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PM Blair’s Question Time

PM Blair’s Question Time

Turkey, Flu jabs, Energy Supplies, Gun Crime, Terrorism Bill, Good Friday Agreement, Israel-Palestine, Crown Prosecution, Nuclear Power, Housing in Basingstoke, Carbon Reduction, Bullying, Amnesty

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [30879] David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family of Police Constable Sharon Beshenivsky, who was tragically murdered on duty last Friday. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family at this time. I know that the whole House will also join me in sending condolences to the family of the British soldier killed in Iraq at the weekend. He was doing a vital and heroic job in helping that country towards democracy. Our country can be very proud of him.

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

David Simpson: I thank the Prime Minister for listing his engagements and I concur with his sentiments and sympathy for the two serving members who lost their lives. My right hon. and hon. Friends will also concur with that. May I leave this thought with the Prime Minister? What would the British people and members of his party think of him if he offered an amnesty to the murderer of the police officer? Later on today, we will debate such matters in respect of Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister please comment on what I have said?

The Prime Minister: I am meeting RUC widows this afternoon, at the request of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I totally understand the pain and anguish that there will be about this matter, but I also hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that already, as a result of the Good Friday agreement, people convicted of terrorist offences before 1998 have been released, so it is necessary to deal with those who have not been convicted but are nonetheless suspected of such offences before 1998. That is the reason for the measure that we are introducing. As I say, I fully understand the pain and anguish that it causes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also understand that it is something that has to be dealt with.

Q2. [30880] Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): The Prime Minister quite rightly celebrates the start of talks on Turkey’s accession as an achievement of the UK presidency of the European Union, but next month, the fine Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, faces trial for public denigration of Turkey, simply because he talked about the killing of Armenians and Kurds in the early part of the last century. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a prerequisite for membership of the EU should be the protection of the right of free speech; and will he also join me in commending those people in Turkey such as Pamuk who are campaigning for that right?

The Prime Minister: First, may I tell my hon. Friend that during our presidency of the European Union, we raised that issue with Turkish justice and foreign Ministers? It is important, if Turkey wants to become a member of the EU, that it abide by the criteria for membership, including the criterion on freedom of expression. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend would also agree that Turkey has gone a considerable way down the path of reform over the past few years. I hope that these issues will also be dealt with as part of future reforms so that Turkey can proceed to EU membership, which I believe is in the interests of Turkey, Europe and the wider world.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences, and those of my party, to the family of WPC Beshenivsky. Her loss is a tragic reminder of the risks run by our police officers on our behalf every single time they go on duty. I join him also in expressing condolences to the family of the service man who was lost in Iraq over the weekend. That, too, was a tragic reminder of the sacrifices made on our behalf by those who are serving with such distinction in Iraq.

Last month, the Secretary of State for Health said:

“I am assured…that there are adequate supplies”

of flu vaccine

“available to GPs to ensure that anyone who is at risk and who therefore should have the vaccination can do so.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 637–8.]

What went wrong?

The Prime Minister: What has happened is that an assessment was made of the number of vaccines that would be necessary. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we ensured with the manufacturers that more than 14 million doses would be available this year. At the end of October, however, it appeared that there would be a shortfall because more people were demanding the vaccine. The Department of Health then ordered a further 200,000 doses.

To be fair to the Department and the others involved in the planning, I should say that if everything had gone to plan, in the region of 2 million doses would probably not have been needed. It is correct to say that the demand for the doses has risen considerably, obviously as a result of people’s concern. As I said, those responsible had built a very large contingency into their plans, but it appeared at the end of October that it was not large enough, and that is why they asked for more.

Mr. Howard: At least the Prime Minister, unlike the Secretary of State, has not blamed general practitioners. On 5 October—that is, not at the end of October—my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, wrote to the Secretary of State. In his letter, he expressed concerns about the availability of vaccines. He did not get a reply until yesterday afternoon, less than two hours before the Secretary of State made her statement in this House. The British Medical Association also warned the right hon. Lady that it had similar concerns. Why did she not respond to those concerns?

The Prime Minister: First, let me inform the House of what took place earlier this year in respect of the doses that were ordered. In accordance with the normal practice that has applied since 2000–01, a meeting was held with the UK vaccine industry group, at which the number of doses thought to be necessary for the year was worked out. This year, about 4 million more doses were ordered than was the case, say, five years ago. As a result, there should have been easily enough doses to cater for people over 65 and those at clinical risk. As I said a moment or two ago, the number of doses ordered meant that there should have been a probable surplus of 2 million. That is why people thought that there would be enough to cover any eventuality, including increased demand arising from the heightened concern about flu in recent weeks. It was at the end of October that it appeared that that was not the case. In early November, therefore, a further 200,000 doses were ordered. That will mean that the number of doses manufactured is somewhere in the region of 14.5 million.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister has referred to 14 million doses, but that is exactly the same as the number of doses that a Health Minister, last year, told us was being made available last year. So 14 million doses last year, 14 million this year: is it not true that the Department of Health cannot tell the difference between England and the UK? In its letter to GPs this week, it said that there were only 11 million people in the at-risk groups, and 14 million doses of vaccine. However, the first figure refers to England and the second to the UK as a whole. Is it any wonder that GPs and others are in despair at the inefficiency and incompetence of the Department of Health and the Secretary of State? If the Department can so comprehensively bungle the routine administration of the seasonal flu vaccine, what confidence can people have in its ability to cope with a pandemic of bird flu?

The Prime Minister: As I have explained to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, over the past few years we have increased enormously the number of doses available. It is correct that a 100 per cent. takeup among people aged over 65 and those at clinical risk would amount to 11 million doses. However, the biggest takeup that there has ever been amounted to only 70 per cent. So even taking into account the UK-wide factor, the planners estimated earlier in the year that there would be a surplus of 2 million doses. Last year, there were more than 1 million surplus doses that had to be destroyed. It is sometimes difficult to plan accurately. They built in a large contingency, but it appears that that has not been enough and therefore they have ordered more doses.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister has yet again compared figures for those at risk that relate to England with figures relating to doses for the UK, as the Secretary of State did yesterday.

Now let us look at another example of incompetence. Four weeks ago, the Leader of the House, when asked if the Government could guarantee energy supplies to business and domestic customers this winter, said, “Yes, they can”. Does that guarantee still stand?

The Prime Minister: Of course there will be difficulties with gas prices, because of the cold winter we are likely to have. The energy suppliers have made it clear that they are doing their level best to ensure that demand is properly met. There is not, as far as we are aware, a problem for domestic users. There is a problem for high-level industry users, but the only way to deal with that is to ensure that the industry can meet as much demand as possible from abroad. On the whole, industry prices for domestic consumers in the UK are way below the European Union average. We are not the only country with the problem, but it is not a problem that lies within the remit of Government to resolve.

Mr. Howard: Now we know that when this Government give guarantees, they last roughly four weeks. The Leader of the House also said that Government would plan and prepare for this winter, but the Government commissioned studies on gas supplies for large manufacturers only two weeks ago. Why has it taken until November—when winter has already arrived, gas prices are almost five times higher than they were a month ago and manufacturers have been forced to switch from gas to oil to generate electricity—to find out whether business can cope this winter? Should not that have been done months ago?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seriously suggests that we should have a planned economy, in which the Government buy in—[Interruption.] Perhaps that is what he is suggesting. Let me just tell him the facts. UK energy prices—[Interruption.] Well, this is a rather strange situation. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that the Government should buy in energy from abroad. The Government work with the industry to ensure that it can meet demand. I repeat the fact that UK prices are actually the cheapest in the European Union and UK domestic prices are 40 per cent. below the European Union median. It is true that there will be an extra £10 billion of investment in additional energy supply, but it is not something that Government on their own can resolve.

Mr. Howard: If the Prime Minister thinks that gas prices for British industry are cheaper than gas prices for European industry, he is living in a dream world. I suggest that the Government should have done what they are now doing some months ago. The Met Office warned us months ago that we were likely to have the coldest winter for more than a decade. The CBI and others have been warning for months of possible gas shortages. Why have the Government ignored them for so long? Why, on flu vaccines and gas supplies, have the Government proved so thoroughly incompetent? Is it not clear that the Government are on the skids and that the Prime Minister has lost his grip and is incapable of dealing with the challenges that the country faces?

The Prime Minister: Even the right hon. and learned Gentleman found it a bit of a stretch to link flu jabs with gas prices. As opposed to the situation in respect of the vaccine for flu, in which we sit down with manufacturers and help to ensure that enough is ordered, the gas market and prices depend on demand and the amount of gas available for electricity users and others to buy. The idea that the Government should make up the shortfall is utterly absurd.

Mr. Howard: I am not saying that.

The Prime Minister: Well, I do not know what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting, other than points that seem absolutely absurd. We are doing our level best to make sure, for example, that we have additional infrastructure that allows us to import more energy. That we are doing, but what we cannot do—even this Government—is affect the current situation in the energy market, which is a product of all the reasons that we know about and which, I repeat, Government alone cannot resolve.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): May I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences on the murder of Officer Beshenivsky? I also extend my sympathy to Officer Milburn and wish her a speedy recovery. What more can be done to tackle gun crime in this country and to assist in the safety of our officers on the beat? Although Bradford is united in its horror, shock and grief, does the Prime Minister agree that this is a time for sober reflection, not a time to call for the routine arming of the police or for the restoration of the death penalty?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend says, it is important that we see, in a considered way, what more can be done. As he knows, since January 2004 anyone convicted of possession of an illegal firearm receives a mandatory five-year minimum sentence. Measures under the Violent Crime Reduction Bill will ban the sale, manufacture or import of realistic imitation firearms. The new Serious Organised Crime Agency, will come into effect next April. With the agency, we are looking at the additional measures necessary to deal with organised crime. With organised crime, as we have done with antisocial behaviour in a completely different context, there will be a need for special and particular measures to deal with a very brutal new type of organised criminal gang that operates not just in this country but in other countries as well. We shall come back to the House with such proposals when we can.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends entirely with the expression of condolences for the families who have lost their loved ones in recent days, in such tragic circumstances, in the service of the police and our armed forces?

May I return to the opening question from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)? As the Prime Minister has acknowledged elsewhere, those of us who disagreed with him over an aspect of the Terrorism Bill—90-days imprisonment without charge—did so as a matter of principle. Does he recognise that the Northern Ireland measures before the House this afternoon also raise matters of proper principled judicial process? Those of us who support the Good Friday agreement readily accept that the issue must be resolved, but if justice is to be seen to be done it is surely imperative that those who have committed terrorist atrocities appear in court and answer for their crimes.

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows why we have to deal with the issue. We have to deal it with it for a very simple reason: under the provisions of the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—those convicted of offences before that agreement, in other words, before April 1998, have been released under the prisoner release scheme. We were always going to have to deal with the situation of those suspected of, or being pursued in respect of, crimes committed before April 1998, and that is what we are trying to do. The proposals were published about two and a half years ago and are a necessary part of ensuring that we follow the process through to its conclusion. I understand the anger that they provoke; it is very natural, especially from those who suffered so much from acts of IRA terrorism. However, I believe that they are a necessary part of securing the overall agreement.

Mr. Kennedy: Why will not the Prime Minister provide direct linkage in the legislation to the early release scheme, which involves a proper court process? Many who, like the Alliance party and others, have worked tirelessly for reconciliation in Northern Ireland are asking a simple question: why will not the Prime Minister put the victims of terrorism higher up the priority list?

The Prime Minister: The special judicial tribunal has the powers of a criminal court. It is true that this is a special procedure, because the circumstances are special. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s remark about putting the victims of terrorism higher up the political agenda, it is precisely for that reason that, over the past eight years, I have worked to try to make sure that the Northern Ireland peace process succeeds. If it does succeed—we have come a long way in eight years—it is sometimes because we do things that are uncomfortable and difficult, but none the less necessary. It is called, I am afraid, making difficult political decisions.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Having just returned from the first ever Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the Palestinian territories, applauding my right hon. Friend’s commitment to peace between Israel and Palestine, and recognising the Israeli need for security, may I ask him to make representations to the Israel Government about their building of the separation wall deep into Palestinian territory, turning old Hebron into a ghost town by building gates and turnstiles in the streets and obstructing Palestinian movements with 600 permanent checkpoints, plus flying checkpoints? Does he not agree that peace will not be possible if the Israelis persist in turning Palestine into a fragmented police state?

The Prime Minister: We have continually made representations about the wall or the fence. However, we should recognise that, in addition to trying to normalise relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, it is important that all forms of support for terrorism on the Palestinian side cease as well. If the terrorism stops, we have a better opportunity to make sure that relations between the two sides can be normalised.

Q3. [30881] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales has made welcome progress in recent years, but I hope that the Prime Minister will agree that conviction rates of fewer than two in three for sexual offences in a quarter of the country, fewer than two in three even for homicide offences in four areas, including London, and about two in three for all violent crimes leave room for improvement. Will he tell the House how he proposes to increase the success rate, so that more serious offenders are prosecuted and successfully convicted?

The Prime Minister: The main part of what the Crown Prosecution Service is doing now is working in a far more integrated way with the police to make sure that charges are properly brought and that therefore prosecutions can be successfully mounted. In respect of sexual offences, although there is an increase in the number of recorded crimes, it is important to realise that that is in part because we are asking more of the victims of sexual offences to come forward. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to secure convictions in those types of case, but we continually look at how we can improve the situation. Overall, the Crown Prosecution Service—as, indeed, the hon. Gentleman implied in the first part of his question—is working a lot more effectively than a few years ago.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): My right hon. Friend told the Liaison Committee yesterday that the Government have got to take on nuclear power. Why does he believe that, when we are already comfortably meeting our Kyoto climate change target and can clearly meet future, more exacting targets with a steady expansion of renewables, when nuclear is more expensive than wind power, coal and gas, when it has already generated more than 10,000 tonnes of undisposed of highly toxic nuclear waste, when it creates an obvious major terrorism—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Prime Minister knows that the right hon. Gentleman is displeased about this matter.

The Prime Minister: Let me say to my right hon. Friend that the reason why I think that this has to go on the agenda for discussion is very simple. It is true that we will meet our Kyoto targets—the Government have played a major part in the action on climate change—but it is also true that by 2020, the amount of energy coming from nuclear power will decline from just over 20 per cent. to 4 per cent. It will be difficult to try to meet all that through renewables or additional gas. That is why we need a proper and thorough debate on the issue, and I look forward to joining that debate with my right hon. Friend.

Future Aircraft Carriers

Q4. [30882] Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When he expects the future aircraft carriers to be brought into service with the Royal Navy.

The Prime Minister: We are committed to delivering this important capability in a time scale that meets the requirements of the Royal Navy. We will set the dates when the carriers will be brought into service when we are ready to commit to manufacture.

Dr. Lewis: If, as the Prime Minister now suggests, it is not appropriate to set target delivery or in-service dates until the order is placed, can he tell me why his own Defence Ministers on five occasions between April 2004 and June 2005 told both Houses of Parliament that the target in-service dates would be 2012 and 2015? Why are they no longer prepared to say that?

The Prime Minister: The reason for giving those dates was the way in which the existing carriers get phased out. Those are possible dates, but we cannot give a firm commitment to a date until we are ready to commit to manufacture. That simply cannot be done at the present time. As I say, it is perfectly possible that those dates will be the dates that we choose in the end, but at this time we cannot give a firm date until the commitment to manufacture is in place.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is a closed question.

Engagements

Q5. [30883] Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Last week, the local inspector threw out plans for 3,000 houses in Basingstoke because he felt that local communities could not cope with the scale of building. Is it not time for the Government to stop dumping thousands of houses on Basingstoke and the rest of the south-east and to let local councils plan the future of their towns and villages?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is important to ensure that we build enough houses in this country so that people, especially younger people, can access affordable housing. We try to do that in a planned way, but for the Conservative party to pretend that no new houses need to be built in the south at all is absurd.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the shocking survey from Amnesty International that shows that a third of those questioned think that women who flirt or are drunk are partly responsible if they are raped? Will he support Amnesty’s campaign against all forms of violence against women and assert that all such violence is totally unacceptable and liable to prosecution?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is totally unacceptable and should be liable to prosecution.

Q6. [30884] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Last night, the House debated the straightforward motion

“That this House endorses … a cross-party consensus on carbon reduction.”

Why did the Government vote against it?

The Prime Minister: Because until we work out the means of ensuring that there is carbon reduction, it is all very well for the Conservative party to join the Liberal Democrats and insist that the Government say that we must reduce carbon by a certain amount by a certain date—actually beyond the targets that we have already set—but they also need to be prepared to say how to do that. The one time we put forward a specific measure, namely, the climate change industrial levy, the Conservative party voted against it. When it has some serious propositions to make, we will listen, but while it continues to behave as if opposition were its natural state, we will not.

Q7. [30885] Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): This Friday, as part of anti-bullying week, Lib-Dem controlled Bristol city council will call on its teachers not to punish or blame pupils who bully other pupils. What message does the Prime Minister have for those who adopt a no-blame approach, which, in my view, is dangerous and reckless, does nothing for the victims and does nothing to make bullies change their behaviour?

The Prime Minister: If what my hon. Friend says is correct about the Liberal Democrats, then it is an extraordinary thing for even them to do and I am shocked by it. [Interruption.] To describe oneself as shocked by the Liberal Democrats is perhaps an oxymoron.

I profoundly disagree with the position taken by the council. Bullying should be punished. Children who bully must be made to understand the harm that they have been doing. New sanctions are available. I am pleased that in the schools White Paper we are giving teachers an unambiguous right to discipline. It is absolutely necessary, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on that serious problem.

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