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Prime Minister

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


As the House will be aware, today is the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terrorist attacks on central London. I am sure that everyone in the House and people in the country will remember where they were, and what they were doing, when that dreadful news came through. Our hearts should go out to the families and friends of those who died. They will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are also with those who were injured, physically and mentally, by the dreadful events of that day. It was a dreadful day, but it was also a day that will remain—I believe—a symbol of the enduring bravery of the British people.

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.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the people of Somaliland on the successful, peaceful and transparent election of a new President? As the Somaliland republic has now been a beacon of democracy in Africa for nearly 20 years, will the Prime Minister ensure that the UK keeps its promise to increase engagement with a new Government with democratic credentials?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue concerning an area of the world of enormous importance for our own security. I join him in welcoming the peaceful and credible elections in Somaliland. They are an example of genuine democracy in an area of the world not noted for it. The UK provided funding for election supervision, and we are keen to engage with the new Government. I believe, and I am sure the whole House would agree, that the key is to prevent terrorist groups from establishing a foothold in Somaliland, as they have done in Somalia. That is vital, and, yes, the Government will continue to engage.

The Prime Minister will not be surprised to hear that I intend to continue campaigning to keep the Hercules fleet at RAF Lyneham in my constituency as long as I can. However, if, at the end of the day, it moves to Brize Norton in his constituency, and takes with it the jobs and economic prosperity that go with it, will he at least use all his good offices to ensure that we find some way of bringing jobs and economic prosperity back into the vacated site at Lyneham?

My hon. Friend has fought a long and noble campaign on this issue, and has made very strong arguments—I know how strong they are, because every time I get into a Hercules, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the pilots always immediately complain about having to move from his constituency to mine. He makes a good point about economic development, and we will ensure that, if this goes ahead, we will see good, strong economic development in his constituency.

I support what the Prime Minister has said on the fifth anniversary of the terrible 7/7 bombings. Today we remember those who were killed and injured, and their families and friends. We pay tribute to the emergency services, which responded with such care and such courage, and we stand with the Government in our determination to defeat those who would bring terror to our streets.

There has been a lot of progress on tackling domestic violence, but still every year hundreds of thousands of women are victims of it. Many of the perpetrators are sent to prison—rightly, in my view—but now the Justice Secretary has embarked on a sentencing review, and has suggested that short sentences do not work. However, often what is needed in domestic violence cases is not rehabilitation, but a clear message to the perpetrator that it must not be repeated, and a clear message to the victim that the justice system takes this seriously. That is what a short sentence can do. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the sentencing review will not stop magistrates giving short prison sentences for domestic violence?

First, I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about the anniversary and the tribute that she rightly paid to the emergency services, which played an unbelievably brilliant role on that day, and to the many people who helped them.

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of domestic violence. For too many years it was an issue that police forces and prosecutors did not deal with properly, and to be fair to the last Government, good progress has been made over the past decade. I agree that there are occasions when short sentences are required, and indeed the Lord Chancellor takes exactly the same view. He said in the speech—[Interruption.] It is very important to read the speech, not just the headline. He said:

“In my opinion, abolishing all short-term sentences altogether…would be a step too far. We need penalties for the anti-social…recidivist.”

We need to ensure that magistrates have that power, but the review is important to try to ensure that we get this right.

I thank the Prime Minister for that reassurance. It is reassuring that the promise that the Liberal Democrats made at the election is not going to be carried forward. I notice that the Justice Secretary is not looking very cheerful; perhaps he should go down to Ronnie Scott’s to cheer himself up.

May I congratulate the Prime Minister on, instead of listening to his new partner, listening to his mother? In the election he told us that his mother was a magistrate and that she told him that magistrates needed the power of short sentences. Quite often, it is the right thing for somebody not to listen to their new partner but to listen to their mother, so I am glad that he has done that on this occasion.

I turn to something else mentioned in the election campaign. The Prime Minister said that any Minister who comes to him with cuts to front-line services

“will be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”

Does that apply to the Home Secretary?

First, may I say that in my experience there are very few people more cheerful than the Lord Chancellor. He is celebrating his 40th anniversary in this House, and he likes to point out that he was elected before the Chancellor of the Exchequer was born. He brings enormous experience and good humour to all our counsels.

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Lady has brought up the issue of my mother, who served on the Newbury bench for many, many years. I have to say that one of the biggest challenges she had—[Interruption.] As well as me, one of the biggest challenges that she had, and one of the reasons why she needed to hand out so many short sentences, was badly behaved CND protestors outside Greenham Common. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Lady was there. Anyway, if she wants to have more episodes of “Listen With Mother”, I am very happy for that at any time she would like.

On the Home Office, of course we have to make savings. We have to make savings across Government. It is not going to be easy, but absolutely we must ensure that we do everything we can to protect the front line. However, I simply do not believe that when we look at the Home Office budget there are not examples of waste and inefficiency and things that we can do better. The right hon. and learned Lady went into the election calling for 20% cuts in every Department. That was her policy—a policy of 5% cuts each year. Ours is 6% cuts each year, so these are Labour cuts as well.

We went into the election very clear about protecting police numbers. I am asking the Prime Minister a straightforward question, which he has so far failed to answer. At Prime Minister’s questions, he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) this very simple, straightforward question:

“Will there be fewer police officers at the end of this Parliament”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 287.]

compared with now? He skirted around her question and did not answer it. Will he answer it now?

Of course there will be difficult decisions, but let me—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] A simple question was put to the shadow Home Secretary before the last election. [Interruption.] Wait for it:

“Andrew Neil: Can you guarantee if you form…the next government that police numbers won’t fall?

Alan Johnson: No”.

But my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) went on to say—I think that that was selective quoting—that we would guarantee the funding that would ensure police numbers and the numbers of police community support officers. We were absolutely clear about that. The Prime Minister’s Lib Dem partners said that they would have 3,000 more police officers on the beat, while he said that he would protect front-line services. Is either of those promises going to be kept? People who are concerned about crime want to know.

There is nothing selective about the word no. That is what the shadow Home Secretary said when he was asked whether he could guarantee that there would be no cuts in police numbers. Let us remember why we are here. We have a £155 billion budget deficit. The Labour party went into the last election promising 50% cuts in capital spending and 20% cuts in departmental spending. We are clearing up the mess that Labour made. I sat at the G20 table last weekend and, looking round the table, thought, “Who’s got the biggest budget deficit? Is it Brazil? No. Is it Spain? No. Is it Argentina? No.” Labour left us in a situation where we get lectured by Argentina on the state of our budget deficit.

If the right hon. Gentleman had read the Office for Budget Responsibility report, he would have seen that its forecast for Government borrowing was lower than the forecast that we made before the election—if he had read it, he would probably also have found that the Chair would not have resigned immediately after being appointed. Is it not clear that these are the Government’s crime policies—that the right hon. Gentleman is threatening to take away the police officers people want on the beat, cutting down the right of local residents to CCTV and making it harder for the police to use DNA evidence? Those are his policies. Let me ask him a straightforward question: does he think that those policies are more likely to make crime go down or go up?

The point is that under the last Government violent crime and gun crime went through the roof. The right hon. and learned Lady—[Interruption.] They almost doubled.

The shadow Foreign Secretary is shouting and shaking his head. Gun crime and violent crime almost doubled under the last Government. There is going to be a rush of new Labour memoirs coming up, so perhaps hon. Members should start with the report of the spin doctor who worked for the last Prime Minister, who—

Before the election, we were hearing all about tougher policies and more police from the Conservatives; now all that seems to have sailed off with those prison ships that the right hon. Gentleman was promising to buy. We were clear: we said when we first came into government that we would bring crime down, and we did. Will he promise that under his Government he will keep crime coming down? If he will not make that promise, it is only because he knows, as we all know, that his policies will put crime up.

Mr Speaker, I was only trying to boost sales.

I can promise the right hon. and learned Lady one thing: I will not be wandering round my constituency in a stab-proof vest. That is what it came to under the last Government. Gun crime went up, violent crime went up, reoffending of prisoners went up, every prison place cost £45,000, more than 10% of prisoners should not have been there because they are foreigners, half of them are on drugs and 40% of them commit a crime on the way out of prison. That is the record that we have inherited, and that is what we will be clearing up.

The latest report from the US Department of Defence to Congress highlighted the speed and decisiveness of insurgent propaganda in Afghanistan as a key threat to allied forces. What can the coalition do to counter this threat, given that the longer it goes on, the harder our task becomes?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we are not just fighting a war on the ground; there is a propaganda war as well. We have to demonstrate the progress we are making in training up the Afghan army and the Afghan police, and in spreading security and governance across Afghanistan—particularly, in our case, in southern Afghanistan. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will be publishing a monthly update and having quarterly statements in the House to ensure that we keep the British public fully informed and on side as we take difficult decisions in this conflict.

Q2. In the run-up to the general election, the Conservatives claimed to be the party that would support small businesses, yet in their first Budget they cancelled tax breaks for the computer games industry, which is crucial to my constituency. Can the Prime Minister tell not only me and the House but the hundreds of people in Dundee who are employed in the computer games industry and the students who study at Abertay university exactly why his Chancellor feels that that tax break was poorly targeted? (6247)

We believe that what matters is having low tax rates, and what we did in the Budget—which the House voted on last night—was to cut the small company rate of corporation tax back down to 20p from 22p and set out a path for getting corporation tax down to 24% by the end of this Parliament. That would give us one of the lowest tax rates in the G8, the G20 or anywhere in Europe. That is what we will benefit from, but I note that the Labour party voted against those tax reductions.

Q3. How can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents about the planning system? Under the last Government, my local councils turned down some massive developments such as the Pyestock mega depot, only to have those decisions overturned by Ministers who had never even visited the site. How can we re-engage local people in these local decisions? (6248)

I want to reassure my right hon. Friend, because it is right that local authorities should be taking decisions that affect people and that those decisions should be taken as locally as possible. We are scrapping the targets and the bureaucracy that we inherited from the Labour party. I can tell him that, since the election, we have managed to scrap the new unitary councils; the comprehensive area assessments have gone; regional spatial strategies—gone; regional assemblies—gone; home information packs—gone; and Labour’s ports tax and bins tax have both gone.

If the respect agenda is to mean anything, surely it should include proper consultation with the devolved Governments and legislatures on fundamental constitutional and political reform, which affects all parts of the United Kingdom and will affect the composition of the devolved legislatures. Will the Prime Minister therefore undertake urgently to enter into discussions with the representatives of the devolved Administrations and, if necessary, revise his proposals in the light of what they have to say? Let us have a proper respect agenda.

Of course these discussions need to take place, and they will take place—[Interruption.] Let me answer the question very directly, because I listened very carefully to the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) on this issue. The date and the nature of the referendum are Westminster Parliament issues and it is right that they should be brought before the Westminster Parliament first; it does not make sense to take them in front of other Parliaments and Assemblies first. That is the way to do it—[Interruption.]

Order. Members should not shout at the Prime Minister in that way. First of all, it is rude. Secondly, it delays the progress of our proceedings, and we really must not have it.

Q4. Can the Prime Minister reassure concerned Equitable Life victims in my constituency that the Government remain committed to ensuring justice for policyholders? (6249)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We are committed to a Bill in this Session. This needs to happen. It was in 2008 that the parliamentary ombudsman referred to a “decade of regulatory failure”. The fact that we have had to wait until now for this to be done is wrong. The last Government had plenty of opportunities to grip this, but I am afraid that, in quite a cynical way, they were just waiting and waiting, so that more of the Equitable Life policyholders were dying off. That is disgraceful, and we need to get this done.

Last Saturday afternoon, I joined the community of Stonehouse in my constituency to welcome home Sergeant Gary Jamieson. Sergeant Jamieson, from the Scots Guards, lost both legs and his left arm in an explosion in Afghanistan. The most humbling aspect of meeting Sergeant Jamieson was his distinct lack of bitterness. He fully supports the mission in Afghanistan, and strongly believes that the British forces there are making a difference. May I ask the Prime Minister to join me in paying tribute to a true British hero, and does he agree that the most fitting way in which to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and those who have suffered the most terrible injuries, is to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done?

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in paying the tribute that he has rightly paid to Sergeant Jamieson and to all who have served. Anyone who has met some of the soldiers—when visiting Headley Court, or elsewhere—who have lost limbs in combat, through improvised explosive devices or in other ways, cannot help being incredibly impressed by their spirit and bravery, and their determination to go on and live as full lives as possible.

We have set out very clearly what we want to achieve in Afghanistan. This is the key year, when we surge up the military forces and surge up the political pressure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement later today about how we can best do that, and how we can ensure that our forces are properly spread across Helmand province so that we can really have the effect that we want.

Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there, in a combat role or in significant numbers, in five years’ time? No, I do not. This is the time to get the job done, and the plan that we have envisages our ensuring that we will not be in Afghanistan in 2015. We have already been in Helmand for four or five years, and, obviously, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001. It is time to maximise the pressure now, and then to bring our forces home as we train the Afghan army and police force to do the job that needs to be done, which is to keep the country secure. That is our goal, that is in our national security interest, and that is what we will do.

Q5. Park home owners are often elderly and vulnerable, and some suffer greatly as a result of the actions of a small minority of site owners. They suffer threats, intimidation and neglect. Will the Prime Minister meet a small delegation, and me, so that we can discuss how park home owners may be better protected? (6250)

I have every sympathy with what the hon. Lady has said. I suspect that many Members—including me—have encountered problems with park home owners who have been really badly treated by, frankly, pretty disreputable site owners. We all know of cases in which people who want to sell are put under pressure, and the rules are used to prevent them from obtaining fair value. It is not right, and it is not fair. The Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), is looking into the issue, and I think it is probably best for the hon. Lady to meet him in order to ensure that we have robust rules and the right approach, so that the rights of park home owners are respected.

On Friday, my constituent Zac Olumegbon was murdered in a planned attack close to his school. He was just 15, and I know that the thoughts of the entire House will be with his family at this very difficult time. He was the 13th teenager to lose a life needlessly in our capital city. Can the Prime Minister tell me, the rest of the House and the country what his Government are doing, and will be doing, to stop this happening in our communities?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that case, about which everyone will have read. It is absolutely horrific, and it seemed so planned and premeditated. It is appalling to think that things like this happen on our streets. What will we do about it? I think that we need short-term measures, and then much longer-term measures as well.

In terms of the sentencing review, it is clear to me that we need to send the strongest possible signal that carrying a knife on our streets is just unacceptable. We need to send the signal that it is not a defensive measure, that it is not a cool thing to do, that it should not happen, and that the punishment will be tough. That, in my view, is the short-term measure that we need. As for the longer-term measures, we must do more to strengthen communities, to strengthen families, and to give people an alternative to the gangs towards which they will otherwise be drawn. Too many young people join a gang because they do not have other networks, help, respect and hope in their lives. That is a long-term agenda, it is an agenda that I know is shared on both sides of the House, and we must pursue it.

Q6. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will resist further moves towards economic governance of the United Kingdom by the European Union, and that we will not see the vetting of our Budget plans by the European Commission before those plans are presented to the House? (6251)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The UK Budget should be shown to the UK Parliament—the Westminster Parliament—before it is shown to anyone else, and that will always be the case under this Government. I am pleased to report that subsequent to the publication of our Budget, a number of international bodies—such as the OECD, the EU, the G8 and the G20—have recognised that it is an extremely good Budget that will help to put this country back on track.

Can the Prime Minister give the House a clear pledge today on child poverty? Will there be fewer children in this country living in relative poverty by the end of this Parliament—yes or no?

We are absolutely committed to meeting the child poverty targets. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Budget, despite all its difficulties, does not add a single family to child poverty, in contrast to the last Government, who put up child poverty by 100,000—[Interruption.] They shake their heads. Check the figures and come back to me.

Q7. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that all new academies that will be set up will be obliged to accept children with special educational needs? (6252)

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Academies will be required to ensure that pupils with special educational needs are admitted on the same basis as other schools. Children with special educational needs have special needs, and a compassionate, decent and tolerant country will ensure that they get the help, support, education and love that they need.

The chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters, Dr Graham Honeyman, was last year presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Institute of Directors, but various Government Front Benchers have made unwarranted personal attacks on him in the media. Will the Prime Minister apologise now for those unjustified attacks on a highly regarded business man?

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, but no one has made an attack. This is an excellent company. The question is whether it is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money to give it to a business that could raise that money by diluting its shareholding. Labour simply does not understand. It handed out money before the election without asking whether it was value for money. No wonder we are in such a complete mess.

Q8. The UK has a splendid reputation for the quality of its agricultural science and research, and these skills will be needed to face up to the challenges of climate change and an increasing world population. Will the Prime Minister confirm that Government and EU policy decisions on such matters will be taken on the basis of sound science and proportionate regulation? (6253)

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture. These are difficult issues, but my view is that we should be guided by the science. We should also be guided by what consumers want, and it is vital that we have accurate labelling. That will really be the key to ensuring that we make progress with this issue in a way that keeps the public on side and allows them to understand what it is that they are buying and consuming.

The whole House will be aware of and concerned by the ongoing incident in the north-east. The killing of Chris Brown and the wounding of Samantha Stobbart took place in my town of Birtley, and our thoughts and prayers should go out to their families and friends, and to PC David Rathband and his folk. Can the Prime Minister update the House on this issue, and can he assure us that all lessons will be learned from this incident? Can we especially look again at getting guns off our streets?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this case, and the whole country is thinking of those who have lost their lives and those who have been injured. It is a horrific case. I do not think that it is right now to start to talk about learning lessons: this is an ongoing case. The Home Secretary has been briefed by the chief constable and I know that the House and the country will wish the police well in their search for this individual, so that we can put a stop to the horrendous spree that is taking place.

Q9. Voting by non-resident home owners in regions such as Cornwall is becoming a contentious issue. Councils are not checking whether people are voting in two locations in the same election, and local residents are worried that sometimes election results might be skewed. Will the Prime Minister meet me, or invite one of his ministerial colleagues to do so, to discuss this issue? (6254)

I am very happy that one of my colleagues should have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that we make sure that electoral registers are accurate. It is also important to recognise that it is an offence to vote at a general election in two different places. However, I think that there are problems with saying whether second home owners can vote. I think that a number of hon. Members might take rather a dim view, as some of them might not be able to vote in their own constituencies, but I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to have a meeting with the Minister responsible for electoral registration.

Decent Homes Programme

Q10. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the future funding of the decent homes programme. (6255)

First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to the House?

Good quality social housing is vital, especially in areas such as her constituency. It is completely unacceptable today that 58% of the housing in her constituency is not of a decent standard. We have a huge backlog of work to be carried out. We have ploughed £170 million back into social housing schemes this financial year, which the last Government promised but did not fund. Clearly, the decent homes programme will have to be looked at in the spending review, but I understand the force of argument in her constituency particularly.

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. Is he aware that some 7,000 council homes in Tower Hamlets still need to be brought up to the decent homes standard? The previous Government committed £220 million towards addressing the problem. Will his Government honour that commitment to my constituents?

As I said, we have filled in some of the black hole left by the last Government because a promise of extra spending was made but the money was not found. While we made the £6 billion-worth of cuts to start sorting out the finances, we used some of the saved money to fill in the black hole so that those social housing schemes could go ahead. Clearly, the decent homes programme is important. We have to make sure that it provides value for money, but the hon. Lady’s constituency has very great needs, with so many substandard houses.


Q11. My nine-year-old constituent, Paisley Ward, says that she and her brother learned to swim because it was free. Paisley is worried that her little sister will not be able to learn because this Government want to charge. In her letter, Paisley says, “please, please stop this madness”. Will the Prime Minister listen to Paisley and have a rethink? (6256)

First, may I congratulate the hon. Lady? Many people in this country think that this is a good time to leave politics and go into the media. May I congratulate someone who left the warmth of the GMTV sofa in order to sit on a green Bench here?

The hon. Lady raises an important case, but I have to tell her that not all Labour councils were able to deliver the free swimming pledge. I am afraid that this is one of the things, like many others, that it will not always be possible to guarantee in the incredibly straitened times that we are living in, when we have a £155 billion budget deficit to deal with.