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Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

Before listing my engagements this week, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson from the 4th Regiment Royal Military Police who has died in Afghanistan. The debt of gratitude that we owe to him is permanent, and we send our sincere condolences to his family and friends. He, and the sacrifice he has made, will not be forgotten.

All of us will also want to pay tribute to Police Constable Bill Barker, who tragically died in Cumbria in the course of duty, serving the community to which he was so committed. We remember those individuals who lost their lives during the recent floods. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and all those affected by the serious flooding. They will have our support now and into the future. Let us as a House also pay tribute to the emergency services, armed forces and all organisations doing an outstanding job working round the clock to help those areas of our country affected by the floods.

May I begin by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about the death of Sergeant Loughran-Dickson in Afghanistan?

As the Prime Minister said, in the past week we have witnessed appalling flooding in Cumbria and near-misses in many other places, including in my constituency. We know that the emergency services are providing excellent support now, but will he reassure the House that help will be available for as long as needed to get people back on their feet and to help prevent flooding in the future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken an interest in such matters over many years. The floods were the worst that we have seen. It was a terrible time, as I found out, and as many others in the House also found out when they visited the area. I pay tribute to the local MP who has done so much to comfort and help people.

It might be helpful if I update the House on what is happening and assure people that our support will continue right throughout the troubles facing the area. Some 39 bridges remain closed. We are examining the possibility of a temporary bridge and temporary station, and this morning, a team of military engineers is assessing the possibility of a temporary pedestrian bridge across the River Derwent. The Department for Transport will fund bridge and road repairs. I believe that 40 people are still in rest centres. Consultations with the insurance industry are taking place to ensure that people can return to their homes or have, as a result of action by the council, alternative accommodation. The Flood and Water Management Bill, which deals with some of those issues in the longer term, will come before the House before Christmas. Let me praise all the emergency services that have done so much to help people in this time of need.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson, who was killed in Afghanistan last week? As the Prime Minister said, our thoughts should be with his family. I also join him in paying tribute to PC Bill Barker, who died in the line of duty protecting the lives of others from those dreadful floods in Cumbria. As the Prime Minister also said, PC Bill Barker was part of an extraordinary effort by emergency services and voluntary groups such as Mountain Rescue, which worked day and night to keep people safe. As the Prime Minister and I have seen, the community spirit shown by residents in dealing with the floods is a real inspiration.

As has been said, one of the biggest issues is the state of the bridges in Cumbria. Communities have been cut in half and trips to school that used to take five minutes now take an hour and a half. The Prime Minister spoke about what is being done on a national basis, including mobilising Army resources, and about plans for a temporary bridge. How quickly could that temporary bridge be put up to help families come together?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for all that he has said about the whole range of emergency services on which we depend. It is at times like these that we realise the importance of all the public and voluntary services that help our country. As I said, we are examining whether a temporary bridge could be put across the River Derwent. As he knows, we are also looking at how we can fund and finance the construction of a temporary rail station that will allow transport in the area. I believe from the information that I have had that that could be done fairly quickly, but we await the report of the military engineers who are working with the local authorities as we speak this morning. I hope that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be able to give further information this afternoon. Let me say absolutely that the costs of those repairs will be met by the Department for Transport.

People will be very grateful for that answer and that assurance about the funding. With Christmas coming, it will be incredibly hard on those families who cannot get back into their homes. Whether it is contacting the insurance companies so that they pay out quickly, contributing to the community fund, which is set up in cases of hardship, or contacting public and private landlords so that empty homes are made available, can the Prime Minister assure us that everything that can be done will be done to help those families in the run-up to Christmas?

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination met the Association of British Insurers yesterday. She received a full assurance that insurers would act quickly on all claims that were being made to them, particularly those claims that required the provision of emergency accommodation during a period when people are out of their homes. Obviously we hope that people will get back to their homes as quickly as possible.

We know that the insurance industry will act for those people who have claims that allow the payment of money for temporary accommodation, but in those circumstances where the local authority has to act to provide accommodation for people, it will do so. The right hon. Gentleman will recall from being there yesterday that a large number of the people affected were very elderly people who live in accommodation for the elderly. We are determined to ensure that the provision of alternative accommodation is up and running and able to meet their needs as soon as possible. It is true that it takes time when houses are flooded for people to get back into them, but we are doing everything in our power to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible. I have also talked to the leader of the council, Councillor Jim Buchanan, who has satisfied himself that we are doing what we can.

I am very grateful for those answers, and people in Cumbria will be too.

Let me turn to a completely different subject, one that I raised two years ago. I asked the Prime Minister about the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and why, despite an explicit promise by Tony Blair that it would be banned, it still has not been banned. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s constitution states that non-Muslims are “combatants in the battlefield” and that their

“blood is…lawful…as is their property”.

Although he has not been able to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, can the Prime Minister at least assure me that this extremist group has not received any public money?

I am not aware of Hizb ut-Tahrir receiving any public money. If the right hon. Gentleman has evidence of that, perhaps he will give it to me.

Well, I will not only give it to the Prime Minister, but my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] What is extraordinary is that my hon. Friend the shadow schools Secretary wrote to the Prime Minister’s right hon. Friend the schools Secretary a week ago about the issue. Let me draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the fact that two schools have been established by an extremist Islamist foundation, the ISF or Islamic Shaksiyah Foundation, which is a front organisation for Hizb ut-Tahrir. The ISF has secured a total of £113,000 of Government money, some of which was from the pathfinder scheme, whose objective is meant to be preventing violent extremism. Can the Prime Minister explain how that completely unacceptable situation came about?

I am happy to say that this will be looked into in every detail. I am told that the two schools that the right hon. Gentleman referred to have been inspected. I will look at the results of those inspections and write to him. We are dealing with grants of £113,000 of public money, as he said, and two schools that I do not know the names of, and I shall look at this matter very carefully.

I am grateful for that, but there can be no doubt that the organisation that I mentioned is a front organisation for Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two of its four trustees are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the head teacher and proprietor of one of the schools—a school in Slough—are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. I find it hard to understand why the Prime Minister does not know about that, given that we were asking—[Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers are becoming far too excitable today. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard.

Given that the Opposition have been asking questions about this issue in Parliament for almost a month and that the shadow schools Secretary wrote to his opposite number a week ago, how can the Government have an anti-extremist fund that results in a Labour local authority handing out money to extremists? This is a school set up by extremists, passed by Ofsted and approved by the Charity Commission, but in receipt of public money. Does not that prove that we need a much bigger inquiry into how things like this can happen?

Let me say that everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said will be investigated in great detail. Let me also say that the letter written by the shadow schools Secretary a few days ago will be replied to. Let me also say—let us be clear about this—that the vast majority of Muslims in our country are part of the law-abiding majority of this country. I do not want it to be said that those people who are citizens of our country who hold the Muslim faith are to be held responsible for acts of terrorism. Where there is abuse, it will be investigated. In the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir, we have investigated and looked at it. It is not a proscribed organisation and if the right hon. Gentleman has new evidence that should make us proscribe it, we shall look at it again. As far as the two schools are concerned, they will be properly inspected and every argument the right hon. Gentleman has made will be looked at closely, but he would not expect me, without looking at the evidence, to draw early conclusions.

The Prime Minister talks about investigating Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an organisation that said Jews should be killed “wherever you find them”. That is what that organisation says. Let me ask the Prime Minister about another organisation because there is a sense that this Government have just not got a grip on the issue of Islamic extremism. Take the group Islam for the UK. The leader of this group, Anjum Chaudri, claims that the 9/11 bombers were “magnificent” people

“carrying out their Islamic responsibility”.

The group has apparently called for

“blood on the streets of London and New York”.

When the Prime Minister replies for the last time, perhaps he can tell us why this group has not been banned as well?

Is it not the case that people will see that we have a Government who say they want to prevent extremism, yet their money is funding extremists; that we have a Government who say we should not have extremist-led schools, yet we have those schools? Above all, when is the Prime Minister going to tell us how he is going to get a grip on this issue?

To proscribe an organisation, we need full evidence and that evidence needs to be looked at in detail in the cold light of day, and I think the right hon. Gentleman may regret some of the remarks he has made this morning. As to our activities against terrorism in this country, we have doubled the security staff available to deal with terrorism; we have doubled the number of police who are dealing with potential terrorist incidents; we have put 100 people into prison since 2001 as a result of terrorist acts; we are monitoring very closely people who enter this country, including through the use of the identity card that foreign people coming to this country have to hold; and we are using the DNA database to check up on people, much against the advice of other parties. We are doing everything in our power to deal with the terrorist threat in this country and I thought it was a matter of all-party consensus that proscription should be on the basis of evidence, which was clearly proven, of advocating violence. That is the position that both parties accepted; that is the position that we will continue to follow.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments of the chief inspector of constabulary today that it is time to reassert the principles of the traditional British model of approachable, impartial and accountable policing based on minimum force for major public order events such as the G20?

I absolutely agree that it is important that policing is of the best. Where mistakes are made or where there are question marks, they have got to be answered. We have procedures for doing so. I know that the events at the G20 caused a great deal of anger and sadness for people when we had the casualty. It is very important that we take the action that reassures people that policing will always be fair.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson of the Royal Military Police, who tragically died serving in Afghanistan last week. I also add my tribute to PC Bill Barker, who lost his life in the line of duty dealing with the terrible floods in Cumbria. Our hearts go out to his wife and four children. At such times we all remember that it is the brave men and women of our emergency services who keep us safe when it really counts. We thank them for it.

It is vital that the Iraq inquiry, which started its work this week, is able to reveal the full truth about the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Will the Prime Minister therefore confirm that when Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues come to publish their final report, they will able to publish all information available to them, with the sole exception of information essential to national security?

I have set out a remit and brought it to the House of Commons. Sir John Chilcot has been given the freedom to conduct his inquiry as he wants. He has chosen to invite people to give evidence, and he will choose how to bring his final report to the public. That is a matter for the inquiry.

As I think the Prime Minister must know, the matter is not just for the inquiry, because his Government have just issued a protocol—I have it here—to members of the inquiry, governing the publication of material in the final report. If he reads it, he will see that it includes nine separate reasons why information can be suppressed, most of which have nothing to do with national security. Outrageously, it gives Whitehall Departments individual rights of veto over the information in the final report. Why did the Prime Minister not tell us about that before? How on earth will we, and the whole country, hear the full truth of the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq if the inquiry is suffocated on day one by his Government’s shameful culture of secrecy?

That is not what Sir John Chilcot has said. The issues affecting the inquiry that would cause people to be careful are national security and international relations. As I understand it, those are the issues referred to in the protocol. I believe that Sir John Chilcot and his team are happy with how they are being asked to conduct the inquiry.

Q2. Britain’s top bankers rewarded their own financial greed and incompetence with large bonuses, while imposing huge banking charges on those who, because of need not greed, often went into the red. I am sure that many Members were dismayed at today’s Supreme Court judgment. What will the Government do to ensure fairness for ordinary people—ordinary customers—within the banking system? (301118)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the anxieties that people have had about the system of bank charges in our country. Although the court judgment has not upheld the case of the Office of Fair Trading, it is right that we examine how fairness can be applied in all cases to people who are banking customers in this country. As far as the banks that we are responsible for at this moment are concerned—Northern Rock, HBOS Lloyds and RBS—we have asked them to review their overdraft charges over the past few weeks in order to be fairer to their customers, and they have done so. Under the Financial Services Bill, which is now before the House, a damages fund will have to be set up by banks to deal with complaints by customers of overcharging. There is now the possibility for class actions to be taken in court, which could not happen before, so that a group of customers can take banks to court. There is now power given to the Financial Services Authority, for the first time, to impose settlements on banks to repay customers they have overcharged. The proposed legislation will strengthen the rights of customers, as we have sought to do over the past two years, so that they get a fairer deal from the banking system, as they should, in this country.

I deal with the issues as they arise, and I do so as best I can. I believe that, over the recession, we have dealt with the issues in a far better way than we would have done had we followed the advice received from the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Q3. How important is the work of the North-west Regional Development Agency in delivering investment to business, science to Daresbury, and the successful “capital of culture” year to Liverpool as part of the city’s ongoing regeneration? One of the biggest mistakes that could be made would be the abolition of the regional development agencies in our country. In every region of the country the business organisations, the small business organisations, the engineering employees and the local authorities say that the RDAs are doing a job that helps their businesses through a recession and creates new job opportunities for people. I think that the Conservative party would make a terrible mistake if they decided, in an act of vindictive ideology, to abolish development agencies.Q4. The Government have compiled a secret list of sites in Argyll and Bute where they are thinking of dumping nuclear waste from old submarines. There is widespread opposition to the proposal in Argyll and Bute, and many communities fear that they are on the secret list. Will the Government publish that list of secret sites today, so that a public debate can take place? I have followed this issue over the 26 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, and it has been an issue for all those years. The question is where nuclear dismantling should happen, and where the nuclear waste from submarines should be placed in this country. It is right to consult MPs—as the hon. Gentleman has been consulted—and local representatives on the issue, and I understand that the Ministry of Defence is talking to MPs and elected representatives in the areas where there are potential sites. This is not happening behind closed doors. Members of Parliament are being asked for their views on these very matters. On the subject of tackling radicalisation, does the Prime Minister agree that in all such cases it is important that we listen to the Association of Chief Police Officers? If an organisation is proscribed, however much we may abhor its views—and we do—it will stay on the right side of the law, because such organisations are quite clever in that way. The danger is that proscription will merely create a recruiting sergeant, and possibly also lead to a judicial review. Should we not listen to ACPO before deciding whether to proscribe organisations of this kind, and should not the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) do likewise? My hon. Friend brings a great deal of experience to the issue, and he is absolutely right. Any decisions about proscription should be made on the basis not of a few exchanges in the House of Commons but of a detailed assessment of what is right and what is wrong, and part of that involves taking police evidence into account. As my hon. Friend says, we must not get into a position in which the decisions that we make act as a recruiting sergeant for militants in this country. We are taking every action that we can to deal with the terrorist threat in this country, and I think that, on an all-party basis, we should be united in saying that we are doing what we can to ensure that the al-Qaeda threat—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is saying something about money. We have doubled the amount of money being spent on security. That would not happen under a Conservative Government, because they would not be prepared to make the funds available. Why, when we are dealing with the issue of spending, do they persist in their policy on inheritance tax—[Interruption]—whose beneficiaries resemble the Leader of the Opposition’s Christmas card list? Q5. Unlock Democracy has proposed the establishment of a citizens’ convention to consider a renewal of faith in the House and in Parliament. Is the Prime Minister willing to support that, and if a private Member presents a Bill to that effect following tomorrow’s ballot, will he give it Government time? I welcome the report from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on the reform of this Parliament. It is right for us to consider how our Select Committee system can be reformed so that it is better in the future. It is also right for us to consider how non-Government business is dealt with, and how we can improve the workings of the House. I believe that there will be a warm welcome for some of the proposals in the report.As for the question of our House becoming more open to the views of people outside, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that we need to consult widely. The Youth Parliament met here only a few weeks ago, and we will continue to have an outreach to members of the community. That is essential in a modern-day participatory democracy.Q6. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of comfort and encouragement to the people of Cumbria today, following last week’s devastating floods. In 2005 my constituency was flooded, and the Government were very generous in providing resources for flood defences. It will cost £40 million just to rebuild the bridges in west Cumbria, and probably the same amount to rebuild the roads. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he and the Government will be able to help? The people of Cumbria cannot afford to pay that bill. (301119)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—100 flood protection schemes have recently been brought in. One of them is for Carlisle, where £40 million is being spent to make sure there is proper protection against the floods that did so much damage the last time, and I understand that in the recent times about 3,000 properties were prevented from being flooded as a result of those new flood defence arrangements. We will look at what we have done. I have said already that the Environment Agency budget and the other budgets for dealing with flood defences will rise to £800 million in 2010-11. That is a sign of our commitment to making sure the whole country is best protected against flooding.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware of his schools Secretary’s pre-Budget statement to the annual Youth Justice convention two weeks ago protecting the youth justice budget for the next two years? If that is true, what cuts will be made to accommodate that cross-departmental commitment? (301123)

It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that wants to cut massively public spending, and it wants to cut it this year and next year. In fact, it is the only major party in Europe that wants to withdraw the fiscal stimulus now when it is absolutely necessary to keep the economy moving forward. If I were him, I would be asking the Leader of the Opposition why his policy is so designed to cut money from policing, education and all the services that the public depend upon now.

Q8. May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his early decision to attend at Copenhagen, a lead that has now been followed by 60 Prime Ministers and Presidents from around the world? When he is in Copenhagen, will he seek to harness that high-level attendance to ensure that the best possible package of clean development funding is on the table in order to secure the sign-up of developing countries to a workable climate change agreement? (301124)

I praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done in promoting a climate change agreement, and the work of Members of all parties who want to see success at Copenhagen. I will go to the Commonwealth conference this week to try to build a consensus between richer countries such as Australia and ourselves and some of the poorest countries in the world on how we can finance climate change for developing countries as well as developed countries. If we are to get an agreement to cut emissions in some of the poorest countries in the world, it is absolutely essential that we get an agreement on finance. I hope all parties here will support the British proposal for $100 billion of funding for climate change in 2020 as a result of the contributions of the European Union, America and some of the other richest countries in the world. We will do everything in our power to secure a climate change agreement in Copenhagen.

Whatever our individual positions on Afghanistan, it is very important that there is clarity regarding the mission. The Prime Minister has said we are in Afghanistan to protect British people against terrorism, yet, almost in the same breath, he threatens to pull out of the country if President Karzai cannot clean up his corrupt Government. These are contradictory messages that are sending out mixed signals. Can the Prime Minister now square that circle?

We are in the country because of the threat to Britain. It is a threat that has been seen over eight years as a result of projected and actual terrorist offences in our country, three quarters of which come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mainly the borders of Pakistan. That is why we are there—to protect the streets of Britain. I was right to ask President Karzai to give us assurances about how, in his second term, he would tackle corruption. He has now announced an anti-corruption taskforce. I gather that 12 people were arrested yesterday from within the core administration. At the same time, I have asked him to appoint district and regional governors who are free of corruption and who will deal with the problems in hand, as Governor Mangal is doing in Helmand province, and President Karzai has agreed to do so. By his speeches, President Karzai has met the tests I have set him, and we have now got to see them being met in the delivery. I believe that next week we will see the American Government and the rest of NATO coming together in a strategy that will mean that we have sufficient forces to create the space for a political solution in Afghanistan that will make our streets safer. It is as clear as that.

Q9. The Prime Minister will be aware of the warning from Sir Hugh Orde, the top cop’s top cop, of the dangers of and widespread unease about the investments in police commissioners. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether this Labour Government will ever allow the police to be politicised, as the Conservatives propose? (301125)

The operational independence of chief police officers is and has been, and should continue to be, an important constitutional principle. It must be clear that chief officers—and chief officers alone—are responsible for running their force. I believe that the Leader of the Opposition should immediately withdraw his proposal, which would mean the politicisation of the police and which has been criticised by the chairman of Association of Chief Police Officers in the past few days.

In March, when the Lord Chancellor talked out my private Member’s Bill to end the discrimination against Catholics in royal marriages and against women in the line of succession, he said that the Government recognised that this discrimination should end. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is, as the Lord Chancellor said, ready to consult the relevant Commonwealth Heads of Government this week and that he is confident that we will then be able to sort this out, so that the all-party—

The Act of Settlement is outdated, and I think that most people recognise the need for change. Change can be brought about only when all realms where Her Majesty is Queen make a decision to change, not just by the United Kingdom. That is why it is important to discuss this with all members of the Commonwealth, including countries such as Australia and Canada. That is the process that will be undertaken in due course.

Q10. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing evidence, including in the recent report “Northampton Families and the Recession”, to show that as a result of the recession, women are doing more of the breadwinning and men are doing more of the caring? What further measures will his Government take to support the flexible working arrangements needed for today’s working families? (301126)

There are about 500,000 more families receiving working tax or child tax credit as a result of the help we are giving in a recession. People in this country have to make a choice: do we want to help families and help children through these difficult times or do we want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest people in this country? I think I know what choice the people of this country are going to make.