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Prime Minister

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply.

I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the two soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who died in Afghanistan yesterday. We send our deepest sympathies to their families. This Christmas, we will all be thinking of the bravery and dedication of our armed forces overseas, and especially at this time of year, of the families who support them.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Copenhagen. This morning he met the UN Secretary-General; this afternoon he will address the assembly.

The whole House will endorse what the right hon. and learned Lady said about those fallen soldiers, and our thoughts will very much be with their families.

However, may I turn to the home front and other families who will be desperately worried that their own loved ones might not return home for Christmas because of the British Airways cabin crew strike? Although there has been good news this morning that Unite and British Airways might now be talking, may I have an assurance from the deputy Prime Minister that she will use her considerable influence with the trade unions to ensure that this damaging strike is called off as soon as possible?

Both the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary have said that they, like I am sure everyone in the whole House, want to see that a strike does not take place. That is important not only for those who have travel plans this Christmas either to go abroad to see their families or to have their families join them, but for the long-term future of BA. I hope that when the talks take place this afternoon, they will reach a settlement.

We wish the Prime Minister well in the current talks in Copenhagen. We need a united position with our European partners to reach agreement in those vital talks. How much harder does my right hon. and learned Friend think it would be to reach such an agreement if we were isolated in Europe? Does she share my concern at the divisions in the group of allies of the Conservatives in Europe—more than half of their group opposes the European targets?

As the Prime Minister said, it is an uphill task at Copenhagen, but there could not be a more important task than to get all the countries of the world to agree on tackling climate change. As my hon. Friend says, there is indeed a contrast between the Prime Minister at the centre of events—[Interruption.] He was the first world leader to decide personally to go to Copenhagen. What a contrast, as he works with other world leaders, that the shadow Foreign Secretary has not even been able to persuade his own side that climate change is important.

May I join the Leader of the House in recording our sadness at the news last night of the death of two British soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles serving in Afghanistan? Over Christmas and the new year, the untiring efforts of our servicemen and women serving their country in a theatre of war must never be far from our minds.

The House of Commons is today rising unusually early for Christmas—the earliest we have risen for Christmas for 31 years—and I want to ask the Leader of the House about three particular pressing issues on which the Government will not be able to report to Parliament over the next three weeks. One indeed is the vital negotiations at Copenhagen, in which we wish the Prime Minister and other British representatives every success, although we should have been able to hear about the outcome next week, not just the prospects this week. Does she share our concern about the comments by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reported this morning, that a firm commitment on the proposed fund for developing countries to tackle climate change may be set aside and not addressed until next year? After the Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General this morning, what were the chances of that major setback being averted?

The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the House is somewhat spurious. We are rising early, but we are coming back early.

It is indeed important that we have not only a political agreement at Copenhagen, but legally binding targets that are independently verifiable and this $10 billion fund to ensure that the developing countries—the emerging economies—can play their part in the effort to tackle climate change. That is a difficult challenge. The Prime Minister, the Secretary-General of the UN and world leaders are working on it today, and I hope that the whole House will wish them well.

Well, we do wish them well, and I know that the Leader of the House will agree with me that in particular we must address the serious issue of the destruction of the world’s rainforests. As she thinks that we are not addressing this issue seriously, it is good to know that what we proposed last month the Government have since agreed to propose —that additional significant EU financial support should be given to developing countries to halt deforestation. Will the Government now also agree with one of the proposals I made three weeks ago—to set an example to other nations and show that we will take determined action under domestic law by making the import, possession and distribution of illegally harvested timber an offence under UK law?

I am sure that we will take every action possible, and we have already taken action to ensure that only sustainable timber is used. I did make a comment about the right hon. Gentleman’s party, and this week 11 Conservative Members have been party to the production of a report entitled “Climate change is natural: 100 reasons why”, claiming that it is nothing to worry about. We will deal with domestic law to protect timber and we will ensure that we take the action internationally to tackle deforestation: he should deal with Conservative Members who are climate change deniers.

I hope that the Leader of the House will indeed take seriously what we have proposed and look at what I have just put to her, because it may help the Government to take the issue seriously, as well as the Opposition. We look forward to that.

On another issue that requires urgent attention in this House, does the Leader of the House agree with the Foreign Secretary that, following the issuing of an arrest warrant for the Israeli Opposition leader Mrs. Livni, Parliament needs to look urgently at ways in which the system might be changed? While we all agree that allegations of human rights violations by all sides in the Gaza conflict need to be addressed, how is Britain meant to play a leading role in the middle east peace process if Israeli politicians cannot visit Britain without fear of arrest?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the Foreign Secretary’s words. We should be in no doubt that it is important for Israel’s leaders to be able to talk to Ministers in this country. Israel is an important strategic partner and we need to ensure that the situation is as the Foreign Secretary said it should be.

Can the Leader of the House shed a little more light on this? When the International Criminal Court Act 2001 was introduced, it was never meant by any one in this House to obstruct normal diplomatic business such as the vital work of the middle east peace process. Senior serving politicians, to whom we all need to talk every day, were not meant to be affected in this way, as we understand it. Can she say whether magistrates are applying the law correctly? If they are not interpreting the law correctly, will the Government give fresh advice on that point. If they are interpreting the law correctly, what will the Government do about it and when will a Minister come to the House to report on this and say what they propose to do?

I think that I am in a position to tell the House that we agree. Our objectives are the same as those set out by the right hon. Gentleman, and Ministers will be looking at the matter and ensuring that the situation is resolved.

I thank the Leader of the House for that, and I hope that they will do so quickly and report to the House when it returns.

On a further issue needing urgent attention, and which might become the biggest threat to world peace in 2010, do the Government agree that Iran’s continued failure to come to an agreement on its nuclear programme, and the mounting evidence of its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, make the need to agree vastly strengthened sanctions of immense and pressing importance? Will the Government commit during the recess to do their utmost to accelerate agreement on European Union sanctions and the new UN Security Council resolution that is urgently needed?

Yes, I think that we can agree that we want to ensure that the threat from Iran, which we have never underestimated, is recognised with increasing sanctions. I would certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Once again, that is something else that the Foreign Secretary will be taking forward.

We know that the Foreign Secretary will be taking that forward, but the Prime Minister has twice announced new sanctions against Iran without them ever taking effect. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to ensure that an effective new wave of sanctions is set out, including a ban on any new European investment in Iranian oil and gas—something that he announced in the middle of last year—and serious financial sanctions such as those that exist in the United States? Will she ensure, as Leader of the House, that a statement will be made to Parliament early in the new year by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary about what this country, the European Union and the UN Security Council are prepared to do at this critical point?

Indeed, the Prime Minister mentioned that in his statement following the European Council, and as Leader of the House I ensure that the House is kept updated on this important issue.

How telling it is, however, that on this day, when we have seen employment rise, the number of people in work increase and the number of people claiming unemployment benefit fall for the first time in two years, those things have not had a mention. I would have thought that today was the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary would come to the House and admit that the Tories had got it wrong.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen today’s Daily Record, which exposed a legalised lending company charging an annual percentage rate of 2,639,538.9 per cent? Is it not about time that we followed the lead of European countries and put a cap on interest charges, especially in the run-up to Christmas?

I congratulate the Daily Record on its campaign against loan-sharking. It is important that we inform everybody that Government-funded money advice centres are there to help people, that in all areas there are loan-sharking investigation teams and that people can look to their credit unions for help. For many families, there is a lot of pressure at Christmas, so they should take advice and use credit unions.

May I add our condolences in respect of the two servicemen who died serving this country in Afghanistan?

One of the Government’s achievements is that the share of tax revenue in the economy has now fallen to the lowest level since the days of Harold Macmillan. Yet, this week, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimated that about £40 billion is not being collected and is being evaded. Where is that money? [Interruption.]

Order. I ask the Leader of the House to wait. Government Back Benchers are in an especially boisterous mood today, but I want to make progress down the Order Paper and get as many people in as possible.

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, tax revenue has fallen because if fewer houses are being bought and sold, stamp duty falls, and if unemployment increases, there are fewer people paying taxes. Corporation tax has also fallen. Tax revenue has fallen because this country has been hit by a global economic recession.

We have been determined to take measures to stop tax avoidance, and we think it important that an example be set not only in this House, but in the House of Lords. According to an old saying, there should be no taxation without representation. What about no representation without taxation? We will introduce legislation to ensure that people are domiciled, resident and ordinarily resident in order to sit in this House or in the House of Lords.

I take that point, but perhaps make it in a less partisan way—[Interruption]—and perhaps commend the leader of the Conservative party for the helpful suggestion of new legislation, based on Liberal Democrat proposals, so that Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords who are non-doms should not sit in Parliament. May I welcome the fact that there is such enthusiasm, from turkeys voting for Christmas, and suggest that the Leader of the House give immediate effect to their wishes, by bringing in an amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill, so that non-doms such as Lord Ashcroft can leave Parliament immediately?

We certainly need transparency on the issue, and as I said, we will bring forward legislation. The hon. Gentleman is busy commending the Conservative party; at the risk of being accused of being partisan, I would like to complain about the Conservative party. The deputy chairman of the Conservative party made a promise to the honours committee—this pertains to the need for legislation—that he would make his tax affairs on shore. The Foreign Secretary—[Interruption]—the shadow Foreign Secretary—can tell us what the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury says he knows. Has Lord Ashcroft—

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady, but we need not pursue that point any further.

The Efford community in my constituency is a strong community, but does my right hon. and learned Friend understand the shock, horror and dismay at the crimes for which a nursery worker received an indeterminate sentence yesterday? Will she work with me to ensure that the lessons of the serious case review, which can now move rapidly to a conclusion, are fully and speedily learned?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Everybody has the utmost sympathy for the parents whose children were at that nursery and will expect, as there have been, stiff sentences in that case. If there are any lessons to be learnt, from what we hope is an exceptional incident, I am sure that they will be learnt by the serious case review panel.

Q2. In 1998, the Government put into law their code for fiscal stability, since when the so-called golden rule on borrowing has been broken in every year since 2001. If we are to have any confidence in the announced Fiscal Responsibility Bill, can the deputy Prime Minister tell us what penalties will apply to Ministers who break that law? Will there be fines or loss of office—or worse—for such Ministers, or is this just another Labour gimmick? (307389)

The Fiscal Responsibility Bill lays out a statutory responsibility and a statutory duty, and this House will hold Ministers to account. I would say that it is fiscally responsible to ensure that the economy grows and that we do not pull the plug on it. Although we are seeing encouraging signs, the recovery is still fragile. We want to ensure that we have fiscal responsibility when it comes to taxation to help the public finances and that those who are best off pay most. As well as putting the public finances back on a proper footing, we want to ensure that we protect public services. All of those are the fiscally responsible things to do.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best measures for tackling inequality of assets in this country is the child trust fund, which benefits 3,941 children in my constituency? Does she also agree that the very worst measure would be an inheritance tax cut for millionaires?

The reason why none of my hon. Friend’s constituents would benefit from the Conservatives’ tax cuts for millionaires is that they live in Glasgow, not in Notting Hill Gate. He can rely on this Government to protect his constituents with measures such as the child trust fund.

Q3. On equality, given that in the past parliamentary decade, which ends today, Labour Cabinet Ministers have paid themselves an increase of more than £30,000, how does the Leader of the House justify the fact that the increase in Cabinet salaries alone is greater than the annual take-home wage of the people she is elected to represent? (307390)

The pay of all Cabinet Ministers—and, indeed, of all Ministers—has been frozen, and Cabinet Ministers and Ministers have also agreed to forgo their pay increase as Members of Parliament.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport said that the electrification of the midland main line was a matter not of whether but of when. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give her support to ensuring that that happens as soon as possible, as it is vital to the economy of the country?

I give my strong support to the proposal that my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is important that we invest in our economic infrastructure—transport is an important part of that—as we have done consistently over the past 10 years.

Q4. This morning, I visited a homelessness project run by the charity Crisis. One in 20 of the people that it is likely to cater for this Christmas will be homeless ex-service personnel. Given everything that those people have already done to serve their country, is there more that the Government can do to honour the military covenant and to focus on serving the health and welfare needs of those people who have so bravely served us? (307391)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything possible, as part of the military covenant, to support our serving military forces in the field, our ex-servicemen and women, and their families. If he would like to make any suggestions about this, I am sure that they would be well received by the Defence Secretary.

My constituent, Leon Jones, was just 21 when he was killed in a fatal stabbing near his home recently, devastating his family, friends and the local community. Already, that local community has been proactive in raising awareness of the possession of knives, and of knife crime. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such campaigns are needed, along with tough laws? Will she give the House an assurance that this Government will raise the minimum sentence for murder by knife from 15 to 25 years?

First, I would like to express my sincere condolences—as my hon. Friend has done—to the family of Leon Jones for the terrible loss that they have suffered as a result of his tragic death. We have to take knife crime very seriously, and we are upgrading the sentencing to put it on a par with gun crime. Everything must be done to protect people and to send out the message that knife crime cannot be accepted.

Q5. Is the Leader of the House aware that a planning application to build a massive distribution centre at Pyestock, on the border of my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), was refused by the local authority? The appeal was rejected by the inspector, yet an unelected Minister, Lord McKenzie, who knows nothing about the area, allowed the planning application to go through. Is this what the Government mean by supporting local democracy? (307392)

The hon. Gentleman will know what the planning processes involve. They have been laid out and agreed under statute by this House, and if he had any proposals, he should have put them forward in the Planning Bill.

All the schools in my constituency have benefited immensely from the investment of this Government in terms of both staffing and capital costs. Just last week, the Great Yarmouth high school heard an announcement that it was going to receive £12.5 million from the Building Schools for the Future fund. Can my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that any future Labour Government will continue with that Building Schools for the Future fund to ensure that investment in education continues?

The Building Schools for the Future fund has been important not only to make up the backlog and legacy of disrepair in our schools but in ensuring that our young people and children are educated in the best possible facilities. It has also provided much-needed help for the construction industry at a time when private sector construction has been facing tremendous difficulties. That is one of the reasons why we have not pulled the plug on public investment in construction in the way that the Conservatives have insisted that we should.

Q6. Copenhagen is the land of make-believe and fairy tales. Does the Leader of the House have a favourite fairy tale? Could it be the Emperor’s new clothes? Is she the little robber girl or is she really the princess? (307393)

We could learn a lesson from fairy tales, which is that you need to avoid the brothers Grimm, which we would get if they—[Laughter.]

Order. I say to right hon. and hon. Members that good humour is one thing, but disorder is another. We have to try to impress and reassure the public, not to disgust them.

The Leader of the House may recall on that on 7 May I drew to her attention the plight of migrant workers and those people whose papers are languishing in Lunar house, Croydon, where a parlous state is prevailing. Will she arrange for a meeting with the charity London Citizens and faith groups, including Bishop Patrick Lynch and his Anglican and Methodist colleagues, to discuss the problems of migrant workers and those people whose status here is yet to be determined?

I will ensure that there is a meeting of the relevant Minister with London Citizens, which is a very good organisation to whose work I would like to pay tribute. I am sure that it will be reassured to know how fast the backlog is being reduced under the leadership of the Home Secretary.

Q7. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has mentioned the mega Pyestock warehouse on the borders of our constituencies. Is the deputy Prime Minister aware that the decision of the noble Lord, overruling 12,000 local residents and the local councils and her own inspector, was taken in the rather doubtful interests of employment, but against the interests—[Interruption.]—because the jobs the Minister suggested might be created are very doubtful—but against the interests— (307394)

I cannot assist the right hon. Gentleman further except to repeat my answer to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). These are decisions made under a legal framework. They are made as ministerial decisions, but in the public interest. One public interest that the planning system is determined to promote is employment, and I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman agreed with that.

On the subject of the Geneva Conventions Act, will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to reassert the principle of judicial independence and, in particular, the power of the courts to issue criminal process against anybody—whatever side they are on, whatever their status, rank or influence against whom good prima facie evidence has been laid?

Of course that is the case. The courts act judicially and independently under the framework of law, both national and international, and we have to make sure that we not only guarantee judicial independence, but have the right legal framework.

Q8. Today, the UK Payments Council meets to determine the future use of cheques and it is anticipated that it will recommend their phasing out by 2018. Many older people and small businesses, especially those without access to the internet, continue to use cheques and value their convenience. What steps will the Government take to save the cheque and to ensure that vulnerable people and small businesses can continue to use this form of payment? (307395)

The hon. Gentleman has made a significant point, particularly in relation to older people. The Equality Bill ensures that public authorities making those changes must take account of the interests of older people, and must not take steps that discriminate against them. We need to look to the future, but also to ensure that older people do not suffer as a result.

Q9. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the measures in the Local Transport Act 2008 that enable elected local transport authorities to introduce quality contracts giving them power to determine local bus routes, frequencies and fares? Does she agree that any proposal to revoke those powers would remove from local communities the right to make decisions about their own bus services, and would be entirely contrary to the principle of local democratic accountability? (307396)

I think that those quality contracts represent an important step forward, and that it would be folly for the Local Transport Act powers to be revoked. That is one of the things that the Conservative party is threatening to do, and it should not happen.

Is not part of the problem the fact that we have an Administration run by Tweedledee and Tweedledum? As we approach 2010, if the Prime Minister really does want to give the people of this country a great new year cheer, he will announce a general election sooner rather than later.

Q10. I frequently receive representations from small businesses in my constituency about the costs of Government regulation. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in these difficult times, it is essential for the Government to reduce the burden of regulation, and can she tell me what the Government are doing about it? (307397)

We are ensuring that the Government help business, both big and small. One of the things that we have done is help businesses to defer their tax under the time-to-pay scheme. I think that the most important announcement for small business over the past few weeks was the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report that that scheme would continue. We want to do all that we can to help small businesses. One of the things that we will not be doing is abolishing the regional development agencies, which are so important to helping small businesses but which the Tories would abolish.