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Prime Minister

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2009

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the five soldiers who died in Afghanistan yesterday—three soldiers from the Grenadier Guards and two soldiers from the Royal Military Police. The death of five brave soldiers in a single incident is a terrible and tragic loss, and I want to pay tribute, as the whole House will, to their professionalism, and to their courage and service. Our thoughts must also be with the five additional members of our armed forces who were seriously injured in the same incident yesterday. Evidence is now being assembled, but it appears that they were targeted because they were engaged in what our enemies fear most—they were mentoring and strengthening Afghan forces to make Afghanistan more secure. While we will step up and strengthen our security wherever we can, we will not stop doing what the Afghan Taliban fear most. The sacrifice of our military is great and our resolve must match it.

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

I am sure that everyone in this House will associate themselves with the comments made by my right hon. Friend, for those who have fallen in the line of duty in Afghanistan have done so not only on our behalf, but on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.

Many of my constituents have benefited from the Prime Minister’s abolition of prescription charges for cancer patients and many more still welcome his cast-iron guarantee to introduce one-week screening for suspected cancer patients, but we need to do more. What more will this Government do to ensure that we end the postcode lottery and to ensure that people, whatever their wealth and wherever they live, get the cancer medicines they deserve and need?

We will not only make promises to improve cancer care in the national health service, we will deliver on these promises. We will not only have a two-week maximum before people can see a consultant, we will move to a one-week maximum before people can actually have the diagnostic tests they need. However, I think that people should be warned about the national health service, because the shadow Health Secretary said yesterday—

Order. I do not think that we need to go into that today, Prime Minister. I call Mr. David Cameron.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the five brave servicemen who lost their lives, three of whom were from the Grenadier Guards and two of whom were from the Royal Military Police? We must honour their memories, we must care for their families and we must never forget their service. Our thoughts and prayers, as the Prime Minister rightly said, should be with those who, I understand, were badly wounded in what was clearly an horrific incident. Given that it apparently included an Afghan police officer, it does raise some very worrying questions. Can the Prime Minister tell us what inquiries will be made and when we can expect to know more about what happened in this very disturbing incident?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s condolences to all those who are affected by this terrible and tragic incident. I did say, in my initial comments, that evidence is now being assembled on what happened in this terrible incident and that security will be stepped up, where that is necessary, but we cannot desist from the practice that is absolutely essential for the future of Afghanistan and the security of our country: training and mentoring the Afghan forces. That means that our troops will be working with the Afghan police and the Afghan army. Of course, we need to take all the necessary security measures, but it is an essential element of the whole coalition strategy that we train up the Afghan forces so that they themselves are able to take over the security of their country, and that we will continue to do. It is in line with the McChrystal report, and it is in line with the statements that have been made by President Obama, with NATO statements of the past few days and with what we have set out as our strategy for the future. So, yes, we will step up security, but we must not allow ourselves to give up what the Afghan Taliban fear most: that we will have a strong Afghan security force that is Afghan-based and is able to face them.

Clearly, as the Prime Minister says, the training and mentoring is absolutely essential. I have seen it in Afghanistan for myself and the work that is being done is incredibly impressive, but I think that the public will be concerned knowing as they do that British soldiers, including military police, are, even as we speak, living and working side by side with the Afghan national police across Helmand. They will want to know what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that we are safeguarding our forces after what happened yesterday.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working very closely with the Afghan army and the Afghan police for a number of years. We are stepping up the closeness of our operations. I myself visited a joint Afghan-British operation where both military police and the Army from Britain were working with Afghan soldiers and police forces. Obviously we will review the security arrangements for this, but I repeat that it is an essential element of our strategy that we are not seen as an occupying army but that we work with the Afghan army and are seen to be training the Afghan forces so that they can take over responsibility for the country. Although this has been a terrible and tragic incident, all our commanders on the ground will want to maintain the strategy, which is to work with the Afghan forces so that one day they can take responsibility for the security of their country.

Everyone will agree with what the Prime Minister said about working with the police, but clearly the attack raises questions about the infiltration of the Afghan police by criminals, drug dealers and militants. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Afghan police force was described as

“one of the most dysfunctional institutions in the country”,

with reports that the police were actively involved in criminal activities, including the drugs trade. We all agree on a more focused and targeted mission in Afghanistan, and at the heart of that mission, as the Prime Minister has just said, is training Afghans to take more responsibility for their security. Given that, what more can he say about the efforts to clean up an organisation—the Afghan national police—that is essential to the success of our strategy but still seems to be going so wrong?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that while we are assembling evidence, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for this incident. It might be that the Taliban have used an Afghan police member or have infiltrated the Afghan police force, and that is what we have to look at. It is the Taliban who have claimed responsibility for this incident. There are about 98,000 police in Afghanistan, many of whom have been moved from one part of Afghanistan to another. There is an issue about their training, which we are addressing with a European effort to ensure that the police are properly trained. We will have to increase the number of police, but it is clear that we will have to increase the quality of police, too. I would not want to draw conclusions about all the Afghan police from one single incident, and what we know is that the Taliban have claimed responsibility for this.

Clearly what the Prime Minister says is right, although he has in the past said that the Afghan police are not seen as a fair part of the Afghan state and so progress needs to be made. Our armed forces will also need to have every confidence that stronger economic development and political effort will go in behind them. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is perhaps time, once again, to return to the idea of a single, strong co-ordinating figure—not just from the United Nations but someone who works across the coalition, including with the Afghan Government and NATO—to deliver this effort more effectively than anyone has done so far? Is it his understanding that that is being considered in Washington and should be part of the revised strategy that we hope that President Obama and his team will announce shortly?

Yes, we have been discussing that, and the possibility that we could have a co-ordinator who works more closely with the Afghan Government and with the allied forces. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the first thing that we have to do is to ensure that this new Government, led by President Karzai, will adopt a set of policies that will deal with the problems that have worried not just the international community but people in Afghanistan. The first is that he should deal with corruption, and, whether he appoints an anti-corruption commission or commissioners, he will have to do far more than has been done in recent years. He will have to deal with the problem of the appointment of district and provincial governors as well as appointments at the centre. He will have to show that his new Cabinet is free of the stains of corruption. He has promised to do that and we will be looking for it in his inauguration address and in the measures that he wants to bring forward. The next, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is to ensure economic and social improvement for the Afghan people, and that will need the co-ordination of allied efforts and those of the Afghan Government. Our efforts to move people from heroin to wheat production in Helmand have been successful, but the final element for the Afghan Government is the training of Afghan forces. The only way that we can look to a future where the numbers of our forces can come down while we still have security in Afghanistan is for an Afghan army, in particular, to be ready to take on the responsibility.

A day when we hear the news of such an appalling incident in Afghanistan is not one for obsessing about the internal workings of Parliament and the House of Commons, but is it not important that today we accept in full Sir Christopher Kelly’s report? Does the Prime Minister agree that, in accepting the report, it is important that we say that, from now and into the future, Members of Parliament should not vote on our pay, expenses, pensions, terms of service, resettlement or expenses packages? Is not that an essential part of restoring faith in Parliament and politics—and in this House of Commons, which all of us care about?

People want to know that the system will be different in future. It will be open, transparent and fair. It will not be managed by MPs themselves but by an independent body that will take responsibility for that. That is why it is right to refer the Kelly report for action and implementation not by ourselves but by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. That is the recommendation of the Kelly report, and that is what we should do. The vast majority of MPs are trying to do a decent job on behalf of their whole communities. At the same time, we must make sure that the public trust in the institution of Parliament is restored. That is why we should accept the Kelly recommendations and make sure that they are implemented as quickly as possible.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what he thinks of the credibility of a party leader who has spent so much time and energy attacking him over the Lisbon treaty, only to reveal now that his cast-iron guarantee has turned out to be made of plywood?

Order. May I ask the Prime Minister to focus his response on the policy of the Government rather than that of the Opposition?

Yes, Mr. Speaker. The Government will work in concert with the other 26 countries of the European Union. We will work with them on the same policies to bring about economic recovery and to bring down unemployment in our country, and we will work for greater international co-ordination. We will not make iron-cast guarantees that are broken—[Interruption.]

May I first say that, after a shameful year for this Parliament, I agree that Sir Christopher Kelly’s report finally gives us the opportunity to start restoring people’s trust in the work of MPs here? That is why we must implement the report in full, without any further delay.

I want to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the three soldiers from the Grenadier Guards and the two from the Royal Military Police who tragically lost their lives yesterday afternoon, and of the five who were seriously injured. People will be shocked to the core by the fact that they have been working selflessly for the Afghan people and were killed by someone whom they thought that they could trust.

The truth is that without a legitimate and inclusive Government in Kabul and a new coherent international plan for Afghanistan, it will be increasingly difficult for our brave soldiers to do the job there that we are asking them to do. In the Prime Minister’s conversations with President Karzai, how much time is the right hon. Gentleman giving him to clean up his Government? What measures will he take if President Karzai fails to act?

President Karzai said yesterday at his press conference that he was going to operate a policy in which there would be a clean-up of politics in Afghanistan. We will now have to test him by his words. I think that the first thing that he can do, in his inauguration address, is to signal the changes that he will make in the way that he runs central Government, appoints governors, and deals with the problems with corruption—especially corruption relating to heroin and drugs. It is for President Karzai to show the international community that his Government can have credibility because of the actions that he is prepared to take.

I am grateful for those words, but the Prime Minister needs to be more precise. May I ask him again—[Interruption.] He needs to acknowledge first that our mission in Afghanistan is in trouble because we do not have a legitimate Government in Kabul, and we do not have a coherent international plan for Afghanistan. So I ask him again what exactly he will do if the legitimate and inclusive Government whom we so desperately need in Kabul do not emerge?

I have already made it clear that the additional troops that we are prepared to make available to Afghanistan are conditional on three things. The first is that the Afghan Government can show that they are willing to take the action necessary to gain the trust of the people of the country and for the security of the people of the country. The second thing is that the Americans and our coalition partners are prepared to engage in burden-sharing. The third thing is that President Karzai and his Government are prepared to make available Afghan forces to Helmand so that we can train Afghan forces for the future. We have made it very clear what our conditions are for the future. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree that these are necessary conditions. Of course, they include the improvement in governance, both local and national, in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to the bravery of our soldiers. Is not the country entitled to know how long British military personnel will be in Afghanistan? Can this war be won?

I have said before that as we train Afghan security forces to get them to take over the task and the responsibilities of Afghanistan—I am saying what President Obama and the other leaders have said—we will be able gradually to bring our forces home. The measure of success in Afghanistan will be that British forces can come home because Afghan forces are able to deal with the security problems of the country themselves. That is what our strategy is about—to build up the Afghan army and security forces, to build up economic prosperity for the Afghan people, and to make sure that the structures of local as well as national Government reflect the will of the people.

Q2. The Government have today slashed the money available to pay for the freedom pass in London. What is the Prime Minister’s estimate of the council tax increase that will be needed to pay for this financial shortfall? (297504)

No Government have done more to provide help for transport, both in London and in the rest of the country. The hon. Gentleman should know that the national concessionary pensioner fare that we introduced is not just for London, but for the whole country. The Government have supported public transport, whether it be by rail or by road, and done more than any other Government for 50 years.

Q3. Why have countries like ours with good relations with Israel allowed the blockade on Gaza to continue for so long? It is denying Gazans the essentials for life, including reconstruction materials, and denying them a good living throughout this very cold winter. (297505)

I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu a few days ago and I made it clear that not only the policy of Britain but the will of the international community is to make sure that supplies can enter Gaza so that the Palestinian people there can be sure that they will have a winter in which shortages do not exist. That is the will of the international community, it is what we are urging Israel to do, and while I believe that the Israelis are right to be worried about security and about terrorism, there is also a humanitarian duty to make sure that the people of Gaza are fed.

Q4. Island prisoners must be guarded when they need health care outside prison. By the end of this year, the local health budget will have been exceeded by more than £1 million. That could pay for an extra 15 nurses. Will the Prime Minister ensure that this inequity is corrected urgently? (297506)

I understand the hon. Gentleman asking for more resources for the health service in his area, but we are spending more on the national health service than ever before. Where issues arise from the treatment of prisoners, we will deal with them.

Q5. The Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought in the family tax credit, the working tax credit and pensioner tax credit. Can he give me, in the popular phrase, a cast-iron guarantee that this benefit will not be cut or means-tested, whereas the Conservatives would pull it to shreds? (297507)

We made promises that we would create a tax credit, and we have delivered on that promise. When we have made a commitment, we have actually done what we have said we will do; and, where we have made promises, we will continue to deliver on them, unlike some other people.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware that several police authorities, including Northumbria, are using Home Office guidance as a basis for cutting the pensions of police officers who have been forced to retire when they have been seriously injured on duty? On the principle that we should stand by those who risk their lives and face serious injury protecting us, whether in the armed forces or in the police, will he take a personal interest in the matter and investigate it? (297508)

I shall obviously look at the matter. When policemen or women retire, they receive their pension. I see no reason why their pension entitlement should be broken, if it is, indeed, an entitlement, and I shall look at what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Q7. Last Friday, the Youth Parliament met to debate in this Chamber, and the MYP for Milton Keynes, Sean Barnes, spoke strongly in favour of votes at 16, helping to persuade the Youth Parliament to make the issue its top campaigning priority. Will the Prime Minister respond to that clearly expressed demand by the democratically elected Youth Parliament and make sure that his Government implement a reduction in voting age and an extension of full democratic rights to 16-year-olds? (297509)

I think that bringing the Youth Parliament to this House was a tremendous innovation, and we should be very proud of it. While I do not always agree with your rulings, Mr. Speaker, your innovation in doing that was very important. I personally favour giving young people the vote at 16. It is a matter on which we should consult widely with the public, and then we should make a decision.

Q8. Colchester is the fastest growing borough in the country. Despite that, Tory-controlled Essex county council plans to shut two of the town’s seven secondary schools. It is now known that the council massaged the figures on projected pupil numbers. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that the reorganisation proposals should be investigated by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, particularly as Essex county council gave false information to the Department for Children, Schools and Families? (297510)

I shall look at the matter. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who said, “If you want to know what a Conservative Government will look like, look at the Tory councils”? The Tory council in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency proves the point.

The Labour Government have made great strides in getting and keeping disabled people in work. What is my right hon. Friend’s reaction to the news that the Glencraft factory in my constituency could be forced out of business by the lack of support from the Scottish National party-Liberal council? If the factory closes, more than 30 disabled people in Aberdeen will lose their jobs.

When there was a Labour council, Glencraft got a huge amount of support from it. I have heard that the grants are being cut by the SNP-Liberal administration in the area. We will look at what we can do, but it is clearly important in a recession to help those people who are most in need of support, and that includes the disabled members of our community.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Ministry of Defence should publish regular figures showing the number of soldiers who have lost limbs or suffered other life-changing injuries in Afghanistan? If he does, will he let me have those figures by the end of the week? (297511)

We give as much information as possible on what is happening in Afghanistan. We have 9,000 troops there, and we report to the House whenever there have been fatalities. I have reported today also that five soldiers have been seriously injured. Many of them will end up at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham for the best treatment that they could receive, and of course I am happy to give as much information as possible, consistent with what the Chief of the Defence Staff advises.

Q10. Derbyshire firm Baltex, which is based in my constituency, makes technical textiles and has twice received the Queen’s award for industry. Among its work, it reinforces hoses that go into new cars. The company tells me that sales of that particular product line have soared since the inception of the scrappage scheme. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the scrappage scheme in terms of jobs and sales UK-wide? (297512)

The car scrappage scheme, which was dismissed by so many people, has been a great success. So, too, has the help that we are giving to small businesses. Now 200,000 or more small businesses have received cash-flow help from the Treasury. We have taken action to help businesses to keep on employees and to train employees during this difficult recession. None of that would have been possible without the fiscal support that we were prepared to give; that is the difference between ourselves and the Conservative Opposition.

After 14 service personnel died aboard Nimrod XV230, the Ministry of Defence accepted responsibility and said that compensation would be “expedited”. Three years on, compensation has not been resolved. Do not these service families deserve better?

We have just had the final report. The Government, and all those responsible for the mistakes that were made in relation to Nimrod, have apologised. I shall look exactly at the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The report has now finalised the issues surrounding Nimrod, and I will write to him.

Q11. The hon. and gallant Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I may form an unlikely combination, but we are as one in endorsing the calls made by the Greenford branch of the Royal British Legion for reserved seats at Prime Minister’s Question Time for members of the armed forces. Would the Prime Minister agree to make representations to the Serjeant at Arms in order that we can achieve this? (297513)

We do want to recognise the commitment of our armed forces. Special arrangements are made in a number of different parts of our society. This is an interesting proposal that has been made on an all-party basis, and I am sure that the Serjeant at Arms and the Speaker will want to look at it. It seems to be something that we can support, but we will have to have consultations with all the different forces in the House.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister remember promising that Rosyth would not become a nuclear graveyard? Fifteen years later, not only are seven nuclear submarines still rotting in the dockyard, but the Prime Minister is considering the dockyard as a permanent location for those submarines. When will he live up to his promise? (297514)

No decision has been taken on this. I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that Rosyth dockyard is working as a result of the actions that we have taken. The aircraft carriers are coming to Rosyth to be built as a result of a decision that we have made. If other parties had been in power, there would be no Rosyth dockyard at all. We have taken the action that is necessary.

Q13. With quality child care being essential both to allow parents to work and for child development, and given the huge investment that the Government have made in the national child care strategy over the years, can my right hon. Friend help me to understand why some local councils, such as Kensington and Chelsea, are proposing to close their nursery schools? What can we do to block this retrograde step? (297516)

I hesitate to use the words “iron-cast guarantee”, but we have provided—[Interruption.] The words have become so devalued over the past few days. People will not forget that on Monday the Leader of the Opposition also made an iron-cast guarantee to the national health service; people will remember that as well. On nursery education, we are determined to ensure that three and four-year-olds have the best nursery education possible. We have increased the number of hours for nursery school, and we will continue to make sure that Sure Start provision is available in every constituency.

Q14. The Prime Minister promised in June that there would be a statement on the restoration of compensation for victims of pleural plaques. It is now November, so can he tell us why we have not yet received it? (297517)

We are meeting the Members of Parliament who have raised this issue with us, and we will come back to the House with a statement on exactly that.

Does the Prime Minister still have full confidence that the Afghan army and police will be prepared to lay down their own lives, and to slaughter those of their brother Afghans, in the service of foreign powers and in the service of a President who is corrupt and who has just rigged his own re-election?

The members of the Afghan army want a safe and secure Afghanistan, as do most of the people in Afghanistan. The members of the Afghan army who have been working with the British Army on Operation Panther’s Claw are members who were sent by President Karzai in increasing numbers to back up the work of the British forces. We want to work with the Afghan army and security service. We want to train them and mentor them, and I have heard our chiefs talking about the quality, in the main, of Afghan army members, which is something that we want to continue to increase and strengthen over the months to come.

As a former Science Minister myself, I am well aware that scientific advice can be politically inconvenient, but will the Prime Minister reassure the scientific community that when disagreements happen, he will engage in rational debate rather than shoot the messenger?

Scientific advice is valued by the Government in every area. On climate change, on foot and mouth, on dealing with swine flu and on nuclear matters as well as on drugs, we have very good scientists who have been advising us. From the drugs advisory committee, we accepted all but three of more than 30 recommendations. The issue was not the ability of the committee to give advice or the expertise of the members, it was that once Ministers have had to decide a position, after listening to advice on a wider range of social issues than simply the scientific advice, it does not make sense to send out mixed messages to the whole community about drugs. That is why the Home Secretary made his decision.