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Prime Minister

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Secretly deleting voicemails left for a missing teenager, buying the silence of public figures who would incriminate your business, and publishing the confidential medical details of a disabled child who just happens to have a famous father: I ask the Prime Minister—are any of these the actions of a fit and proper person?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point in a powerful way. We have to be clear about what is happening here. There is a firestorm, if you like, that is engulfing parts of the media, parts of the police and, indeed, our political system’s ability to respond. What we must do in the coming days and weeks is think above all of the victims, such as the Dowler family, who are watching this today, and make doubly sure that we get to the bottom of what happened and prosecute those who are guilty.

Yesterday I met the family of Milly Dowler, who have shown incredible bravery and strength in speaking out about what happened to them, the hacking of their daughter’s phone, and their terrible treatment at the hands of the News of the World. I am sure the whole House will want to pay tribute to their courage and bravery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Does the Prime Minister now agree with me that it is an insult to the family that Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the News of the World at the time, is still in her post at News International?

I have made it very clear that she was right to resign and that that resignation should have been accepted. There needs to be root-and-branch change at this entire organisation. It has now become increasingly clear that while everybody, to start with, wanted in some way to separate what was happening at News International and what is happening with BSkyB, that is simply not possible. What has happened at this company is disgraceful. It has got to be addressed at every level and they should stop thinking about mergers when they have to sort out the mess they have created.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. He is right to take the position that Rebekah Brooks should go. When such a serious cloud hangs over News Corporation, and with the abuses and the systematic pattern of deceit that we have seen, does he agree with me—he clearly does—that it would be quite wrong for them to expand their stake in the British media? Does he further agree that if the House of Commons speaks with one voice today—I hope the Prime Minister will come to the debate—Rupert Murdoch should drop his bid for BSkyB, recognise that the world has changed, and listen to this House of Commons?

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is good that the House of Commons is going to speak with one voice. As he knows, the Government have a job to do to act at all times within the law, and my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has to obey every aspect of the law—laws that were on the whole put in place by the last Government.

And yes, as the hon. Gentleman says, we should look at amending the laws. We should make sure that the “fit and proper” test is right. We should make sure that the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002 are right. It is perfectly acceptable, at one and the same time, to obey the law as a Government but to send a message from the House of Commons that this business has got to stop the business of mergers and get on with the business of cleaning its stables.

I look forward to debating these issues with the Leader of the House, who will be speaking for the Government later in the debate. I know the Prime Minister is to make a statement shortly about the inquiry, but can he confirm something that we agreed last night—that we need to make sure that we get to the bottom not just of what happened at our newspapers, but of the relationships between politicians and the press? Does he agree that if we expect editors and members of the press to give evidence under oath, so should current and past politicians?

I agree with that. First, on the issue of the debate, we are debating now, which is right, and we are going to have a statement in the House of Commons, and I will stand here and answer questions from as many Members of Parliament who want to ask them. I think we should focus on the substance.

As the Leader of the Opposition said, we had an excellent meeting last night. We discussed the nature of the inquiry that needs to take place. We discussed the terms of reference. I sent those terms of reference to his office this morning. We have had some amendments. We are happy to accept those amendments. They will still be draft terms of reference, and I want to hear what the Dowler family and others have to say so that we can move ahead in a way that takes the whole country with us as we deal with this problem.

I also think that if we are going to say to the police, “You must be more transparent and cut out corruption”, and if we are going to say to the media, “You must be more transparent and cut out this malpractice”, then yes, the relationship between politicians and the media must change and we must be more transparent, too, about meetings, particularly with executives, editors, proprietors and the rest of it, and I will be setting out some proposals for precisely that in a minute or two.

I want to thank the Prime Minister for those answers; they are answers the whole country will have wanted to hear. Can I also ask him to clear up one specific issue? It has now been confirmed that his chief of staff and his director of strategy were given specific information before the general election by The Guardian. The information showed that Andy Coulson, while editing the News of the World, had hired Jonathan Rees, a man jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who had made payments to police on behalf of the News of the World. Can the Prime Minister tell us what happened to that significant information that was given to his chief of staff?

I would like to answer this, if I may, Mr Speaker, in full, and I do need to give a very full answer. First, all these questions relate to the fact that I hired a tabloid editor. I did so on the basis of assurances he gave me that he did not know about the phone hacking and was not involved in criminality. He gave those self-same assurances to the police, to a Select Committee of this House and under oath to a court of law. If it turns out he lied, it will not just be that he should not have been in government; it will be that he should be prosecuted. But I do believe that we must stick to the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty.

Now, let me deal directly with the information given to my office by figures from The Guardian in February last year. First, this information was not passed on to me, but let me be clear that this was not some secret stash of information; almost all of it was published in The Guardian in February 2010, at the same time my office was approached. It contained no allegations directly linking Andy Coulson to illegal behaviour and it did not shed any further light on the issue of phone hacking, so it was not drawn to my attention by my office.

What is more, Mr Speaker—let me just make this point—I met the editor of The Guardian the very next month and he did not raise it with me once. I met him a year later and he did not raise it then either. Indeed, if this information is so significant, why have I been asked not one question about it at a press conference or in this House? The reason is that it did not add anything to the assurances that I was given. Let me say once more that if I was lied to, if the police were lied to, or if the Select Committee was lied to, it would be a matter of deep regret and a matter for a criminal prosecution. [Interruption.]

Order. Anybody might think that orchestrated noise is taking place—[Interruption.] Order. The House will come to order and these exchanges will continue in an orderly way.

The Prime Minister has just made a very important admission. He has admitted that his chief of staff was given information before the general election that Andy Coulson had hired a man who had been jailed for seven years for a criminal conspiracy and who made payments to the police on behalf of the News of the World. This evidence casts serious doubt on Mr Coulson’s assurances that the phone hacking over which he resigned was an isolated example of illegal activity. The Prime Minister says that his chief of staff did not pass on this very serious information. Can he now tell us what action he proposes to take against his chief of staff?

I have given, I think, the fullest possible answer I could to the right hon. Gentleman. Let me just say this. He can stand there and ask questions about Andy Coulson. I can stand here and ask questions about Tom Baldwin. He can ask questions about my private office. I can ask questions about Damian McBride. But do you know what, Mr Speaker, I think the public and the victims of this appalling scandal want us to rise above this and deal with the problems that this country faces.

He just doesn’t get it, Mr Speaker. I say this to the Prime Minister. He was warned by the Deputy Prime Minister about hiring Andy Coulson. He was warned by Lord Ashdown about hiring Andy Coulson. He has now admitted in the House of Commons today that his chief of staff was given complete evidence which contradicted Andy Coulson’s previous account. The Prime Minister must now publish the fullest account of all the information that was provided and what he did and why those warnings went unheeded. Most of all, he should apologise for the catastrophic error of judgment he made in hiring Andy Coulson.

I am afraid, Mr Speaker, that the person who is not getting it is the Leader of the Opposition. What the public want us to do is address this firestorm. They want us to sort out bad practices at the media. They want us to fix the corruption in the police. They want a proper public inquiry. And they are entitled to ask, when these problems went on for so long, for so many years, what was it that happened in the last decade? When was the police investigation that did not work? Where was the public inquiry over the last 10 years? We have now got a full-on police investigation that will see proper prosecutions and, I hope, proper convictions, and we will have a public inquiry run by a judge to get to the bottom of this issue. That is the leadership I am determined to provide. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr David—[Interruption.] Order. Mr David—[Interruption.] Order. I say to the Children’s Minister: try to calm down and behave like an adult, and if you cannot—if it is beyond you—leave the Chamber and we will manage without you. Mr David Ward.

Order. This is intolerable behaviour as far as the public—[Interruption.] No, it is not funny. Only in your mind, Mr Loughton, is it funny. It is not funny at all; it is disgraceful.

What a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but perhaps we can just have a pantomime interval for a moment. Is the Prime Minister aware that there are now young people in Bradford being quoted, without convictions or claims, £53,000 to insure their first car? These ridiculous premiums are being driven by insurance companies selling fresh details to personal injury lawyers. What are we going to do to outlaw—

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the problem of referral fees that are driving up the cost of insurance for many people. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has made some very powerful points about this. There was a report to the Government calling for referral fees to be banned. I am very sympathetic to this, and I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is too, and we hope to make some progress.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister, if asked, give evidence to the judge-led public inquiry that he is setting up today? (65523)

Of course. The point about the inquiry, which I will be announcing in a moment or two, is that it will be judge led, it will take its powers from the Inquiries Act 2005, and it will be able to call people under oath. I think this is absolutely vital. As I say, there are three pillars to this. There is the issue of police corruption, there is the issue of what happened at the media, and there are also questions for politicians past, present and future.

Q4. My constituents are increasingly concerned about the deepening problems in the eurozone. Will the Prime Minister reassure me that he is doing everything he can to keep us out of it and to urge the eurozone to act? (65524)

My hon. Friend is right that we have got to stay out of the eurozone. Being a member of the euro would take away the flexibility we currently have. We have to remember that 40% of our exports go to eurozone countries. We should therefore be making constructive suggestions about proper stress tests for their banks, backed up by recapitalisation; involving the private sector to make Greece’s debt burden more sustainable; and earning fiscal credibility through concrete action to reduce their excessive deficits. Basically, in my view eurozone countries have to recognise that they have to do more together and faster; they have to get ahead of the market rather than just respond to the next crisis.

Q5. Lord Ashdown says that he warned No. 10 last year of the terrible damage that it would suffer if Andy Coulson was appointed. Can the Prime Minister say precisely how he reacted to that powerful warning? (65525)

I made this point some moments ago. Of course, the decision to employ a tabloid editor meant that there were a number of people who said that it was not a good idea, particularly when that tabloid editor had been at the News of the World when bad things had happened. The decision I made was to accept the assurances that he gave me. As I have said, those assurances were given to the police, a Select Committee and a court of law. If I was lied to and others were lied to, that would be a matter of deep regret. I could not be clearer about it than that. We must ensure that we judge people as innocent until proven guilty.

This week I received another e-mail from a constituent regarding metal and cable theft. This time, it told of an elderly lady who had a fall at home and was unable to raise the alarm because the cables in the village had been stolen for the second time in about as many weeks. This is a growing problem across the country. The legislation relating to this matter dates back to 1964. Please can we have an urgent review to ensure that scrap metal dealers who accept stolen metal are prevented from doing so and prosecuted?

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend. There was a case in my constituency where the lead from the Witney church roof was stolen. I have been trying to ensure that these crimes are taken seriously by the police, because they put massive costs on to voluntary bodies, churches, charities and businesses. We must ensure that they are not seen as second-order crimes, because the level of this crime is growing and it is very worrying.

Q6. The debate this afternoon will be vital, because it will show the House united in its revulsion at what was done to Milly Dowler’s family. May I ask the Prime Minister to make urgent inquiries into whether families of the victims of 9/11 were similarly targeted by the criminals at News International? If they were, will he raise it with his counterpart in the United States? (65526)

I will certainly look at that. In the statement I am about to make, I will give some figures for just how many people’s phones the Metropolitan police currently think were hacked and how many of them they have contacted so far. They have pledged to contact every single one. I met the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson last night to seek further reassurances about the scale of the police operation that is under way. In what was—if we can put it this way—a mixed appearance by police officers at the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, I thought that Sue Akers, who is leading this investigation, acquitted herself extremely well. We should have confidence that the Metropolitan police will get to the bottom of this.

Q7. With its ambition of being the greenest county, Suffolk is already committed to a low-carbon world with offshore wind farms, anaerobic digestion, nuclear power and a recycling rate of more than 60%. The Prime Minister is always welcome to visit. Will he give his backing to our local enterprise partnership’s ambition to enhance skills training to fill the new job opportunities that will be created locally? (65527)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I congratulate her on branding Suffolk as “the green coast”. There is a big opportunity, particularly in the light of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has said, in green jobs, renewable energy and new nuclear. A vital thing to encourage the inward investment that we want is to demonstrate that we will build up our skills base. That is where local enterprise partnerships can play such a valuable role.

Q8. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether he had any conversations about phone hacking with Andy Coulson at the time of his resignation? Will he place in the Library a log of any meetings and phone calls between him and Andy Coulson following his resignation? (65528)

As I said, perhaps before the hon. Lady wrote her question—or had it written—of course I sought assurances from Andy Coulson and those assurances were given. [Interruption.] Yes, absolutely. Those assurances were given not just at the time to me but subsequently to the Select Committee and to a criminal case under oath. They were repeatedly given. Let me say again for the avoidance of any doubt that if those assurances turn out not to be true, the point is not just that he should not have worked in government, it is that he should, like others, face the full force of the law.

Q9. Can I raise with the Prime Minister a different case of hacking—the computer hacker Gary McKinnon? While I recognise that the Home Secretary has a legal process to follow, does the Prime Minister share the concern for my constituent’s nine-year nightmare? He feels that his life is literally hanging by a thread that is waiting to be cut by extradition. (65529)

I do recognise the seriousness of this case, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I actually raised it with President Obama when he visited. I think the point is that it is not so much about the alleged offence, which everyone knows is a very serious offence, and we can understand why the Americans feel so strongly about it. The case is now in front of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has to consider reports about Gary McKinnon’s health and well-being. It is right that she does that in a proper and effectively—I am sorry to use the word again today—quasi-judicial way.

In these days of a rush to make savage cuts in public spending, the decimation of the police service and the hammering of individuals because of the withdrawal of legal aid, can I ask the Prime Minister to justify the following expenditure? At the beginning of last month, a serviceman from Northern Ireland asked for a non-urgent pair of boots costing £45. They were dispatched from defence base Bicester by private courier to Northern Ireland, at a cost of £714.80. Is it not time the Prime Minister got a grip of this?

I know that former Health Ministers wanted to hear the rattle of every bedpan, and maybe I need to see the order of every pair of boots in the military, but I recognise the point the right hon. Gentleman makes. One of the things we are trying to do in the Ministry of Defence is recognise that there is a huge amount of back-office and logistics costs, and we want to make that more efficient so that we can actually spend money on the front line. The example he gives is a good one, and I shall check it out and see if we can save some money.

Q10. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that all illegal press activity under the last Government will be investigated now, and that that will include the criminal conspiracy between the highest levels in that last Government and parts of the Murdoch empire, including the blagging of bank accounts of Lord Ashcroft in a bid to undermine him and his position as laid out in “Dirty politics, Dirty times”? (65530)

The point about the inquiry that we are shortly going to discuss is that it will look at the relationship between politicians and media groups, across the whole issue of that relationship including as it relates to media policy. I think that is extremely important. The inquiry will have the ability to call politicians—serving politicians and previous Prime Ministers—to get to the bottom of what happened and how unhealthy the relationship was. That is what needs to happen.

On Monday, the MOD permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee that the Prime Minister himself blocked the National Audit Office from accessing relevant National Security Council documents. The auditors considered them essential to assess whether the decisions on the aircraft carrier in the defence review represented value for money. That refusal is unprecedented. In the interests of full transparency and accountability to Parliament, will the Prime Minister now agree to immediately release the information that the NAO needs?

The short answer is that we were following precedent, but the long answer is that if the right hon. Lady wants me to come to her Committee and explain what an appalling set of decisions the last Government made on aircraft carriers, I will. The delay alone by the Government whom she worked for added £1.6 billion to the cost of the aircraft carriers. So if she wants me to turn up and not just tell her what we discussed in Cabinet but lay out the full detail of the waste that her Government were responsible for, name the day.

Q11. Following a question from me to the Prime Minister’s predecessor three and a half years ago, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) set up pilot schemes to provide sign language support for deaf parents and their children in Devon and Merseyside. Those have now been completed, and they were a huge success. Will the Prime Minister meet a delegation of deaf parents, their children and their representatives to discuss how that sign language support can be extended to all children and their parents across the UK? (65531)

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do a lot to support different languages throughout the UK. Signing is an incredibly valuable language for many people in our country. Those pilot schemes were successful. I looked at what the previous Prime Minister said to him when he asked that question, and I will certainly arrange a meeting for him with the Department for Education to see how we can take this forward.

My question to the Prime Minister concerns the contract for the Thameslink rail programme. As he will be aware, that is of great concern throughout the House, and with 20,000 manufacturing jobs at risk, it is right that it should be. Will he confirm that no contract has yet been signed, and indeed that no contract can be let or signed until the funding package is determined? That is a complicated process.

This is the heart of my question to the Prime Minister: given that the funding package—[Interruption.] Twenty thousand jobs are at stake! Given that 20,000 jobs are at risk, will the Prime Minister look at holding the competition for that funding package with the Secretary of State for Trade—

I know that the right hon. Gentleman cares deeply about this issue. Bombardier is a great company, and it has a great future in our country. We want to see it succeed, but I have to say that in this case, the procurement process was designed and initiated by the previous Government. This Government were bound by the criteria that they set, and therefore we have to continue with a decision that has been made according to those criteria. But we are now looking at all the EU rules and the procurement rules to see whether we can change and make better for future issues like that one.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for the electrification of the Crewe to Chester railway line, which would provide a major and immediate boost to people in Chester and beyond in north Wales? That would also eventually link us to the much needed High Speed 2. (65532)

I am well aware of this campaign. I seem to remember spending a lot of time at Crewe station during the last Parliament, normally accompanied by people dressed in top hat and tails—some of my colleagues will remember that.

My hon. Friend’s suggestion is not in the current programme, but we will look sympathetically at it. We want to see more electrification of railway lines in our country.

The right hon. Gentleman’s Government said that university tuition fees would average £7,500, but in actual fact they average £8,400. How can he open the UK taxpayer to such a liability of £0.8 billion over this Parliament?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some of the figures. Only nine universities are charging £9,000 for every student; 58 universities will not charge £9,000 for any of their courses; and 108 out of 124 further education colleges will charge less than £6,000 for all their courses. However, the point I would make is this: university degrees have not suddenly started to cost £7,000, £8,000 or £9,000; they have always cost that. The question is this: do we ask graduates to pay—successful graduates who are earning more than £21,000—or do we ask the taxpayers to pay? The money does not grow on trees. We have made our choice, and the Labour party, which introduced tuition fees, must come up with its answer.

Q13. Amid the turmoil in other European economies caused by the euro, is not it essential that this country continues to take steps to reduce its debt, and that it steers clear of paying for any future EU bail-out, whatever advice to the contrary the Prime Minister receives from the Opposition? (65533)

The point I would make is this: the problem is not only the restrictions of the euro, but the building up of unsustainable levels of debt. Although we are out of the euro, that does not mean that we do not have to deal with our debts—we absolutely do. However, we have the opportunity of being quite a safe haven for people. We can actually see our market interest rates come down because of the action that this Government are taking. We must keep that up, but we must also recognise that the eurozone sorting out its own problems is in our interests, so we must be helpful and constructive with the work that needs to be done.

Q14. Last week, I was approached about a fee-paying debt management company that had advised its client to take out a remortgage for £50,000 to pay his debts. The company paid £11,000 to his creditors and went out of business, taking the rest of his money. I have many other examples like this. Self-regulation simply is not working in this industry. Will the Prime Minister urgently consider regulating the sector and provide the Office of Fair Trading with the resources necessary to take enforcement action swiftly so that vulnerable people do not continue to be ripped off? (65534)

I know that the hon. Lady has not just constituency experience of this but managed a citizens advice bureau, and so has huge experience of people with debt problems. Citizens Advice is probably the finest organisation in our country for helping people with debt. I will certainly consider her suggestion to consider whether the sector can be better regulated, what we can do to support citizens advice bureaux at this difficult time, and the issue of credit unions and how we can lead to their expansion.

Q15. The whole House will share the outrage that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) expressed this week about the publication of private medical information relating to his son. He also said that when he was Prime Minister he tried to set up a judicial inquiry into phone hacking. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what detailed preparatory work he inherited? (65535)

I have every sympathy with my predecessor, particularly over the blagging of his details by a newspaper, if that is what happened. In public life we are all subject to huge amounts of extra scrutiny, and that is fair, but it is not fair when laws are broken. We have all suffered from this, and the fact is that we have all been too silent about it. That is part of the problem. Your bins are gone through by some media organisation, but you hold back from dealing with it because you want good relations with the media. We need some honesty about this issue on a cross-party basis so that we can take on this problem.

I have to say that I did not inherit any work on a public inquiry, but I am determined that the one we will set up, with the support of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, will get the job done.

The 45th international children’s games will come to the fair county of Lanarkshire at the start of August. Some 1,500 12 to 15-year-olds will participate in nine sports across the county. Will the Prime Minister congratulate two Labour local authorities—North Lanarkshire council and South Lanarkshire council—on their foresight in bidding for and hosting the games? Will he send a representative of the Government to the event?

I certainly congratulate the two local authorities. Tragically, there are not too many Conservative local authorities I can congratulate in Scotland. However, I am happy to congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s. It sounds like an excellent initiative, and I wish everyone taking part the very best of luck.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that all witnesses to all aspects of the promised inquiry will be required to give evidence under oath?

As I will explain in a minute, there will be one inquiry but with two parts, and it will be led by a judge, who will be the one who will eventually agree the terms of reference, set out the way it will work and be responsible for calling people under oath.