The Secretary of State was asked—
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is extremely serious and will worsen now that the winter rains have started. Nearly a year after the conflict, 75 per cent. of Gazans still rely on some form of food aid, more than 60 per cent. do not have daily access to drinking water and 10 per cent. have no access to mains electricity. The United Kingdom continues to press Israel for full access to humanitarian aid in line with internationally accepted humanitarian principles.
That is but one of the health consequences of the conditions currently being visited on the people of Gaza. As I said, we have made clear representations to the Israeli Government. Only yesterday, I spoke to Defence Minister Ehud Barak and pressed him for wider access to a range of humanitarian goods. The reconstruction effort that we all wanted to see after Operation Cast Lead has not been possible because of the constraints on access that continue to affect the community. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well taken, and I can assure him that we take many opportunities to press the Israelis to ensure that the necessary reconstruction efforts are now made.
The Secretary of State will doubtless be aware that those seeking anything other than the most basic medical treatment in Gaza are required to travel abroad. However, in the period ending in June, no fewer than 40 per cent. of applications for travel permits for health care were refused by the Israeli Government. What pressure can he bring to bear to ensure that that situation improves?
In recent days—as I said, only yesterday—I have spoken with Ehud Barak, and last week I met Mr. John Ging, the outstanding head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, who is doing genuinely heroic work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances in the Gaza strip. That is testimony to the continuing efforts that we are making through a range of different channels to press not simply for greater humanitarian access, but ultimately for the necessary political resolution to the situation in the middle east, which would facilitate the kind of movement that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
We seem to be in the rather bizarre situation in which desk parts for UNRWA schools have now been permitted to enter—I understand that some deliveries have been allowed—but the fittings necessary to assemble those desks have not. That is but one example of the difficulties being suffered in Gaza at the moment as a result of the constraint on movement and access. As I said, I discussed that position recently with John Ging, the head of UNRWA, and we will continue to press the Israelis to admit educational materials.
Some 50,000 homes are estimated to have been destroyed during the Israeli attacks on Gaza, but cement, panes of glass and steel girders are still not getting in to repair them. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about his meetings with Mr. Barak, but if the Israelis are not listening, what are we going to do about it?
I have sympathy with my hon. Friend, who has great knowledge of the region and the challenges facing it. In some ways, the difficulty is exemplified by the issue of cement. John Ging told me that Hamas is building a watchtower opposite the Israeli watchtower at the crossings using cement that presumably has been smuggled in through the tunnels from Egypt. However, at the same time, the Israelis are denying the cement to rebuild the schools that will give the young people of Gaza exactly the opportunities that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want them to enjoy. That is why we are continuing to press the Israelis. However, with humility we recognise that that is not a task for the United Kingdom alone. The European Union and the United State have key jobs, which is why we continue to work in international forums to press the case for those humanitarian supplies to be allowed in for reconstruction to take place.
What contribution does the Minister think might be made to ease the humanitarian situation by the release of Gilad Shalit, with all the possible implications for the improvement of relations should his captivity by Hamas be ended?
Of course, we have called consistently on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit without further delays or any kind of conditions. Although we welcome the video tape released recently by Hamas, around 2 November, as part of the prisoner swap deal, the continued captivity of Gilad Shalit, as was raised with me by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, is utterly unacceptable. Hamas has a clear responsibility to release him without delay.
I think that there is wide recognition on both sides of the House that continued humanitarian efforts are needed to support the people of Gaza and, indeed, the west bank, given the difficulties that currently afflict them. Equally, however, most hon. Members recognise that ultimately the resolution in the middle east lies in politics. I believe that the challenge at the moment is to get behind the efforts being made—I am glad to say—by President Barack Obama and his team, in the first year of his presidency, to support and facilitate the emergence of a comprehensive middle east peace plan. That seems to be the most effective way in which we can buttress the humanitarian work on which we are engaged.
The United Kingdom remains strongly committed to reducing death and suffering from tuberculosis and sees it as an important part of the global effort to improve the health of the poor. Our focus is the delivery of the global plan to stop TB, which aims to save 14 million lives. My Department combats TB through our contributions to multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organisation, partnerships such as Stop TB and the Global Fund, our bilateral programmes and our support for research.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that TB is a lead cause of death among those living with HIV, what proportion of that funding goes into supporting integrated services for people with TB and HIV, and what monitoring does his Department carry out on the impact of such funding?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to point out the clear links between tuberculosis and HIV. Some 15 per cent. of new TB cases are among people living with HIV/AIDS. That is why we are looking to invest £6 billion to 2015 in whole-health systems and services, so that we can get diagnosis and treatment not just for people with TB or HIV/AIDS, but for people with a range of health problems.
Although I welcome the Minister’s reply, may I draw to his attention the fact that the World Health Organisation has indicated that only six out of 10 smear-positive tests are being undertaken, even though the problems are increasing? Does he agree that we should use all our influence to ensure that new diagnostic tools are used wherever that is possible?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the need for the speedy diagnosis of TB. That is why I am pleased to say that we as a Department have committed to giving some €60 million a year to UNITAID, which is aiming to triple access to rapid tests for multi-drug resistant TB by 2011.
Given the Select Committee on International Development’s criticism of the Government’s failure to act on the interaction between HIV and not just tuberculosis, but malaria and other diseases, and given also the fact that his Department has informed the Committee that it collects data only every two years, can the Minister give the House a positive assurance that we will see full transparency on the issue, full performance measurements, an impact assessment and an emphasis on outputs, and not just financial inputs, which is the Government’s norm on such problems?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that our focus is on inputs and not outputs. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would point out that if we are going to get the information that he requires in detail, it would mean health workers who provide primary care on a range of issues having to break down how they spend their time diagnosing TB on the one hand and, on the other, malaria, treating people with extreme forms of diarrhoea, and so on. The best thing that we can do is support whole-health systems to improve the health of a nation, particularly through an emphasis on primary care. That is what our £6 billion commitment is all about.
I am proud of my Department’s record, with its contribution to investment in health, and UNITAID in particular. Next year’s mid-term review of the millennium development goals might be an opportunity for our international partners to look at their contributions to development and perhaps take the opportunity to step up to the plate.
My Department’s latest Afghanistan country programme evaluation was published in May this year. Although the challenges remain daunting, life for many Afghans is improving, with support from the United Kingdom and the international community. Indeed, a majority say that they are better off now than under the Taliban.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Can he reassure me that there is no longer any basis for the concerns expressed by some in the military and other observers that there was some difficulty in achieving seamless working together between his Department and the military in bringing a better life to the people of Afghanistan?
I hope that I can offer exactly the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. I will be seeing General Sir David Richards later this afternoon, which is but one example of the close working relationships that have been established. A staff member from my Department is currently heading the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand. Only yesterday I received word that we have two civilians working in each of the forward operating bases. We also have a significant number of civilians operating in Helmand. That was not the case several years ago. We have scaled up the operation and the joint working in Helmand over recent years, and I am confident that a genuinely comprehensive approach is being taken by all arms of the British Government.
The House will, of course, welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurance that his Department is working with the military. It is right to focus on the military intervention, not least because of the announcements by the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister this week. I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would accept that it is our military personnel who are at the sharp end. These are the people who ultimately have to help us win the argument on the farms and in the villages and towns hundreds of miles from Kabul. Will he assure us that he and his entire Department will be working to achieve this, because at the end of the day we have to win hearts and minds if we are going to make the progress that we all want.
Again, I hope I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. It is right to recognise that we need a greater military effort from the international coalition in support of the Afghan Government, which is why we welcome the statement made overnight at West Point by President Obama, but we all recognise—not least our own military commanders—that ultimately there is no military-only solution to the challenges faced in Afghanistan, which is why it is necessary to complement the military surge with a political surge. That is the thinking underlying the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend that there will be an international conference hosted here in London on 28 January, which I believe will provide a further opportunity to set out our genuinely comprehensive approach, incorporating not simply the military aspects of the campaign but its civilian aspects.
It is understandable that in the Prime Minister’s statement to the House on Monday and President Obama’s speech last night, the primary focus was on getting the right military strategy and resources in place in Afghanistan, but does the Secretary of State accept that since 2001 only 5 per cent. of international aid has been spent on agriculture, so we have an urgent need to fix not just the military strategy, but also the development strategy?
I recognise that more needs to be done to co-ordinate the international effort. That has been a consistent message from the United Kingdom for some time now. I welcome the conversations that I have had in recent months with Richard Holbrooke, who is seized of exactly the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises in respect of the centrality and importance of agriculture both to the economic viability of Afghanistan and to counter-insurgency efforts. It is also right to set out for the House that we recognise that we confront twin challenges—the need both to weaken the Taliban, which is why we welcome the announcement from the United States, and to strengthen the Afghan state. Of course that begins with security, but it does not end with security. The provision of genuine economic opportunity by the Afghans for the Afghans is going to be a critical element in this campaign.
Perhaps the most simple and straightforward metric is the number of children enrolled in school. In 2001, 900,000 boys were enrolled in school and the Taliban had made it illegal for young girls to enjoy primary education. We are now comfortably beyond 5 million children enrolled in Afghan schools, and more than 2 million of them are young girls. That alone is testimony to the work we are taking forward through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is paying teachers’ salaries. The Taliban recognise that that poses a direct threat to their prospective future for Afghanistan, which is why they continue to behead teachers and to bomb and burn schools, but we are determined to support the Afghan people in the educational endeavours that I have described.
In light of the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday that there should be even greater co-operation between the military and DFID in Afghanistan, what changes to the Department’s strategy in Helmand does the Secretary of State hope to see once the latest revision of the Helmand road map is completed?
I have just explained to the House that I am meeting General Sir David Richards this afternoon, and the co-ordination that we are taking forward in Helmand will be one of the areas that we will discuss. We have to recognise that the effort in Helmand is not military alone; as the general recognises, a civilian component is also required. That civilian component involves supporting Governor Mangal and the provincial council in the efforts being made, for example, to transfer production from opium to wheat. It also involves ensuring that we support the primary health care being moved in. A great deal of work is being taken forward not just in Lashkar Gah, but also in the forward operating bases, and I will continue to keep these matters under review.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, but he did not really make clear what changes he expects to take place. A report published recently by the London School of Economics’ centre for civil society draws attention to claims by non-governmental organisations that foreign military strategies for tackling insurgency with aid projects had “infringed upon the work” of NGOs and
“compromised their claims of independence and neutrality.”
Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to pressing for greater civilian-military co-operation in Afghanistan, does the Minister feel that such criticisms are justified?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise the centrality of security to the challenge of development in Helmand, not least given his experience of Afghanistan. Of course we must begin with the recognition that an insurgency is under way, the fulcrum of which is in Helmand at the moment. That is why it is vital for us to strengthen the security of not just the efforts of the international forces, but the Afghan Government themselves. Only when that space is secured will it be possible for the effective work that we want to take place to be fully maximised. I do not see this as being a trade-off between providing security and undertaking development: I think it vital for security to be secured so that development can take place.
Afghanistan Development Strategy
The four-year DFID Afghanistan country plan that we announced in April this year was subject to full consultation with the Government of Afghanistan. DFID is committed to spending at least 50 per cent. of its funds through Afghan Government systems. That ensures that our money is spent in a way that is in line with the priorities set out in the Afghan national development strategy.
Corruption is indeed a serious problem, but money from my Department is channelled through the Afghan Government and is protected against misuse. Most of the resources that we give the Government are provided on a reimbursement basis, which means that funds are transferred to them only when it has been demonstrated that actual expenditure has taken place—that teachers’ salaries have been paid, for instance—that the expenditure conforms to strict eligibility criteria, and that all the transactions are subject to full international audit.
Can the Minister explain how the new United Kingdom aid logo will be deployed in Afghanistan, not least to ensure that the people of Afghanistan understand the development commitment of the British Government and the British taxpayer to the whole country, not just the areas in which we are engaging in military operations?
We are currently looking into how the UK aid logo will be distributed in countries across the world. However, there is real interest in using the logo in Afghanistan to demonstrate our commitment to and support for the people of the country, so that they see us as allies and not as conquerors.
The United Kingdom, together with Sweden and Switzerland, is funding independent electoral experts to enable them to support the Somaliland national electoral commission. We will continue to urge the authorities in Somaliland to hold elections as soon as possible, once arrangements for them can be completed.
I am sure my hon. Friend shares my satisfaction that progress is now being made towards holding effective presidential elections. Does he agree that whoever wins, it will be important to work further in developing parliamentary and democratic institutions in Somaliland, and will he and his Department help that progress following the presidential elections?
I agree that whoever wins will need to continue to work with the international community and the people of Somaliland to improve governance there. We will certainly play our part if successful elections take place. We could provide further support to help to develop the economy of Somaliland, to improve access to basic services, and to address the root causes of the instability of which my right hon. Friend will be only too aware. [Interruption.]
Is not one of the greatest investments that this country can make in many developing countries, including Somaliland, the establishment of good governance and stable democracy? Will the Minister ensure that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is funded adequately, given that it does precisely that?
I agree that one way in which the international community can help to encourage development in developing countries is by promoting good governance. That is one reason why the Department’s third White Paper focused on this issue, and why the most recent White Paper continued to highlight our work on good governance. I have had a series of discussions about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, as have other Ministers. If the hon. Gentleman has particular concerns about how it is being financed, I will be very happy to meet him to discuss them.
Climate Change (Africa)
We provide assistance through our country programmes, as well as through multilateral partners, to help African countries deal with the increased threats from water shortages, natural disasters, reduced agricultural production and changing patterns of disease.
Africa did not cause the climate change problem and is not exacerbating it now, but it will suffer more than most continents from its consequences. Will the Minister have discussions with his colleagues to ensure that Africa’s problems, and its need to mitigate and adapt, are taken fully into account at Copenhagen, and that Africa is given the help it needs and deserves?
I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. Africa certainly was not responsible for causing climate change. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the Copenhagen talks and the need for the international community to provide additional finance to the end that he mentions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be attending the talks to help highlight, with other development Ministers, the need for the international community to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman has suggested: to provide more support to countries across the world who are in need of such additional finance.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for international co-operation, particularly in respect of mitigation funds. As he knows, east Africa and other places are already suffering from the lack of rains for the past three or four years. What steps can he and his colleagues in the Government take to ensure that our international partners fund to the right level the commitments they have already made? I ask that because we know that in previous deals the money has not been on the table despite the promises. Can the Minister assure us that that funding will now be in place, and that it will be ensured that countries are tied in to giving the money that they have already promised?
As my hon. Friend is aware, that is an essential part of the deal that we want to achieve at Copenhagen and beyond. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pressed the international community to agree a package of support to 2020, rising to $100 billion of both private and public finance to help developing countries adapt to, and mitigate, the impacts of climate change. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, who is now going to the climate change talks, will continue to press our position on this issue.
West Bank (Economy)
We are providing £3 million over three years to the facility for new market development, which helps Palestinian businesses develop new products and compete in new markets. To date, the facility has supported more than 180 businesses. We are also working closely with the Palestinian Investment Promotion Agency and UK Trade & Investment to promote investment in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In light of the welcome decision to open the Jalama crossing to vehicles, what steps is Israel taking to reduce restrictions and encourage economic growth in the west bank? I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could also say what measures are being taken to support the delivery of basic public services to the people.
We welcome the recent moves by the Israeli Government to reduce movement and access restrictions across the west bank. We believe these steps are essential if there is to be the economic progress that is required to address the 34 per cent. fall in per capita GDP over the last nine years. We are also continuing to support the Palestinian Authority, both in their provision of basic services and as a credible negotiating partner to the state of Israel.
Bearing in mind both this and the earlier exchanges, will the Secretary of State take an early opportunity to inform the Israeli ambassador that nothing could better enhance the reputation of his country than Israel beginning to behave as a good neighbour?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have regular contact with not only the Israeli ambassador, but all levels of the Israeli Government. As recently as yesterday, I took the opportunity to discuss not only the situation in Gaza, but, more generally, the situation in the middle east with Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister. That reflects the continuing dialogue that takes place on these important issues.
Global Warming (Bangladesh)
The UK works closely with the Government of Bangladesh on climate change issues. We are, for example, playing a role in advising and assisting the Bangladesh delegation in its preparations for the Copenhagen meeting next month.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Earlier in the year, I visited Bangladesh with the Nationwide Association for Integrated Development—NAID—which is a small charity working between Wales and Bangladesh. I saw at first hand the effects of the flooding, the droughts and the cyclones; the poorest people in the country were being affected. What more can he do to help the people of Bangladesh, especially given that one fifth of the country could disappear if the sea level rises by 1 metre?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the particular challenges relating to climate change in Bangladesh; more than 30 million people in that country could be affected by rises in sea level. That is one reason why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development are continuing to press for further climate finance to be made available to help developing countries such as Bangladesh.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Acting Sergeant John Amer, from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. As we plan a way forward in Afghanistan, this loss in Afghanistan reminds us of the risks and dangers our forces have to endure in Afghanistan, today and every day, and of the importance of securing peace and stability. After talks with President Obama, I can also report that the London conference on Afghanistan will make decisions on civil co-ordination in Afghanistan, and will hear commitments by coalition partners on extra troops and from President Karzai on Afghan reform.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings today.
In associating myself with the Prime Minister’s condolences to the family and friends of Acting Sergeant John Amer, I know that I am speaking for every Member of the House.
Following recent events in the Colchester and Basildon hospital trusts, does my right hon. Friend agree with me, with the Secretary of State for Health and with a recent report of the Select Committee on Health that the major priority of the national health service must be patient safety?
Patient safety is and has to be our No. 1 priority, and there is no excuse for anything other than the best care and no tolerance for the failure of management. I am sorry when any patient receives less than the best care and help in the NHS. As a result of our studies of the NHS, we have introduced independent regulation, we have introduced transparency so that information flows to the patients and we have set up the Care Quality Commission, which from next year will register all hospitals and set clear safety standards that they will have to meet continuously. I can say today that our objective is that that process will start not from April, but from January, and that we will do everything in our power to have hospitals deal with hospital-acquired diseases and make sure that people have the best care at all times. There has been a 7 per cent. fall in mortality overall in our hospitals and a 50 per cent. fall in MRSA. We will continue to do everything in our power to make our hospitals clean, safe and secure for all patients.
May I join the Prime Minister and everyone in this House in paying tribute to Acting Sergeant John Amer, who died this week in Afghanistan? He gave his life to protect our country. We should honour his memory. We should care for his family.
Before I go on to other subjects, may I ask a couple of questions about Afghanistan? Following President Obama’s very welcome speech last night, the British people will want to know what the US surge means for British forces. I think we all accept that one of the problems has been that British troops have been spread too thinly over too much ground. Will the US reinforcement mean that we will be able to have more of our forces concentrated in fewer places, so that they can protect the population more effectively and turn the tide against the Taliban?
First, I think that the whole House will welcome the announcement by President Obama both of the objectives of the mission in relation to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda, and of the numbers of troops, a substantial part of whom will go into Helmand province and will be of assistance in dealing with the Taliban insurgency there. I said on Monday that our troops would go in immediately so that they were more densely concentrated in the areas where there has been the greatest problem. I said that from January some of our troops would be involved in the vital task of partnering and mentoring the Afghan forces. I believe that at the moment there is something in the order of 200,000 Afghan, British, American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. By the end of next year and the beginning of 2011, the number will be in excess of 300,000. That will make it possible for us to transfer the control of some districts and provinces to Afghan security control starting in 2010.
The Prime Minister specifically spoke about this transfer of provinces in 2010 and I want to ask him about this. At the weekend, he said that he was considering transferring
“at least five Afghan provinces to lead Afghan control by the end of 2010”,
including parts of Helmand. This was widely interpreted as a commitment to start the withdrawal of British troops in 2010.
The Prime Minister shakes his head, but that is how it was reported on every single media outlet. This will be a good opportunity for the Prime Minister to clarify the issue. President Obama said that the process of transferring forces out of Afghanistan would not even begin until the middle of 2011. It is important that we do not give false expectations to British troops or mixed messages to anybody else. Will the Prime Minister clarify whether he would expect British troop numbers to start reducing in 2010 or 2011?
I made it absolutely clear at the press conference—if the right hon. Gentleman had read the full transcript of it, he would know—that there was no question of our withdrawing our British troops until the point at which we were sure that the Afghans could take over security control themselves. Even if one or two parts of a district or province are transferred in 2010, we will continue to have our troops in Afghanistan at that point. My point earlier was that by 2011 there will be more than 300,000 Afghan, American, British and coalition troops. That is the point at which the balance between Afghan forces and British, American and coalition troops will start to change. We should recognise that it is absolutely crucial for our Afghanisation strategy that the Afghans start to take control of security as soon as possible. It is also absolutely crucial that we are assured that the Afghan troops are properly trained and therefore partnered with British forces. That will happen during the course of 2010. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will stay and do the job that is necessary. I believe that when people in Britain see the facts of the Taliban threat and the problems with al-Qaeda, they will support what we, the Government, have done with 43 coalition partners.
That does sound more like the 2011 date that President Obama was talking about. The clarification is welcome.
Let me turn to the economy. Will the Prime Minister confirm that figures last week show this Britain is the last country not just in the G7 but in the entire G20 to move out of recession?
No, they do not confirm that. Spain is a member of the G20 now and it is in recession. Six European countries that are part of the European Union or part of the continent are in recession. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the purpose of asking this question must be that he either has policy that he wishes to put forward so that we can do better, or he is simply talking down Britain.
The fact is that it is the right hon. Gentleman’s policies that have given us the longest and deepest recession in our history. Only this Prime Minister thinks that we should all be pathetically grateful for this long and deep recession, and that he has somehow led the world when he has left Britain behind. He is normally fond of reading out lists of countries. Australia, Canada, Turkey and Brazil all went into recession after Britain, but they came out before Britain. France and Germany went into recession at the same time as Britain, yet they came out before us. Will the Prime Minister answer this question? Given that all those countries are now in growth and that we are not in growth, can he tell us what on earth he meant when he said that we were
“leading the rest of the world…out of recession”—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 268.]?
Not one policy from the Leader of the Opposition! We have taken action to restructure the banks and nationalise Northern Rock—opposed by the Opposition. We have taken action for a fiscal stimulus—opposed by the Opposition. We have taken action to keep unemployment down as a result of creating jobs—opposed by the Opposition. We have taken action for international co-operation—opposed by the Opposition. They have been wrong on the recession and they will be wrong on the recovery. The voice may be that of a modern public relations man, but the mindset is that of the 1930s.
That one must have sounded great in the bunker. The fact is that the one policy that this country needs above all is a credible programme for getting the biggest budget deficit in the G20 under control. That is the view of the Governor of the Bank of England and he says they have not got a credible plan to get the deficit under control. [Interruption.]
It is not just Back Benchers, Mr. Speaker—the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is up to his old tricks again. You would have thought that he would want to spend more time in his ultra-marginal constituency, but perhaps he agrees with us that the more he meets people, the more likely we are to win it.
Let us look at the Prime Minister’s three central claims: the claim that we were better prepared than other countries—that was wrong; our deficit was worse than other countries—the claim that Britain was leading the world out of recession, but we are still in recession; and the claim that he had abolished boom and bust, which is absolute rubbish. Is it not the case that his three biggest claims are his three biggest failures?
The more he talks, the less he actually says. Nothing about policy. We have helped 200,000 businesses in this country, we have helped half a million people stay out of unemployment and we are helping people who have problems with mortgage arrears. If he wanted to reduce the deficit, why does he persist with his inheritance tax policy that would cost £1 billion? Why does he have a domestic tax policy which is to help his friends with inheritance tax cuts and a global tax policy to help non-domiciled candidates avoid any tax whatsoever?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. That is another one who should be defending his marginal constituency.
Let the Prime Minister answer this very simple question. The only person who has made a specific pledge—not just a pledge or a promise, but in legislation—to reduce inheritance tax in the coming Budget is the Prime Minister; he legislated to raise the threshold from £325,000 to £350,000. Perhaps he can tell us now: is he still planning to do that? We would like an answer.
It is interesting that this exchange started with the great ideas of economic policy and the right hon. Gentleman has ended up having to defend his own policy on inheritance tax. The question he has to answer and the issue that concerns the whole country is that inheritance tax cuts for millionaires will cost us nearly £2 billion that we should be spending on public services. The issue for the country is this: is it public services for the many or inheritance tax cuts for the few? I have to say, that with him and Mr. Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.
Follow that! Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Avon Global Ambassador Reese Witherspoon and the domestic charity Refuge who, along with me, today launched their “Four Ways to Speak Out Against Domestic Violence” campaign? Will he reassure me that the Government will continue to concentrate policy and resources on attacking this most evil and cowardly of crimes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has led the way in urging us as a Government and our country to take seriously the issue of domestic violence. Last week, the Government launched our strategy to tackle all forms of violence against women. I believe that we have made real progress, but a great deal has to be done. There has been a 64 per cent. reduction in domestic violence, and we are bringing more criminal cases to court but we need to do more. I am very grateful that Reese Witherspoon is leading this campaign. She spoke movingly at the funeral of Anthony Minghella, and I welcome her to the House today.
I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Acting Sergeant John Amer of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, who tragically lost his life serving in Afghanistan on Monday.
President Obama’s speech last night on his new strategy in Afghanistan is immensely important. He has set a very tight timetable indeed for this new military strategy and surge to have an effect. Given that tight timetable, does the Prime Minister agree that it is all the more important not to over-rely on President Karzai? President Obama said last night that the best way forward is to get tough on Karzai but, given Karzai’s previous record and that two of his vice-presidents are ex-warlords, does the Prime Minister not think that it would be better to have a strategy of working around President Karzai and relying on local and regional political leadership instead?
President Obama will be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s endorsement. He is absolutely right that we have both to weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan state. The actions that we are taking with troops to deal with the insurgency are important but, as he rightly recognises, so too is building up the strength of the Afghan army and police, and its local government and national Government. As President Obama said last night, there is no blank cheque for President Karzai, who has to take the action that is necessary. That is why I said earlier today that the London conference on 28 January, which President Karzai will attend, will be a chance for him to set out the further reforms that he has to make to make the army and police more efficient, to make sure that the Government are free of corruption and to build up stronger local and provincial government.
Will the Prime Minister confirm whether the powers around Afghanistan—Russia, China and, yes, even Iran—might be involved in the London conference to which he just referred? Without regional backing, it will be very difficult to create stability within Afghanistan. President Obama was silent on this crucial regional dimension in his speech last night. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether that is being taken forward, and perhaps give us a feel for what steps are being taken to involve those other countries in the region?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because, as he recognises, the military surge must be matched by a political and a diplomatic surge. It will be no use for the future of Afghanistan if there is no security around Afghanistan with its neighbours. That is why they have a very important role to play in the future—in guaranteeing non-interference in Afghans’ affairs, in building up the links that are necessary for Afghan trade, industry and commerce to flourish, and also in stopping the flow of weapons into Afghanistan. So yes, it is right for us to invite regional powers to the London conference.
Will the Prime Minister join me in marking 60 years since the British surgeon Sir Harold Ridley commissioned my Hove company, Rayner Opticians, to produce the first intraocular lens? Will he also congratulate the company on receiving the Queen’s Award for Enterprise on Friday, and on the fact that it still works with charities across the world in restoring sight?
In my hon. Friend’s constituency, there are many excellent companies, and one of them is Rayner. I want to congratulate all those who have contributed to the success of ophthalmic medicine over the past few years. The inventions that have come from Britain are truly wonderful. We should be very proud of our British scientists and engineers, but also very proud of our medical researchers and medical firms.
We are in the happy position of being able to work with the rest of Europe to get a climate change agreement and to work as Europe with the rest of the world to make sure that we can move forward. The talks that are taking place now, including at the Commonwealth conference, are a desire to bring together the richest countries, which will have to contribute to a climate change deal financially as well as with bold and ambitious targets, and the developing countries, which we want to make progress, but which we will have to be able to help. I am pleased that we have agreed—I believe that America and Europe will also agree with the Commonwealth—on a £10 billion start-up fund to help the poorest countries immediately to move on mitigation and adaptation. We have to make sure that the intermediate targets that the major countries will propose are sufficiently ambitious for us not only to meet our target, in 2050, of a 50 per cent. reduction, but to be making big progress through to 2020. Britain will play its part. I know that the European Union will play its part. We look forward to successful negotiations in Copenhagen, and I hope that, despite doubts expressed from some parts of the Opposition, there will be all-party support for that deal.
I understand from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is with me on the Front Bench, that 100 per cent. of the clean-up costs were actually made available, but I also understand that the Environment Agency and the local district council have developed proposals for a flood defence scheme in Thirsk and are working up proposals to secure funding for that scheme.
I have to say that investment in flood management is higher than ever. We saw the benefits of it in Carlisle and in surrounding areas, as a result of flood defence investment, and the grants that we are making to the Environment Agency to tackle flooding have increased from £500 million in 2007 to £659 million in 2010-11. I assure the hon. Lady that her constituency case is being dealt with, but I think that she should see the wider investment that we are making in flood defences.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the policy of growing and not cutting our way out of recession is beginning to show results? [Interruption.] Hold on; I have not finished yet. If we adopted the policy of immediate and savage cuts, advocated by the dynamic duo over there, the economy would be in a right old Eton mess.
The shadow, shadow Chancellor has always recognised that we need to do more to get ourselves out of recession, and I believe that the action that we are taking to help small businesses, to help those people who are unemployed back into work, to advance capital investment so that we have big construction projects going ahead, and of course to help home owners is the action that every other country in the world, including every other country in Europe, supports. It is only unfortunate that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are even set against the shadow, shadow Chancellor in trying to deal with this problem.
The right hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the International Development Committee and I am grateful for what he says about the climate change conference and the need to help the poorest countries. Our policy is to deal with climate change at home and abroad. There should be no doubt about the scientific evidence before us that shows the need to act on climate change. I thought we had moved beyond that argument to looking at what we need to do. At home we will continue to invest in a low-carbon economy, and I believe that in the pre-Budget report next week, the right hon. Gentleman will see action to move forward that investment so that we are a low-carbon economy of the future, one that can lead the world. Abroad, it is important that we make sure that there is sufficient finance for developing countries to enable them to come to a deal in Copenhagen in a few days’ time. We already have agreement on start-up finance. We now need to get an agreement on how we can move forward that finance over a period of years.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the policy that is being adopted by the European Union—it is discussing today the policy on financial services—and at the policy that is being adopted on the economy generally, it is British proposals, British influence and British policies that are making a difference. That is the advantage of being at the heart of Europe. If we took the advice of the hon. Gentleman and his party, we would be on the fringe of Europe, isolated, dealing with minority parties and unable to change the course of the debate. That is not the position that we are in.
Given the £100 million raid on Welsh lottery funds and the non-Barnettising of the cost of the Olympics, what can the people of Wales realistically expect for the £427 million that they are paying for the London Olympics?
Let me first congratulate the new leader of the Welsh Labour party and the prospective First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones. I believe that he will be an excellent leader.
Over the past 12 years, expenditure on Wales has grown markedly as a result of the decisions of a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman should be grateful that there is additional expenditure on health, education, sports and culture in Wales. We will continue to honour our commitments to the people of Wales.
It is important to recognise all the local efforts that are being made, including in Cleethorpes, by the business campaign to fight for a recovery for our country. They are fighting to get local business, to invest in future businesses and to help young people get jobs and take on more apprenticeships. This is what people in Britain want to do to help us get through the recession and get to recovery, but it is possible only by having a policy to invest additional money to take us through a most difficult time when markets fail and banks falter. That is the policy that we have pursued, and it is pursued by every other country. It is, I repeat, unfortunate that it is not supported by the Opposition.
As next week’s pre-Budget report coincides with the start of the climate change talks in Copenhagen, has the Prime Minister instructed the Chancellor to reverse the fall in green taxes that took place in the 10 years when the Prime Minister himself was Chancellor? Does he now accept that a tax is only a green tax if its primary purpose is to change behaviour and not to raise revenue?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is proposing VAT on fuel, is he? I do not think that the Conservative party wants to raise VAT on fuel. What we have done is introduce a climate change levy, and we have introduced air passenger tax at a higher rate. We have taken measures that are necessary to deal with the problems of the environment and to reduce carbon emissions, and we are taking measures that are in line with what is happening in other countries. But if he wants us to put VAT on fuel, I will oppose him.
Cardiff, North is an excellent location for new work and new jobs. As of December 2008, over 3,000 posts have been reallocated from London and the south-east to Wales, and nearly 300 have gone to Cardiff. We want to help areas by creating jobs, not causing unemployment.
The Prime Minister has just told us how he hopes that in a couple of years’ time we will have 300,000 troops fighting the Taliban. As that happens to be exactly the number that I told the Government they would need when they first recklessly went in with hopelessly inadequate numbers of troops, who were grossly under-equipped, should he not now resign?
President Obama will be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement of our strategy. The figure of 300,000 means that about 150,000 Afghan troops are trained and ready to take over responsibility, and that is the task over the next year—to train up more Afghan forces. I am very grateful that President Obama has made that the centre of his proposals. That is what our British forces will do, with all the coalition partners. Can I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his advice? He has not always been right: he advised me not to make the Bank of England independent.
The services proposed are a Post Office current account, a children’s saving account, new services for small business, including a Post Office business account, and a weekly budgeting account for those on low incomes to take advantage of direct debits and reduce bills. Once again, we are taking an institution that is well established in the country and giving it a new purpose serving the whole community. This is what a Labour Government do.