on the Territorial Army. Having looked at all the issues, including the extra £1 billion that we are spending on Afghanistan, and having talked to the Chief of the Defence Staff, I decided that that was the right thing to do. However, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are spending £1 billion more on Afghanistan and £1 billion more on defence. It is wrong for him to say that we are not spending sufficiently on defence; we are.

Honestly, this Prime Minister cannot even be straight and straightforward when he is performing a U-turn. He cannot get away from the fact that he was proposing cuts in basic training that would have meant cuts in the TA, and if you cut by that amount, you cannot fight a war. He says that there were three stages to this, and there were: the wrong policy, informed by the wrong values, followed by weeks of dithering in Downing street and, finally, the Government forced by the Opposition to do the right thing in a humiliating climbdown. And it all ends, once again, with a complete loss of the Prime Minister’s authority. Why does this Prime Minister keep getting it wrong?

What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the economy. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the health service. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on education. Right throughout the recession, we have got things right, and the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong.

The Prime Minister turns to the economy, so let us turn to the economy. We learned last Friday that Britain is in the longest and deepest recession since records began. Presumably, one very simple thing has to follow from that: this Prime Minister has got to say something that, up to now, he has completely refused to say. Will he finally admit that he did not end boom and bust?

We always said that we would come out of recession by the end of this year. That has been the position that the Chancellor took in his Budget, and the position that we consistently took. It would have been wrong, and made things a lot worse, if we had taken the advice of the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition. Today, in Brussels, we have got permission to enable Northern Rock to be sustained as a company. We agreed to nationalise it, and we saved 3,000 jobs in Northern Rock. If we had taken his advice, there would be no Northern Rock and 3,000 jobs would have been lost.

The Prime Minister tells us that he has been consistent in saying that we would be out of recession by the end of the year. I am not going to let him get away with that. In September, he said:

“We are now coming out of a recession, as a result of the actions we have taken”.

He also said in September:

“I think you will see figures pretty soon that show the action that Britain is taking yielding effect”.

In June, he claimed that Britain was

“leading the rest of the world…out of recession”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 268.]

The fact is that France, Germany and Japan have been growing for six months. Does he now accept that he got it comprehensively wrong?

If I have to explain to him, Germany and Japan have had a far deeper recession that we have. Equally, at the same time, unemployment in this country is far lower than it is in America or in the euro area, and that is a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman can read every statement that he likes, but this is absolutely consistent with my view, and the Chancellor’s view, that we would come out of the recession by the end of the year. The problem is that the right hon. Gentleman has policies that would keep us in recession. His policies would mean more unemployment, because he will not support the new deal, more small businesses going under—we have supported 200,000 small businesses—and more home owners losing their homes. That is the policy of the Conservative party. He cannot deny that he got every aspect of this recession wrong.

Even when you read the Prime Minister one of his own quotes from September about the recession ending, he cannot be straight about it. France, Germany and Japan have all come out of recession. So have Sweden, Brazil, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and New Zealand. Does not this list demonstrate something else? When the Prime Minister said, as he did over and over again, that we were the best prepared country in the world for this recession, he was plain wrong.

No, we have been better placed because we have 3 million more people in work than in 1997. We are better placed because we have the new deal in place to help the unemployed, and we have been better placed because we had lower debt starting the recession as a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that every single country in the International Monetary Fund is against the policies of the Conservative party. Every single country in Europe is against the policies of the Conservative party. The CBI, the chambers of commerce and other institutes in Britain representing business do not like the idea of withdrawing the fiscal stimulus. What sense does it make to withdraw the fiscal stimulus now, which is the policy of the Opposition?

How can this Prime Minister possibly claim that we are the best placed when we have had the longest and deepest recession since records began, when we have 2.5 million people unemployed, when one in five young people cannot find a job and when his recent triumph is that our economy is now smaller than Italy’s? That is what he has given us. Even before this recession, our budget deficit was the biggest in the developed world; we had a regulatory system designed by him that did not work; and we had 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. What he said about the recession was wrong; what he said about the recovery was wrong; what he said about being well prepared was wrong; what he said about boom and bust was wrong. Does he not understand that unless he is straight with people about how we got into this mess, no one will trust him to get us out of it?

Not one policy from the Opposition today; not one idea about growth in the economy. They were wrong on Northern Rock; they were wrong on helping the unemployed; they were wrong on helping home owners; they were wrong on helping small businesses; they were wrong on the restructuring of the banking system; they have been wrong on the new deal; they are wrong on just about every economic policy. No wonder every policy announced by the shadow Chancellor collapses just after the morning headlines. They have got no ideas on how to get us out and into growth. Had we taken their advice, we would be in an even deeper and even longer recession with more unemployment than there is now. They are not fit even to be the Opposition, when it comes to promulgating economic policies.

In view of this week’s state visit by her excellency the President of India, will my right hon. Friend say what more he can do further to strengthen the trading relationship between Britain and India?

I welcome, as I think everybody should, the President of India on her state visit to Britain. This is a sign of the strategic partnership that is growing between India and the United Kingdom, and I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for her chairmanship of the British-India association that brings forward proposals for even stronger relationships in the future. More than a million people travel between the UK and India each year; there are about 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK; there are 30,000 Indian students in Britain: relations will grow stronger as we develop closer educational, cultural and economic links between these two great countries.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Corporal Thomas Mason and Corporal James Oakland, who served so bravely in Afghanistan—and, of course, to the family and friends of the six UN aid workers who were so brutally murdered in Kabul.

The international climate change summit is now only a few weeks away, and what happens in Copenhagen will shape our world for generations to come. I welcome a lot of the Prime Minister’s pre-summit rhetoric; if words could do the trick, we would be halfway to a deal already. When it comes to the environment, however, it is actions that really count, so how would the Prime Minister characterise his Government’s green record over the last decade?

We have met the Kyoto targets. We have got the first climate change Act of any country in the world. We have committed ourselves to very radical cuts in emissions not only in the long term, but in the short term. We are fighting hardest to get an agreement in Copenhagen. I have said that I will go to Copenhagen; I want there to be an agreement in Copenhagen. It is based first on us agreeing a political understanding about how the treaty will be developed. We then need to agree on the intermediate targets. I think all countries will have to accept that they have got to make commitments, and we need to have a financial proposal such as the one that we have put forward. This will be discussed at the European Council this week, and I believe that the European Council will want to make progress. I believe Europe will have a position, which can then be put to Copenhagen.

As far as the Prime Minister’s own record is concerned, the sad truth is that he has done far too little, far too late. Total emissions are up, and air travel is up. The Prime Minister wants a new runway at Heathrow, he wants more dirty coal power stations and more nuclear energy plants, our housing stock is the most poorly insulated in Europe—and last week the Prime Minister got all his MPs to vote against the 10:10 environment campaign. Does he not realise that unless he acts fast to fix things here at home, he will have no chance and no authority to fix things in Copenhagen?

I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman wrote his second question before he had heard my answer to the first. I set out very clearly the actions that we have taken on the environment. I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s party’s position would be a lot better if Liberal councillors across the country did not vote against planning consent, so that we could have renewable energy, and I think that his own position would be a lot stronger if he could say that he would support nuclear energy, which is one of the means by which we can reduce carbon emissions.

We will continue to fight for a deal at Copenhagen. I believe that all parties should be interested in that being achieved, and I think that we should all campaign together to secure that deal at Copenhagen.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 2,000 grandparents in this country have taken custody of grandchildren, usually following tragic circumstances affecting the children’s natural parents? Is it not time that we gave real financial and practical support to those grandparents and recognised the magnificent work that they do, instead of punishing them as the system does at present?

I thank my hon. Friend for his efforts to raise the profile of how we can do more to help grandparents. He may know—because I think he has been part of this—that we are holding a cross-government summit in November to listen to the experience of grandparents and their organisations. From 2011 grandparents who look after grandchildren will receive national insurance credit, and we will publish a Green Paper on that in the next few months. The role of grandparents is absolutely vital to every family in the country, and we should do everything that we can to strengthen the role that they can play.

Q2. Even those of us who believed that the Government fundamentally underestimated the task when they first became involved in Afghanistan felt that the recent fraud-ridden presidential election was a worrying development. Given that the Prime Minister is aware that troops provide time and space but not a political solution—which will be an essential part of the jigsaw if we are now to succeed—what lessons has he learned from this period when it comes to any election run-off? (295959)

First, as the elections take place—and the date has already been set—we must ensure that there are sufficient monitors as well as sufficient security. One of the problems during the last election was that there were insufficient monitors, which allowed corrupt ballots to take place. Secondly, we must work towards a political solution. It is not simply a military solution that we are looking for. We want to strengthen local government so that people in Afghanistan feel that they have a stake in the future of the country, and we want to have a corruption-free central Government. That is one of the problems with which we have been dealing for many years.

We—the Americans, NATO and others—will have to sign a contract with the new President, whoever he is, so that early action can be taken to deal with those abuses. In the longer term, of course, we want to split the Taliban ideologues from the others, and to reconcile where that is possible, so that we can build a stronger democratic centre to ensure the future of Afghanistan. Our role is to be there to build up the Afghan military and police so that they are able to take more responsibility for their own affairs and, as a result, the number of our troops can fall.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that during his period as Chancellor and Prime Minister, British canals have been turned around from being a drain on our nation’s resources to being a national asset. Will he ensure that British Waterways is seen not as an asset to be sold off, but as an asset to be treasured—like our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and used for public benefit as well as local regeneration?

I think my right hon. Friend will agree that new investment in British Waterways has been very important to guaranteeing its future. We must consider how we can get further new investment into British Waterways for the future: that is our principal aim.

Q3. As we approach Remembrance Sunday, Canvey Island Royal British Legion proudly reaches its 75th anniversary. It also has its first Gurkha member, Laxmi Ghising. Will the Prime Minister continue his honourable support of the Gurkhas by granting them equal pension rights, and will he congratulate the British Legion? (295960)

We will look at the case the hon. Gentleman has put forward on the Gurkhas, but I have to tell him on this matter that a High Court case has been taking place over the last period of time. On the Royal British Legion, I commend the work that it does. Particularly as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we remember the way in which it represents all the families and all the ex-servicemen and women of our country, and its organisation of the festival of remembrance and so many events around the countries is something of which our nation is very proud. I think the whole House will want to join me in thanking the Royal British Legion for everything it does.

The African Caribbean community has made an immense contribution to this country, particularly in the field of public services. Many in that community are deeply distressed by the increase in air passenger duty, which appears to be arbitrary and illogical. Will the Prime Minister be prepared to meet myself and a few colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), to see how best we can resolve this problem?

As my hon. Friend knows, the taxation of environmental goods, and particularly air fuel, has been a vexed matter for many years. On air passenger duty, the Chancellor tells me that he will be meeting a group including my hon. Friend to discuss these matters in the next few days.

Q4. Sections 32 to 34 of the Inquiries Act 2005 specifically give the Prime Minister and his Government the power to co-instigate an inquiry into the Lockerbie disaster. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to take these powers, and thereby yet again outsourcing responsibility to the Scottish Parliament? (295961)

First of all, let me say to the House that this terrible crime in Lockerbie will never be forgotten and, even many years on, we must remember the hurt that has been caused to the relatives of those people who lost their lives in Lockerbie as a result of what happened over the summer. I want to emphasise that Megrahi is still in the eyes of the law a convicted terrorist for the criminal act he was engaged in. It is for the Scottish authorities to pursue any new leads that exist. They are the authority with whom jurisdiction on this lies, and it is for them to take the action that is necessary.

We live in dangerous times. There are a number of threats and issues of global importance, such as global terrorism, global warming and the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Is Britain’s interest best served by a strong European alliance of sensible, mainstream parties, or an alliance of Islamophobes and climate and holocaust deniers like the one that lot over there on the official Opposition Benches have got?

When I go to the European Council tomorrow, I will meet not only leaders of socialist groups in Europe, but leaders of the Christian Democrat groups and centre-right parties in Europe. It is amazing that the Conservative party has broken its links with the centre-right in Europe to join a group that can only be described as extremist. The Conservative party will regret isolating itself from the centre of Europe. It is out on a limb; it is putting British jobs at risk; it is angering British business; and it is out of touch with what people know is necessary for the future.

Q5. Could the Prime Minister tell me why we need a President of the European Union and who he is supporting for the job? (295962)

We have made it very clear that if this position is to be created—the European treaty is not yet through—and if the former Prime Minister Tony Blair comes forward as a candidate, we will be very happy to support him.

Q6. Some 250 Members from both sides of the House today joined 100,000 petition signers to Ofcom. Phone companies BT and 3UK have joined unions Unite and Amicus and the Royal College of Nursing in support of early-day motion 1531. Consumers are being ripped off. Does my right hon. Friend think that phone companies that have hidden charges for connecting from one network to another should cut their rates? (295963)

Ofcom is looking at this very matter. There is an unfairness to consumers who change company; the cut-off rates are very high indeed. It is right that Ofcom investigates it, and it is right that the consumer gets a better deal.

Q7. The company Green Energy Supplies of Leominster faces extra costs from the Government’s microgeneration certification scheme. To show that the Prime Minister is serious about Copenhagen and renewable energy, will he agree to meet my constituents and get rid of some of this gold-plating? (295964)

No, the Government are doing more to promote low-carbon industries in this country. We are investing in the new technologies, and we are supporting a range of small, medium-sized and large businesses. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about these issues, but I am convinced that we are doing as much as we can now—we will do more in the future—to help the development of low-carbon industries in his constituency and throughout the country.

Q8. Sir Jeffrey Sterling famously said that the Labour Government did more for the British merchant navy in their first 18 months than the Tories did in 18 years. Given the news that Maersk Line is starting to ship out of the British register and lay off British seafarers, will the Prime Minister tell us when Ministers will act on the employment and training package put forward in 2007 by the unions and the industry? It will expand the fleet and create new jobs for British seafarers. (295965)

Shipping is a very competitive global industry, but what we did in 1997 so that ships were flagged from the United Kingdom was a very important act of government to help defend, safeguard and expand jobs and opportunities for seafarers. The proposals put forward by unions and the industry together are ones that we are now looking at in order to create more training and employment opportunities in the industry, and I am very happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Q9. Last weekend, Members from all three of the main political parties and both Houses were among 100 legislators from the major economies who came together at the GLOBE legislators forum, which was attended by the Prime Minister of Denmark, on the subject of climate change. The GLOBE forum resulted in a consensus of the 100 legislators on a set of legislative principles that were jointly put forward by United States Congressman Ed Markey and Chairman Wang Guangtao of China. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet the UK’s delegation to that GLOBE meeting ahead of the conference of the parties—COP—meeting in December? (295966)

I will meet delegations to look at this issue of climate change, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that what we need is progress from both China and America, so that we can have a climate change deal. The principles that will underlie the deal must include intermediate targets that are agreed by countries around the world. I hope that as part of the decisions that were made by his group last weekend, there was recognition that we will need intermediate as well as long-term targets and we will need to solve the problem of climate financing. That is crucial and our proposal, which is not to affect international development aid, but to raise additional money for tackling climate change for the poorest countries, is one that I hope will commend itself to all parties.

Following the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and given the fact that Sir Thomas Legg is reviewing five years of our allowances, with the publication next week by Christopher Kelly of the overall review of MPs’ allowances, can the Prime Minister tell the House what the next steps will be?

I think that all Members of Parliament want to bring the old, discredited system of expenses to an end and to bring in as quickly as possible a new system for expenses. Sir Christopher Kelly will report next Wednesday, and that report will form the basis of a statement to the House. I then expect that IPSA will be given the power to implement it in detail, but that is a matter for the House and there will be a report to the House next Wednesday.

Q10. Bristol’s economy and environment suffers from poor public transport; we have high bus fares from a monopoly provider and far too few passenger trains on our local rail network. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Secretary of State for Transport to expedite plans for the Greater Bristol area to be given an integrated transport authority, so that service improvements can be brought about? (295967)

We are investing more in transport than we have ever done. We have not only increased investment in rail transport and moved to the electrification of some lines, but we are investing in bus transport, particularly with the help we are giving to pensioners on concessionary fares. I have not seen the Bristol proposal for an integrated transport system, but obviously I shall examine what the hon. Gentleman says.

Q11. We run the risk of being a generation of politicians that did not make the right decisions to tackle one of the biggest issues confronting us, which is climate change, and to minimise its impact on future generations. May I commend my right hon. Friend for the action that he has taken? He has been the first Head of State to recognise the need for leaders of Governments to attend the Copenhagen summit and to take part in those debates. Do not listen to the nay-sayers over there—[Interruption.] (295968)

The Opposition get very anxious. They have come out against wind turbines and wind renewables; the shadow Business Secretary said that Britain should not be used for that. They are against nuclear power, which is one of the keys to our having lower carbon in this country. The Conservatives should think again. If they want a consensus on climate change, they will have to change their policy.

Q12. As the Prime Minister knows, this is the international year of astronomy. Does he therefore support the campaign for dark skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing street, where all the lights are on very late into the night? (295969)

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.