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Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Highlander Scott McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. This week I witnessed at first hand the sacrifice of our soldiers. I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of this particular soldier, who was lost in such tragic circumstances. Our thoughts will rightly be with his family and his friends at this very sad time, but we pay tribute to him and all those like him who serve our country so magnificently in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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

I echo the sentiments that the Prime Minister has expressed. As a father whose son is serving in the Royal Marines and doing his duty in Afghanistan, I can tell the House that those in my position dread the knock on the door saying that their son has been lost in action. Our sympathies obviously go to Scott’s father, mother and family at this time.

Is it right that yesterday we gave £10 billion to the bail-out of the banks in Greece, that we gave £7 billion to the bail-out in Ireland, and that we—the British taxpayers—give £100 billion a year to the banks in this country for insurance and other purposes? Why does the Prime Minister not get on his bike, go down to see his friends in the City, and sack a few spivs and speculators and bankers—

Let me say first that it is this Government who have imposed a levy on the banks so that they pay more every year than they paid in bankers’ bonus tax under the last Government. As for Greece, I kept us out of a European bail-out, and as for Ireland, its economy is so close and so integrated with ours that it is right for us to give it support. That, I think, is the right approach, but this Government are being tough in ensuring that the banks pay their fair share.

Q2. Severe droughts, conflicts and food prices have combined viciously in the horn of Africa, creating desperate hunger and threatening the lives of millions. Given that aid agencies are short of funds, what are the Government doing to help? (63870)

As ever, the Department for International Development is being extremely effective. It is working very quickly to try to help in this appalling crisis, in which 10 million people face the threat of starvation. That demonstrates once again that we are right to maintain and increase our spending in this area, difficult as the arguments sometimes are. Our difficulties here and elsewhere in Europe are nothing in comparison with what is being experienced by people who face starvation and death unless we help them.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Highlander Scott McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland? He was a young man who was serving our country, and died in the most horrific circumstances. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.

The whole country has been appalled by the disclosures about phone hacking: the 7/7 victims, the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and, of course, the phone of Milly Dowler. That anyone could hack into her phone, listen to her family’s frantic messages and delete them, giving false hope to the parents, is immoral and a disgrace. Given the gravity of what has occurred, will the Prime Minister support the calls for a full, independent public inquiry to take place as soon as practical into the culture and practices of British newspapers?

Let me be very clear: yes, we do need to have an inquiry—possibly inquiries—into what has happened. We are no longer talking about politicians and celebrities; we are talking about murder victims—potentially terrorist victims—having their phones hacked into. What has taken place is absolutely disgusting, and I think everyone in this House, and indeed this country, will be revolted by what they have heard and seen on their television screens.

Let me make a couple of points. First—people need to know this—a major police investigation is under way. It is one of the biggest police investigations currently under way in our country, and crucially—I hope Opposition Members will listen to this—it does not involve police officers who were involved in the original investigation that so clearly did not get to the truth. It is important that we have inquiries: inquiries that are public; inquiries that are independent; and inquiries that have public confidence.

It seems to me that there are two vital issues that we need to look into. The first is the original police inquiry and why that did not get to the bottom of what has happened, and the second is the behaviour of individual people and individual media organisations and, as the right hon. Gentleman says, a wider look into media practices and ethics in this country. Clearly, as he says, we cannot start that sort of inquiry immediately because we must not jeopardise the police investigation, but it may be possible to start some of that work earlier. I am very happy to discuss this with him, with other party leaders, and with the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary, to make sure that we get this right and lessons are learned from what has become a disgraceful episode.

Let me say to the Prime Minister that I am encouraged that he does now recognise the need for a full public inquiry into what happened. He is right to say that it can be fully completed only after the police investigation has taken its course, but, as he also said, that may take some years. It is possible, as I think he implied, for the Prime Minister to start the process now, so may I make some suggestions in that context? He should immediately appoint a senior figure, potentially a judge, to lead this inquiry, make it clear that it will have the power to call witnesses under oath, and establish clear terms of reference covering a number of key issues: the culture and practices of the industry; the nature of regulation, which is absolutely crucial; and the relationship between the police and the media. I wonder whether he can respond on those points.

I want to respond positively, and let me do so. First, on the two issues I mentioned—the conduct of the earlier police inquiry and the broader lessons about ethics in the media—I do not think it is possible to start any form of investigation into the former until the police investigation is completed, because I think there would be a danger of jeopardising the current police inquiry. Responding positively to what the right hon. Gentleman said, I do think it may be possible to make a start on other elements, and, as I have said, I do not want us to rush this decision; I want us to get it right, having discussed it with other party leaders, the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary. All too often, these sorts of inquiries can be set up too quickly without thinking through what actually needs to be done.

I think the Prime Minister is implying that this can start moving now, and I think it is very important that it does so; just because we cannot do everything does not mean we cannot do anything. It is very important that we act. A year ago to the day, the Prime Minister appointed the Gibson inquiry to look into the treatment of detainees by the intelligence services, with criminal cases still pending.

Let me ask the Prime Minister about what happens in the meantime, pending this public inquiry. We have consistently said that the BSkyB bid should be referred to the Competition Commission and not dealt with in the way the Culture Secretary has done. The Prime Minister must realise that the public will react with disbelief if next week the decision is taken to go ahead with this deal at a time when News International is subject to a major criminal investigation and we do not yet know who charges will be laid against. Does the Prime Minister agree that the BSkyB bid should now be referred to the Competition Commission, to provide the breathing space that is required?

First, let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Gibson, because this is a good and fair point. We established the Gibson inquiry but it has not been able to make much progress until criminal proceedings have been brought to an end. There is a good reason for this; clearly you do not want to jeopardise a police operation, and you do so if you start questioning witnesses through a public inquiry process at the same time as they are being questioned through a police process. That is the reason for doing this, but, believe me, I want us to get on with this issue, and the faster we can set up other elements of an inquiry, the happier I will be.

On the issue of BSkyB, what we have done is follow, absolutely to the letter, the correct legal processes. That is what the Government have to do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has a quasi-judicial role and he has to follow that. I note that the leader of the Labour party said yesterday that the issue of competition and plurality is “a separate issue” from the very important issue we are discussing today. What I would say is that these processes must be followed properly, including by Ofcom, and it is Ofcom that has the duty to make a recommendation about a “fit and proper person”. Those are the right processes; this Government will behave in a proper way.

I am afraid that that answer was out of touch with millions of people up and down this country. The public will not accept the idea that, with this scandal engulfing the News of the World and News International, the Government should, in the coming days be making a decision outside the normal processes, for them to take control of one of the biggest media organisations in the country. I know that this is difficult for the Prime Minister, but I strongly urge him to think again and send this decision to the proper authorities—the Competition Commission. As I say, this would provide breathing space for legitimacy and for the proper decisions to be made.

I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that the decision making has been through the proper processes, that it is right that the Government act legally in every way and that that is what they have done. One of these is an issue about morality and ethics, and a police investigation that needs to be carried out in the proper way—they have total independence and must do that. The other is an issue about plurality and competition, where we have to act under the law. Those are the words he used yesterday and, in just 24 hours, he has done a U-turn in order to try to look good in the Commons.

This is not the time for technicalities or low blows. We have said consistently, throughout this process, that this bid should be referred to the Competition Commission—that is the right way forward. The Prime Minister, instead of engaging in technicalities, should speak for the country on this issue, because this is what people want him to do. I hope that he will go off from this Question Time and think again, because it is in the interests of the media industry and the British public that this is properly referred to the Competition Commission in the way that all other bids are dealt with.

What we also know, as well as that we need a public inquiry and that we need the BSkyB bid referred to the Competition Commission, is that these were not the actions of a rogue individual or a rogue reporter, but part of a wider, systematic pattern of abuses. The public see a major news organisation in this country where no one appears prepared to take responsibility for what happens. Nobody is denying that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and nobody is denying that it happened on the watch of the current chief executive of News International, who was editor of the newspaper at the time. Will the Prime Minister join me—if he believes in people taking responsibility—in saying that she should take responsibility and consider her position?

First, let me deal with the issue of technicalities. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that when you are dealing with the law, you have to look at the technicalities because there is something called due process that you have to follow. That is necessary for any Government and I am sure that he understands that. As for News International, everyone at News International must ask themselves some pretty searching questions and everyone at News International is subject to one of the largest police investigations under way in this country. I think that we should let the police do their work. They must follow the evidence wherever it leads and if they find people guilty of wrongdoing, they should have no hesitation in ensuring that they are prosecuted.

I do not know from that answer whether the Prime Minister says that the chief executive of News International should stand down or not. I am clear: she should take responsibility and stand down. These events show a systematic set of abuses that demonstrates the use of power without responsibility in our country and it is in the interests of our democracy and the public that such issues are sorted out. With the biggest press scandal in modern times getting worse by the day, I am afraid the Prime Minister has not shown the necessary leadership today. He has not shown the necessary leadership on BSkyB or on News International. Is it not the case that if the public are to have confidence in him, he must do the thing that is most difficult and accept that he made a catastrophic judgment in bringing Andy Coulson into the heart of his Downing street machine? [Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister should not have to shout to be heard and neither, for that matter, should the Leader of the Opposition. It is thoroughly disorderly and the Prime Minister will now be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I take full responsibility for everyone I employ and everyone I appoint and I take responsibility for everything my Government do. What this Government are doing is making sure—the public and I feel appalled by what has happened, and the fact that murder victims and terrorist victims have had their phones hacked is quite disgraceful. That is why it is important that there is a full police investigation with all the powers the police need. That is why it is important that we have those inquiries to get to the bottom of what went wrong and the lessons that need to be learned. That is why we also need to inquire as to how we can improve the ethics and morals of the press in this country and ensure that they improve for the future. That is what needs to be done, that is what the Government are doing and we do not need to take lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about it.

Q3. Year 9 pupils at Limehurst high school in my constituency have joined hundreds of other pupils to work on the “Send my Sister to School” campaign. Will the Prime Minister add his support to this cause and should not this campaign remind us that good education, here or overseas, transforms children’s lives and their life chances? (63871)

I am delighted to welcome the campaign that my hon. Friend mentions and her personal support for it. The fact is that across our world 39 million girls are out of school and even if they are in school, the gender gaps we still see are appalling. We in the UK, through our aid budget, are securing schooling for 11 million children by 2015. That is more than we educate in the UK, but we will be able to do it at 2.5% of the cost. This is a good investment for Britain and for British taxpayers that will ensure that we reduce inequality in our world.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister explain whether he thinks that the cost of his NHS reforms, which are set to rise even further—as we now know thanks to the revelation that a new super-quango will be created in the NHS—might be partly responsible for the funding squeeze affecting health services in Harrow? That has put at particular risk services at the popular Alexandra avenue polyclinic in my constituency. (63872)

What we have seen since this Government have taken office is more than 2,000 more doctors but 4,000 fewer managers. We are cutting bureaucracy by a third—[Interruption.] I know they do not like to hear it, but if we had followed their plans and cut NHS spending, the number of doctors, nurses and operations would be going down. Just this morning, we have seen the figures for the number of diagnostic tests in the UK going up. That is because of the investment that is going in under this Government.

Q6. The Prime Minister will be aware of the news this morning that Portugal’s debt has been downgraded to junk status. Does he not agree that it is a warning to every Member of this House that we cannot put off difficult decisions and that the only plan B is bankruptcy? (63874)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: plan B stands for bankruptcy. We can see what happens if Governments do not get a grip of their debt and their deficit. That is what this Government are doing, but the Labour party has learnt nothing.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister agree that the maximum sentence for the offence of dangerous driving does not properly reflect the potential harm caused to victims, some of whom are left paralysed and brain-damaged? Will he support me and Labour Front Benchers in moves to increase the maximum sentence to seven years? (63875)

I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks with great personal knowledge about this not just because of a constituency case that he wrote to me about but because of his work as a barrister before he came to this place. I do believe there is a problem when there is a high sentence, rightly, for causing death by dangerous driving, but only this two-year sentence in cases such as the one he brought to my attention in which someone was damaged permanently for life, and yet the maximum sentence was two years. In our Sentencing (Reform) Bill we are looking at this issue and we hope to make some progress.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the alleged bail-out mentioned by the Opposition of £10 billion is not that and that if we are not in the IMF we will not be a global player? Does he also agree that the Opposition need reminding that in the 1970s the IMF bailed out their Government?

I know that the Prime Minister will want to deal with the first part of the question, but not the second part because it was disorderly.

I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend said. It was remarkable yesterday that the Labour party put itself in the position of opposing our involvement in the IMF. Britain is a serious global economy and we should take responsibility for serious global issues, including through the IMF.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that details of all the weapons and explosives decommissioned in Northern Ireland should be made public as promised? Will he agree to have negotiations with the Irish Government to move forward to the Americans to see that that happens? (63877)

The point is that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning did not provide us with an inventory. It was an independent body and that was a decision for it to take—difficult as I know that is. It stated:

“We would not wish, inadvertently, to discourage future decommissioning events by groups that are actively engaged today, nor to deter groups that have decommissioned their arms from handing over any arms that may subsequently come to light”.

This is difficult and we are all having to do difficult things, in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the world, in order to bring conflict to an end and keep conflict at an end. That is what the independent commission’s report was doing.

Is not the real issue about delaying an inquiry that the public have little confidence in the Metropolitan police where investigations concerning News International are concerned? May I remind the Prime Minister of the question I asked him on 27 April about whether he would have

“a full judicial inquiry and, in particular, look at the relationship between the Metropolitan police and News International?”—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 168.]

Clearly, this is a very important issue. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has discussed it with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner this morning and they want to continue with the investigation that is under way. But let me try to reassure the House and the hon. Gentleman about this because even before we get to the point about independent and public inquiries, what the public need to know is that the police are going to go about their job properly in this investigation, so they do need to know that this is an investigation completely separate from the previous investigation. As it stands today, it is one of the largest police investigations going on anywhere in our country.

Q9. Victims of knife crime in London have increased by more than 8% in the past three months. On the streets of London we have children carrying knives and other children afraid of the journey to and from school. Last Friday, on a busy shopping parade, a 16-year-old constituent of mine was stabbed to death. Two children have been arrested in connection with that. What will the Prime Minister do to ensure that the Mayor of London gets a grip on this problem, which was one of both the Mayor’s and the Prime Minister’s election promises? (63878)

The case that the hon. Lady raises is an absolutely tragic one and there are still too many victims of knife crime, particularly among young people in our cities and particularly in London. What we are doing is creating a new offence with a mandatory prison sentence to send a very clear message to those who carry knives. The offence will apply to those with a knife who threaten and endanger others in a public place. That will send a clear message to those who possess a knife that if they threaten anyone, they will go to jail.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who pay back early their student loans are doing the right thing and should be encouraged? If so, how is that consistent with the Government’s policy, which is apparently one of discouraging people from paying back early, and indeed of penalising them for early repayment of student loans?

I urge my hon. Friend to look carefully at the detail of our proposals. We want a progressive system in which people who earn more pay back more, which is why nobody pays anything until they earn £21,000, and people do not start to pay back in full until they earn £35,000. We propose that people who pay back, say, £3,000 a year in earnings should not be discouraged, because in many ways that is the right thing to do.

Q10. In opposition, the Prime Minister made it clear that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned, but last week he fell back on exactly the same explanations that he refused to accept when they were given to him by the previous Prime Minister. What has changed? (63879)

We have banned the Tehrik-e-Taliban—we have taken action. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will hastily testify, it is endlessly frustrating that we are subject to so many legal requirements, but I am afraid that we have to be a Government under the law. [Interruption.]

Q11. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that the Olympics and the diamond jubilee will take place next year, is the Prime Minister aware that immigration and special branch officers at Stansted airport are concerned that the common travel area channel in its current form allows illegal migrants, Islamists and terrorists into the country without their passports being checked? Will he take urgent steps to close that loophole immediately? (63880)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Passport-free travel between the UK, the Crown dependencies and the Republic of Ireland has been in place for many years, and it offers real economic and social benefits. I accept that those routes can be open to abuse, and we are determined to resolve that. The UK Border Agency is working closely with Ireland and others to make sure that that happens, but we want to try to do so without disadvantaging people who have been able to take advantage of that common travel area up to now.

Q12. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have both said that British employers should employ British workers, so will the Prime Minister stop the Department for Work and Pensions offshoring existing jobs in North Tyneside to Bangalore? (63881)

Of course I will look closely at the case that the hon. Lady makes, but every Government—[Interruption.]

We need to make sure that our welfare reforms encourage those people who sit on welfare and who could work actually to go out to work. Under the Labour Government, yes, we had economic growth, but there were 5 million working-age people living on benefits. That is not good enough, and we are going to change it.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree that birthing centres in rural areas provide a valuable and irreplaceable service to the local community, and every effort should be made to retain them—a message that hundreds of my constituents and I are sending to Derbyshire County NHS as it considers the future of the Corbar birthing centre in my constituency of High Peak? (63882)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We want to see maternity networks so that mums can make a choice about where they give birth, whether in a community setting, midwife-led, or whether in a district general hospital with all the paraphernalia of consultants and the rest of it. It should be a choice made by them with their GP and others on what is right for their needs.

Is the Prime Minister aware that yesterday, when Bombardier had to announce the redundancy, among others, of skilled engineers and designers, the company made public for the first time the fact that it had offered to establish a new academy in this country for the design and manufacture of cars for the next generation of high-speed trains for the UK and across the world—a global centre of excellence, providing more jobs and jobs with even higher skills. He will not have had time to familiarise himself with the details, but will he undertake to look into that with care to give substance to the commitment that he made in my constituency to British manufacturers?

I will look carefully at what the right hon. Lady has said about this issue. I want to see more British jobs in manufacturing as, indeed, we are seeing across the country. In the case of the Bombardier train contract, the procurement process was designed and initiated by the Government of whom she was a member. We are bound by the criteria that they set out, so we have to continue with the decision that has been made according to those criteria. Separately, we are setting out to ask what more we can do under the rules to make sure that we boost manufacturing and not have situations like this in future.

Q14. Twelve days ago a young constituent of mine was the victim of a vicious knife attack. Last weekend another 16-year-old young man was also the victim of a knife attack. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this upsurge in gang-related violence and confirm that those who carry knives will face a custodial sentence if apprehended? (63883)

As I said to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), it is important that we send a clear message about this. We are doing that with the new offence which carries a mandatory sentence. That is a signal to anyone who is contemplating carrying a knife, but we should be frank with ourselves in the House and in the country that purely looking at the issue from a criminal justice perspective is not the answer. We have to ask ourselves why so many young children are joining gangs, and why our families and communities are not doing more to keep them close and prevent the carrying of knives. That is something that runs right across Government and across our society as well.

It is simply not the case, as the Prime Minister claimed earlier, that the Government have followed the normal process in relation to the News Corp takeover of BSkyB. Why does he believe that the assurances that News Corp executives have given are any more credible than the assurances they gave over phone hacking?

The point is that we have followed the correct legal processes. If you do not follow the correct legal processes, you will be judicially reviewed, and all the decisions that you would like to make from a political point of view will be struck down in the courts. You would look pretty for a day, but useless for a week. [Interruption.]

Order. If the House can overcome its collective mirth, it will give a hearing to Mr Ian Swales.

Last Friday I visited Grangetown school in my constituency, which is the 17th most deprived primary school in the country. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the school and community on their work to convert an area of demolished houses into a school playing field, and will he ensure that the Government continue their pupil premium policy to support the school’s excellent work?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the support that he is showing to his local primary schools. I believe that the pupil premium, which will pump billions extra into education, particularly for the most deprived children in the most deprived parts of our country—[Interruption.] It will make a huge difference to our schools. For all the noise from the Opposition, they had 13 years to introduce a pupil premium. What did we get? Absolutely nothing.