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Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2011

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the following brave servicemen who have died in Afghanistan since we last met: Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna and Rifleman Martin Lamb from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, Marine Samuel Alexander and Lance Corporal Martin Gill from 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Corporal Mike Pike from 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. All of them were dedicated professionals serving our country. Their deaths are a reminder of the very high price that we are paying to stop Afghanistan being a haven for terrorists. We honour their memory and we will support their families, and we will not forget their service and their sacrifice.

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.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to our fallen soldiers? We do indeed owe them a great debt.

We are reminded on a daily basis that not everyone in the world is as fortunate as we are in respect of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. In particular, I should like to highlight the absolute horror of the images of the 13-year-old boy who was tortured by Syrian Government forces in recent weeks. Will the Prime Minister give me his assurance that he will use every influence he has to ensure that the international community condemns the activities of the Syrian Government and demands that their reign of terror ends?

My hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in what she says about those dreadful pictures of that poor boy. There are credible reports of 1,000 dead and as many as 10,000 detained. The violence being meted out to peaceful protesters and demonstrators is completely unacceptable. Of course, we must not stand silent in the face of those outrages, and we will not. The EU has already frozen the assets of, and banned travel by, members of the regime, and we have now added President Assad to that list. However, I believe that we need to go further, and today in New York, Britain and France will table a resolution at the Security Council condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian access. If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna and Rifleman Martin Lamb from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, Marine Samuel Alexander MC and Lance Corporal Martin Gill from 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Corporal Michael Pike from 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. They all showed enormous bravery and courage, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. As the Prime Minister said, that number of deaths once again demonstrates the bravery of all our forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

We read in the newspapers today that the Prime Minister has torn up the Justice Secretary’s policy on sentencing. Has he?

What we want is tough sentences for serious offenders. This Government produced a consultation paper—there was wide consultation and widespread support for many of the proposals that it made—and in the coming weeks, we will publish our legislation.

But we read in the newspapers today that the Prime Minister has torn up the Justice Secretary’s proposals because he felt that he had to step in—and frankly I can see why. There is widespread public concern about the proposal to cut by 50% sentences for those who plead guilty. The consultation ended in March. The Justice Secretary was advocating the policy two weeks ago. Has the Prime Minister torn it up, yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman should do something more useful than just read the newspapers. One response to the consultation paper came from the shadow Justice Secretary, the man sitting next to him, who said that it is

“a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy, entirely in keeping with the emphasis on punishment and reform that Labour followed in government”.

Why the sudden U-turn?

The Prime Minister knows, and the whole country knows, that he is in a total mess on his sentencing policy, just like on all of his other crime policies. I now want to ask about another area where he is in a complete mess. Why has he made such a mess of his health plans?

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to move on because on the first subject he was found guilty. On the issue of discounts, it was the last Government who introduced a 33% discount—a third—on sentences. So there is more than a whiff of jumping on a bandwagon.

Bandwagon No. 1 hit the buffers, so let us turn to bandwagon No. 2. Yes, we are having a review of the plans that we announced on health: we want to get them right. I have to say again that there has been widespread support for the review of our health plans, not least from the man sitting four down from the right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Health Secretary—I know I often quote him—who said that

“looking at the evidence of what works, listening hard to those who know the NHS and learning from the views they get…is not rocket science. It’s simply good government”.

What the right hon. Gentleman calls a shambles, his shadow Health Secretary calls good government. The right hon. Gentleman is not really in command of the ship.

I asked the Prime Minister why he had made such a mess of his health proposals. The first reason he made such a mess of his health proposals is the promises he made before the election. We all remember the Prime Minister touring round the country promising no more top-down reorganisations. A year before the election, he told the Royal College of Nursing:

“There will be no more of those pointless top-down reorganisations that aim for change and instead bring chaos”.

Why did he say that?

What the Royal College of Nursing said yesterday was a welcome for the speech that I made. The reason that we are able to improve the NHS is not only that we are committed to reform, but that we are also committed to more funding. The Labour party is in favour of cutting funding to the NHS. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to look at what is happening in the NHS, Wales is now only one part of the country that is controlled by Labour and there waiting lists are massively up and health spending is being cut. That is what Labour would do to the NHS.

I will tell the Prime Minister why he made promises that he then broke—because he is completely shameless and he will say anything. The second reason he has made a mess of the health service is because he did not think the policy through. Last June, he ordered the NHS to stop enforcing Labour’s 18-week waiting time target. As a result, the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks has gone up by 69%. Why did he scrap the instruction to enforce the waiting time target?

The best that can be said about this performance is that—quite rightly—the right hon. Gentleman was not thinking about politics on his honeymoon. On waiting times, what actually matters is the time people wait and median waiting times are down. That is what has happened in the NHS, and that is something that he misled the House of Commons about a fortnight ago—

Order. I know that the Prime Minister will be a follower of parliamentary protocol, and he will not suggest that the Leader of the Opposition misled the House of Commons. I am sure that he will withdraw that remark.

What I meant was that the right hon. Gentleman gave an interesting use of facts on waiting times, which are down in the NHS. What we are seeing today is simply empty opposition and weak leadership. That is what we get from Labour.

The whole House will note that the Prime Minister did not withdraw his remark. He is obviously rattled over the health service. It is no wonder he is rattled, because he is making a complete mess of it, and everybody up and down the country knows it. What is the most important reason he is making a mess of the health service? However much he says he loves the NHS, and however many times he says it, the truth is that he has the wrong values. He wanted to put a free market free-for-all at the centre of our health service, and any changes he makes now are not because he wants to make them, but because he has been found out. We know all we need to know about this Prime Minister from what he has done on the NHS: he breaks his promises; he does not think things through; he is reckless; and he has got the wrong values. I will hand it to him though. After one year, he has proved the oldest truth in politics: you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS.

This side of the House will not take lectures from a party that, when in government, gave £250 million to private sector companies for doing nothing. That is what happened. What we have heard today is just a series of bandwagons, and anyone who is watching this knows that it is this Government who are boldly making reforms in the public sector; who are dealing with the deficit; and who are reforming welfare, and what do we get from the Labour party? Where is the right hon. Gentleman’s plan for the NHS? There is not one. Where is his plan for reforming welfare? Nothing. Where is his plan for higher education? Nothing. All we get is empty opposition and weak leadership, and the country can see it.

Q2. Following the welcome introduction of the pupil premium, some head teachers in Worcester tell me that owing to long-term underfunding from the previous Government’s flawed formula, the money is needed to make ends meet and cannot be spent on the deprived pupils it was meant for. Can the Prime Minister assure schools in both Worcester and Witney that the Government will not just consult on that formula, but reform it and correct a problem that has been too wrong for too long? (57762)

My hon. Friend makes a good point about a serious problem in our country. He is right to welcome the pupil premium, which will put more money in all our schools, particularly those that have many children from free-school-meals backgrounds. However, the current problem with the discrepancy of funding means that at present there can be a difference of £1,800 per pupil between the best-funded school and the worst-funded school. We want to reform the school funding system, and we want to do it in a fairer and more logical way. I am determined that we will make progress on this.

I have come here from meeting the family of my 18-year-old constituent, Nana Darko-Frempong, who was fatally shot outside his block of flats on Monday. I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to his family. I raised a similar case with the Prime Minister this time last year. This senseless loss of life is completely and utterly unacceptable, yet it continues, and rightly or wrongly there is a perception that, on all sides of the House, we are not getting to grips with the root causes of this problem, which is blighting our inner-city streets. What reassurance can he give my constituents and the country that the Government are doing all they can to stop this senseless loss of life.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring this case to the House of Commons, and I join him in sending condolences to his constituent’s family on their appalling loss. He is absolutely right that the level of gun crime and knife crime in our country, particularly in inner-city areas, is unacceptable. I do not think there is one single answer. Of course, we have to ensure that the police do everything they can to search for guns and knives and have a zero-tolerance policy, but we also have to look at where these problems are coming from, including the growth of gangs in our cities and the fact that in too many cases people are looking to gang, rather than to family and community. It is incumbent on us all to try and work out how we can strengthen the fabric of our communities, starting with our families.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advise me on whom to listen to on the UK’s economic policy? Should it be the experts in the International Monetary Fund or the letters page of The Guardian? [Interruption.] (57763)

My hon. Friend was being shouted down because the Labour party does not want to hear what the International Monetary Fund said about the British economy. It said:

“Strong fiscal consolidation is underway and remains essential to achieve a more sustainable budgetary position”—

[Interruption.] Members ask me to read the rest, and I will read the rest. The IMF put the question specifically:

“This raises the question whether it is time to adjust macroeconomic policies”—

the question put by the Labour party—and it said this: “The answer is no”. The IMF could not be more clear in backing the policies that we are pursuing to get this country back on track.

Q4. What message does the Prime Minister have for the hundreds of women in my constituency in their mid-50s who feel that they have been unjustly thwarted by the extension of their retirement age, contrary to the coalition agreement? (57764)

What I would say is that the first decision was taken in 1995, when there was all-party agreement that we should equalise men’s and women’s pension ages, and that was done over a long period of time. The second point is that it is right to lift the pension age for men and women to a higher level more rapidly than the last Government decided. However, the key fact is that 85% of the women affected are going to lose one year or less in terms of their pension. The last point that I would make is this. Because we have linked the pension to earnings, people who retire today will be £15,000 better off than they were under the policies of the last Government.

Q5. Why do magistrates have to retire at the age of 70, when the Lord Chancellor, who appoints them, is 71 this year? (57765)

The point that I would make to my hon. Friend—I speak as someone whose mother served as a magistrate for over three decades—is that it is important to get turnover in the magistracy so that new people come in. To be fair to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, he has been in his job for only a year. He is doing a superb job, and I can tell the House that there is plenty more fuel in his tank.

Q6. The Prime Minister has an aspiration of making his Government the greenest ever. Meantime, Proven Energy, a small wind turbine company in my constituency, is making 10% of its staff redundant, not because it does not have a great product, but because planning applications for its product are stuck in town halls and bureaucracy all over the United Kingdom. Will the Prime Minister meet me and members of the Proven Energy team to discuss how we can find a solution? (57766)

I am very happy to ensure that someone from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—or, indeed, the Department of Energy and Climate Change—speaks with the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We are reforming the planning system to try to speed up these processes. We want to ensure that local people benefit when turbines are built, so that they have a share in the success of a scheme. Also, the Government are taking action to attract manufacturers of wind turbines to the UK—for instance, by putting £60 million into our ports infrastructure—and I am talking personally to those manufacturers to try to bring them to Britain.

Q7. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s previous answer, I would, as a woman not affected by the current pension proposals, like to ask him personally to review this particular proposal, because of the injustice and discrimination against women. The group of women affected, who were born between 1953 and 1954, will be asked to work up to two extra years over and above what they had planned for, whereas men will be asked to work only an extra year. It is the discrimination that concerns me. (57767)

I do understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, but let me make this point. First, in general, the reason for raising pension ages is twofold: one is that we are seeing a huge increase in life expectancy, but the second point is that we want to ensure that we can fund really good pension provision for the future, and if we do not do this, we will not be able to. Let me repeat the statistic: four fifths of the women affected by the proposals will have their state pension age increase by a year or less. The reason, as she says, that there is this difficulty is that those two things—the equalisation of the pension age and the raising of the pension age—are coming together, but that is enabling us to link the pension with earnings, thus meaning that people will be £15,000 better off than they were under Labour’s plans.

Q8. Given 1,200 job losses at Tata in Scunthorpe and further job losses in the private and public sectors in north Lincolnshire, will the Prime Minister meet with the taskforce chair and local MPs, so that he can understand how his Government can help the local economy face these demands positively and respond positively to future challenges? (57768)

I shall be happy to do that, because I am extremely disappointed—as I know the hon. Gentleman and others are—by the job losses in Scunthorpe. I spoke personally to Ratan Tata about the decision.

Tata Steel is still hugely committed to the United Kingdom. It is still investing hundreds of millions of pounds in our country, which I think is wholly welcome. Obviously, however, what has happened in Scunthorpe is not welcome, and we must do all that we can to bring the taskforce together—I know that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing that—to ensure that we do everything we can to mitigate the impact on local jobs and local communities.

Q9. I am sure the Prime Minister agrees that there should be no place for corruption in football. Given that the re-election of Sepp Blatter has brought FIFA even further into disrepute, will he take this opportunity to voice his support for those who are calling for the reforms that we need in order finally to show Mr Blatter the red card? (57769)

I have personally seen football governance at an international level, and I was not that impressed by what I saw.

FIFA’s reputation is now at an all-time low, and obviously the election involving just one candidate was something of a farce. FIFA must become more transparent and more accountable. It must prove that it is capable of doing the job that it is meant to do. Ultimately, however, change must come from within football, and I am sure that the Football Association will want to play a major role in helping to bring that about.

Q10. I love the NHS and I love my local hospital, Ealing hospital. I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister also thinks highly of Ealing hospital, and that he chose it as the place in which to deliver his speech on the Government’s NHS reforms. Given his personal experience of the high quality of services that Ealing hospital provides, will he assure the House that, faced with budget pressures and merger proposals, it will not close or lose its accident and emergency and other key services? (57770)

I enjoyed my visit to Ealing hospital, and was impressed by what I saw. There are no plans to close the hospital. Indeed, a new urgent care centre is due to open in July, and the maternity unit has a phased redevelopment programme in process.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, any proposals relating to any hospital must go through a proper process involving public and patient engagement, sound clinical evidence, support by the GP commissioners, and support for patient choice. That is the process that must be followed. As I have said, however, there are no plans to close the hospital.

Q11. The Prime Minister will be aware that one in seven couples in the United Kingdom suffer from infertility problems, but, notwithstanding that fact, three quarters of primary care trusts do not provide the recommended three cycles of IVF treatment. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on all PCTs to follow the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines and provide sufficient treatment for infertile couples? (57771)

I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend is right to raise an issue that affects a huge number of people in our country. We have all encountered constituency cases in which people are frustrated by local guidelines. The deputy chief executive of the NHS is writing to all primary care trusts reminding them of the NICE guidance and its recommendations, and I think that that is very important. Of course some PCTs have worse deficits than others and have a more difficult process to follow, but we want to ensure that everyone has access to this treatment.

Q12. After four years, 15-year-old Alice Pyne, who lives in my constituency, is losing her battle against cancer. She has posted online her “bucket list”, a simple wish list of things that she wants to do before it is too late. She wants to meet Take That, to own a purple iPod and to enter her dog in a labrador show, but at the top of the list is a call for everyone to sign up to be a bone marrow donor. Will the Prime Minister work with the Leader of the Opposition and me to find out why too few people are currently on that life-saving register? (57772)

I will certainly do that. I am very sorry to hear about the situation facing Alice and what she is going through. Our thoughts go out to her and to her parents. She sounds like a very brave and very admirable person.

We want to get as many people as possible on to the bone marrow register. This year we are investing some £4 million of new money to improve donation processing and services for NHS patients. However, this is partly to do with a cultural and population change that we must help to drive, and I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition and I can discuss that.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the terrible explosion at the Chevron refinery in Pembroke last week, as a result of which four people died and one was seriously injured. Will he join me in extending condolences to the families and colleagues of those concerned, and also in commending the safety record of Chevron and its new owner, Valero, in what is a pretty difficult industry?

I will certainly do that. This was a tragic incident, and, on behalf of the whole House, may I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his constituents and expressing our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been affected? I am sure there will be lessons to learn, but as my hon. Friend said, the company has had a good safety record, and in an industry in which there are inherent risks. I will be happy to discuss the issue with him.

Q13. What does it say about our society when a BBC documentary on child poverty ends with a child saying: “And I don’t want to grow up”? (57774)

It says that, frankly, we need to do far more to tackle child poverty, not just here in the UK, but around the world. That is one of the reasons why, despite difficult spending decisions, we have maintained the pledge of increasing our aid budget to 0.7% of gross national income by 2013. That is a difficult pledge to make, but I think that, even at times of difficulty, we should not break our promises to the poorest people in the world.

In terms of child poverty here in Britain, the biggest challenge today is not just benefit levels, but mobility: how do we help people get out of poverty and stay out of poverty? That is why this Government are putting so much emphasis on measures such as the pupil premium, which will actually help people build themselves a better future.

Q14. I have the honour of representing the only town to have given its name to an international sport: rugby football. Under the union code of the game, the home nations are preparing for the world cup later this year. Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing gratitude to the New Zealand authorities for proceeding despite the recent earthquake, and will he also join me in hoping that at the end of the tournament the Webb Ellis trophy will be making its way back home? (57775)

I certainly endorse what my hon. Friend says, and I will do everything I can to support our rugby team. I very much hope the trophy will be coming home—[Interruption.] Calm down. I very much hope the trophy will be coming home to one of the nations of the United Kingdom. When I met the Prime Minister of New Zealand, he kindly gave me an All Blacks shirt, but his advice was, “Whatever you do, don’t be seen wearing this”, and I think I will take that advice.

As the Prime Minister has previously said, the hacking inquiry should go where the evidence takes it. The Metropolitan police are in possession of paperwork detailing the dealings of criminal private investigator Jonathan Rees. It strongly suggests that, on behalf of News International, he was illegally targeting members of the royal family, senior politicians and high-level terrorist informers, yet the head of Operation Weeting has recently written to me to explain that this evidence may be outside the inquiry’s terms of reference. Prime Minister, I believe powerful forces are involved in a cover-up; please tell me what you intend to do to make sure that that does not happen.

I know the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in this subject, and the point I would make to him is that there is a police inquiry, and a police inquiry does not need terms of reference. The police are free to investigate the evidence and take that wherever it leads them, and then mount a prosecution with the Crown Prosecution Service if the evidence supports that. In the case of phone hacking, which is illegal and wrong, there have been prosecutions and imprisonments, and if that is where the evidence takes them, that is what will happen in the future. There are no terms of reference as far as I am concerned; the police are able to look at any evidence and all evidence they can find.

The Prime Minister will recall visiting Nuneaton town centre on several occasions, and he will be glad to hear that it is surviving well, with a comparatively low level of vacant premises, but our town centres are facing a vital and difficult challenge from the out-of-town stores and the internet. Given those challenges, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that this Government will be a keen supporter of our town centres?

I can, and my hon. Friend speaks powerfully not just for Nuneaton, but for all town centres and all Members who represent constituencies with vibrant town centres. We want to keep them, rather than see everything go out of town. There are two steps we need to take. One is to make sure local people have a real say in the planning process, so they can decide where future development goes. Secondly, we should continue the steps that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been pioneering in terms of rate relief, to help local shops in our high streets so we do not end up with identikit high streets, but instead have thriving town centres such as Nuneaton, which I so enjoyed visiting with my hon. Friend on a number of occasions.

The chairman of the Georgian Parliament is in London this week, and, indeed, is following our proceedings. Some Members of this House went to Georgia during the recess. When the Prime Minister goes to Moscow later this year, will he remind Russia of the commitment it gave in 2008 to withdraw its troops and stop the occupation in Georgia?

I will certainly do that. I well remember myself going to Tbilisi when the Georgians were under so much pressure from the Russians, and standing up with them, recognising that Georgia is a country that wants to be a democracy; it wants to be an economic success story; it wants to join NATO; it wants to be able to look west, as well as east; and it wants to have good relations with its neighbour. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is meeting representatives from the Georgian Parliament. I myself have met Georgia’s President Saakashvili on several occasions, and I will certainly make my views clear on the issue of Georgia, if I visit, and when I visit, Russia later this year.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key challenge facing the national health service is how to convert this Government’s welcome commitment to year-on-year growth of real resources into improving productivity and improving quality of care for patients? Did the key to delivering that not lie in my right hon. Friend’s speech yesterday: in his advocacy of more integrated and less fragmented care? Will he continue to—

My right hon. Friend’s support for the reforms is hugely welcome, and I know that he follows these issues very closely. It was not just he who welcomed the speech that I set out yesterday: also, I had express support from the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the NHS Confederation, Macmillan Cancer Support and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I think we are seeing a coming together of people who care about the health service, who use the health service, of professional bodies in the health service, who can see that this Government are listening, getting their changes right and will add the money that is required—and that only we are committed to—with the reforms that are necessary to make sure the NHS can go on and thrive in future.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the dastardly murders of senior police officers Breen and Buchanan, and the subsequent public inquiry, established in consultation between this nation’s Government and the Irish Republic’s Government. Will he make sure that nothing is allowed to impede Anglo-Irish relations by making personal representations to the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, such that they cannot restrict the time, the effort and the money put into that inquiry, so that we can get to the truth and find out how those two brave police officers were murdered in so dastardly a way?

I will certainly look very carefully at the issue the hon. Gentleman raises. There is still, on all sides in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the Republic, huge concern about things that happened in the past. Often, people ask for an inquiry, a public inquiry or a process. I think in most cases, what people really want is the truth. I found with the issue of the Saville inquiry that what really mattered, actually, was not the £120 million, the five years and all the rest of it. What people wanted was the unvarnished truth, so then they can come to terms with what happened in the past. I have said that I do not want to see further open-ended inquiries; but I do think there is still more that we can do to uncover and be frank about the truth, and that goes for us on all sides of this debate.

I appeal to hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the same courtesy to the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is about to introduce her ten-minute rule Bill, that they would want to be extended to them in such circumstances.