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Prime Minister

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply. As the House might be aware, the Prime Minister’s father was taken seriously ill last night and, quite rightly, my right hon. Friend has travelled to be with his father and his family. I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone on both sides of the House when I say that we send him, his father and his family our best wishes at this difficult time.

I shall start by paying tribute to the brave servicemen who have lost their lives over the summer since the House last sat. They were: Corporal Matthew Stenton, from the Royal Dragoon Guards; Lance Corporal Stephen Monkhouse, from 1st Battalion the Scots Guards; Sapper Mark Smith, from 36 Engineer Regiment; Lance Sergeant Dale McCallum, from 1st Battalion the Scots Guards; Marine Adam Brown, from 40 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant John Sanderson, from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment; Rifleman Remand Kulung, from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment; Sapper Darren Foster, from 21 Engineer Regiment; Sapper Ishwor Gurung, from 69 Gurkha Field Squadron; Lance Corporal Jordan Bancroft, from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; Lance Corporal Joseph Pool, from 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland; and Captain Andrew Griffiths, from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Each of those men was an heroic, selfless individual who has given his life for the safety of us and the British people. Nothing can ease the pain of the loved ones, families and friends they have left behind, but their lives, service and sacrifice will never, ever be forgotten. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

We also remember Dr Karen Woo, who was killed while providing aid and medical services to Afghan civilians, and we offer condolences to the wife and family of Ken McGonigle, a devoted father of four and former police officer in Northern Ireland, who died on 7 August while mentoring police forces in Helmand province. As I saw again when I was in Afghanistan last week, the bravery of our servicemen and others who are risking their lives daily to help the people of Afghanistan is both inspiring and humbling.

Yesterday, West Mercia police announced that they were laying off 300 personnel. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, if it were not for the financial mess left by the previous Government, many of those jobs—and, indeed, thousands of other public sector jobs across the country—could have been saved? It is now left to the new coalition Government to take the difficult decisions to sort out the nation’s finances.

I certainly agree that the previous Government have left us with an extraordinary legacy, with the largest deficit in our peacetime history. It was they who took their eye off the ball and allowed the banks to lend money irresponsibly, and it was they who racked up these extraordinary debts and deficits—[Interruption.] They were irresponsible in government, and they are now living in denial in opposition.

We did not just inherit a legacy of deficit; we also inherited a legacy of bureaucracy. As Sir Denis O’Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary, pointed out in July, 2,600 pages of guidance were issued to police officers last year alone. He said that, if they were laid end to end, they would be

“three times higher than the Eiffel tower”.

We need less bureaucracy and more police on the streets. [Interruption.]

Order. First of all, we need much less noise. Secondly, I remind Front Benchers of the need for pithy exchanges to enable as many Back Benchers as possible to contribute.

May I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to all those who have lost their lives serving our country in Afghanistan since the House last met? We know that for each one of those individuals, there is a family who are immensely proud of their service but who are consumed with grief for their loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with those bereaved families and the comrades and friends of all those who have died.

I think that all of us had hoped that part of the opening of Prime Minister’s questions would be an opportunity for us to express congratulations to Mrs Cameron and the Prime Minister on the birth of their new baby—and, of course, on behalf of the Opposition, we certainly do so. Sadly, however, that is tinged with the dreadful news about the Prime Minister’s father. Let me say on behalf of the Opposition that I am absolutely certain that the Prime Minister has made exactly the right decision—to be where he knows he has to be, with his father and his family at this difficult time.

The Prime Minister in May brought Mr Andy Coulson into 10 Downing street. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he is entirely satisfied that, while Mr Coulson was editor of the News of the World, at no time was Mr Coulson aware of any use of unlawful hacking of telephones?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words about the Prime Minister and the great news about the birth of a new baby daughter. I will, of course, pass that on.

As for the issue of phone hacking, the right hon. Gentleman knows, as we all know, that this is a very, very serious offence—a very serious offence indeed. It is an outrageous invasion of privacy, and it is right that two individuals were convicted and imprisoned. As for Mr Coulson, he has made it very clear that he took responsibility for something at the News of the World of which he had no knowledge, and he refutes all the allegations that have been made to the contrary. That statement speaks for itself. It is now for the police and the police alone to decide whether new evidence has come to light that needs to be investigated.

That was not an answer to the question I put. The question was: is the right hon. Gentleman entirely satisfied that, while Mr Coulson was editor of the News of the World, at no time was Mr Coulson aware of any use of unlawful phone hacking? Yes or no?

Mr Coulson has made it quite clear that he had no knowledge and he refutes all the allegations. While, in a slightly rushed manner, I was preparing for today, suspecting that this issue might come up, I read in one of the briefing notes I received that when Andy Coulson resigned from the News of the World the first person to call to commiserate was the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). He told him not to worry, that he had done the honourable thing and that he knew he would go on to do a worthwhile job. [Interruption.]

Order. Members must calm themselves. I cannot imagine why they are so excited, but I want to get down the Order Paper.

In May of this year, the Deputy Prime Minister’s right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary said that Mr Coulson was

“either complicit in criminal activity or the most incompetent editor in Fleet Street”.

Which is it?

My right hon. Friend and I are in complete agreement that if new evidence has come to light—and that is what I want and that is what I expect—the police will now actively look to see whether that evidence is worthy of further investigation. That is what the police are there for; that is what they should be doing.

Of course, it was under the previous Government—the Labour Government—that no further action was taken. It was the former Home Secretary, who has been making all sorts of pious remarks in the press, who decided not to involve Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take any further action. If the police now think that new evidence has come to light, let them decide.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister’s hon. Friend the Conservative hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), said:

“The evidence, we find, makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Mr Goodman, was aware of the activity”

of phone-hacking. What does the Deputy Prime Minister know that the Select Committee did not know?

The police now need to decide whether, in the light of the new allegations that have been made, there is new evidence which requires further investigation. That is what the police are there for, and I want them to get on with that. That is what I expect they should do. But honestly, I am simply not going to take any lessons from a party whose members spent all their time in office back-biting against each other through leaks and counter-leaks to the press—the party of the dodgy dossier, of cash for peerages, of Damian McBride. Let us have a little bit of consistency on this, shall we?

So, when the police have uncovered 2,978 mobile telephone numbers of potential victims and The New York Times has named the Deputy Prime Minister’s own hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) as a potential victim, does the Deputy Prime Minister expect us to believe that the only person who knew nothing about phone hacking at the News of the World was the editor—the very man whom the Prime Minister has brought into the heart of this Government?

What I expect and hope the right hon. Gentleman will believe is that it is now for the police to investigate whether these new charges and allegations have anything to them. That is what the police are there for. Does the right hon. Gentleman want us all to start second-guessing what is in the newspaper and what statements have been made? Let the police—[Interruption.] Look, we have a war in Afghanistan, we have a flood in Pakistan, and the right hon. Gentleman is inviting the Government to second-guess the work of the police. I should have thought that, after all the years during which he was involved in our criminal justice system, he would know better.

Yesterday a serving police officer was jailed for an appalling assault committed in a police station in my constituency. While I believe that we can draw confidence in the Wiltshire police from the brave officer who blew the whistle, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it cannot be right that, owing to restrictive police conduct regulations, the offending officer continued on full pay for more than two years after the attack?

Like, I suspect, many Members in all parts of the House, I was deeply shocked by the pictures of the offence that was perpetrated by the police officer. I also share people’s dismay that action was not taken more speedily. However stressful the conditions in which police officers work, it is absolutely essential that they uphold the very high standards of their own conduct in all circumstances, and that was clearly not the case in this instance. I am glad that action is finally being taken, although, like my hon. Friend, I wish that it could have been taken earlier.

Q2. This morning the Business Secretary reaffirmed his commitment to the separation of high street banking from casino banking. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that that separation is essential to ensuring that the British taxpayer need never again bail out banks that are too big to fail? (13118)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a lively debate about the relationship between retail banking and investment banking. The former Chancellor has made his own views very clear from his party’s Front Bench: he does not think that there is a case for separation. The Liberal Democrats believed in opposition that there should be a separation, and a debate is now taking place within Government.

We have asked Sir John Vickers to chair an independent commission, which will consider how we can ensure that there is safety and stability in our banking system for good. That action was not taken by the last Government. We will look at the commission’s recommendations, and then decide.

Given that in the last year of the Labour Government they spent £10,000 for every man, woman and child in the country on current public spending, and given that that will go up to £11,500 a head over the five years of this Government under Budget plans, is it not clear that the coalition Government can get through without any damaging cuts to important public services?

As my right hon. Friend well knows, the challenge of balancing the Budget and filling the huge black hole left to us by Labour is, indeed, very difficult. That has, of course, been recognised by Tony Blair in his recent book, where he has said:

“if governments don’t tackle deficits”—[Interruption.]

I am relieved that Mr Speaker wants to hear that the book says

“if governments don’t tackle deficits…This then increases the risk of prolonged slump…If we fail to offer a convincing path out of debt, that...will itself plunge us into stagnation.”

I agree.

Q3. The charity Shelter this week revealed that 54,000 children who live in households that are already well below the poverty line are going to lose out as a result of the changes to housing benefit, and the Department for Work and Pensions’ own document has revealed that 52,000 of the poorest pensioners will be on average £11 a week worse off as a result of the changes. Is that what the Chancellor meant when he said his Budget was tough but fair? (13119)

The legacy we inherited—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I know Opposition Members do not want to hear this, but it is worth reminding people in the country at large that after 13 years of Labour the United Kingdom has the highest—[Interruption.]

I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. The Deputy Prime Minister will be heard. There is far too much noise. Members must restrain themselves and give the Deputy Prime Minister a proper and fair hearing.

The United Kingdom now, after 13 years of Labour Government, has the highest number of children in workless households in Europe. That is an absolutely shameful legacy, and one of the things that this Government are going to do, which the previous Government failed to do, is create incentives to get people off benefits and into work. That is the surest way out of poverty and the surest way we can look after those children who were abandoned and not looked after by the previous Labour Government.

Q4. After the Chinook crash in 1994 on the Mull of Kintyre, every inquiry that has been held that has been independent of the Ministry of Defence has found it impossible to attribute negligence to the pilots who died in the crash. May I thank the Government for honouring the pledge made before the election to hold a review and ask how the independence of that review will be assured? (13120)

I am acutely aware of my right hon. Friend’s considerable expertise on defence matters and of his long-standing interest in this tragic disaster and the circumstances around it, and I am pleased to be able to confirm today that we will be holding an independent review of the evidence on the Mull of Kintyre disaster. I hope that the review will be welcomed by the families of those who died in that tragic accident. To ensure its complete independence, the review will be conducted by a respected lawyer who is independent of the Government and who has not previously expressed a view on the disaster. The reviewer and the precise terms of reference will be announced soon.

Last month the police ombudsman released his report into the Claudy bombing by the Provisional IRA in 1972, where nine innocent people were murdered. The ombudsman concluded that the Secretary of State at the time, a senior police officer and the Roman Catholic cardinal colluded to ensure that a chief suspect in the bombing who was also a Roman Catholic priest was transferred to the Irish Republic rather than be brought to justice. I will wish to raise the matter directly with the Prime Minister, but will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in calling for the Catholic Church to apologise for its part in this, and for the surviving members of the Provisional IRA, including the Deputy First Minister, who I understand today confirmed that he visited the suspect priest as he lay on his deathbed 30 years ago, to declare all that they knew about one of the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland’s troubled past?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a full apology on 24 August on behalf of the Government. The Government are profoundly sorry that Father Chesney was not properly investigated at the time for his suspected involvement in this hideous crime and that the victims and their families have quite simply been denied justice. However, I wish to reiterate that, although after the attack the then Government acted wrongly in not insisting that the Royal Ulster Constabulary properly investigate Father Chesney, it was terrorists who were responsible for this despicable and evil attack, which took innocent lives, including that of an eight-year-old girl. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that a public inquiry is not being considered, on the grounds that there simply is not likely to be any further evidence to consider. We have co-operated fully with the ombudsman’s investigations, making all papers available to him, the Historical Enquiries Team is also now investigating the case, and in the interests of transparency the Government have published the only document that they hold referring to discussions about Father Chesney.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Government honour their pledge to Equitable Life policyholders and uphold the findings of the parliamentary ombudsman? (13122)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend; we are absolutely committed to bringing justice to the Equitable Life policyholders. These people were shamelessly, shamefully betrayed year after year by the previous Government. We have published a Bill on this, we have taken the recommendations from Sir John Chadwick, which we will consider, and we will create an independent mechanism by which justice is finally provided to the policyholders, who were so shamefully overlooked by the previous Government.

Q6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any qualms at all about the coalition Government’s 2010 Budget, which took 2,000 front-line workers out of Jobcentre Plus? Given that fewer people were in work this June than the previous June and given this week’s review into the work capability assessment, will he ensure that the comprehensive spending review provides the front-line staffing resources that Jobcentre Plus offices around the country need to get people off benefit and back into work in the way that he just described? (13123)

I certainly agree, of course, that the most important objective of all is to increase incentives to work. That is why in that same Budget we increased the personal allowance by £1,000, taking close to 900,000 people out of paying any income tax. We did take measures to protect the vulnerable and the elderly: we dramatically increased child tax credit, and we provided a triple guarantee to pensioners, so that their pensions will increase by 2.5%, by inflation or by earnings. Of course it is easy in opposition to deny any responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves in the first place, but I simply ask the hon. Lady and her colleagues whether they have any qualms about the fact that her party and her Government announced £44 billion-worth of cuts but never had the decency or honesty to tell the British people where those cuts would fall.

Q7. Given the number of disturbing cases such as that of my constituent, Andrew Symeou, a 21-year-old young man who was extradited to Greece well over a year ago under the European arrest warrant and who has spent more than 10 months in jail yet still does not face the prospect of a trial date, will the Deputy Prime Minister commit the Government to reviewing this very worrying legislation? Will he also agree to a meeting with the parents as a matter of urgency, involving either himself or the Prime Minister? (13124)

Of course I would more than welcome that meeting with either myself or the Prime Minister. We are all aware of the concerns about the way in which the European arrest warrant works. I understand that the Minister for Europe has met Mr Symeou’s parents and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be willing to do so again. Of course this is in the context of even wider concerns about our extradition arrangements, not only those in the European Union, but those with the United States. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced today that we will be reviewing the UK’s extradition arrangements in the round. The review will focus on the operation of the European arrest warrant, on whether or not the United States and United Kingdom extradition treaty is unbalanced, and on whether requesting states should be required to provide prima facie evidence to us.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that today is my birthday? If I tell him how to pay for it, will he agree to give me a present of a couple of aircraft carriers? None of your foreign rubbish—I want British ones and I do not want to have to share them with some French bloke. If he had it Monday to Wednesday and I had it Thursday to Saturday and we shared weekends, we would have to get the permission of the Child Support Agency if we wanted to make any change in that. All that could be paid for by cutting our contribution to the European Union. Will he agree?

I of course congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his birthday and I am delighted to see that his enthusiasm for things European has not mellowed with age. I am happy to give him a gift, but on the question of whether it is a gift of the size and shape that he has requested, I am afraid that I cannot oblige him today.

Q8. Some people enter the country and receive NHS treatment but do not pay their bill. Then they apply for another visa to come back again. Is that fair? Will the Government stop it? (13125)

My hon. Friend is of course right that fairness is one of the NHS’s founding principles and we must retain that principle. We need to consider measures to make possible dealing with people who have rightly been given care by the NHS—because the NHS provides care to everybody on the basis of need—and who are supposed to make a contribution but escape the obligation to do so. That is what we are working on and we will be coming forward with announcements soon.

Q9. What would the Deputy Prime Minister say to my constituent, Rachael Shipp, who now finds that all her hard work, community action and fundraising in line with big society thinking will come to naught as the Government cut the moneys promised to her neighbourhood group for their much-needed playbuilder scheme? She cannot understand why a referendum that has no electoral mandate and that she sees as irrelevant will go ahead at a cost, according to the TaxPayers Alliance, of £100 million which could be better spent on community schemes such as hers in Lilac avenue. (13126)

I am very amused that the referendum, which the hon. Gentleman claims has no mandate, was in the manifesto on which he campaigned at the last election. I know that Labour is enjoying denying any responsibility for the past—U-turn after U-turn after U-turn. One hundred thousand members of the public have made suggestions about how we can try to bring some sense to our public finances without hitting the vulnerable and without hitting front-line public services. Have we heard a single suggestion from anyone on the Opposition Benches? Not a single suggestion. Until the Labour party catches up with reality, it will not be taken seriously.

How can the Deputy Prime Minister justify to hard-working taxpayers facing economic difficulties in their own families and businesses the fact that he wants to spend £100 million of their taxpayers’ money on a referendum on the voting system?

I am amused that my hon. Friend gets a cheer from the Opposition Members who advocated that same proposal. That of course is the reason, as my hon. Friend knows, why we think that there is a compelling case for saving up to £30 million in the cost of holding the elections in May and the referendum on a separate occasion by combining the two on the same day. I suspect that she is not that keen on that idea, but I hope that over time she will come to support it.

Q10. The Deputy Prime Minister is famous for his humility. Following the report of the Select Committee and this morning’s report in the Financial Times, is he now prepared to apologise for the mistake that he made about Sheffield Forgemasters and to join the Liberal leader of Sheffield council in calling for some public finance for that project? (13127)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the reason, regrettably, why the £80 million loan that was announced by the previous Government 11 working days before the general election to coincide with a nice photo opportunity for the previous Prime Minister at Forgemasters has not been able to proceed from this year’s Budget is that it is not affordable under this year’s Budget given that the structural deficit we inherited was so much greater than we thought. In other words, it was a promise made where the money was not available. It was a cheque written which the previous Government knew would bounce, but we have made it very clear to Forgemasters that we will continue to work with it to see how we can support it in future once the Budget situation becomes clearer after the comprehensive spending round.

Q12. Chinese lanterns pose a threat to farmers both because of the fire risk to standing crops when lanterns fall into fields and because the wire frames are cut into small pieces by harvesting equipment so that wire is incorporated into animal feed such as hay and silage, killing farm animals. What steps will the Government consider taking to reduce the risks in this area? (13129)

Everybody who lives and works in rural areas knows that this issue is causing a great deal of distress to both farmers and their livestock. We have been looking at ways in which we can deal with the issue and reduce the risks posed by the lanterns, while not wishing to ban them completely. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been in contact with the manufacturers of the lanterns and has demanded that the lanterns in future should be 100% biodegradable and should have full safety instructions with them.

Q11. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the Rotary Club of Braids in my constituency, which has raised thousands of pounds for shelter boxes to send to Pakistan and other areas that are devastated by events? Will he give a commitment that his Government will consider altering the gift aid scheme to ensure that bucket collections can be included, so that the club’s valuable work can go much further? (13128)

We will, of course, look at anything that will continue to encourage people to be as generous as they have been in responding to this truly horrific catastrophe. I was in Pakistan, in Sindh province, just last week, where I saw for myself the scale of the situation. It is genuinely difficult to comprehend that an area the size of the whole United Kingdom has been submerged under water. Some 20 million people have been displaced and my fear is that the worst is still to come as water-borne diseases start taking hold. That is why I certainly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s active interest in this issue and why I will welcome work from him and Members on both sides of the House so that we can work together to continue, both as a Government and as a people, to show the support that all the many distressed communities in Pakistan deserve at this time.

Q13. May I ask the Deputy Speaker about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? If the Bill is significantly amended in Committee or defeated on Third Reading, will the Liberal Democrats leave the coalition, or can he give a guarantee that they will stay in it? (13130)

I am not sure if it will please or disappoint the hon. Gentleman when I say that the persistence and resilience of the coalition is not dependent on any one single piece of legislation. He will know—again, I am not sure if he will be pleased or displeased by this—that the Bill is only one part of a much, much wider programme of political reform. That includes giving people the power of recall so that they are able to sack their MP if they are shown to have done something seriously wrong, cleaning up party funding and producing proposals finally to reform the other place. I am afraid that political reform does not begin or just end with this one single Bill.