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Prime Minister

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2009

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I list my engagements, it is with deep sorrow that we remember, from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, Lance Corporal Adam Drane, who died in Afghanistan on Monday. My thoughts and, I know, those of the whole House will be with his family and friends. Every life lost during this year and during previous years is a personal tragedy, and we mourn every single loss. We mourn heroes whose acts of bravery recognise that a more stable Afghanistan means a safer Britain, and the scale of their sacrifice does not diminish but strengthens our resolve.

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

I am sure that the whole House would endorse the Prime Minister’s tribute to the lance corporal, and endorse his sentiments as well.

Last week the Prime Minister told the House that Spain was in the G20 and that it had been in recession for longer than this country—neither of which, upon checking, turns out to be correct. Do we conclude from that that the pain in Spain is mainly in his brain?

I am very glad that we are starting this week’s Question Time exactly as we ended last week’s Question Time—[Interruption]by talking about the economy. [Interruption.]

Order. We want to hear the Prime Minister’s reply, and certainly people listening elsewhere wish to hear it. We will have no further interruptions.

There are some people who get into the White House on false pretences, get their photograph taken and do not have a formal invitation, but the Prime Minister of Spain was invited to the G20 by the President of America, to be part of the G20. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I invited the Prime Minister of Spain, Mr. Zapatero, to the G20 meeting that took place in London. Mr. Zapatero was at the G20 meeting that took place in Pittsburgh. In other words, Spain was part of the G20. [Interruption.] I know that the Opposition are going to talk down Britain, but it is bit much them talking down Spain.

The fatal attack last week on four-year-old John-Paul Massey from Merseyside again raises concerns about the effectiveness of legislation relating to dangerous dogs. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet, with me, a small delegation of those who are concerned about the issue to discuss what can be done?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This was a terrible death, and I am very sorry to learn about what happened to the little boy in Liverpool, John-Paul Massey. She knows that the police are continuing to investigate the circumstances of the death. They have also referred their handling of an original report from February 2009 to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It would obviously be inappropriate to comment further on that instance, but the issue of the status of dangerous dogs was raised at the antisocial behaviour working party a few days ago. We are working with the Home Office to ensure that those who are on the front line make full use of the powers available to them to tackle the problem of dogs affecting communities. The Government have provided additional advice to the police, and funding to the Association of Chief Police Officers to help to train officers in dangerous dog legislation. This was an event that should not recur, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that it does not happen.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Adam Drane, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday? The 100th military casualty this year is a very sad milestone. We should honour his memory; we should help his family.

As the Prime Minister and I have both seen, when one speaks to our troops in Afghanistan, it is not sympathy and pity that they are after, but support, not just for what they are doing, but for the mission in which they are engaged. In my view, they are every bit the equal of those men who stormed the beaches of Normandy or who fought their way across Africa in the second world war, and we should be proud of what they are doing.

The new counter-insurgency strategy and the extra troops announced by America last week show that we have the last best chance to get this issue right. Does the Prime Minister agree that we simply cannot waste any time in getting every element of the strategy in place, including troops, helicopters, equipment, development aid, civilian co-ordination and, of course, the pressure on President Karzai to cut corruption?

I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman was able to go to Afghanistan, and I also know that many Members have visited our troops in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to them for visiting our troops, but I pay greater tribute to our troops for the great work that they do.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must move quickly. Our additional troops will be going to Afghanistan in the next few days. We have called a conference for 28 January in London, to bring together all the powers that are involved in Afghanistan—the 43-nation coalition. That will discuss—and, I hope, agree on—civil co-ordination. President Karzai has agreed to come, and he will have to report on the reforms that he promised to make in his Administration as he started his second period of duty. At the same time, we are making available all the equipment that is necessary—helicopters and vehicles—to our armed forces.

I can just add one thing—that 80 per cent. of the deaths have been the result of explosive devices. We have now brought in far more surveillance equipment; we have brought in extra engineers; we have brought in extra drones to survey the area; we have brought in more intelligence officers; and we are backing up our troops with the best equipment possible. We will do everything we can to avoid the loss of life as a result of this guerrilla warfare.

US forces are now pouring into Helmand province, and that is welcome. But is not one of the current problems that British forces are still spread too thinly in the very tough parts of Helmand for which we are responsible? Following the increase in US forces in Helmand, is there not a danger that there will be a contrast between the UK forces, who are still spread too thinly, and US forces, who will not be? Does the Prime Minister accept that this needs to change, and change very urgently?

If the right hon. Gentleman had heard what I said last week, he would know that I said that we were going to thicken the presence of our forces in a number of key areas. Of course operational decisions are a matter for commanders on the ground, but I think it is recognised that two things have got to happen: one is that we thicken our presence; the second thing, however, which I emphasise as part of our long-term strategy, is the fact that we are also there to train the Afghan forces so that they can take over. So 5,000 Afghan troops will come to be trained in Helmand itself; 10,000 in total will be trained in Helmand over the course of the next year, and we will then want to pass security control, district by district, to the Afghan people. We not only have a reason for being there—the threat of terrorism on the streets of our country—we also have a plan to give the Afghans control over their country, so that at some point our troops can come home.

The Prime Minister is right: of course it is for military commanders to make the precise dispositions. But everyone agrees that one of the keys to successful counter-insurgency is a dense population of troops to protect the civilian population, and the figures tell a vital story. Soon, 20,000 US forces will be responsible for some 30 per cent. of the population, and fewer than 10,000 British troops will be responsible for some 70 per cent. So let me just ask him again: how quickly does he think that this vital issue can be sorted out, so that we have effective counter-insurgency throughout southern Afghanistan?

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman raises these questions, because I can point out to the Opposition that we are part of a coalition. These decisions are made as part of a coalition: they are made in Helmand with the Americans and the other forces who are there. Yes, we have decided to thicken in certain areas, but yes, the Americans have laid the priority for the next few months and years on training the Afghan forces, and that is what we are also going to do.

I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have an Afghan army of about 90,000, it will increase over the next year to about 135,000, and the number will have to go higher than that for Afghanistan to be able to sustain its own security control. The police force is at about 90,000 at the moment. It will have to be improved by police trainers, and we will need more police on the ground as well. That is the way forward for Afghanistan. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman again that decisions about the location of troops are a matter for commanders on the ground, but we work in close partnership with the Americans, and our decisions are taken with the rest of the alliance.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer, and for discussing this issue. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] No, honestly, this is an important point, and I do believe it has to be sorted out. Crucially, there are political elements to this decision, and what I am saying to him is that he will have our support if he makes those decisions.

Let me turn to a completely different subject. Tomorrow the House of Commons will be publishing the details of Members’ second home allowances for the financial year 2008-09. That is a vital part of the process of rebuilding trust in this place, which everyone wants to happen. As of yesterday, the plans were to issue details of expenses, but without publishing the total expenses claimed by each MP. Does the Prime Minister agree that that would not be transparent and would infuriate the public who put us here, so will he take all the necessary steps to make sure that the current totals are published in full?

This is a matter for the Members Estimate Committee to make a judgment on. The shadow Leader of the House is a member of the Members Estimate Committee, as is the Leader of the House. We want the maximum transparency possible. I believe there is nothing that we have to hide, and we have got to get all the information out. Anything that maximises transparency is what I support, but I would have thought that the details of how we do it are best left to the Members Estimate Committee, and it is for the shadow Leader of the House to put his views there. I think, if I am right, that we were trying to reach a consensus about how we would move forward on these issues. I think we should all say that the sooner we can deal with all the issues the better, but the best way of dealing with them is by the process that we ourselves agreed.

With respect, the question whether you publish the totals is not a matter of detail; it seems to me pretty profound. You have got to publish the totals so that the public can see that we are being open, transparent and straightforward about this issue that has done so much damage to this House.

After the Queen’s Speech—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

After the Queen’s Speech, I offered the Prime Minister our support if he brought forward the legislation to implement the Kelly report in full. The Leader of the House has said that she is prepared to talk about this. Can he confirm that the necessary legislation will be brought forward—and, indeed, that it will be published before Christmas? Does he agree with me that we need to end this damaging year for Parliament by showing once and for all that we “get it”?

On the very issue the right hon. Gentleman raises—perhaps he should know this—I understand that a meeting is taking place this afternoon to deal with exactly the issues that we are talking about. I would prefer that we agreed that there be the maximum transparency, and that we will do everything we can to make that happen. We have set up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to do this. Let it get on with the job of doing it, and let us reach a consensus in this House that the maximum transparency is what we are going to achieve.

Of course, but the point is that Kelly made a series of recommendations, and the Prime Minister said that the whole point of prolonging this Parliament was to put them into place. Many of these recommendations require legislation, so the legislation needs to be brought forward.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is about to stand up and deliver his pre-Budget report. He should be announcing measures to bring the deficit under control. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that we should show some leadership, and begin with this place? Will he therefore support our plans for a 5 per cent. cut in ministerial pay followed by a five-year freeze, and a 10 per cent. cut in the size of the House of Commons?

Our deficit reduction plan involves major changes in how government operates, including how Ministers and civil servants operate. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with the measures that we are bringing forward. I would say to him that the reason why we have a deficit is that we have spent to take ourselves through the recession. If we had taken his advice, more people would have been unemployed, more small businesses would have gone under, more mortgage owners would have lost their homes, and we would be facing a higher deficit and higher debt as a result. Mr. Speaker, when I listen to him now, it seems to me that he has lost the art of communication, but not, alas, the gift of speech.

I call Mr. Kevin Barron. [Interruption.] Order. I am sure Government Back Benchers want to hear their colleague.

Does the Prime Minister agree that people who purport to stand to be Members of this House, and give interviews to national newspapers saying that if they are elected they will not claim expenses, and that their wealth makes them incorruptible, only for us to find that that wealth is held in tax havens abroad, are unfit to be Members of this House?

Some time the Conservative party will have to face up to the fact that it is the first party in history to have devised a tax policy just for itself.

I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Adam Drane of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, who tragically lost his life serving in Afghanistan on Monday. We will remember him, as we remember all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice serving in the mission in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that fairness was in his DNA, and today we are told that fairness will be the centrepiece of the pre-Budget report. So why is it that 4 million children are still living in poverty, one in five young people are out of work and millions of poor pensioners will struggle this winter simply to keep warm? He dares to talk about fairness, but does he not realise how offensive that is to the millions of people who feel that they have been let down by Labour?

The last time we talked about it a few months ago, the right hon. Gentleman did not know the level of the state pension. I hope that he knows the level of child benefit and child tax credit, because child benefit, taken with tax credit, has trebled for the poorest families in this country since 1997. We have taken more children out of poverty than any previous Government since 1945, and we are taking more action today: if the right hon. Gentleman listens to the Chancellor, he will hear what he is going to do. Our record in taking children out of poverty, when poverty had trebled under the Conservatives, is one that we will build on in the years to come.

Again, I do not get an answer, I get a list. [Interruption.] Labour Members can shout as much as they like, but it does not change the facts. Here is a list: child poverty is going up again—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Clegg must be heard. It is very early in the day and Members are already overexcited. They need to simmer down.

Here is a list that they do not like to hear. Child poverty is going up again. Inequality is going up. Last winter more people died of the cold than did a decade ago, and a child born today in the poorest part of this country will die a full 14 years before a child born somewhere else. That has not changed in 10 years. Will the Prime Minister now be honest? He has failed on fairness.

We have taken action over the 10 years. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not like me reading lists of what we have done, but the problem is that he cannot read any lists of what he has done. What we have done is taken hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, protected children and families against the costs of energy bills, given thousands of children Sure Start opportunities that they never would have had and doubled the child tax credit for nought to one-year-olds to help avoid infant poverty. The right hon. Gentleman wants to abolish the child trust fund, and we are giving young children the chance for the first time to have a trust fund of their own. We are the party that will give every child in this country a trust fund. For the Conservatives and the Liberals, trust funds are just for the few.

Early Intervention

Q2. What recent discussions he has had with hon. Members on an all-party approach to policy on early intervention. (304964)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his pioneering work on this issue. Following my meeting with him and parliamentary colleagues, I visited some of the early intervention projects in Nottingham, including in his constituency. I welcome everyone working together on early intervention. There are 50,000 families who need our help, and breaking intergenerational cycles of deprivation requires us all to work consistently on early intervention over the years.

Do the Prime Minister and the other party leaders here today accept that giving our babies, children and young people the social and emotional bedrock that they need through early intervention not only gives them a great start in life but, at a time of financial restraint, will save the taxpayer billions and billions of pounds by reducing the bill for low educational attainment, crime, drink and drug abuse, and lifetimes that are currently wasted on benefits?

I visited Nottingham, as I said, and saw the success of an early intervention programme that had taken a family that was in absolute chaos, and every single member of that family was benefiting from the professional work that had been done to help them. I have seen early intervention in action. We are putting in a programme in all parts of the country. It is complemented by Sure Start, where young people can get the chance, before nursery school age, to get help with learning, and help for their mothers with health and education. If we are going to have early intervention, we must also have Sure Start. I hope all parties in the House will want to maintain the Sure Start programme. There are 3,000 centres—an average of six in each constituency—and it is something that we want to build upon, not destroy.

Does the Prime Minister accept that early intervention work is especially important in addressing the root causes of poverty?

Absolutely: dealing with the root causes of poverty involves helping people to find jobs. That is why we have the new deal—but unfortunately, it is opposed by the Conservative party. Tackling the root causes of poverty means helping people to deal with health problems. That is why we spend money on the health service, instead of calling it a 60-year-old mistake. That is what we are about—helping to deal with the root causes of the problem, by investing in people.


Child tax credits are a vital support for many parents, especially those on incomes of around £16,000. Will the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that he will not cut help for those many hard-working families to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest few?

Child tax credits have lifted 500,000 children out of poverty, and they are now helping people through this recession: 400,000 families, some of whose breadwinners are on short-time work or work part time, have been able to claim tax credits worth, on average, £37 a week. That is our way of helping people out of recession. I would regret it very much if any party chose to cut tax credits by £400 million. I understand that that would affect every family with an income above £16,000—which means that it is a policy that will hurt the many, at a time when that same party wants to benefit the few.

The Prime Minister should know that skills are vital for economic recovery and our competitiveness, so he will have been as disappointed as I was with Lord Mandelson’s concession in the recently published skills strategy that the Government will miss their 2011 targets for level 3 technical skills. In that spirit of confession, will the Prime Minister now concede that fewer people are beginning level 3 apprenticeships than 10 years ago?

We are actually doing far more to increase the number of apprenticeships. There are more apprenticeships this year than last year—and let us remember that there were 70,000 apprenticeships in 1997, whereas there are a quarter of a million now. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help people to get to level 3, why does the Conservative party oppose the summer school leavers guarantee, which helps young people to get those qualifications in their teens? Why does the Conservative party oppose the money that is necessary to give every young person, not just some young people, a chance?

Q4. I have had many letters in recent weeks about the Copenhagen climate change conference. On the subject of low-carbon energy sources, can I ask my right hon. Friend what steps he is taking to convince people further of the importance of nuclear energy and wind farms in that overall policy? (304966)

We meet in a week when a big set of decisions has to be made at Copenhagen. I know that there is all-party support for our desire to get the best possible agreement at Copenhagen that could lead to substantial reductions in carbon. We—as Europe, and as Britain—have said that we will lead the way in making substantial reductions in carbon. I have to tell my hon. Friend that that will happen only if we have a balanced energy policy, and only if we are able to tackle the issue of renewables. Yes, we need nuclear power as part of our energy policy—I am sorry that the Opposition say that for them it is only a last resort—but we also need wind power as part of the renewables that we are going to create in the future. We need not just offshore wind power but onshore wind power, and I am sorry that applications are being turned down by Conservative authorities, when we want to get wind power and wind turbines in our country. I am afraid the Conservative policy on energy is all talk and no action—all wind and no turbine. [Interruption.]

Q12. Last Sunday, the people of Northall in my constituency were unable to obtain a drinks licence for their annual lunch at the village hall because the Government-imposed limit of 15 for the year had been reached. Inquiries of Bedfordshire police suggested that neither the lunch nor the hall regularly featured in their investigations of binge drinking and loutish behaviour. Will the Prime Minister review the bureaucratic and unnecessary regulation that prompts these decisions and ensure a return to local discretion, which is how these decisions should be made, or will he make way for a Government who will? (304974)

I am happy to take this issue up. I want people to have that opportunity. This should be a matter for far greater local discretion, and we will do our best to achieve that.

Q5. Last weekend a much-loved Leicestershire teacher, Mark Parker, died aged only 56 following a hypoglycaemic attack because of his diabetes. We currently spend £1 million an hour on treating diabetes-related illnesses, but there are still an estimated 7 million Britons with a pre-diabetes condition, probably including Members of Parliament. I was diagnosed only three years ago. What steps will the Government take to ensure that every person in this country has access to a diabetes test? That would save money, and in the long run save lives. (304967)

My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of dealing with diabetes. The test for identifying those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes is included in the NHS health check that will be offered to those aged 40 to 74. It will also assess people’s risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, and help individuals to manage that risk. We believe that we will be able to identify at least 20,000 cases of diabetes and kidney disease earlier, and that will be important for the health of our country and for preventing the further costs that result when people suffer from those diseases. Investment in that programme now will save money later, and it is the right way forward for the national health service to give people personal guarantees that they will have those health checks free of charge.

Q6. Given that the Prime Minister has said that front-line NHS services should not be affected by cuts, will he join me in condemning the decision by NHS Manchester to close the Burnage walk-in centre, against the wishes of local people? (304968)

I understand that the closure has been postponed to allow the primary care trust to inform the people about the alternative services that are available. We have invested an additional £250 million in 100 new GP practices in poorly serviced areas and in 152 new health centres. This is a matter for decision by the local NHS, together with patients and others. I understand that the hon. Gentleman said at the last election that a hospital in his area would close: that hospital is still in being.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating American bedspring manufacturers Leggett & Platt on investing some $22 million in establishing their European headquarters in Grimethorpe in my constituency? That is mainly thanks to the efforts of Yorkshire Forward and the Barnsley development agency. Does he also agree with me that places such as Barnsley and Doncaster specifically, and Yorkshire and Humber in general, are still great places for foreign companies to invest?

This is exactly the policy that the Chancellor is pursuing, and that his pre-Budget report is about. It is about recovery from recession by investing in the future, and it is about getting growth in the economy so that we get new jobs in new areas. I applaud the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) does. This is the party of jobs, whereas the Opposition would leave millions unemployed.

Q7. What is the Prime Minister prepared to do about the fact that some of the most vulnerable people who have the greatest difficulty in heating their homes pay the highest tariffs for their fuel, either because they have pre-payment meters or because they live in areas with no gas supply and do not have access to dual-fuel tariffs? (304969)

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because the Energy Bill is an attempt to deal with some of the problems that arise and to ensure that the social tariff is far fairer for people with difficulties. However, I also have to remind him that into the homes of thousands—indeed, millions—of pensioners in the past few days has come the winter fuel allowance, which is paid to everyone over 60, and is higher for the over-80s. It is one contribution that we can make to help with the heating bills of the poorest in our society, but it is a contribution made to every pensioner and everyone over 60 in our country. I hope that there is now a consensus that that is the right thing to do.

Q15. When I was out with the police on a Friday night in my area, only 14 police officers were on duty in the division, out of a total complement of 2,380. Will the Prime Minister intervene directly and swiftly to sort out the organisational malaise that characterises Nottinghamshire police? (304977)

The Home Secretary tells me that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is looking into Nottinghamshire police at the moment, but I have to say that the whole purpose of neighbourhood policing, which we have developed over the past two years, is to get more police on the streets. For that, we need to invest in policing and emphasise the concept that the police serve the neighbourhood. That is exactly what we are doing.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree with Ben Bernanke that the Prime Minister’s decision to strip the Bank of England of its supervising role led to a “destructive run” and a

“major problem for the British economy”? (304970)

No. I think that anybody who looks at the global recession knows that it started with the problems of the banking system in America, which spread right across the world. Our tripartite system is the right way to deal with these problems, because it brings together the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury. I noticed that only yesterday the Leader of the Opposition changed the shadow Chancellor’s policy on the future of the banking system, and that he also talked yesterday about introducing “flatter taxes”. Flatter taxes mean less tax paid by the very wealthy. Before the Conservatives come to give us lectures on economic policy, they should go back to the drawing board.

I am surprised that a political party wants to fight the next election on withdrawing the ban on fox hunting. In fact, that is that party’s only job creation policy—to create a quango to run fox hunting. I believe that it is making a terrible mistake, and it will pay for it at the next election.