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Prime Minister

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps. He died in Afghanistan on Monday, undertaking the dangerous work of protecting his fellow soldiers and civilians from explosive devices. The courage and selflessness of this work is truly breathtaking. His sacrifice will not be forgotten, and we send our sincere condolences to his family and friends.

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute also to Rupert Hamer, who lost his life in Afghanistan while reporting from the front line, and to his colleague, who was injured. Our thoughts are also with their families, friends and colleagues. We are grateful to all those who put themselves in danger to ensure that the world is aware of the bravery of those serving in Afghanistan and the realities of life there.

Because of the devastating earthquake overnight, Haiti has moved to the centre of the world’s thoughts and the world’s compassion. The Government will respond with emergency aid, including firefighters, emergency equipment and finance, and give further support to help the people of Haiti to recover from that devastating event.

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

I am sure that the whole House will agree with the Prime Minister’s statement of condolence.

Looking back, our economy entered the recession with one of the largest budget deficits of any first world economy. On reflection, does the Prime Minister regret that?

No, we had one of the lowest debts—the second-lowest debt—in the G7. Our debt was lower than that of America, lower than that of France and of Germany, lower than that of the euro area and lower than that of Japan and of Italy. It is because we had a low debt that we have been able to take the measures that are necessary to help companies to deal with the recession, to help the unemployed get work, to help young people who are leaving school and to help thousands of small businesses survive. We took the right action in the recession; the Opposition advised the wrong action.

May I associate myself with the tribute that my right hon. Friend has paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Tom Hurndall, the British photographer who was shot by an Israeli sniper while trying to rescue children from danger in Gaza? Will he join me in paying tribute to the Hurndall family for their tireless efforts in cutting through so many smokescreens put forward by the Israeli military authorities, to get to the truth about Tom’s death and uphold the principles of accountability? Will he agree that as an international community we have no less responsibility to uphold the principle of accountability for the 352 Palestinian children, whose names we will never know, who died last year—

The situation in Gaza is serious. As I said last week, the only way forward and the only solution is a peace settlement between an Israel that needs security within its borders and a Palestine that needs to be a viable economic state. I have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to improve access for humanitarian aid and workers. In addition to what I said last week, I should say that we have already spent more than £20 million on meeting urgent aid needs in Gaza. The Secretary of State for International Development announced a total package of £53 million for Palestine on 28 December, and that was with a particular focus on Gaza. We will meet the humanitarian needs of the Gaza people where we can. Access is important, but everybody knows that it is a political settlement that we need in that area.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who died in Afghanistan serving our country? As the Prime Minister said, the work of bomb disposal experts is truly inspiring when we hear what they do to protect their comrades.

I also join the Prime Minister in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Rupert Hamer. He and photographer Phil Coburn remind us of the bravery and professionalism of journalists who also put their lives at risk to ensure that they report on the work of our armed services overseas.

Finally, of course, I associate myself totally with the Prime Minister’s words about the terrible events in Haiti, and send my support to those involved in the humanitarian effort. Obviously, we look forward to a full statement in the House by the Secretary of State for International Development when appropriate.

The whole country will wish to praise the work of the emergency services and how they have dealt with the unexpected long spell of cold weather. We have all seen and heard incredible stories about neighbour helping neighbour. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that everything that can be done is being done to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of salt and that it is being properly distributed so that we can keep our country moving at this time?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to tell the country the most updated situation on the transport network and the protection of our roads by salt. Virtually all main transport networks have remained operational throughout the period. For the work of our highway and other maintenance workers, and to those who are running the emergency services and the thousands of people who are volunteering—I pay tribute to organisations in areas around the country—the country remains deeply grateful. It shows that when there are difficulties, the country comes together as one to meet them.

Five airports in the south and midlands have been and will remain closed for a period this morning, but I believe that they will open later today. We are working with the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and representative local government to manage salt supplies. It is important that every road remains safe. It is also important that we have sustainable supplies of salt for what is the longest and worst period of bad weather for 30 years in this country.

As for salt, one of the salt producers has announced this morning that it will produce additional salt. We expect imports of salt in the next few days as a result of arrangements entered into weeks ago, and we are confident that, with the measures announced yesterday by the Transport Secretary, we will be able to maintain the road network. We are working closely with local authorities, and I hope that people will continue to be able to work together for the common good. It does prove that Britain works best when Britain works together.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer. The pressure on supplies and the steps taken to ration salt in the last week clearly show that lessons can be learned for the future. Can he tell us what steps he will take to hold a review and to involve those in local government, to ensure that we learn those lessons?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that each time we have a winter weather problem we should learn lessons from it. Last winter, we set up the UK Roads Liaison Group, and it made three recommendations that we implemented—for local authorities to hold a six-day salt supply, for the Highways Agency to have a bigger reserve and for transport workers to be allowed to work longer hours to deliver the salt. It also recommended the creation of a Salt Cell to ensure a fair distribution of salt throughout the country. We will review all those arrangements after this winter period, but at the beginning of this difficult spell, the Highways Agency had 13 days of supplies, and we are now building on that with orders from abroad and additional production from UK mines. We are doing everything that we can, and the Department for Transport has made every effort to consult all local authorities.

My right hon. Friend will know that today in Great Britain 80,000 children are living in care, 80 per cent. of whom will live in care until they are 16, not in a loving, stable family home. Is it not time that this House considered the lives of looked-after children again and considered that if a child is not living in a stable, loving home in the first 18 months of their life, adoption and long-term fostering must be their right in order to enter a loving, stable home?

This is a real challenge not only for all local authorities, but for all people. We must not only pay attention to the number of children in care, but make sure that those children have the chances that every other child has for educational attainment, for jobs and for stability in their lives as they leave care. In 2007, we published the White Paper “Care Matters” and we set out to transform the prospects of children and young people in care. We have made some progress with placement stability, there has been an increase in educational attainment and we have better outcomes for care leavers, but at the same time we must move faster to close the gap. That is why it is important to recognise that public expenditure has been necessary in this and it has doubled since 2000 on the needs of children in care. That is what we have tried to do to help those children.

I want to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Captain Daniel Read from the Royal Logistic Corps, who tragically lost his life serving in Afghanistan on Monday. I also want to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rupert Hamer, the distinguished defence editor of the Sunday Mirror who died in an explosion on Saturday, and of course to the family and friends of his injured colleague, Philip Coburn.

As the Prime Minister said, as news is coming in of the terrible earthquake in Haiti, all our hearts go out to the many, many people who will be so terribly affected by that natural disaster. I am grateful for what he said about the Government’s humanitarian response.

Given everything that has come to light in the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, will the Prime Minister now do the decent thing and volunteer to give evidence to the inquiry before people decide how to vote on his record in government?

The Chilcot inquiry has drawn up a list of those people that it wishes to interview and has invited the people on the dates that it has done. I will follow the recommendations of the Chilcot committee. I have nothing to hide on this matter and I am happy to give evidence. Equally, at this time, I thought that the outcome of the debate in the House was that the Chilcot inquiry should decide when people were heard.

The point is that this is not just a question for Sir John Chilcot; it is a question for the Prime Minister’s own conscience. When the decisions were taken to launch this illegal war, he was not only in the room—he was the one who signed the cheques. He should insist on going to the inquiry now. People are entitled to know before they decide how to vote at the general election what his role was in this Government’s most disastrous decision. What has he got to hide?

Nothing, and the right hon. Gentleman was the one who wanted Chilcot to make the decisions about whom he called. He cannot on one day say that Chilcot should decide and then say that he or someone else should decide what happens.

On the Iraq war, we have given every single document to the Iraq inquiry. We have given it the opportunity to look at every document and to ask for which documents it wants to be declassified. The only documents that will be withheld from publication are those that directly affect national security and international relations. This is a full inquiry being run by Sir John Chilcot. People are being interviewed, rightly so, and asked for their evidence, but it is for the Chilcot committee to decide how it proceeds—that is what the right hon. Gentleman proposed.

Early Intervention

Q2. What discussions he has had with hon. Members on an all-party approach to early intervention since 9 December 2009. (310397)

I have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency to look at early intervention programmes, and I am very happy that cross-party discussions on these matters take place. Everybody knows the importance of early intervention to help young children.

There are also tremendous economic consequences of early intervention, and early intervention bonds, social impact equities and many other financial instruments raise money from the capital markets rather than from the taxpayer. Will the Prime Minister please encourage the Treasury to look at these imaginative and creative ways of raising money, so that we not only help individuals but find a long-term way of writing down the national debt, thereby reducing the burden on UK taxpayers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of social impact bonds. They are being looked at by the Justice Secretary at the moment. If the first 48 months of a child’s life are more important than the next years because of what is learned or not learned, we have to do more to help children under five. That is why we introduced Sure Start and the child tax credit, and doubled the credit for children in their earliest years. It is also why we have given maternity and paternity leave. All these are important ways in which we can help young children in their earliest years, and I believe that there should be a cross-party consensus on keeping them; I hope that there will be.

Given that the Home Affairs Select Committee heard powerful evidence yesterday that one of the primary causes of crime is poor parenting and dysfunctional families, what more can this Government do to bring forward effective policies on early intervention to ensure that fewer children stumble on to the conveyor belt of crime?

If I may do so, I refer to the proposal that we are putting forward and the family intervention programmes that I saw in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Let us be honest: there are about 50,000 families in this country that lead such chaotic lives that we need to intervene and turn them round. We need to make a contract with them that a no-nonsense approach will be adopted by them and by us. That is what lies behind the family intervention programme. We are investing heavily in that, and in the parenting tuition that is necessary as part of it. I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) will agree that that is a way forward. That is a better expenditure of money to help the children he wants to help than a return to the married couples allowance.

Engagements

Q3. In the past 12 months, people in Blackpool have turned out in unprecedented numbers for Remembrance day and Armed Forces day ceremonies and to give a civic welcome to troops returning from Afghanistan. Blackpool has done that because people recognise the sacrifice being made by those who risk their lives daily. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will continue their resolute action against any extremist group, wherever it comes from, that seeks to disrupt and dishonour that support? (310398)

I praise Blackpool for hosting the first Armed Forces Veterans day. I know that Blackpool has lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my hon. Friend is right to say that we must commemorate all those who have served and made sacrifices for our country. I share his views on extremists who use freedom of speech in our country to foster division and incite hatred and, in some cases, to incite people to kill. We have already strengthened our powers to allow us to prosecute them, and an organisation was proscribed yesterday as a result of our determination to do what is absolutely necessary through the legal process. This is also about standing up for our shared values and showing young people in Muslim communities in particular that we stand for values of justice, dignity and fairness. I believe that our Prevent strategy, which involves talking to people in their schools, churches, faith groups and mosques, is an important way of building inter-religious consensus and a belief that we can solve all our problems together.

After the events of last week, the Prime Minister told his colleagues that he would change the way he governs. Can he tell us how he will be different?

I think that I should start by saying that the right hon. Gentleman looks very different from the poster that we see out there. If you cannot get your photograph right, it is pretty difficult to get your policies right as well. Last week, we announced plans for digital Britain, plans to improve education in our community, and plans for 70,000 jobs in offshore power. We also announced our new growth strategy. This is the Government who are moving forward with policy. He can have his posters; we will have the policies.

The Prime Minister asks about pictures. Why don’t we do a bit of market research? When it comes to Labour Members’ election addresses, hands up who is going to put the Prime Minister’s picture on the front. Come on, hands up. [Interruption.] Four! There are six of them who do not want him in the Cabinet, and just four who are going to put his picture on their election addresses. He has been airbrushed out of the whole campaign.

Let us see if the Prime Minister has changed. Let us see if he is prepared to do something that he has never done before—listen to people, and admit his mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) asked a very straight question. When Britain went into recession with one of the largest deficits in the industrialised world, that was because this Prime Minister thought he had abolished boom and bust. That claim was wrong, wasn’t it?

As I keep telling the right hon. Gentleman, we went into the recession with one of the lowest debts in the G7, and the reason we had one of the lowest debts in the G7 is that we had taken action over the previous years to run down the debt that had been run up by the Conservative Government.

I think the country would prefer our policies to a person who has three policies on one day. The right hon. Gentleman needs three television election debates because he has three versions of the same policy to put forward in the debates.

The Prime Minister talks about his policies. We now know what his own election co-ordinator thinks of his policies—yes, the Development Secretary. I do not know whether he is the chairman of the campaign or the co-ordinator of the campaign: the Prime Minister has three people co-ordinating his campaign.

This is what the Development Secretary said. He said that Labour

“don’t… have any policies. For God’s sake, Harriet’s helping write the manifesto!”

I must say that I think that is completely unfair. After all, the deputy leader of the Labour party took only five hours and 32 minutes to come out and support the Prime Minister, whereas the Secretary of State for International Development took six hours. [Hon. Members: “Question!”] All right, here comes a question. Let us try something else to see if this Prime Minister has changed. Will he now admit the truth about spending cuts? He has stood there week after week and denied what everyone knows to be true: that there will be spending cuts. The Chancellor now says that those cuts will be the deepest for 20 years. Will the Prime Minister repeat those words?

The right hon. Gentleman is becoming even redder—much redder than he is in his photograph on the poster. I have to say that what you see is clearly not what you get.

I have to say this to the right hon. Gentleman as well. I wish that he could talk about policy. We are coming out of the most difficult recession that countries have faced. Every country around the world is facing the difficult public spending decisions that the Chancellor talked about last week. I agree exactly with what he said: that every country has got to face up to it. But there is one way of facing it up to it, and that is publishing our deficit reduction plan, and another way: the right hon. Gentleman’s not knowing what he wants to do on the married couples allowance, not knowing what he wants to do on national insurance, and not knowing what he wants to do on the top rate of tax. He is asking people for a don’t know at the election rather than a yes or a no; and the only policy he has that is not going to change is his policy on inheritance tax, which helps the richest persons in our society.

If the Prime Minister wants to know how people are going to vote, why does he not find some courage for once and call the election?

The Prime Minister talks about policy. The country is fed up with his policies, but his colleagues were not complaining about the policies; they were complaining about the weakness, the dithering and the backbiting. That is what they were complaining about.

Everyone can see that the Prime Minister will not change the way in which he governs. Everyone can see that he will not answer the question, and that he will not be straight with people. Is not the conclusion of the last week that the Cabinet and the Labour party are too disloyal to support him, but too incompetent to remove him? Should he not ask for the verdict of the British people, so that we can get rid of the lot of them?

I must say that the right hon. Gentleman’s airbrushed poster had better lines on it than the lines that he is delivering today. He should get better lines from the shadow Foreign—[Interruption.]

This is what the Leader of the Opposition said only a few days ago:

“I messed up and there is no other way of putting it, you know; I was thinking about all sorts of different things and I misdescribed our policy.”

He has misdescribed what he is doing, because we know that on the health service there is no guarantee for cancer patients; we know on police that there is no guarantee about neighbourhood policing; we know on education that there is no guarantee of education to 18; and we know on the recession that the Conservatives would have done nothing to take us out of the recession and that they would have gone back to the policies of the 1980s. When he finally wakes up to the fact that policies matter more than posters, he will know that his policies are actually those of the ’80s, not those for 2010.

Will the Government back my amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill next week that will rid Parliament of parasitic non-doms?

Q4. We have heard why, however implausibly, the Prime Minister will not give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry before the general election, but may I ask him a question that he can answer right now, because I am simply asking for his opinion? Alastair Campbell made it clear yesterday that this Prime Minister was intrinsically involved in all the decision making in the run-up to Iraq, so does he personally regret any of the decisions taken in the preparations for, and conduct of, the war in Iraq? Is he personally sorry? (310399)

I have already said that the reconstruction that was done after the war effort in Iraq was insufficient; the general view held by many people who have looked into this is that insufficient preparations were made for that. But I was part of the Cabinet that made the decisions on Iraq, and I stand by the decisions we made.

Q5. This week, a Member of the House has resigned, with mental illness being a factor. I make no comment about individual cases, but as the law stands any Member of this House who suffers a bout of serious mental illness can be automatically disqualified from office, no matter what the prospects of recovery. That is wrong, and it would never be tolerated for a physical illness, no matter how debilitating. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity presented by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to implement the Speaker’s Conference recommendation that this wrong should be righted? (310400)

My hon. Friend has raised a very important issue. The Justice Secretary and the Health Secretary are giving careful consideration to the appropriate way forward, and I understand that we will also respond in due course to the recommendation to the Speaker’s Conference report that was published on Monday.

The first duty of any Government is to keep our nation safe. Given the tens of thousands of abuses of tourist visas, work visas and other visas, how confident is the Prime Minister that he has a firm grip on this nation’s national security?

At every point we try to be as vigilant as possible in the way we run the services that are necessary for our national security. Immediately after the Detroit attempted bomb on Christmas day, it was for us also to make sure that our security arrangements for people coming into the country were satisfactory, and I ordered a review of those arrangements, as I told the House last week. Equally, we also decided that the co-ordination of our different services is an important issue, and, facing new technology and new methods being used by terrorist groups, we had to do more to ensure the full co-ordination of all our services to deal with potential incidents. That is another set of work that has been put in motion. So at all times we seek to be vigilant. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the introduction of biometric visas and then of the e-Borders system will be of great benefit to us in being able to identify people coming into and going out of the country, and I hope there will be all-party support for that.

Q6. Employment in the public sector is very important to the economy of Wales, and cuts in the short term would impede the recovery of the private sector. Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of the difference between the impact of the tough but long-term approach he is taking and of the precipitate, immediate and unplanned cuts that are demanded by the Leader of the Opposition? (310401)

I can say from the work that has been done that if we had pursued the same policies as in the 1980s and the 1990s, 1.7 million fewer people would be employed today. It is because we took action to help young people into work and to help small businesses that the unemployment claimant count, which was 10 per cent. or higher in some of the recessions of ’80s and ’90s, has remained half that today, and we are determined to do still more to help young people into work and those adults who are looking for work. The difference is this: when it came to the recession, other parties were prepared to walk by on the other side, but we decided to act.

I am thinking of all the issues that the hon. Gentleman wishes me to talk about in relation to the western Sahara. The one thing that I have been worried about is the growth of ethnic violence in these areas. The one thing that we have tried to do is increase—indeed, double—our aid to these areas, and the one thing that we have been worried about is the growth of terrorist groups in these areas. That is why we are taking the action that is necessary to dissuade people from terrorism. I have had numerous conversations with leaders in these areas. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to direct me to a specific point, I will take it up.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister recall in September 2008 acclaiming the success of the 16 Air Assault Brigade and 2,000 British soldiers in delivering to the Kajaki dam a turbine? Will he tell the House why that turbine, which cost lives, has not been installed? Who makes these important military so-called strategic decisions? The turbine was delivered at a high price and has not been installed— (310408)

I have investigated the issue. Rightly, it is asked of us why the turbine is not working, when it was delivered at great cost in terms of lives and effort. Other sources of power have been found for the areas that were supposed to be served, but it is still our intention that that turbine be used to create the power that is necessary for the economic advance that is possible.

Q8. Essex teenage tearaways are being sent to a sensitive residential area in Castle Point by Essex county council without any consultation whatsoever. They are terrorising residents, elderly frail people and businesses with extreme bad behaviour. Does the Prime Minister agree that people should always be properly consulted, and that the location of those establishments should be sensitively and carefully considered? Essex county council should be ashamed of putting it— (310403)

No one should be expected to suffer from antisocial behaviour. That is why we have created neighbourhood policing units that have a responsibility for dealing with antisocial behaviour as well as with crime. It is also why we are targeting families such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentions, whose lives are so chaotic that they are disrupting the lives of people around them. No pensioner, in particular, should be expected to suffer from that. That is why next month we will be announcing new measures to help people who are victims of antisocial behaviour, so that we can get quick action to them as well as deal with the problems at source. I hope the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we are taking the action that is necessary, but recognise that this is a problem for many people in the country.

Q15. Today’s stunning results in the schools in Staffordshire, Moorlands demonstrate 10 years of remarkable achievement and a decade of investment in dilapidated schools transforming them into modern learning centres for the whole community. Why is it—[Interruption.]—that the hardworking students and the efforts of school staff, head teachers and governors are constantly talked down by the Opposition? (310410)

They can try and shout down good news but we will tell people. Ten or 12 years ago there were 1,600 underperforming schools in our country when we came to power. Today the figure announced is fewer than 250. This a huge change that is being met by the national educational challenge. We should continue to ensure that by 2011 there is not one underperforming school in our country. We ought to offer the best education to every child. Even if Conservative Members sneer, we will continue to finance the education of every young person in this country.

Q9. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for playing extra time. May I ask the Prime Minister what he is doing to prevent the population of this country from reaching 70 million? (310404)

We have introduced the points system for immigration. The points system is working because where we need no unskilled workers and need workers who have specialist skills but not other workers with skills, they will not now be invited into the country. Of course, when people come into the country, they must have a contribution to make to this country. The points system is ensuring that net migration is falling. It is also ensuring that where we do not need workers to come into the country, they do not come in.

Order. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly.