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Prime Minister

Volume 504: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Corporal Lee Brownson and Rifleman Luke Farmer from 3rd Battalion The Rifles. They died in Afghanistan this week, and our thoughts are with their families and friends at this very sad time. Last night, I read through the moving tributes of their fellow soldiers to the immense bravery, selflessness and camaraderie that they displayed serving their colleagues, the British people and the people of Afghanistan, and they will not be forgotten.

All of us have also been deeply moved to action by the still unfolding tragedy of the people of Haiti, some of the poorest people in the world facing some of the most extreme hardships imaginable; and our thoughts and condolences go also to those families in the United Kingdom who have been directly affected by the tragedy. We must, first, provide all support; secondly, improve international co-ordination; and thirdly, help put the Government of Haiti back on their feet so that they are able to deliver reconstruction.

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 join the Prime Minister’s tribute to the two brave soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and welcome the steps that he is taking to support the people of Haiti. I welcome also the consultation on the broadband next-generation fund, but 10 per cent. of the population of the highlands will be left out, according to the Government’s consultation, and the rest will be in the final third grouping—despite broadband’s enormous economic benefits. The fact is that businesses cannot wait. Why does the Prime Minister think that it is acceptable to leave out 10 per cent. of the population overall, and to leave the rest of rural Britain at the end of the queue?

The whole purpose of the digital initiative is to include as much of the United Kingdom as possible in having fast broadband, and that is why we are making available £1 billion to businesses to be able to do so. That will mean that 95 per cent. of the population of the country will be guaranteed broadband and fast broadband very soon. In other areas, we hope to make advances—in the Scottish circumstances, in consultation with the Scottish Administration––and I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds that, over time, we will be able to solve the problem of those remaining rural areas that will not at the moment get broadband. Our programme means that we will be one of the countries that will have the fastest broadband more quickly than any other, and that will help develop large numbers of businesses in this country, and help unemployment to continue to fall.

Some time ago, the City Minister, Lord Myners, said that he thought that it was becoming too easy for good British companies to be taken over by foreign predators. Now that we have had the outrage involving Cadbury, does my right hon. Friend agree?

Cadbury employs more than 5,000 people in this country, and it is a very important company for the future of this country. We are seeking assurance and have received information from Kraft about the importance that it attaches to the Cadbury work force, to the Cadbury name and to Cadbury’s quality in the United Kingdom. We hope that Kraft’s owners will make sure that Cadbury’s 5,500 workers can retain their jobs, and make sure that new investment goes into a product that is distinctly British and sold throughout the world. So we will do everything that we can to make sure that jobs and investment are maintained in Britain.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Lee Brownson and Rifleman Luke Farmer. They died serving our country. We must honour their memory and we must look after the loved ones whom they have left behind.

Everyone in the House, and in the whole country, has been touched by the scale of the tragedy in Haiti. We can be proud of the British response: the public, who have donated generously; the members of the fire service, who volunteered immediately; and the NGOs, who are doing such a good job in Haiti. Does the Prime Minister agree that there will come a time when we should reflect on how Britain, and the international community, can make the initial rescue effort even better, even faster, and even more effective? More immediately, will the Prime Minister update the House on the further action that Britain is intending to take to assist the international relief effort?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. It is of course a matter of immediate action followed by an assessment as to what can be done better in future. As I suggested two years ago, having a reconstruction and stabilisation agency that is ready, on tap, to deal with these problems is something that the United Nations must consider very seriously.

As for relief to Haiti, this still unfolding tragedy requires, first of all, firefighters and others to rescue people from under the rubble, and that is happening wherever possible. It requires food and medical supplies and, indeed, energy resources to be brought into Haiti, and that is happening as well. It requires the co-ordination of the medical services, which is being done principally by the Americans, but I can say also that we are sending a boat, RFA Largs Bay, to help with the effort; it will be able to help to unload supplies into Haiti. That is a decision that has been made this morning.

At the same time, I have talked to President Obama about what we can most do to help in the reconstruction of the Government effort in Haiti so that the Government can take further control over decisions that are to be made in the country. We have agreed that we will help to rebuild the office of the interior, the treasury and other areas where work can start so that the civil government can perform. We have medics in Haiti who are doing what they can to help.

Sadly, at least one British citizen has died as a result of the events in Haiti. I fear there may be further deaths once the whole damage that has been done is clear, particularly in the United Nations section of Port-au-Prince. We will do whatever we can to back up the 11,000 troops that the Americans have sent, and the medical supplies.

I am grateful for that answer. It is not just that 3 million have been affected and 2 million left destitute, and that parts of the country have lost half their buildings; as the Prime Minister said, Haiti will need significant external help with everything, including its whole Government, for many years to come. Of course, we all want to see this old republic govern itself, but in the short and medium term, can the Prime Minister tell us what consideration he is giving to supporting new joint structures through which the UN and the Haitian Government can start to rebuild basic services and government for a people who have suffered so much?

First, on finance, the Canadian Government are organising a funding conference next week to make sure that the international allocations that countries should make to the rescue effort are made. I may say that the European Union has already offered €400 million as a result of a ministerial meeting that took place.

When I spoke to President Obama yesterday evening, I talked to him about the very issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. I have also talked to Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in some detail about this. It is important, of course, that the Government of Haiti are seen as the legitimate Government, but it is also important that the United Nations and, of course, the principal provider of supplies, the United States, can work with most effect together to deliver the co-ordination that is necessary. President Obama has explained to me that in addition to the military effort, which is massive—11,000 troops have gone in with field medical hospitals and every other kind of equipment that is necessary to help people—there is also the civilian effort of USAID, which is working very hard in the region, and, at the same time, the work that is being done by President Clinton and President Bush to co-ordinate the relief that is being given to people.

All these things are designed to ensure that there is proper co-ordination. However, I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there are lessons to be learned for the future. We have a 1,000-strong civilian team ready to go to areas where reconstruction and stabilisation are necessary; some of them are in Afghanistan at the moment. The world must, at some point, come to a decision, first, that funding has got to be available to move immediately when there is a disaster; and secondly, that we need the signing up of professionals who are able to go at a moment’s notice to help where there is a disaster in future, and that will require a UN reconstruction agency.

I am grateful for that answer, too. There is great agreement on the need for an early, swift and well-organised response.

I want to turn to a completely different subject here at home. The torture and appalling abuse of two children by 10 and 11-year-old boys in Doncaster has profoundly shocked the whole country. Later this week, a serious case review will be produced, but only a summary of it will be published. These dreadful events follow the death of seven children between 2004 and 2009 in Doncaster. Can the Prime Minister tell us why so many warning signs were missed and why it took so long for the Government to step in?

This is a matter that is in the courts at the moment, but we are all agreed about the seriousness of this case. For two boys to be assaulted in such a way by two other children who were at that time in the care of foster parents, but who had a history in which there had been social services and other interventions to try to deal with their problems, is one of the most tragic cases that we could see.

I do not want Britain to be defined by the appalling violence and irresponsibility that has been shown to these youngsters by two other youngsters. It is therefore important that we learn the lessons properly from what has happened. That is why a serious case review is undertaken. It has been said—the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is one of the organisations that has suggested that this is the best course—that in the interests of people being able to tell the truth about what has happened, the summary is what should be published. That is what will happen, I believe by the end of this week. That serious case review will, in my view, demonstrate that there have been flaws in the organisation of social services. It is therefore necessary, with a new director of social services, with intervention already agreed by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and with Doncaster already under special measures as a result of that, that we learn all the lessons of what has happened.

Before the publication of the extract of the executive summary of the serious case review, we cannot draw all the conclusions that are necessary. What is clear is that the protection and security of our children will always be the foremost priority, and we should take every action we can to protect them.

I am going to come on to the issue of whether we should publish the report in full, because I believe that we should, but if the Prime Minister wants to learn the lessons, clearly one of the most important lessons to learn is why so much went wrong for so long before we intervened. If we look at the catalogue of errors, we see that seven children died between 2004 and 2009. There were five serious case reviews––one did not appear for three years––and, of course, in every case only a summary was published.

In 2007, more than two years ago, a report talked about serious failures in Doncaster social services, yet it took more than a year and the deaths of five more children, including three from abuse, before the Government took over in 2009. Does not that alone demonstrate that serious case reviews are not leading to the correct action being taken?

Lord Laming looked at this last year and made recommendations which are being adopted. He also recommended that child safeguarding boards had to have independent chairmen, and that is what has happened in Doncaster. As far as the serious case review itself is concerned, I think we have to wait until we see the findings of that review. I would not want to prejudge that.

The reason why the whole review is not to be published is that we wish to protect the identity and names of the children as much as anything else. We have had this argument before. The executive summary is published, which allows us to draw conclusions. The problem in Doncaster, if I may say so, is that there were many actions taken, but they were the wrong actions. They were not actions designed to prove that we had children of violence who had to be separated from parents of violence at an early time. That, I believe, will come out in the serious case review summary, which will be published soon. I think the Conservatives should listen to some of the voluntary organisations on this matter, and to Lord Laming himself, and wait for the publication of the evidence. Then let us by all means have the debate that is necessary on what further measures we can take. We know that Doncaster had to be intervened upon, and we know also that a serious case review will reveal what happened.

The Prime Minister tells us to wait for the publication of the review, but the review will not be published. Of course, I know that there are arguments on both sides about full publication, but are they not tipping in favour? The publication of summaries has not led to action. In the case of baby Peter, the summary was found to be completely inadequate—it was not worth the paper on which it was written.

The Prime Minister should consider this: reviews into murders by mental health patients are published in full and they manage the correct amount of anonymity. Why do we treat murders by mental health patients more rigorously than the torture and potential killing and murder of children?

I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition is moving ahead on that point because every voluntary organisation and children’s society that I know—and every professional whom I know—has recommended that the best way of proceeding is by publishing a summary of the serious case review. The reason is to protect the anonymity of the children and allow people to say things from which they can learn. The purpose of a serious case review is to learn lessons from what has happened. That is why the summary is published when people are clear about what lessons have to be learned. I hope that the Opposition will not stand isolated against all the professional advice and make an issue simply of whether we publish the summary or the serious case review, when we need to address the lessons that have to be learned from Doncaster.

The problem is that we are not going to learn the lessons properly unless we get the information out to the public. The Prime Minister says that we should talk to professionals. Indeed, my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families spoke this morning to the NSPCC, which said that the matter was not black and white and that there have been occasions when the executive summary has provided a lack of clarity. A growing number of social workers, and their magazine, want those things published.

This is an appalling case of two children being dragged on to wasteland and tortured within an inch of their lives. It shocked the whole country. The Prime Minister talks about the publication of the report. [Interruption.] Instead of consulting, let him listen to this important point: the BBC, which has seen the report, says that the summary and the full report do not match up. Are not we in danger of having a cover-up if we do not publish it in full?

The court case is not yet completed. The serious case review has been leaked, but it has not been published. The summary will be published at the appropriate time. I have taken Lord Laming’s advice, as has the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families—

The hon. Gentleman says it is the wrong advice, but Lord Laming is respected throughout the country for his work. The Secretary of State and I are taking the advice of many children’s societies and professional organisations on the matter. It is important to recognise that the issue is what lessons we learn. How we do that is a matter of people looking at the summary of the serious case review. I ask the Opposition to consider the children’s anonymity as an important issue, and also children’s freedom to say to the inquiry what they think has happened and what they think has gone wrong. I hope that they will consider those important matters.

We went through this before on the baby P case. It was agreed then that we would have the report of Lord Laming, and he made the recommendations about the serious case review. I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition asks me a series of detailed questions on an issue, when we do not have a final verdict in the court, when the summary is not even published, and when he has not read the report, either.

The child trust fund has been a wonderful success. It benefits the many, not the privileged few. However, does the Prime Minister agree that we must do more to encourage more and more families to take up the offer, particularly in constituencies such as mine in Swansea, East?

More than 4.8 million children now have a child trust fund. No child misses out at the moment. Unfortunately, the Conservative policy would take child trust funds away from two thirds of the children who would be eligible in future. Middle-class families as well as people on modest incomes need child trust funds so that they can save for the future. The Conservative party is out of touch with middle-income Britain.

I add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Corporal Lee Brownson and Rifleman Luke Farmer from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who tragically died while serving so bravely in Afghanistan last week.

I thank the Prime Minister for what he said about the aid and relief efforts in Haiti. Everyone is shocked to the core by the sheer scale and ferocity of the terrible disaster that has hit a country that was already crippled by terrible poverty.

I should like to return to the issue of Cadbury’s. Last month, Lord Mandelson declared that the Government would mount a huge opposition to the Kraft takeover of Cadbury’s, so why does the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is owned by this Government, now want to lend vast amounts of our money to Kraft to fund that takeover?

If the right hon. Gentleman is really suggesting that the Government can step in and avoid any takeover that is taking place in this country overnight, and then tell a bank that it has got to deprive a particular company of money by Government dictate, his liberal principles seem to have gone to the wall.

I thank the Prime Minister for the little economics lecture, but there is a simple principle at stake. Tens of thousands of British companies are crying out for that money to protect jobs, and instead RBS wants to lend it to a multinational with a record of cutting jobs. When British taxpayers bailed out the banks, they would never have believed that their money would be used to put British people out of work. Is that not just plain wrong?

Putting the words “liberal” and “principle” together seems very difficult now—[Interruption.] I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that no Government are doing more to try to protect and increase jobs than this country’s. Unemployment is falling today as a result of the actions we have taken. If we had taken the advice of the Liberal party, unemployment would be a great deal higher than it is now. He has nothing to offer the debate on the economy at all—[Interruption.]

Order. The House really must calm down. We are making relatively slow progress. I want to get down the Order Paper, and I am determined to do so.

The Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposed that the House should have the opportunity to debate and vote on its recommendations within two months, and that period has elapsed. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate very soon? Since he also said—quite rightly—that this is entirely a matter for the House alone, will he also ensure that the House can have a free vote, both on the package as a whole and on each of the main recommendations?

First, I know my right hon. Friend is a reformer who wishes to see improvements in the way the House operates. We are grateful to the Committee for making proposals for reforming the Committee system. The Government will make time available for a debate and the House will have an opportunity to decide on the Committee’s recommendations. The Government want the House to agree a way forward, and we will therefore propose accepting many of the Committee’s recommendations, including electing Chairmen and members of Select Committees, scheduling non-Government business and strengthening the role of Back Benchers to hold the Government to account.

Q2. On Monday, Sir Michael Bichard published a report based on the testimonials of 60 senior civil servants in Whitehall. It concluded that the Prime Minister’s Government is “weak” and dysfunctional, and that there is a “strategic gap at” its “heart”. Indeed, it says there is“a conspicuous lack of a single coherent strategy for government”. In particular, why does the Prime Minister think that one senior civil servant at No. 10 said that Ministers have lost their grip—[Interruption.] (311691)

The hon. Gentleman is going to have to do better than that. The report did not analyse the Conservatives’ way of making decisions on married couples allowances and other issues. When the right hon. Gentleman said there was going to be one new policy every day this year, I did not realise it would be one new policy every day on married couples allowance.

We are getting on with the business of government. That is why unemployment is falling today, why we took action to help small businesses and why we co-ordinated Government action to help home owners. We are seeing the results of our actions. The unfortunate thing is that the Conservatives opposed every single measure we put forward.

Q3. Today’s employment figures are good news for my constituents, and there are now almost 7,000 fewer people unemployed in Bury than during the last Tory recession. Would that have happened if the Government had simply let the recession take its course, and what more can the Government do to help my constituents get back into work? (311692)

For this Government, unemployment is not a price worth paying. We have taken action so that while in the 1980s recession, unemployment kept rising for five years, in this recession our action has seen unemployment falling and is helping young people into work. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition is not asking me about the economy today.

The Chilcot inquiry has heard that the current Prime Minister was in the Iraq war inner circle and refused key payments for our troops on the front line. Will he confirm to the House that there is no impediment to him seeking a time to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry before the general election?

This is, as I said, a matter for the Chilcot inquiry. I have written to Sir John Chilcot to say that I am happy to give evidence at any time. That is a matter for the Committee to decide and I will take whatever advice he gives me about when he wishes me to appear. I am happy to give evidence on all the issues that he puts forward and happy to satisfy the public of this country about our Government’s commitment to the security of this country.

Q4. My friend would like to get married, but her boyfriend is not so keen. Should the Government give them some money to tie the knot, and if so how much? (311693)

It is the Conservative party that is tied in knots. Now that the shadow Business Secretary is in his place, I shall tell the House what he has said about this married couples allowance:

“I really don’t think it’s anything to do with politicians whether you”—

get married—

“and most of the younger people I know don’t seem very keen on it. My view of Conservatism is that it’s not for us to tell you”—

what to do through—

“the tax system—my wife didn’t put up with me because I was getting £150 by way of tax allowance. This is social engineering for God’s sake and when I joined the party we weren’t in favour of it.”

That is a verdict on the Leader of the Opposition from the shadow Business Secretary.––[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The power company E.ON has just announced that it will close its call centre in Rayleigh with the proposed loss of more than 600 jobs. Given that sad news, can the Prime Minister personally assure me that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Jobcentre Plus network will do absolutely everything that they can to assist my constituents and their families, and to help them to find alternative employment if that closure goes ahead?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the rapid response unit of the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus will be available to help his constituents if they are looking for jobs. Some 300,000 people are leaving the unemployment register every month, partly as a result of the action that Jobcentre Plus is able to take. We will be able to give his constituents advice, help and careers assistance, as well as, in some cases, work experience for young people looking for jobs in the future. We will do everything we can. I have to say to him, however, and I hope that he will note it, that all these measures are opposed by the Leader of the Opposition.

Q5. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent research done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on how to tackle child poverty and help families? Does he share its analysis that the best way to tackle child poverty is through child tax credits and not through the policies advocated by the official Opposition? (311694)

We have had the Conservative document on the family published today and it does not mention that they wish to take child tax credits away from large numbers of people. It does not mention that they want to take the child trust fund away from large numbers of people. As for honest politics, if you publish a document and you do not tell people what your policy really is—[Interruption.] Last week, I said that the Conservatives should give up the posters and concentrate on policy. Now that I have seen their policy, I have to say that they are just as well with their posters.

Q6. May I ask the Prime Minister to look into the excessive delays within the Home Office in resolving the outstanding issues of funding for unaccompanied child asylum seekers in the London borough of Hillingdon, with all the financial consequences and possible implications for social cohesion? (311695)

I will undertake to look into the matter. The hon. Gentleman is talking about an issue that is obviously very serious for those affected and their families, so I will look into it carefully.

Alternative Vote System

Q7. What recent discussions he has had on the use of the alternative vote system for general elections; and if he will make a statement. (311696)

I have given a commitment that a referendum will be held early in the next Parliament so that people can decide whether they want to move to the alternative vote system.

Although there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system, the alternative vote would mean that every Member of Parliament returned would have the support of at least 50 per cent. of the local electorate. Unlike any proportional representation system, it would also maintain, and indeed strengthen, the constituency link that is so vital for all Members of Parliament. Will the Prime Minister therefore consider whether he can trust Members of the House and, ultimately, members of the public to have a serious discussion on electoral systems and consider what system they should use to send people here?

Ultimately, this must be decided by members of the public in a referendum. The advantage of the alternative vote system is that it retains the constituency link, which I believe is important not just to Members of the House, but to the whole population. Given the issues that have arisen about trust in politics, there is a case to be made for every Member coming here to have the support of more than 50 per cent. of the electorate, as a result of the alternative vote system. I believe that there is a case for a referendum on this issue, and that those who wish for reform will wish for a referendum on that basis.


Q8. The 200-year-old dam in my constituency, which is an earthworks dam containing the Chasewater reservoir, has started to leak. A recent engineers report stated that if it collapses, scores of lives will be lost and there will be a lasting effect on the west midlands. The small district of Lichfield does not have the funds to make the urgent repairs. Will the Prime Minister please use his best endeavours to ensure that the financial burden is spread over a much broader region? (311697)

Of course I will be happy to consider the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I see that he is making the case for public expenditure.

On Friday, MPs and councillors of all parties and local military historians will gather to take forward plans to provide a permanent memorial to Trooper Potts, Reading’s only recipient of the Victoria cross, which he won at Gallipoli in 1915 in an act of outstanding courage. Will the Prime Minister, to whom I have written on this subject, offer a message of support for our endeavours to mark for ever the gallantry of this truly local hero?

I agree with my hon. Friend that a permanent memorial would be a great way of expressing not only our debt to the people whom he has mentioned, but our continuing debt to all those who have served our country, including those who have been honoured for doing so with bravery and having demonstrated the greatest of courage. I hope that his proposal can move forward; we will do everything that we can to help it.

We have introduced a points system for immigration, which I believe is starting to work. The hon. Gentleman will see, from announcements coming soon, that the number of people whom we need to come to this country, to meet the demand for the skills, is being substantially reduced as a result of the skills and people being trained here. The points system is working: unskilled workers whom the country does not need and who cannot make a contribution to the economy are not allowed into the country.