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Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2009

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?

As the Prime Minister has raised the issue of inheritance tax, perhaps he could answer—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Bradshaw, you are a very senior Member. I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to all Members that the more noise there is, the fewer the opportunities for Back Benchers to take part.

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.

Order. I am very glad that Members are enjoying themselves. They all seem to have had a very hearty breakfast.

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.

Q2. Recently revealed figures show that, since 2001, 140 inmates have been allowed to die of cancer while serving their sentences in UK jails. In the light of the Business Secretary’s recent country sports activity, is there, under this Government, one rule for British inmates and another one for Libyan mass murderers? (303209)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision on Libya was made by the Scottish Administration. It was their decision to make; it was not our decision to make.

Q3. My constituents are extremely concerned about the impact of global warming and want speedy action to deal with it, unlike some senior Opposition Members and their European allies. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he has been doing everything possible, so that both developed and developing countries can look to a deal at Copenhagen? (303210)

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.

Q4. In July 2007, the Prime Minister promised that no local authority would be out of pocket in recovering from the summer floods. Collectively, they had a shortfall of £50 million. What promise will he give to the people of Cumbria that they will similarly not face a shortfall in the recovery from the floods this year? (303211)

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.

Q5. When the Prime Minister goes to Copenhagen next week, will he not recognise that securing a commitment to the £100 billion fund that he is looking for in 2020 will be essential to securing a deal from the developing countries? But at the same time, will he reflect that, given the floods that we have in this country—in Cumbria, in Huntly in my constituency and elsewhere—we need a partnership between the Government and the insurance industry to ensure that we have the means to cope with climate change? Local authorities in the present climate will not be able to do it alone. (303212)

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.

Does the Prime Minister believe that every candidate who stands for election to the House should pay taxes in this country?

Q6. For the first time in 50 years, the key economic portfolio in the European Commission has gone to France. President Sarkozy proudly told Reuters:“The English are the big losers in this business.”Why did the Prime Minister fail to win it for Britain? (303213)

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.

Q7. My right hon. Friend will know that there is a need to change legislation for the civil service compensation scheme. He will also know that this is being used by the permanent secretaries’ dining club as an opportunity to propose slashes to the entitlement of lower paid civil servants in the event of redundancy. Will he please give an assurance that no device such as a statutory instrument, which I believe it is proposed to table on the last day before the Christmas recess, will be introduced in the House to operate such a scheme from 1 January? Will he ensure that no legislation is introduced until a new agreement is established with the unions concerned? My hon. Friend will find that there is extra protection for the lowest paid civil servants, as well as ensuring that all the savings that the Government have committed to will be achieved, but I cannot defend a system where there is six times the ordinary salary for civil servants at the very top who take voluntary retirement. That system must change, and it will change. (303214)

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.

Q8. The Bounce Back campaign launched by the Grimsby Telegraph aims to unite businesses and organisations so that our area is on the right road to recovery following the recession. Will my right hon. Friend endorse that initiative and say a few sharp words to Opposition Members who continue to talk down our country? (303215)

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.

Q9. I was pleased to read over the weekend that the Government are considering moving many of the 130,000 civil service jobs in London and the south-east out to areas where the need is greater. Will my right hon. Friend consider my constituency of Cardiff, North as a destination for more civil service jobs, bearing in mind that the Revenue and Customs building in Llanishen has six empty floors? (303216)

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.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Post Office should expand its role in banking, particularly in children’s banking, and introduce a wider range of financial services to help sustain the post office network? (303217)

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.