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Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010

Before I answer the question, may I pay another tribute to our troops? They are working with incredible bravery, with fortitude and with dedication to defeat those who would bring terrorism to the streets of Britain by denying the terrorists both land and support and by offering the population of Helmand in Afghanistan a more secure and more prosperous future. I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to the seven soldiers who have lost their lives since the House last met: from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Lance Corporal Darren Hicks; from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh; from 6th Battalion The Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Rifleman Mark Marshall; from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Kingsman Sean Dawson; from 36 Engineer Regiment, the Royal Engineers, Sapper Guy Mellors; from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell; and from 1st Battalion Scots Guards, Lance Sergeant David Walker. These were men of exceptional bravery, of great courage and great skill, whose loss is deeply felt. Each and every one of them was a hero, dedicated to their colleagues and to their mission. We send our profound condolences to their families and loved ones.

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 everyone in the House will want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments.

My constituents never shared in the bankers’ bonuses yet they paid to bail out the banks. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that they will get their money back, that we will not allow bankers’ greed to threaten our core public services and that we will not, ever, squander this investment on a half-baked public share offer?

First of all, we have imposed a 50 per cent. national insurance tax on bank bonuses, which has to be paid by everybody who is paying cash bonuses over the course of the next year. We have insisted on the application of the G20 rules, which means that cash bonuses above a certain amount cannot be paid—they can be paid only at a later date. We are also working for a global banking levy; we are in discussions with other countries and making progress on how that could be administered. At the same time, we are determined that the banks pay back every penny that is owed to the British public. That is an essential means by which we reduce the deficit, and any plan to give cut-price shares would mean that the deficit would be higher and the public would be denied the money that they should have returned.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the seven servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan since the last time that we met: Lance Sergeant David Walker; Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell; Sapper Guy Mellors; Kingsman Sean Dawson; Rifleman Mark Marshall; Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh; and Lance Corporal Darren Hicks? We are paying a high price for the operations we are undertaking in Helmand, but it is an essential mission and our forces and their families need to know that they have the support of the whole House and the whole country in the work that they are doing.

While the report into the Stafford hospital has only just been published, I want to ask a couple of questions before turning to other subjects. Hundreds of people went into that hospital—some with relatively straightforward ailments—and ended up dying because of the way they were mistreated. Talking to the relatives, as many of us in this House have done, is absolutely heartbreaking. Does the Prime Minister understand that these victims will never be content with an inquiry that was conducted in private, behind closed doors and without any public hearings? Does he understand their clamour for a public inquiry?

Let me say, first of all, that we understand both the sadness and the sorrow of all the relatives who lost their loved ones in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. We know that every single one of those cases where relatives have doubts or questions are now being investigated individually. I understand that more than 300 cases are being investigated and every one of the families deserves to have the answers that are necessary. That is the first form of inquiry that is being done.

The second form of inquiry is the Francis inquiry, which, as the Secretary of State for Health will report in a few minutes, will continue its work on the regulation and supervision of foundation hospitals and, in particular, of this hospital. What happened in this hospital was completely unacceptable. What happened was a management failure in the hospital. When it comes to accident and emergency, I am shocked not only to read the stories but to find that where there should have been four consultants, there was only one, and that where there should have been 55 nurses, there were only 37. This is a failure in management that has to be dealt with. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Health for bringing forward a series of recommendations including a recommendation that where management fails, just as with doctors, we should be able to strike off from a list those managers who are not acceptable to health authorities.

I am grateful for that answer, but is not one of the tragedies of Stafford the fact that people were dying because of bad practice—not just bad management, but bad clinical practice and an over-adherence to processes—year after year. Death rates at the hospital were far too high and were out of line from 2005, yet the Healthcare Commission started investigating only in 2008. Is it not clear that the structure of primary care trusts, strategic health authorities and the Healthcare Commission did not bring this to light early enough? Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a better way of publishing results and patient outcomes in our hospitals and that we need openness, clarity and transparency to stop this happening again?

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman should recognise the action that we have already taken: a new quality test for foundation trusts; a new requirement for approval by the NHS medical director; a Care Quality Commission investigation; reviews are under way; we can remove the chairs of the trusts more easily; and there is already an early-warning system in place. All those things have been done already but, at the same time, the Secretary of State will announce later that there will be an inquiry into mortality ratios and whether that is the best way of judging whether a hospital is successful. There will be proposals about the deauthorisation of foundation trusts and, of course, we know that there are also disciplinary hearings under way. We have done everything we can to ensure that after this was exposed we have not only investigated the individual worries of families who are affected but learned every lesson possible so that it will not happen again. We have a statement this morning from the interim chair of the Care Quality Commission that says:

“We have no reason to believe that there is another trust in England with problems of the scale and magnitude that existed in Mid Staffordshire”.

I want to reassure people on that and also to reassure them that we are constantly tracking the situation.

Just as we need openness in the health service, we need openness at the heart of Government. After the Chancellor’s extraordinary statement last night, the Prime Minister said this morning on GMTV:

“I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my Chancellor”.

Will he try to stand up with a straight face and tell us that that is true?

Not only is that correct, but this is the nearest that the right hon. Gentleman has ever got to talking about the economy in the past few months.

We can talk about the Prime Minister trebling the deficit, about wrecking the pension system, about ruining the tax system and about bringing this country to its knees. Right now, six weeks before an election, with a record Budget deficit, at the end of a long recession, I want to ask why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are at war with each other. This is what we are told—[Interruption.] If they get any closer, they will start kissing. We are told that Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, was “spreading poison against Darling” and that he

“told every journalist who had access to a pencil that Alistair’s interview was a disaster.”

We are also told that there was the most poisonous briefing against him. Last night, the Chancellor said that after he had said what he had said, No. 10 Downing street unleashed “the forces of hell”. Why does the Prime Minister think that he said that?

I have already answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I never instructed a briefing against the Chancellor.

When it comes to the question of the economy, which the right hon. Gentleman has raised, can he and his party now explain why they were for reducing the deficit, then against reducing the deficit and are now for reducing the deficit again? None of his policies stand up, and that is why there is never any substance from the Leader of the Opposition.

It was this Prime Minister who put character at the heart of the election. It was this Prime Minister who asked to be judged on his moral compass. Why is it that the moral compass always points at someone else rather than at him?

This is a verbatim, eye-witness account from one of the journalists. Listen to this:

“Brown’s point man…turned to the journalists and started laying in”—[Interruption.]

Order. If hon. and right hon. Members do not stop shouting, I may have to ring some sort of helpline myself—or, worse still, suspend the sitting. This sort of noise and ranting makes an extremely bad impression on the British public. I appeal to the House to have some regard for the way in which we are viewed by the electorate. The House will hear the Leader of the Opposition.

I gather that things have got so bad in Downing street that even the security guards need protection. Let us just keep it simple. Will the Prime Minister get to his feet and tell us that he knew absolutely nothing about the briefing against his Chancellor? Will he, in front of all these people who have worked with him for so long, after 27 ministerial resignations and after three attempts to get rid of him, get to his feet and tell us that he knew nothing about the briefing against the Chancellor?

The right hon. Gentleman is not doing very well. He has asked me the same question three times and I have answered it. I would rather be defending my Chancellor than be in his position of having to defend his shadow Chancellor. The truth of the matter is that the Chancellor has been right on every issue of economic policy over the past two years and that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have been wrong on every issue in the past few years.

If the Chancellor was right, why was the Prime Minister trying to get rid of him? The Prime Minister wants to talk about the economy; let me give him one statistic and see if he will confirm it. Figures out today show that gross domestic product per capita is lower today than when this Government began. Will he confirm that they are the first Government in 40 years to leave this country poorer than when they began?

The Chancellor and I can confirm that GDP is higher per head than it was in 1997. [Interruption.] That is the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked and that is the answer he will get. The problem with the Leader of the Opposition is that not one time does he ask any question about the substance of policy: he gets it wrong every time. People are now taking a hard, long look at the Conservatives and they are now seeing through them

Q14. Thank you, Mr. Speaker. First, may I add my condolences to those of my right hon. Friend regarding David Greenhalgh, who lived in Ilkeston in Erewash—my constituency—and was a very brave young man? To receive a diagnosis of cancer must be one of the most frightening experiences in anybody’s life. Currently, 94.1 per cent. of patients see a cancer specialist within two weeks. May I welcome the Government’s intention to build on that incredible progress and to make the two-week goal a legal entitlement, thus further reassuring patients with cancer and their families? (317429)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a very keen interest in how we can make progress against cancer in our country. The truth is that if people get early screening and diagnosis, there is a 90 per cent.-plus chance of survival from breast cancer and other forms of cancer such as bowel cancer. That is why we are so keen that everybody who is worried can see a specialist and get a diagnosis as quickly as possible. That is what will save lives.

Our policy of having a two-week guarantee, now reduced to one week, has massive support throughout the country. I cannot understand for the life of me why the Conservative party is against these guarantees that we give to every patient in the country. If the Opposition want to show their commitment to the NHS, they should support the guarantees for cancer care.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the seven brave soldiers who tragically lost their lives serving so selflessly and professionally in Afghanistan since the House last sat. They are Lance Corporal Darren Hicks, Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh, Rifleman Mark Marshall, Kingsman Sean Dawson, Sapper Guy Mellors, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell and Lance Sergeant David Walker. We all owe them and their families an eternal debt of gratitude.

The last time that the Prime Minister wheeled out his slogan “A future fair for all” was back in 2003. Then, just as now, the poorest were paying more of their income in tax than the richest, but there is one big difference—since 2003, the gap between what the poorest and the richest pay has doubled. How can he possibly call that fair?

As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman before, he has to include the importance of tax credits. He forgets that 6 million families in this country get child tax credits, that child benefit was worth only £10 when we came to office, and that the child tax credit is worth anything from £30 to £100 for a family of one or two. That is why we have been able to reduce child poverty in this country. Because we support the policy of tax credits, we will continue to reduce child poverty in this country.

Parties that want to cut child tax credits, as the Conservative party does, will put more children in poverty in this country. That is why we oppose the Opposition’s policy.

The Prime Minister reels off his so-called record, but he has asked us to take a second look and what do we find? The 10p tax rate hit hard-up families, and the hike in national insurance hit people who work hard and play by the rules—tax injustice for the many, tax breaks for the few. Given what happened the last time that the Prime Minister promised a future fair for all, is it not the truth that this is not a slogan but a warning?

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would do better than that. First, we have been dealing with tax breaks at the top, including removing pension tax reliefs for those who are very wealthy, and I hope that he will continue to support our policy. The Chancellor has signed an agreement with Lichtenstein that will bring £1 billion of money back to this country. As far as helping everybody is concerned, it is our policy of helping the unemployed and helping people out of recession that is making the difference between poverty and people having sufficient to live on. That is why, because of our policies, there are half a million more people in work than was predicted even at the time of the Budget. That is what makes the difference to poverty.

Will the Prime Minister and the whole House join me in condemning the kidnapping and the brutal murder by beheading of two young Sikh men in Pakistan by an extremist Taliban group? Will he share with the House the action that the Government are taking to assist the Pakistan Government in protecting minority groups in Pakistan from the Taliban?

The danger posed by the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban, which both work from Pakistan, becomes more and more obvious every day. When my hon. Friend refers to the murders of people in Pakistan by the Pakistan Taliban, he is referring to violent incidents that are happening every day as a result of the efforts of the Taliban. We are working with the Pakistani authorities so that we can make inroads into the Taliban. There has been some success with the leadership of the Afghan Taliban in the past few weeks, but we will continue to work with the Pakistan security authorities and we will continue to say to the Pakistani people, “We will help children with their education. We ask you to work with us so that the madrassahs cannot have an evil influence on the young people of Pakistan.”

Q2. The Prime Minister will know that Government expenditure on advertising, marketing and self-promotion went up by more than 40 per cent. last year. As it obviously is not working, will he cut it out? (317417)

We have already announced that we are going to halve the Government advertising budget and the consultancy budget. The right hon. Gentleman should know that.

Is the Prime Minister aware that February was designated by the Office of Fair Trading as scams awareness month? Does the attempt by the Opposition to pose as a party fit for government not qualify as one of the biggest scams in recent history? Will he join me in logging on to the scamnesty website to draw attention to this latest example of a blatant “scameron”?

Q3. My constituent, Stephen Oliver, died at the age 30 in tragic and mysterious circumstances late last year. Stephen’s family are very disappointed by the Greek authorities’ failure properly to investigate his death, and by the British Government’s seeming acceptance of the situation. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest in the case and try to get the answers to the questions raised by the family? (317418)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of the question. Like him, I am very sorry to hear of the tragic death of Stephen Oliver in October last year and I, too, send my sincere condolences to the Oliver family. I understand that consular staff in London and in Greece are ready to provide advice and assistance to Mr. Oliver’s family as appropriate, including advice on how best to seek further information about the circumstances of his death. I will make sure that that is done. I am sure that ministerial colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will look further into any concerns that the hon. Gentleman may have.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that he condemns not only the use of false UK passports in a criminal operation, but any act of state-sponsored assassination anywhere? Will he drop the Government’s plans to amend the law on universal jurisdiction, which has so far been justified on the basis of the need to protect Israel’s right to due diplomatic conduct and to proper inter-governmental engagement—standards for which the Israeli Government showed utter contempt by the disdain with which the Israeli Foreign Minister treated the Foreign Secretary this week?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that where there are questions about the misuse of British passports, they have to be answered. We have set up an investigation, which is ongoing, into the very instance that he raised. I would not draw immediate conclusions without seeing the evidence. It is important to see the evidence before any further conclusions are drawn, but I agree that we do not support state-sponsored terrorism in any country. I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the laws on international jurisdiction affect all countries, not just one country.

Q4. As has been well chronicled, the Prime Minister had a famously tempestuous relationship with his predecessor, who described him as a “big clunking fist”. Did he mean it literally? (317419)

Once again, the Conservative party cannot raise an issue of policy. Yesterday we had an education statement; on Monday we had a business conference with announcements of new investment; and a Conservative Back Bencher gets up with a planted question from his Front Benchers and cannot ask a question even about his own constituency.

Q5. My right hon. Friend knows that the whole of Teesside is waiting for news about Corus. That company, whose order book was 80 per cent. full in December, has now been mothballed and 1,700 people have been made unemployed. Will the Prime Minister tell the House this afternoon what his Ministers are doing to secure and to help to secure a purchase, and whether it is the case that Tata is unprepared to sell the company and speak to British Ministers? (317420)

First, I share my hon. Friend’s anger about what has happened on Teesside, and the loss of 1,700 jobs in any area is unacceptable. The loss of 1,700 jobs in an area that has depended on that industry for years and had a contract that would have guaranteed future work for many future years is more unacceptable, and we have to look at that very carefully. As I think the House knows, there was a contract involving four companies which would have guaranteed the output of the plant. That contract broke down through the partners in it disagreeing among themselves about the future.

We are doing everything that we can to find a buyer for the plant. I have personally talked to Mr. Tata and to the chief executive of Corus, and I have met people in the area who are concerned about what is happening to the jobs and the prospects for young people there. As we look for a potential buyer, we have also put £60 million into the Teesside area so that we can create new jobs, new training opportunities for jobs and new developments in the area that will provide jobs in the future. But I share with my hon. Friend my anger at what happened, and I am determined that our Government will do everything that we can to make sure that people who lose jobs get jobs in the future, and, if we can avoid it, that people do not lose jobs at all.

Since 2008 and the introduction of new rules on motorcycling and tests, the number of people taking the test has declined by 62 per cent. and the number of people passing the test has declined by 58 per cent. The motorbiking industry is extremely important in the UK. What will the Prime Minister do to rectify what is obviously a very poor system?

I shall take the figures that the hon. Lady has given me and ask the Transport Minister to look into that very matter. It is important that we have a strong motorcycling industry in this country, and it is important that her question about the specifics of the tests be answered.

Q6. Kensley Larrier was convicted of rape in 2005, based on DNA held on the national database. Is it not the case that if storage were restricted to three years, he would be walking free? (317421)

This is a very important issue, and a national debate would help us to resolve these issues. Last year there were 832 matches to the national DNA database, and those were made in cases of murder, manslaughter and rape. That is why the database is supported by the families of victims as essential in protecting the public. So any Conservative party proposal that reduces the DNA register’s ability to punish and find those people who are criminals is, I believe, a step backwards for justice in the country. I hope that the Conservative party will think again about a policy that would leave people who are guilty free as a result of our inability to take the action that is necessary.

Q7. The words of respect that the Prime Minister spoke today about Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell will be echoed in every corner of the west Berkshire community from where he came. Does the Prime Minister agree that nearly everyone in this country supports our troops, but that a sizeable proportion of the population are at least sceptical of our role in Afghanistan? Does he share my feeling that there is a moral imperative on him and his Ministers to articulate and inform people of the value of the work that our troops do there, and of the necessity of stabilising that region? (317422)

I share the sympathies that the hon. Gentleman expresses to the family of his constituent who tragically lost his life. I share also with the hon. Gentleman the urgency to persuade the country that, first, we are in Afghanistan because there is a threat of terrorism on the streets of Britain. I repeat that the majority of the serious terrorist plots that have been discovered in Britain and would threaten the lives of people in Britain come from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. In other words, they do not come from plots within Britain or Europe. They are organised from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, and that is why we are in Afghanistan—to prevent al-Qaeda running Afghanistan through a Government who would be run by the Taliban themselves.

I say secondly to the hon. Gentleman that we have got to persuade people that we have a purpose for our mission, and that is to train up the Afghan forces. There will be 300,000 Afghan police, security forces or army in 2011; they will be a far greater force in numbers than the coalition forces together. Gradually, the Afghan forces, as in Operation Together, have got to take security control of their country to allow our troops to come home.

Q8. People in my constituency want to know what the Government’s priorities will be after the election. Surprisingly, fox hunting is not an issue for them, but taxation is. Could the Prime Minister confirm that he will definitely not have as a priority cuts in inheritance tax for the benefit of a small minority of people effectively paid for by everyone else out of their taxes? (317423)

The Opposition have announced that they wish to cut the child trust fund and cut child tax credit, and they would cut the Sure Start children’s centres in our constituencies—and where would the money go? To pay for an inheritance tax cut for only 300,000 people. It does not take much time to leaflet those 300,000 people to tell them that they would be £200,000—

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that renewed acts of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland are not only threats to the peace process but direct attacks on the very communities from which these terrorists come? (317424)

There are Members here in all parts of the House who are from Northern Ireland or care deeply about Northern Ireland. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that any renewed terrorist attacks are something that we must be vigilant about and take the necessary action to stop. As he knows, large numbers of previously terrorist organisations have decommissioned their weapons and announced that they are ceasing violence. Two organisations have not done that, and pressure must be brought to bear upon them. The way we show terrorist organisations that we will have no truck with their violence is by building up the strength of the political and democratic process in Northern Ireland. That is why I urge all parties—parties in this House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly—to support the agreement that will mean the devolution of policing and justice and the end to a process of constitutional conflict over many years in Northern Ireland. That would be the biggest signal we could send to anybody who is interested in terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Q10. I enjoy a pint of porter and a game of darts as much as any old Etonian, but there the similarity ends. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to strain every sinew to try to achieve an international agreement on a Robin Hood tax, bearing in mind that we all know who in this House speaks for the Sheriff of Nottingham? (317425)

I cannot beat the humour which my hon. Friend brings to this occasion. When the Leader of the Opposition is having his next pint of Guinness and playing darts, he might consider this: there is growing support across the world, just as there was growing support to deal with the recession in a way that he would not propose to deal with it, for a global levy that will put the place of financial institutions firmly at a global level and make a contribution to society. That is the way forward—a global levy, a global banking organisation, and global financial institutions working together. I hope that the Opposition can see beyond their antipathy to Europe to support global action.

Statement by the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Order. If hon. Members are leaving, I should be grateful if they would do so quickly and quietly.