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Prime Minister

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Dean Hutchinson from 9 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps and Private Robert Wood from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps. They were killed in a fire at Camp Bastion on Monday 14 February. Their service for the safety of the British people will not be forgotten and we send our deepest condolences to their families, friends and colleagues.

I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the people of New Zealand and to all those who lost loved ones, including, sadly, at least four British citizens, in the earthquake last week. We have sent two teams of experts to provide whatever assistance they can.

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

I am sure that the whole House will, indeed, wish to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s remarks in relation both to our brave servicemen and to the people of New Zealand.

Despite the urgent need to reduce the deficit, the Government took the right decision not just to protect but to increase the overseas aid budget. What capacity does that give us to respond to the urgent humanitarian situation on the Libyan border?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that in spite of the difficult decisions we have to take, it is right to keep increasing the aid budget. Sadly, what is happening on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with Libya shows how important that decision is. As the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said last night, there are serious implications of a growing humanitarian crisis. The information is that some 162,000 people have crossed the land border so far. We have sent technical Department for International Development teams to both the borders and yesterday we flew in tents for 1,500 people and blankets for 36,000 people. I can tell the House that today we are launching a UK operation to airlift several thousand people back to Egypt from the Libyan-Tunisian border, with the first flight scheduled to leave the UK later today. It is vital to do this; those people should not be kept in transit camps if it is possible to take them back to their home. I am glad that Britain can play such an important part in doing that.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Dean Hutchinson from 9 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps and Private Robert Wood from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps? They both showed enormous heroism and courage in their service in Afghanistan and our thoughts are with their family and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in passing on condolences and deepest sympathy to the victims of the New Zealand earthquake.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the situation in Libya, starting with the humanitarian crisis? I welcome the bilateral action being taken by the Government, including the steps that he has announced today and the visit of the International Development Secretary. May I ask what support the Prime Minister is also offering to multilateral organisations such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in dealing with what is, as the Prime Minister says, a growing refugee emergency on the Libyan border?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. In addition to the steps I announced about the airlift from the Tunisian border back to Egypt, there is also HMS York, which has now docked in Benghazi carrying a lot of medical and other supplies and will be able to help with the humanitarian mission. He asked specifically about helping the multilateral organisations. Obviously, we are in very close touch with them, particularly with OCHA—the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and Valerie Amos. We are delighted that it is John Ging, whom many in the House will know from the UN and his excellent work in Palestine for UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—who will be co-ordinating that effort. We will remain in close contact with them as one of their lead partners and will do everything we can to help to co-ordinate this effort. We have the forward-basing of a lot of tents and other equipment in Dubai, which means that it is relatively close to the area. We will go on doing everything we can to ease the problems at the border and to make sure that this emergency does not turn into a crisis.

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. I am sure he will keep the House updated. We both agreed on Monday that the international community must take all practical steps for a democratic outcome in Libya. On Monday, the Prime Minister floated the idea of a no-fly zone. On Tuesday, however, a number of foreign Governments distanced themselves from the idea. Can he clarify where that proposal now stands?

Our first priority as a country should, of course, be to evacuate our fellow countrymen from Libya. That process has gone well and there are very few who want to leave who are still in Libya. The second thing that we should do is put every available pressure on the Libyan regime. We have done that through travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargos, and we should keep on looking for other ways in which we can pressurise the regime.

We have just spoken about the humanitarian crisis, and the next steps that we must take to ease it. What I was saying on Monday and say again today is that I think it is the job of leaders in the western world in particular to prepare for all eventualities and all the things that might happen, particularly if Colonel Gaddafi unleashes more things on his own people. On those grounds, we should be and we are looking at plans for a no-fly zone. I was particularly heartened by what Secretary of State Clinton said—that a

“ no-fly zone is an option we are actively considering.”

These matters are being discussed in the North Atlantic Council this morning, and it is right that they are.

I emphasise to the Prime Minister, as I am sure he will agree, that there was a clear sense of unity in the international community over sanctions. Clearly, that is what we must strive for in any future decisions that we make. He will understand the concern in the country and the armed forces that after he spoke about the no-fly zone, the Government issued redundancy notices to thousands of Royal Air Force personnel. Can he reassure the House and the country that any increase in our military commitments that he is talking about, including in north Africa, can be met at a time when we are reducing capability?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. Let me be clear. Of course, it is never easy to reduce the numbers in our armed forces, but this Government decided, quite rightly, to hold a strategic defence review because we had not had one for 12 years and we inherited a defence budget that was in a state of complete chaos. The background to the defence review is the enormous black hole in our nation’s finances, but the aim of the defence review is to make sure that we have flexible, well-equipped armed forces that are able to serve our national interests around the world. That is exactly what I believe they will be able to do.

Q2. After Romford hospital, next on the waiting list for private finance initiative surgery should be Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra hospital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that massive annual repayments and restrictive procurement practices are preventing best care from being delivered, and that the contract should go under the knife and the savings given to Portsmouth’s health economy, not Treasury coffers? (42574)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that next to the Ministry of Defence budget, the other shambles that we inherited was the PFI programme. The public sector is going to be spending about £8 billion on PFI contracts just this year, so we must examine all those contracts for savings. Let me give my hon. Friend a couple of examples of the nonsense that we inherited under those contracts—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may not want to hear it: £333 to change a hospital light switch; £963 for a new TV aerial in a hospital. Some of the terms of the contracts are disgraceful and it is right that we look at them.

Q3. On the “Politics Show” of 13 February, Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor with responsibility for policing, Kit Malthouse, boasted that he would ensure that every safer neighbourhood team in every ward in London would keep its two police constables and three police community support officers, and that he had the power to guarantee that. However, police officers in Mitcham have already told my constituents that those teams have been merged and that every safer neighbourhood team has been reduced to one police officer. Who does the Prime Minister believe—the London Mayor or serving police officers? (42575)

It is worth listening to both serving and retired police officers. The hon. Lady might want to listen to Jan Berry, who for years led the Police Federation, who said:

“With unnecessary bureaucracy being added at every tier of policing from the local to the national . . . I estimate one third of effort”—

one third—

“is either over-engineered, duplicated or adds no additional value. This is unaffordable in the current climate and”

we need to give consideration to how we can realise savings in time and energy. As in so many areas, we inherited a police service completely inefficient and not properly managed by Labour.

Q4. There is an independent committee that ensures that once they have left office, former Ministers act appropriately in their subsequent employment. It is reported that Lord Mandelson, Baroness Symons and Adam Ingram have worked for the Gaddafi regime. Will the Prime Minister ensure that these reports are thoroughly investigated? (42576)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sure that those ex-Ministers will want to refer themselves immediately to that committee so that their links can be looked into.

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are adamant that there is no need for cuts in local authority front-line services. Can he therefore explain why Conservative-run Bromley council is shutting 13 of its 16 children’s centres?

Yes, we have made reductions in local government grant, because frankly we inherited a complete mess in the nation’s finances. What we have done is ask every single local authority to make public every single bit of spending they do so that members of the public can make sure that they are cutting bureaucracy, cutting councillor allowances and cutting pay, rather than cutting services. When the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, perhaps he can tell us why only one authority in the entire country, Labour-run Nottingham, refuses to do so.

You know he is losing the argument when he starts asking me the questions, Mr Speaker. Why are the cuts being made in Sure Start children’s centres? It is because the right hon. Gentleman is cutting the early years budget. The Department for Education’s own figures show an 11% cut between this year and next; and he is not just cutting the budget—he has removed the ring fence that protected it and kept those Sure Start centres open. We are getting used to the Prime Minister’s Question Time U-turn. We have seen it on school sport, housing benefit and, most recently, on forests. He has the capacity to ditch a policy and dump a colleague in it, so when he returns to the Dispatch Box, why does he not dump this policy too and reinstate the Sure Start ring fence?

In a minute, he is going to give me a lesson on family loyalty. Let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman: he comes here every week and says that he opposes the defence cuts, opposes changes in the Home Office and opposes any changes to local government, yet in four weeks’ time his own cuts programme, the Darling programme, comes into place, with £14 billion of cuts, which is only £2 billion less than we propose. It is about time he got off his opportunistic bandwagon and started producing some policies of his own.

This is a guy who has made his career out of opportunism knocks. Remember what he said at the election: he was strongly committed to Sure Start; he would improve Sure Start; and if anyone suggested otherwise, it was an absolute disgrace. As children’s centres face closure, people know that he has got it in his power to stop it happening by reinforcing that Sure Start ring fence. He is the Prime Minister; it might not have looked like it last week, but why does he not get a grip?

What we are doing for children in this country is funding education for two-year-olds for the first time, putting money into the pupil premium—something the right hon. Gentleman did not do for 13 years—and making sure that money is focused on the most disadvantaged. That is what is actually happening. When the party opposite looks at his performance—[Interruption.]

Order. Let us have a bit of order in the House. I want to get to the bottom of the Order Paper and the House needs to help in that process.

The money for Sure Start is there, so centres do not have to close. [Interruption.] Yes, and I think that when the Opposition consider the right hon. Gentleman’s performance it could be time for a bit of “Brother, where art thou?”

Recently, eight Members from both Houses of Parliament met, in Islamabad, Mr Shahbaz Bhatti. This morning, we learned that Mr Bhatti, on his way to work, was murdered. Mr Bhatti was a man committed to peace and multi-faith reconciliation. Will my right hon. Friend send through the high commission our condolences to the Pakistani Government and to his family, and will he restate our belief that there is no place for that kind of action anywhere in a democratic world?

I think my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House and, I am sure, the whole country. It was absolutely shocking to hear the news this morning about that Minister, who was a Christian minister in Pakistan, being killed in that way—absolutely brutal and unacceptable. It shows what a huge problem we have in our world with intolerance, and what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. I will send not only our condolences, but our clearest possible message to the Government and people of Pakistan that that is simply unacceptable.

Q5. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave the House some figures to criticise the flexible new deal. I thought they sounded a bit odd, so I asked the Library to check, and its response states: “This is a misleading interpretation of the statistics.”The Library points out that the Department for Work and Pensions website warns directly against interpreting the figures in the way the Prime Minister interpreted them. In future, can he get someone to check his figures before he gives them to the House? (42577)

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the figures were properly checked, and I shall write him a letter outlining not only the figures for the flexible new deal, which so many people know was just a revolving door for young people who needed employment, but the figures for the future jobs fund, which cost five times as much as many other programmes.

Q6. With the police using 2,000 different IT systems employing 5,000 staff, is it not time for this Government to start reforming police practices, so that more resources can be devoted to fighting crime on the front line? (42578)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The British police are incredibly brave and professional, and all of us see how hard they work in our communities, but they are let down by a system that has far too many officers in back-office roles, in HR and in IT, and not on the streets. That is what needs to change, along with some of the working practices that, frankly, are not actually modern and up to date. We need to make sure that that happens so that we keep the maximum number of police on the front line in our communities.

Q7. The armed forces have our total support and admiration, and traditionally they would have looked to a Conservative Government, whether in good economic times or bad, to defend them as they defend us. Given the deplorable treatment that they are currently receiving, whether by e-mail or hard copy, what plans does the Prime Minister have to restore faith in government? (42579)

Everyone in the House appreciates that our armed forces are among the most brave and professional anywhere in the world, and we can be incredibly proud of what they do. In terms of making sure that we look after them, the Government have introduced a doubling of the operational allowance for all those serving in Afghanistan; we are the first Government in history to introduce a pupil premium so that the children of service personnel get extra money when they go to school; we are making sure that rest and recuperation leave is properly formed; and we are writing out the military covenant and properly referencing it in law. The most important thing of all is to have a defence review and to make sure that our forces are fit for the future.

To all those who express concern, I make this point: at the end of that defence review, we will have the fourth largest military budget in the world; some of the most capable weapons that any air force in the world could have; the new Type 45 destroyers; our nuclear deterrent; and a superbly professional Army. That is what we want in this country, and that is what this Government will support.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging schools in my constituency and right across the country to get involved in the Tenner Tycoon school business competition, which encourages enterprise and is running this month? (42580)

Yes, it sounds like an excellent scheme. There is a lot that we should do to encourage business and enterprise to go into our schools to encourage young people to think about a career in starting up a business, in small business and in enterprise. That is a very important part of a rounded education.

Q9. On Sunday, a woman asked me what politicians were going to do for people like her, as she had been waiting for a disability living allowance appeal for 11 months. Given the roll-out of the employment support allowance and the proposals for more reviews and more assessments in DLA, what plans does the Prime Minister have for expanding the Tribunals Service, and has this been fully costed in his welfare reforms? (42581)

This House will obviously have a lot of opportunity to debate the Welfare Reform Bill, which is one of the most complex and detailed pieces of legislation on reforming our welfare system. On DLA specifically, what we are looking for, in terms of the gateway, is to make sure that people have a proper assessment for DLA, because there are too many cases where people need it and do not get it and, regrettably, some cases where people do not need it and do get it, and we need to put that right.

While we must clearly do everything that we can to help the non-Libyans who are seeking to get out of that country, may we hope that the Libyans will be allowed to determine the fate of Colonel Gaddafi?

I very much hope that they do. We should support and say how much we admire those brave people who are standing up in their own country asking for greater freedoms and greater democracy—for things that we take for granted in our own country. What has been striking is that although many said that any sort of rebellion like this would be extremist, or Islamist, or tribal, it is none of those things; it is a revolt by the people, who want to have greater democracy in their country.

Q10. Last week, Save the Children published research showing that 1.6 million children are living in severe poverty in the United Kingdom, yet this week the Government have failed to include low-income families in the warm home discount scheme for rebates on their energy bills. Will the Prime Minister meet Save the Children on this critical issue and ask the Chancellor to publish an emergency plan to tackle severe child poverty in the Budget and the child poverty strategy later this month? (42582)

I do see Save the Children regularly. It is an excellent organisation in terms of the work that it does overseas and the pressure that it rightly brings to bear here in this country. What we have done in trying to help with child poverty is to make sure that we massively increase the child tax credit. That is what we have done in the Budget and in the spending round to make sure that while we are making difficult decisions, child poverty has not increased.

Q11. The Prime Minister will know that for years the welfare state has been too easily abused. Can he therefore assure this House that in future the welfare state will act as a safety net for the unfortunate and not as a way of life for the workshy? (42583)

What this Government are doing—and it is a historic reform—is making sure that the welfare state always means that it is worth while someone being in work and worth while someone working more. That is what universal credit is all about, and it will make a huge difference to welfare in this country.

Q12. Many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in my constituency will not be included in the pupil premium because their parents are still waiting for their immigration status to be settled and therefore have no access to funds and are not eligible for free school meals. Will the Prime Minister ask his Ministers to meet me and other Members in constituencies like mine to discuss a way to capture these children to ensure that our schools are not underfunded? (42584)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. When we established the pupil premium, we had a number of discussions to try to work out the best basis to put it on. In the short term, the free school meals indicator was the best basis. However, I am very happy to arrange a meeting between her and my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to see what we can do to make sure that we really are targeting those most in need. There may be opportunities, perhaps not this year but in the future, to make sure that the pupil premium is helping those who most need it.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport made a most welcome announcement on the electrification of the Great Western main line to Bristol, Cardiff and the south Wales valleys, including the fact that the jobs producing those trains will be in the north-east of England. Does not this show that the coalition Government not only have a strategy for growth but that that vision for growth is both high-tech and green?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In 13 years, the previous Government never electrified the west coast main line out to Cardiff. We have managed to announce it within nine months. He is absolutely right. The good news is not just the electrification of the line to Cardiff, but the new factory in Newton Aycliffe that will build the trains and that we are pressing ahead with High Speed 2.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister think he was right to tell journalists on a plane that the United Kingdom is paying bribes to Libya, and does he agree with the Foreign Office’s assessment that he was “loose-tongued and reckless”? (42585)

I am, of course, very grateful for that question. The point I would make is that in getting people out of Libya, we did have to pay some facilitation payments for the services in the airport. As the hon. Gentleman says, I am sure that those were entirely proper.

Q14. The Royal British Legion has welcomed the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a new military covenant being enshrined in the law of the land, but it has made it clear that it does not accept that the Government’s proposals for an annual armed forces covenant report honour that promise. Will he work constructively with the Royal British Legion to agree a definition of the military covenant that can be enshrined in legislation? (42586)

I am very happy to work with the Royal British Legion. It is one of the most important and hard-working organisations in our country. Not only does it do a great job in lobbying for the armed forces, it does a brilliant job in looking after former service personnel in all our constituencies. I am happy to have that conversation. However, I want to ensure not only that we reference the covenant properly in law, but that we regularly debate, improve and enhance it, partly through debates in this House.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for their work in securing an extra £200 million for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to combat the dissident terrorist threat. That will undoubtedly save lives and prevent the creation of further victims. On victims, given our campaign for compensation for the victims of Libyan state-sponsored IRA terrorism, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that before the normalisation of relations with Libya under any new regime, the outstanding matter of compensation will be addressed by the Government, not least through the use of Gaddafi assets seized in Britain?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the additional funding for the police in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely vital that we work hard with its Administration to ensure that the security situation there is as good as it can be. On what he said about compensation from the Libyans to victims of IRA terror, an FCO-led unit is still working on that issue and it is vital that it continues to go on doing that. It is an ingenious idea to use the frozen assets in that way. Having sought advice, those assets really belong to the Libyan people. The whole problem with Libya is that it is a rich country with poor people. We can see that in the extensive assets that have been frozen. Those assets belong to the Libyan people first and foremost.

Q15. Milton Keynes council has been praised for its commitment to publishing all expenditure of more than £500, ensuring that local residents can see exactly how their council tax money is being spent. What message will the Prime Minister give to other local authorities that seem determined to keep their residents firmly in the dark? (42587)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know that the Labour party is embarrassed about this, because we now have transparency from every single council in the country apart from one that is controlled by the Labour party—Nottingham—which will not tell us where it is spending its money. I want every single person in our country, every single Member of Parliament and all councillors to be able to ensure that the money is going on services and not on salaries, bureaucracy and allowances. That is the pressure at a time of austerity and of difficult national decisions. How typical it is of Labour just to try to cover it all up.

In response to a question from me in December, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government expressed himself as “delighted” with the level of cuts faced by Birmingham. Yesterday, Birmingham city council cut £212 million from its budget, hitting care for the elderly and the disabled, and youth services. Does the Prime Minister share his Communities Secretary’s delight or does he think that Birmingham is going too far, too fast?

Every council in the country is having to make difficult decisions about reducing their spending. When we look at what is actually happening to Government grants, we see that in most cases, they are going back to the levels that we had in 2007, 2006 or, in some cases, even 2009. Everyone has to take part in this, and I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that the reason this is being done is because his party made a complete mess of the economy.

At a time when prices at the petrol pumps are going up and up, will the Government do all that they can to ease the pressure on hard-pressed motorists?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know how difficult it is for motorists, and particularly for small businesses and families, when they are filling up at the pumps and paying more than £1.30 a litre. As we have said, we will look at the fact that extra revenue comes to the Treasury when there is a higher oil price, and will see whether we can share some of the benefit of that with the motorist. That is something that Labour never did in all its time in government, and it ought to be reminded of the fact that it announced four increases in fuel duty last year, three of which were due to come in after the election.

The £90 million of cuts to the budget of Leeds city council means that Bramley baths in my constituency will have its hours cut so that school children will not be able to swim there any more. How does that fit with the Government’s ambition for school sports and for the Olympic legacy for Leeds?

We do want to see a proper legacy come out of the Olympics. That is why we are funding the Olympics properly and why we have made it very clear that the extra money will be made available for school sport. But, if we look at education funding, we can see that funding per pupil is not being reduced. Because of difficult decisions being made elsewhere, which Labour has never supported, we are maintaining per-pupil funding for students throughout our country. That is the right decision, and it is one that the hon. Lady should get behind.

When Colonel Gaddafi is finally removed, is the Prime Minister confident—[Interruption]—that an interim Government can be found to prevent the country from falling into anarchy?

I would advise my hon. Friend to ignore the voices from the Opposition. They are just furious at the fact that he liberated a long-held Labour seat. He makes a very good point. One of the things that we are doing, currently and in the coming days, is making contact with the opposition in Benghazi to ensure that we have good contacts with them so that we can help to bring about a peaceful transition in Libya.

Order. We come to the urgent question. Will right hon. and hon. Members who are not staying for this business but are leaving do so quickly and quietly so that the exchanges on the urgent question can take place properly?