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Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2010

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to our soldiers who have died in Afghanistan over the last week. They are Bombardier Samuel Robinson, 5th Regiment Royal Artillery; Marine David Hart, 40 Commando Royal Marines; and a Marine from 40 Commando who died yesterday. We also pay tribute to the three soldiers from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles who lost their lives yesterday and to their comrades who were injured. We believe this incident was caused by the actions of an Afghan soldier betraying his Afghan and international comrades. I spoke to President Karzai about this issue yesterday, and a joint investigation by the Afghan authorities and international forces is under way, which will cover every aspect of the incident and the lessons to be learned from it.

I have to say that there should, however, be no knee-jerk reaction and no change in our strategy. We must continue to work with the Afghan army to create a stable Afghanistan able to maintain its own security and to prevent al-Qaeda from returning. At this very sad time, our thoughts should be with the families and friends of all these brave servicemen. What they do on our behalf is brave, courageous and shows their dedication and professionalism. It is right that we pay tribute to them.

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

I would like to echo the warm words of the Prime Minister about our service personnel serving abroad.

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising One NorthEast and Redcar and Cleveland Labour council for helping develop a £600,000 regeneration plan for the market town of Guisborough in my constituency in order to help small business? Is it not the case, however, that for those who run small businesses, the Government’s VAT increase is the real jobs tax?

First of all, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. I know he used to work for Ashok Kumar, who was widely liked and respected across the House of Commons. What we are doing to help small business is to cut the small business rate of corporation tax. We think that is the best help we can give. The future for small business will, of course, also be helped by our local enterprise partnerships, which we think will be much more focused, much more local and will deliver better than the regional development agencies they replace.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Loughborough university student union rag committee, which as well as providing many volunteers to local groups has this year raised more than any other rag in the country—more than £1 million, including raising £34,000 in one day for the Royal British Legion? Is not this an example of the big society in action?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right. Sometimes students can get a bad press for what they do, but we can see from the example of Loughborough that they have focused on doing things for other people and raising money for charity. They should be congratulated.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Bombardier Samuel Robinson, 5th Regiment Royal Artillery; to Marine David Hart, 40 Commando Royal Marines; to the Marine from 40 Commando Royal Marines who died yesterday; and to the three soldiers from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles who lost their lives yesterday and those who were injured. Everyone will share the Prime Minister’s concern about what happened. It is right to have a thorough investigation, but as he said, we must not lose sight of the importance of the work our troops are doing in Afghanistan.

May I ask the Prime Minister about Northern Ireland? Although it is now highly unusual for people in Belfast to see such violence on their streets, everyone will be worried about the events of recent days. Will the Prime Minister update the House and tell us what discussions he has had with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? Although this is a devolved responsibility, will he join me in paying tribute to the professionalism and bravery of the men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

I certainly join the right hon. and learned Lady in paying tribute to that police service. Anyone watching the pictures on our television screens last night could see how brave and how restrained the police were in the way that they dealt with behaviour that was, frankly, completely unacceptable. To update the House, last night was the third night of violence, the most serious of which was in the Ardoyne district in north Belfast. Over 80 police officers have been injured after being attacked with, for instance, petrol bombs, pipe bombs and bricks. The police came under fire on Sunday night, and shots were fired again last night. The police have been forced to retaliate with battle rounds and water cannons, but, as I have said, I think that anyone who watched what they did or who, like me, has had a briefing from David Ford, the Policing and Justice Minister, will know that they acted with real restraint.

I keep in touch regularly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has been in Belfast as well, to ensure that everything that needs to be done is being done. As the right hon. and learned Lady knows, however, this is a devolved issue, and, having devolved policing and justice, we should allow David Ford and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to give the lead that they are indeed giving.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his answer. I reiterate what I said earlier: we will continue to support and work with the Government in their efforts to ensure a peaceful future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

This week the Government published their White Paper on the national health service. They say that they will get rid of targets. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether patients will keep their guaranteed right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks of seeing their GP?

May I first make one further response on the Northern Ireland issue, with which I think everyone will agree? Now that we have a police service that is fully representative of the whole community in Northern Ireland, there is no excuse for anyone not to co-operate with that police force. We all know that in the end these things are not dealt with just by the police; they have to be dealt by the communities as well, working with the police to bring people to justice for completely unacceptable behaviour.

As for the NHS, what we have decided is that we will keep targets only when they actually contribute to clinical outcomes. We all want to see a higher cancer survival rate. I am afraid that, after 13 years of Labour government, we have not the best cancer outcomes in Europe, and we want the best cancer outcomes. That means rapid treatment, yes, but it also means rapid follow-up, and it means people getting the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and drugs that they need. Those are all essential. The one thing that we on this side of the House will do is continue to put real-terms increases into the NHS, whereas I understand that it is now Labour policy to cut the NHS.

Quite apart from the anxiety of having to wait, results are best if treatment starts as soon as possible. That is why it is important to be diagnosed and to see a specialist quickly.

The Prime Minister has not answered the question. The whole House will have seen that. He has dodged the question, just as his Health Secretary did. This is what the Health Secretary said in the House when he, too, was dodging the question:

“I have not said that we are abandoning any of the cancer waiting-time targets at the moment”.—[Official Report, 29 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 698.]

I ask the Prime Minister to give us a straight answer. Will cancer patients keep their guarantee to see a specialist within two weeks—yes or no?

For some people, two weeks is too long. That is the whole point. If a target contributes to good clinical outcomes, it stays; if it does not, it goes.

Now let the right hon. and learned Lady answer a question. Is it your policy—[Interruption.] I know that the right hon. and learned Lady is not involved in the leadership election, which basically involves sucking up to the trade unions, but she is capable of answering a question. Is it Labour policy to cut the NHS?

Order. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will confine herself—as I know she will want to do—to her role, which is not to answer questions but to ask them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister has still not answered. He is obviously ditching the guarantee for cancer patients, but he has not the guts to admit it to the House. Perhaps he can be more straightforward with this question. The White Paper says that his reorganisation of the NHS will mean extra up-front administration costs, but it does not give the figure. Surely he must know the figure. How much extra will it cost next year?

We are cutting £1 billion of administration from the NHS. We are cutting administration costs by 45% over the next Parliament. Obviously Labour Members cannot answer questions, because they have no answers, but perhaps it is not unfair to point out that they are now defending the bureaucracy of the NHS. We say that the primary care trusts and the strategic health authorities—all that additional bureaucracy—should go. We want the money to be spent on treatments, on patients, on doctors and on nurses. The right hon. and learned Lady is left defending the vast bureaucracy that saw the number of managers go up far faster than the number of nurses. Is that still Labour policy?

The Prime Minister is talking about longer-term speculative savings, but he has not answered my question. It is no good him resorting to his usual ploy of asking me questions. I am asking about the real costs of his reorganisation next year—the very time when he says his priority will be cutting administration and cutting the deficit. The White Paper admits that there will be extra costs because of loss of productivity, staff relocation and redundancy. Does the Prime Minister stand by what he said just a few months ago about NHS reorganisations? He said:

“The disruption is terrible, the demoralisation worse—and the waste of money inexcusable.”

We are not reorganising the bureaucracy; we are scrapping the bureaucracy. Is it really Labour’s great new tactic that the right hon. and learned Lady will be left defending the bureaucracy of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities and all the quangos and all the bureaucrats, all of whom are paid vast salaries and huge pensions? Is that the new divide in British politics: they back the bureaucracy, we back the NHS? [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) should calm himself. If he is trying to catch my eye, he has not got much chance at this rate.

Voluntary organisations and charities were not responsible for the banking crisis, nor for the financial crisis left by the last Labour Government. As we both value voluntary organisations and charities, will the Prime Minister discuss with his Treasury colleagues how the increase in VAT that those organisations have to pay can be refunded to them?

I will certainly have those conversations with the Treasury, and we will want to do everything we can to help what used to be called, rather condescendingly, the third sector but I believe is the first sector: the excellent charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises that do so much for our country. One thing we should do is look at funding them on the same basis as the Government fund themselves. The Government are always very generous with their own bureaucracy, and they need to recognise that so often these first sector organisations have the right answers to the social problems in our country.

Q2. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that firefighters and police officers, who we all rely on to undertake dangerous and physically demanding jobs, will retain the ability to retire and access their occupational pensions before reaching state pension age? (8053)

First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to the House? I will look very carefully into what she says. As she knows, we have a review of pensions taking place, which is being carried out by the former Labour Minister, the former Member for Barrow and Furness, who has great expertise in this area. He will be making two reports, one before Christmas and another in the new year, where we can look at the issue of public sector pensions and try to reach some fair resolutions—and I think that is something all parties should be involved in.

Will the Prime Minister consider having another conference call with Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, whose site is currently hosting the group “RIP Raoul Moat”, where a whole host of anti-police statements are posted? Can the Prime Minister have a conversation with Mark Zuckerberg about removing this group?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As far as I can see, it is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer—full stop, end of story—and I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. There should be sympathy for his victims, and for the havoc he wreaked in that community; there should be no sympathy for him.

Q3. In 2005, the pupils of Joseph Leckie community technology college made a DVD depicting their crumbling school. The Labour Government gave them £6 million. Morally and legally their legitimate expectation was to have their funding continued, so please will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State for Education to take some time out from his “I am sorry” tour of the country to meet me in Walsall South and explain his decision—the fifth version—to Joseph Leckie school, and also to Alumwell business and enterprise college? (8054)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be happy to meet the hon. Lady, whom we should all welcome to this House. Presumably, she has come here to keep an eye on her brother and to see what he has been up to. Let me just say this about the apology tour. I think there is something quite refreshing about a Minister who makes a mistake, comes to the Dispatch Box and makes an apology. [Interruption.] They have got their hands in the air—the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) has got his hand in the air. Can anyone put their hand up if they ever remember him apologising for anything, ever? He can start by apologising for the fact that for the last three years, he has been telling us that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) is actually the best thing since white sliced bread, and now we are being told that he is mad, bad and dangerous.

The BBC Trust has described BBC 1 and BBC 2 as boring. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the gaiety of the nation would be immeasurably enhanced by the televising of a 17-part psychodrama called “New Labour”, with Lord Mandelson playing himself?

Order. Much as it might be fascinating to hear the Prime Minister’s reply, I do not think it is a matter of Government responsibility at all.

Q4. Taking account of the measures in the Budget and the briefing the Prime Minister has received from the Treasury, does he believe that unemployment in the north of England in 12 months’ time will be higher or lower? (8055)

What you can see from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast is that, according to it, there will be a fall in unemployment in every year during this Parliament. That is because, like others—like the OECD, which made it so clear yesterday that the Budget is courageous, responsible and right—we are putting this country back on the path to prosperity from the complete picture of ruin that the last Government left.

Q5. Thanks to the massive deficit left by Labour, all but two departmental budgets are to be cut by between 25% and 40%. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether we are about to see a 40% reduction in the funding sent to Brussels, and is the European budget also to be cut? (8056)

It is very true to say that all international organisations have to recognise that, as we make painful budget reductions in this country, they should be looking to their budgets also. I have to say that one thing we will not be doing is giving up part of the rebate for absolutely nothing in return, which is what Labour did.

Phase 2 of the Ministry of Defence strategic defence review is currently reporting back. Under consideration for closure and cutback in Scotland are two of three airbases, the only Royal Marine base in the country, minesweepers on the Clyde and aircraft carrier contracts—and that is before we even get to the Army. We expect regimental and battalion amalgamations and the remaining command functions at Cragiehall to go, and there is also the question of the future of Fort George and the Territorial Army network. Does the Prime Minister not understand that this is a wholesale destruction of conventional defence capability in Scotland?

Obviously, we have to have a defence review, as the Opposition recognise. I always find the position of the Scottish National party on this quite confusing. I did not think that the SNP was in favour of having a British Army, a Royal Air Force or the British Navy. Perhaps if the policy has changed—[Interruption.] What we will be having is a defence review, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to make a submission to it he is very welcome to do so. I am sure it will be taken extremely seriously.

Q6. As far as I am aware, it is not standard practice in the public sector for workers to fund and equip their offices out of their own pockets, and then to negotiate a bureaucratic obstacle course in order to get the money back—if they are lucky. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks this a good system for Members of Parliament, or whether it is undermining efforts of MPs in all parts of this House, who want to offer a good service to their constituents? (8057)

My hon. Friend asks a popular and well-placed question—[Interruption.] I will answer him seriously; I think it is important. What we wanted to have and what is necessary is a properly transparent system, a system with proper rules and limits which the public would have confidence in, but what we do not need is an overly bureaucratic and very costly system. I think all those in the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority need to get a grip of what they are doing, and get a grip of it very fast.

May I, along with my colleagues on these Benches, pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in recent days in Afghanistan—I join the Prime Minister in that—and to the police officers in Belfast who have been injured? May I specifically mention a Gurkha who lived in my constituency and was killed, tragically, over the past days? I visited his home last night, speaking at length to his family and, in particular, his father. They were very proud of the fact that he had achieved so much in his short life. His ambition was to be an officer with the Gurkhas. He was commissioned this year, he went to Afghanistan in March and he died in July. Can the Prime Minister assure this House that whatever investigation is held will be thorough and that details will be given to the family? May I say in closing that this House will know that, when it comes to the Crown forces, young men and women of Northern Ireland have never been found wanting? Today, we have lost another son and we hope it is the last.

The hon. Gentleman pays a very eloquent tribute to his constituent. He is right to say that we need an inquiry that gets to the bottom of what happened in this tragic, although I believe isolated, case. There is nothing you can say to parents who have lost a child that will help with the sense of grief and loss; there is nothing you can do. But it is important that they get the information to try to help achieve some sort of closure on what has happened. That is one of the many reasons why this review will be so important. Let me just say that there are now about 5,000 British troops that are fully partnered with Afghan forces, working together day and night. When we hear their stories about how well they are working together it does gives us hope that we are building an Afghan army that we will be able to hand over to. We must not lose sight of that, in spite of all the difficulties.

Q7. Three years ago, the Conservative council in my constituency recognised the need for a new primary school. It identified the site and, having sorted out the financial mess that the Labour council had left before it, committed the funding. Despite being left the funds, the Labour council leader is now publicly failing to commit to building this school. Does the Prime Minister agree that my constituents should conclude that this is the reality: the Labour party is saying one thing and doing another, and is endangering schoolchildren’s education? (8058)

My hon. Friend makes not only an important local point, but a very important national point, which is that Building Schools for the Future did nothing for primary schools. There is actually a growing problem of a shortage of primary school places, which was not being addressed by the previous Government but which will be addressed by this Government.

Q8. The Prime Minister will be aware of members of his own party using parliamentary rules to try to undermine the national minimum wage. Can he, here and now, dedicate himself to maintaining the national minimum wage, not only ensuring its support, but ensuring that it increases in line with inflation in the years to come? (8059)

I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We support the national minimum wage, we support its regular updating and that is one of the many good things set out in our coalition agreement.

Q9. In south Acton, the Acton Community Forum is piloting an extremely good scheme called “Generations Together”, which is all about encouraging each generation to pass on its own skill sets to each other; basically, it is about getting the community to help itself. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an excellent example of what the big society is all about? (8060)

I agree. I have to say to Labour Members, who sort of sigh every time an hon. Member actually mentions a worthwhile charity, voluntary body or project that is doing something in their communities, that we are going to change the way we do politics in this country. Instead of endlessly talking about the money that goes in, let us talk about the outcomes that come out. I think that that is a better way of doing things.

Q10. I am delighted to report that GCSE pass rates have doubled in Westminster in recent years and four brand-new schools have opened. This week, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying that he was “terrified” of his children attending a local school. May I ask him to swallow his fear and instead join me in acknowledging the enormous progress that has been made, particularly in London’s secondary schools, in recent years? (8061)

I am pleased to say that my children attend a local school in Conservative-controlled Kensington and the other part of her constituency, Conservative-controlled Westminster. Of course there are good schools in London and of course progress is being made, but like any parent looking at the state of secondary education, you want to know that there are going to be really good schools, really good choice and a diversity of provision. That is what we are going to ensure and I hope that the hon. Lady will vote for it when the time comes.

Is the Prime Minister aware that I and colleagues had the privilege of a visit this week from the Royal Anglian Regiment. Will he join us in thanking them for their amazing professionalism and for the work that they do for us?

I will certainly do that. The regiment’s members have served in Afghanistan on a number of occasions and on one occasion I met them in Helmand province and heard them speak about some of the incredibly difficult decisions that they had to take and some of the very brave things they had done. We should recognise that we have been in Afghanistan in one form or another since 2001. Many soldiers are going back again and again. That puts pressure on them and on their families and it just means that we need to redouble everything we do to support their families and our brave servicemen and women.

Q11. Dr Kieran Breen, the director of Parkinson’s UK, has been on the BBC this morning discussing the start of a clinical study in Oxford using skin cells. All of us in this House want to see ongoing research into finding answers to degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that despite the global economic conditions this Government will not cut back on their funding for medical research? (8062)

No one wants to see reductions in those programmes—they are very important—but, like everything else there is a comprehensive spending review—[Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members making that point—whoever was standing here right now would have to look at public spending programmes and make sense of them. I have to say that they should perhaps listen to the speech that the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary is going to make this afternoon. Quite rightly, he is going to say that fighting

“the cuts is a tempting slogan in opposition…But if that is all we are saying the conclusion will be drawn that we are wishing the problem away.”

We have a new problem in British politics. They are called “deficit-deniers” and I am looking at a whole row of them.

Q12. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the case of Mr Nur and his family, who have moved into a £2,000 a week house in Kensington at taxpayers’ expense, is exactly the sort of thing that the coalition was elected to fight against? (8063)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The housing benefit situation, particularly in central London, has got completely out of control. The idea that a family should be able to claim £2,000 a week for their house is an outrage for people who go to work every day, pay their taxes and try to do the right thing for their family. That is why we will cap housing benefit levels from April next year so that the maximum that can be claimed will be £400 a week for a property with more than four bedrooms. Many people on ordinary incomes will look even at that £400 and find it to be very generous help for people. Every penny of that comes out of hard-earned taxes.

Q13. The coalition agreement mentions rural fuel derogations. My constituents in the Outer Hebrides pay more fuel tax per litre than just about anybody in the UK. However, there is no mention of VAT in the coalition agreement, and that will affect road transportation. Is it not reasonable, surely, to ask for a rural fuel derogation before January, when the VAT rise comes in, in the interests of respect and fairness? (8064)

We are looking at the rural fuel issue and obviously the hon. Gentleman has a friend, as it were, in the Treasury in the Chief Secretary, who also has a large rural Scottish constituency. I know that the issue will be considered seriously and that discussions will be had. When we have something to say, we will come back and talk about it.

Q14. In the week of the NHS White Paper, will the Prime Minister resist calls—wherever they come from—to cut the NHS budget? (8065)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Yes, we have to take difficult decisions but, when we look at the NHS, we know that there are expensive drugs coming down the track, expensive treatments and an ageing population, and more children born with disabilities and living for longer. There are cost pressures on our NHS that mean that even small real-terms increases will be an heroic thing to achieve. I think that the Opposition have completely lost touch and lost their senses to think that you can somehow cut the NHS.

As a former head teacher, I endorse the commitment given by the Prime Minister to improving discipline in schools and in education more widely. May I ask him what special measures he, as the Head of Government, plans to invoke in relation to his Education Secretary, who has failed to do his homework properly on five occasions in the past week?

In the week of the Mandelson memoirs—to get a lecture on ill discipline. We used to say that the Labour Government were dysfunctional and shambolic and that they were all at each other’s throats, but we were wrong—it was much, much worse than that.

Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware that former Para and Teessider, Anthony Malone, has languished in an Afghan jail for more than two years and is still being held in lieu of payment of an outstanding debt. Given that his imprisonment is potentially in breach of international law, will the Prime Minister put pressure on the Afghan Government to secure Mr Malone’s release? (8066)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case, which is worrying. I can assure him and Anthony Malone’s family and friends that the British embassy continues to raise this case with the Afghan authorities. The ambassador in Kabul has raised the case with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we are in discussions at the moment with the Afghan Attorney-General about why Anthony Malone continues to be detained. If my hon. Friend keeps in touch with my office, we will keep in touch about developments in this case.