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Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2010

As the people of Cumbria gather for memorial services to remember the shocking and tragic events of last week, it is right that our thoughts are with them and with the friends and families of all those who were killed or injured.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan: from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Marine Anthony Hotine; from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, Lance Corporal Alan Cochran and Corporal Terry Webster; and a soldier from 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery who died yesterday. They were all extremely talented and professional servicemen who gave their lives for the safety and security of people in our country. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and our thoughts should be with their families and with their friends.

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.

May I associate myself with the words of the Prime Minister and offer my condolences to the families of those who were tragically killed in west Cumbria and of the servicemen who have died serving our country?

There have been reports in the newspapers that the Prime Minister wants a positive relationship with the Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, indeed, wants to work with them in partnership. On that theme, will he put a measure before the House that allows a referendum this autumn for greater powers for the Welsh Assembly? Will he come clean with this House, and with the people of Wales, and say whether he is in favour of additional powers himself?

First, let me be as frank and as clear as I can be. We had a meeting of the joint ministerial council yesterday with representatives of all the devolved Assemblies and Governments. I want to have a genuine respect agenda between the UK Government and all those Administrations. We have always said—[Interruption.] I will tell you exactly what that means: there will be a referendum on extra powers for the Welsh Assembly. That referendum, we believe, should take place next year.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if he wanted to have a referendum earlier, the last Secretary of State could have pushed it through earlier, and he did not. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that referendum will take place. It will be a matter for people in Wales to decide. They must determine their future. As for my view, as someone who spends a lot of time in Wales and has great respect for people in Wales, I always find that, yes, there is a debate about powers for the Assembly, but there is also debate among people in Wales wanting to know how we are going to make progress on housing, on health care, on schools, and on jobs—the real issues as well as just the institutional ones.

May I associate myself with the remarks that the Prime Minister rightly made about the dreadful shootings in Cumbria last week, and also pay tribute to the emergency services and to all those who are recovering from that appalling tragedy?

The Prime Minister will be aware that the national cancer reform strategy states that no cancer patient should have to travel for more than 45 minutes to receive radiotherapy treatment. Last December, we received a commitment from our local health trusts that there would be a new cancer unit for South Lakeland in Kendal. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and health campaigners and NHS officials soon to try to ensure that he, too, makes a commitment to the delivery of a cancer unit—

First, the hon. Gentleman will note from the coalition agreement, as I am glad to remind everyone, that we are protecting NHS spending. There will be real increases in NHS spending under this Government year on year. I absolutely understand the concerns that there are about wanting to keep services local to people. I know that is the case in Lakeland, and it is also the case with the West Cumberland hospital. I am very happy to ensure that there is a meeting between the Health Secretary and the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter and ensure that we keep services local. A lot of the reconfigurations that took place under the previous Government caused an enormous amount of pain and unease in local areas and did not actually lead to improved services.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the four soldiers who have died in the service of our country in the past week: Marine Anthony Hotine from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Lance Corporal Alan Cochran and Corporal Terry Webster from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, and a soldier from 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. They fought with bravery, and today we remember not just the sacrifice they made but the loved ones they leave behind.

I support what the Prime Minister said about Cumbria and join him in expressing our heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of all those who were killed or injured. The police investigation is under way. Can he update us on the work that the Government are doing, and is he in a position yet to tell the House whether the Government have any plans to reconsider the regulations on guns? As the Home Secretary rightly said in her statement last week, we have to learn any lessons we can.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her words. It is right to reflect on this appalling tragedy and think about how best we can go forward. Specifically on gun laws, we need to be clear first about the full facts of the case. We also need to determine the type and scope of reviews that will take place after this tragedy. Of course the Home Office will look again at the gun laws in the light of the tragedy, and I can also announce today that the chief constable of Cumbria has already written to the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers asking him to support a peer review, to be conducted by national police experts on firearms licensing and police firearms response and tactics. Those reviews will become publicly available documents. We should not leap to conclusions, and I do not believe in knee-jerk legislation. We have in this country some of the tightest gun laws, but of course we should look again at them.

On the issue of what sort of review is right for people in west Cumbria, I will be meeting two of the west Cumbrian MPs whose constituencies are affected straight after Prime Minister’s questions in my office, and the right hon. and learned Lady would be very welcome to join us with the Home Secretary to discuss that matter. In the end, we must ensure that we do the right thing by the people of west Cumbria and that they are properly served by the things that we decide as a Government.

I fully support everything that the Prime Minister said in that answer, and may I say that I am sure that the visit that he and the Home Secretary made to Cumbria was very much appreciated?

Just before the general election, the Electoral Commission published a report showing that despite the efforts of electoral registration officers, there are still serious concerns about the number of people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the electoral register. Given that the Government are committed to major reform of constituency boundaries, will the Prime Minister undertake not to press forward with those changes on the basis of an electoral register that excludes 3.5 million people?

First, I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that it is important that people who are eligible to vote register to vote, and we want to see that sped up and improved. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is taking forward that work. We also want to see individual voter registration, because there has been a great increase in fraud in recent years, but even as that work goes ahead it is important that we have reform so that we have equal-sized constituencies across our country. Those of us who support the first-past-the-post voting system want to make it more fair by ensuring that seats are the same size across our country. Where on earth is the unfairness in that?

The danger is that if the Prime Minister presses on in the way he has indicated, he will be making the system less fair, not more fair. As he said, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged to the House this week that there is a problem with the register. The Electoral Commission study found not just the number of people who are not on the register, but who they are: a third of all black people, half of all young people, and half of all private sector tenants are not on the register, despite the work that has been undertaken by electoral registration officers. Those people will not be counted if the Prime Minister redraws constituency boundaries now. He says he wants equal constituencies, but does he accept that he cannot have equal constituencies based on an unequal register?

I have to say to the right hon. and learned Lady that she had 13 years to sort out the issue of voter registration. What is interesting about what happened over the last 13 years is that elections used to be determined by a few officials in the Home Office. We have now got the vast bureaucracy of the Electoral Commission. It spends millions of pounds every year, employs dozens of people, holds huge great reviews, spends vast amounts of money on advertising, but has not succeeded in its task.

We will press ahead to get people to register, but I have to ask the right hon. and learned Lady this again: what on earth is unfair about equal-sized seats? My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) has, I think, to look after about 110,000 constituents, but some Opposition Members have about half that. That is simply not fair.

The Prime Minister has shown that he is not listening to the argument that he cannot redraw the boundaries, which is his Government’s proposal, until the problem of the register is sorted out. He has shown that he is not listening to argument, but pressing on regardless. That is not the new politics; it is downright unfair.

May I move to another issue? [Interruption.]

Order. Quite a bad example is being set by some senior Members to newcomers—[Interruption.] Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place. The public are not impressed: they want to hear orderly exchanges.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Before the election, the coalition parties talked about ending what they called the surveillance society. The coalition agreement said that the Government would further regulate the use of closed circuit television, but on Monday, the Home Secretary could not tell the House what that would mean in practice. Can the Prime Minister tell us now?

First, I am not surprised that the right hon. and learned Lady wanted to move on to another subject. Let me make one last point on the previous question—[Interruption.] I am sorry if it is painful, but it is important. She says that it is not right to redraw boundaries until we have sorted out the electoral register, but I have to point out that we fought the last election on redrawn boundaries, so I think we have a long way to go on that. There was, I have to say, just a whiff of special pleading.

On surveillance, let me be clear that I support CCTV cameras. I have them in my constituency and they are very effective, and when I worked at the Home Office many years ago I championed such schemes, but I think everyone understands that the level of surveillance has become very great in our country. As well as the issue of CCTV, there is the issue of how many different sorts of officials are allowed to enter people’s houses without permission. We will be bringing forward legislation to deal with that. I know that the Labour party has given up on civil liberties, and that the right hon. and learned Lady used to be head of what was the National Council for Civil Liberties—that was all a long time ago—but we on this side of the House think civil liberties are important.

May I ask the Prime Minister the question again, because I was asking not about people entering people’s houses, but about CCTV? Can I tell him what Theresa was saying to me on Friday? [Hon. Members: “Theresa?”] Not the Home Secretary, but Theresa from the Poets Corner estate in my constituency. That Theresa is the one who knows about living on an estate that needs CCTV. Let me tell the Prime Minister that such people do not want to be told by this Government that it is going to be made harder to get the CCTV that they need on their estates. I press him on this because it is about people feeling, and being, safe in their communities. Will he guarantee that he will not do anything to make it harder to get or to use CCTV?

The right hon. and learned Lady should understand that this is all about proportionality and making sure that we have a system that helps protect people while respecting civil liberties. It is extraordinary how the Labour party is becoming more and more authoritarian. Hearing the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) talk about immigration, it seems we have the new Alf Garnett of British politics. It is one of the biggest U-turns that any of us can remember: for 13 years, not a word about immigration or our borders, but now they are all in a race. Perhaps it is time to move on to another subject, and the right hon. and learned Lady can tell us what she thinks about immigration.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the closure of 12 branches of the Derbyshire building society and its head office in the village of Duffield in my constituency? Can he assure me that he and his Government will do all they can to help those constituents who will lose their jobs—nearly 250 of them—in this small, rural area? Will he please assure us that the Government will do all they can to help these constituents who are being dealt this cruel blow at this difficult time?

I understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise this issue. What has happened to the Derbyshire building society is desperately sad, and obviously the Government will stand ready to do all we can to retrain people who have lost their jobs and to ensure that they get the very best opportunities, and also to ensure that we go on having a strong financial services sector. As the Derbyshire building society reminds us, this is not just about the City of London; it is about the fact that millions of people in our country work in financial services, providing a good service, and we need to help them.

Q2. One of the projects that stands to be affected by the Government’s decision to put on hold £600 million of housing investment is the housing element of the redevelopment of the Longbridge site in my constituency, which is important not just to that area but to the economic recovery of Birmingham as a whole. Given that the project is supported by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that runs Birmingham city council, will the Prime Minister tell me what priority he will attach to the regenerative effects of such housing projects? (1327)

Everyone wants regeneration to continue in Birmingham, and I pay tribute to Birmingham city council, which is jointly run, I have to say, by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who are continuing with the very good work that they do. We want that regeneration to continue. The problem with the previous Government’s housing commitments, particularly on social housing, is that they simply were not funded. One of the things that we and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills have been able to do, in making £6 billion of cuts this year, is plough back some of that money into social housing schemes, which the last Government promised but never funded.

Did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to reflect overnight on the noble Lord Myners’s candid and forthright remarks in the other place about the appalling financial legacy left by the Labour party? Does he share my view that Lord Myners’s remarks make it clear that the Office for Budget Responsibility should clearly be supported on both sides of the House, and if anything is to be regretted, is it not the fact that he said that after, rather than before, the election?

That is a good idea, on that performance. It is great to welcome my hon. Friend back to the House of Commons. He is right that Lord Myners, who was hand-picked by the last Government to be a Treasury Minister, put his finger on the button when he said:

“There is nothing progressive about a Government who consistently spend more than they can raise in taxation, and certainly nothing progressive that endows generations to come with the liabilities incurred by the current generation.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 625.]

Those words are absolutely right, but what a pity he did not say it when he was in office and had the chance to do something about it.

Q3. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for writing to me today to tell me that the decision on the Nissan grant will be fast-tracked. Waiting for this decision is causing huge economic uncertainty to the north-east economy. I hope that the Prime Minister can help me with a similar cause of concern to my constituents—the issue of whether the rebuilding of Hetton school will go ahead as planned. (1328)

First of all, having written the hon. Lady a letter, I can now go a bit further and confirm, with respect to the specific grant for Nissan that she raised last week, that the money will go ahead and the investment will be going in. Before Opposition Members jump to their feet, let me explain what the problem is with some of the grants. Before the last election, Lord Mandelson had a giant cheque book, which he went all round the country opening up, spending tens of billions of pounds, which he promised to 200 projects, two thirds of which were conveniently located in Labour marginal seats. Given that so much money was spent, it is only right for a responsible incoming Government to review those decisions one by one and make sure that the money is well spent. Fortunately for Lord Mandelson, someone else is now getting out their cheque book to pay for his memoirs.

Q4 . NHS managers in my Bromsgrove constituency tell me that they are being strangled by the level of bureaucracy. What action will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister take to make sure that hospitals will never be allowed again to put top-down targets before patient care? (1329)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We all know of cases where targets were getting in the way of proper clinical outcomes and clinical care. Too many people have experienced that in the health service, and our view is clear: if there is no clinical justification for targets, they will go. I can announce today that we will fulfil another important pledge—to have a public inquiry into the appalling events at the Mid Staffordshire hospital. I remember going to Stafford and meeting families, many of which had lost loved ones, some of whom went into hospital for a routine operation, but because the standards of hygiene and the management were not right and, frankly, because targets were being pursued rather than clinical outcomes, people died needlessly. This inquiry is important so that people in Staffordshire can tell their story.

Q5. “The Coalition: our programme for government” states:“We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.”May I ask the Prime Minister why he believes that defendants in rape cases are more deserving of anonymity than those accused of murder, domestic violence or sexual abuse of children? (1330)

I know that the right hon. Lady cares very deeply about this issue—the key issue of getting the conviction rate for rapists up—as do I. I know that she gave a good speech on the subject in an Adjournment debate. What I would say is that none of us should ignore the fact that somehow there is a problem with this. We know that a lot of people are falsely accused, whose careers and lives can be blighted—[Interruption.] Opposition Members shake their heads, but in some cases people have committed suicide. One of the proofs is that when the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), now leader of the Labour party, was in office, she commissioned a report into this issue by Baroness Stern, which found that 8 to 10% of reported rape cases could result in false allegations. Baroness Stern, who looked into the issue, said that defendant anonymity was often raised and that a

“full examination of the issues would be helpful to the debate”.

What we are promising is to bring proposals forward so that they can be debated. Let us not ignore the fact that there is a problem, because there is one, and let us see if we can work together to find the right outcome.

The people of Wootton Bassett in my constituency who, week by week, lead the nation in paying their respects to our fallen heroes seek no thanks or recognition for so doing. When the happy day comes when our soldiers are finally brought back from Afghanistan, however, I wonder whether the Prime Minister and his colleagues would consider repositioning the very fine war memorial from Camp Bastion to the High street in Wootton Bassett in commemoration of the way in which the local people carry out their service?

I think my hon. Friend makes an extremely good and positive suggestion. The whole country has seen the incredible devotion of people in Wootton Bassett, who, come rain or shine, are always out on the streets watching as that very sad procession goes by. I think it has stirred people in this country to see that, when it comes to this conflict, whatever we think of it, we all want to support our troops and their families. We all want to do what we can to recognise that. It is not just a Government thing; it is about the whole of our society wanting to recognise what these people do on our behalf. The people of Wootton Bassett are, in my view, right up there among the heroes.

Q6. I am sure the Prime Minister is aware that a cross-party group of MPs worked extremely hard in the last Parliament to persuade the Government to adopt new measures to regulate houses in multiple occupation and to license private landlords. Can he reassure me that his Government will not seek to undermine that legislation, which is so important to my city centre community and others? (1331)

The hon. Lady has made a very good point. We all know of the problems of houses that are kept badly, and of past problems involving HMOs. I will ask the Minister for Housing to get in touch with her about his plans, so that we can ensure that we get this right.

The legacy of the former Government’s disastrous decision making in Iraq is still plain to see. Will the Prime Minister look at the existing Home Office guidance on the deporting of asylum seekers to Baghdad? A plane has left today. May I ask the Prime Minister to consider the matter again, personally and compassionately, to ensure that we have a firm immigration policy, but remain a bastion for people fleeing political persecution?

I will certainly look into my hon. Friend’s point. However, I think we should recognise that whatever view we took of the Iraq conflict—and I supported it—at least Iraq now has some chance of stability and democracy. We are actually seeing some progress there. This morning I had a meeting with General Petraeus, who brought me up to date on what he considers to be the latest situation.

It is important to remember that one of the reasons why our brave servicemen and women fought and died in Iraq was that they were trying to make it a more stable country, and a country to which people who had fled it would be able to return. Yes, of course I will look at the specific issue raised by my hon. Friend, but in general, while we are here to offer people asylum when they are fleeing torture and persecution, if we help to make their country safe they should be able to go home.

Q7. I thank the Prime Minister for his recent visit to west Cumbria. Will he give me a personal assurance that he will do everything in his power to help and support its people, who have suffered so grievously in recent times? (1332)

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I know how hard he and other MPs in Cumbria have been working to bring people together after this appalling tragedy. They are, as someone has said, a very tough people in west Cumbria, but also very compassionate, very caring, and a very strong community. They have shown that in the way in which they have responded to these dreadful events.

As I said in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, we will meet after Question Time to discuss what should be done next. I think that that is important, and I think it important to recognise that west Cumbria is a part of the country that sometimes feels quite cut off.

Amazing work was done by West Cumberland hospital, which proved itself when facing the most appalling tragedy, and the terrible difficulties caused by the fact that so many people with such awful injuries were coming to the hospital at once. People are inclined to say that it is a bit too small to cope with such events, but it coped magnificently, and I think it proved that big is not always beautiful.

The last Government changed the rules so that anyone claiming asylum in this country must do so in person in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wrong to ask one local authority to shoulder what should be a national responsibility, and if so, will the Government review the decision?

I should be happy to consider that. I recall that it has been an issue in the past for constituencies surrounding Heathrow airport, and that mechanisms were introduced in an attempt to alleviate some of the burdens. I will ensure that Home Office Ministers get in touch with my hon. Friend so that we can deal with this problem.

Q8. The European Commission recently reported that European fish stocks were being fished at unsustainable levels, and that 30% were close to collapse. Will the Prime Minister negotiate with European colleagues to seek the abandonment of the common fisheries policy, and, if they do not agree, give notice of Britain’s withdrawal from the CFP? (1333)

That is a question that I am rather used to anticipating from those on the Conservative Benches. I think that even the most enthusiastic supporter of the European Union would recognise that the common fisheries policy has not been a success either in supporting our fishermen or in saving fish stocks. There are good lessons to be learned from other countries that have done better. I have to say though that that sometimes means some very drastic action in terms of closing some fishing areas altogether, but other countries have managed to do that and to regenerate their fishing stocks, so we will certainly take forward those negotiations on, I am sure, a coalition-wide basis.

Does the Prime Minister agree that we have heard a lot about fairness from Labour Members today, but there is nothing fair about the legacy that the Labour Government have left us: the £75 billion of debt interest that we will have to pay, which we could have spent on public services in all the constituencies represented in the House, including my constituency of Devizes?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which is that, if we do not take action to deal with the deficit, we will pay over £70 billion, not repaying the debt, but just on debt interest in five years’ time. Think about it like this: all the revenue gleaned from corporation tax—all the tax on every company making a profit in our country—does not even pay for half the debt interest bill. That is the mess that we have been left in, but this Government have the courage to deal with it.

Q9. The Prime Minister will agree that cross-border rail services are strategically important to the UK. Will he therefore honour the assurances given to me by the previous Government that east coast main line services will continue to stop at Motherwell and that there will be an increase in west coast main line services stopping at Motherwell? (1334)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I will certainly look at it. I cannot promise to arrange all the stops on the east coast main line. Sadly, that is a power I do not think I have, but I will do my best.

Q10. The Prime Minister will know that I am a follower of my beloved England football team. I ask him to do a great thing for the people of England: cut through the bureaucracy and nonsense and fly the flag of England over Downing street for the duration of the World cup. (1335)

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I have had those conversations. There was some question that this was going to have a cost impact, but I have managed to cut through that and I can say that, at no additional cost to the taxpayer, the flag of St George will fly above Downing street during the World cup. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish Fabio Capello and all our team well—for the purposes of this, I am looking at all the Benches here. I am sure that everyone in the House, no matter what part of the UK they come from, will be cheering, “Come on England.”

Q13. I thank the Prime Minister for his kind words about the Cumbrian people. Can he say, in relation to his forthcoming gun review, whether he thinks that it is still worth the risk to allow guns used for sport to continue to be kept at home? Will that be considered in his review? (1338)

The hon. Gentleman is right that everything has to be considered, including the mental health of people and police visits to their homes, but we have, because of previous tragedies, very strict rules on what people who keep guns at home have to do in terms of very strict security. I remember sitting on the Home Affairs Committee and asking the ACPO representative responsible for the issue how much leakage there was from legally held guns into the illegal, black market. The answer was virtually none, so if we are looking for what the problem is, it is clearly that in our society we have a huge number of guns that we need to get rid of. Clearly, there was an appalling problem in this case, where, as I have said, a switch flicked in someone’s head. We cannot legislate against that, but let us look at every aspect and ensure that we have the robust laws that we need.