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UK Prime Minister's Questions - 5 December 2007


UK Prime Minister's Questions - 5 December 2007

Defence, political funding and health were on the agenda at today's PMQs. The Prime Minister also took questions on climate change, Northern Rock and housing.

The Prime Minister was asked:

Engagements

Q1. [170980] Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the serviceman killed in Afghanistan yesterday. We owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a huge debt of gratitude.

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.

Mr. Binley: I am sure that the whole House will want me to add my condolences, together with theirs, to those of the Prime Minister.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. Does that sound familiar to the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: The Conservatives should know about trouble: we had 18 years of it under them. As for remedies, the hon. Gentleman gives me the chance to make an offer to the Conservative party. We have made proposals to legislate on political funding, along the lines of the Hayden Phillips report. They include a national and local limit on spending both at and between elections, a cap on donations, and transparency. I hope that the Opposition will return to the talks on those matters.

Q2. [170981] Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I add my condolences to those of the Prime Minister.

People in my constituency whose lives have been touched by cancer are dismayed that the Scottish National party Administration look set to cancel a cancer centre at Ayr hospital. I welcome the announcement of a £500 million world-class medical research centre to work on cancer and fine-science projects with the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. Will the Prime Minister assure me that that will benefit every part of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: There has been a 16 per cent. reduction in cancer as a result of the new investment since 1997. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Health was able to announce further investment in both prevention and cure for future years. Today I met representatives of the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and University college London. We now agree that there will be perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a leading medical research centre in London that will attract scientists from all over the world. Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize winner, has agreed to lead this £500 million project, which holds the hope of curing some of the deadliest diseases of our time. I hope that there will be an all-party welcome for it.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday.

The Prime Minister said in May that one of his first acts as Prime Minister would be to

"build the trust of the British people in our democracy".

For the past seven months, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has been without a new chairman. Can the Prime Minister tell us why it has taken so long to make that appointment?

The Prime Minister: The appointment of the new chairman is being announced today. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should listen to what the Prime Minister has to say.

The Prime Minister: I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be interested in the process as well as the personalities. I ask him again, as I asked the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), whether he supports the changes that we are recommending in electoral law and political party funding, and whether he will support a national and local limit on expenditure.

Mr. Cameron: It has taken the Prime Minister seven months to make one of the most important appointments in politics. Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee, said that the last fortnight had demonstrated a

"monumental incompetence and ignorance of the law which beggars belief".

Last week the Prime Minister set great store by the investigation established under Lord Whitty, which he described as urgent. Will he confirm that, this week, the inquiry has had to be partially suspended?

The Prime Minister: No, the inquiry is not suspended. Lord Whitty continues to bring together and collate information, but the interviewing of people will be at the discretion of the police, as I said in my letter to the Metropolitan police. What the right hon. Gentleman has now got to answer is this: if he wants changes in the political system, will he support our proposals? On Monday, he said:

"I don't believe a global spending limit"

on election expenditure

"is necessary."

But in March the shadow Leader of the House said:

"We accept"

the Hayden Phillips

"recommendations...we are happy to discuss spending caps on all year round non-election campaigning".--[Official Report, 15 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 469.]

Which is the position of the Opposition?

Mr. Cameron: I have to say that the Prime Minister--[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak. He does not need to answer anything; all he has to do is ask questions.

Mr. Cameron: If the Prime Minister wants a deal, he should include the unions, as we suggested two years ago. But he has just given the most extraordinary answer to the House, because I have a copy of the national executive committee minutes, which were written by Michael Cashman--this Government have to have a former soap star to chronicle their woes. Those minutes make it absolutely clear that parts of that inquiry were put on hold. The Prime Minister was telling the public on Saturday that he had acted swiftly, but was agreeing with the NEC that parts of the inquiry would be put on hold. So much for openness.

Let us have a look at another promise the Prime Minister made. He said he would always do the right thing by the armed forces. So can he tell us why, with our troops fighting on two fronts, he still has a part-time Secretary of State for Defence?

The Prime Minister: First of all, on the issue of election funding and party finance, it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to enter the debate on the levels of--[Interruption.]. We are happy to rejoin the discussions.

Secondly, on the Defence Secretary, let me just say that there have been many hard-working Defence Secretaries from both sides of the House in many years over the last decades. The Defence Secretary in post is a hard-working, conscientious and dedicated servant of the people, and I defy the Opposition to suggest there is any occasion on which he has failed to do his duty by the armed forces of this country. The Defence Secretary continues to do all the work of the Defence Secretary, and let me just say this: the proposal that the job be shared with another member of the Cabinet, the Scottish Secretary of State, was a proposal made in the 2001 manifesto of the Conservative party.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister does not have to listen--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Leader of the--[Interruption.] Order. I call the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister does not have to listen to Opposition MPs. Why does he not listen to Lord Gilbert, a former Labour defence spokesman and Labour Minister who said:

"I think that it is a disgraceful appointment...It is an insult--not merely to those who are serving in Her Majesty's forces but also to their families"?

The Prime Minister wants to get out the hole he has dug for himself; why does he not start today by appointing a full-time Secretary of State for Defence?

The Prime Minister: The Defence Secretary is hard-working, conscientious and is doing his duty, and I asked the right hon. Gentleman to bring forward evidence of where he was not. Let us just look at the question of defence spending, which has been raised by the Opposition. We are spending £1 billion more on defence every year. We are now the second largest country in the world for defence spending, whereas we were fifth in 1997. Let the Opposition answer this question, because the shadow--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister is in order.

The Prime Minister: As far as defence spending is concerned, the shadow Chancellor said that

"lots of Conservatives...come up to me and say we've really got to...pay our armed forces more, we need more soldiers...and so on."

He said that

"those are all very good things but they do cost money and part of our discipline, part of the test of whether we are ready for government is whether we can resist those additional draws on public expenditure".

Far from wanting to spend more, it is likely that they would spend less.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister wants evidence. Perhaps he will listen to the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, who said:

"It is seen as an insult by our sailors, our soldiers and our airmen on the front line...and it is certainly a demonstration of the disinterest and, some might say, contempt that the Prime Minister and his Government have for our armed forces."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 952.]

The Prime Minister has broken his promise on trust; he has broken his promise on defence.

Today, the Prime Minister is finally announcing the prison-building programme that we have requested for so long yet, since he has been Prime Minister, 11,000 prisoners--criminals--have been released early--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) must behave. He is behaving in a strange way just now.

Mr. Cameron: Labour Members do not like it when they can see their Government falling apart in front of their eyes. The report that the Prime Minister is publishing today says that jail sentences should be cut because there are not enough prison places. Surely the Prime Minister agrees that sentences should fit the crime, not the number of prison places.

The Prime Minister: Of course sentences should fit the crime and, of course, judges and magistrates will be the people who deliver sentences. I hope that there is no disagreement between us on that. As far as the right hon. Gentleman's point about early release is concerned, let me just tell him that early release was decided by the Conservative Government in 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1996, and that tens of thousands of prisoners were released under those schemes. He should wait for the Justice Secretary's announcement, but I assure him, on his spokesman's proposal of 1,200 prison places, that we accept that that is not enough. There will be more than 1,200 prison places. The difference is that we will pay for them out of the prudent running of the economy. We will not pay for them out of a cancellation of identity cards--the Conservatives have already allocated that money for three different projects over the past few months.

Mr. Cameron: People worried about crime on our streets will find that answer frankly pathetic. Everybody knows that the reason we do not have enough prison places is because the Prime Minister failed to build them. I know that he wants us to think that, like the man in the canoe, he has not been around for the past five years, but he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who failed to build the prisons. He promised public safety, but he has let thousands of criminals out of jail. He promised to protect defence, but he has given us a part-time Secretary of State. He promised integrity, yet his own Government are being investigated by the police. It took Tony Blair 10 years before confidence in his Administration collapsed. Has not this Prime Minister managed it in six months?

The Prime Minister: Crime is down by 30 per cent. under this Government. Burglary is down by 55 per cent.; violent crime is down by 31 per cent. and there are 4.5 million fewer victims of crime as a result of the changes. We have more police than ever before. We have built 20,000 prison places, and we are about to announce that we are building more. We can do it because we run a successful economy; it is not the failed economy that we inherited from the Conservatives.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The chief executive of Yorkshire Forward recently informed me that Barnsley's economy has recovered to the levels that it enjoyed prior to the previous Government's massive pit closure programme invoked in the early 1990s. That is mainly thanks to this Labour Government and a progressive local Labour council. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Barnsley may have been brassed off with the Tories in the 1990s, but they will never be brassed off with this Labour Government and this Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: What Yorkshire Forward has done and what local councils have done to rebuild employment in the areas that were devastated by the loss of mining jobs is something that we should all congratulate them on. That is one of the reasons why there are nearly 3 million more jobs in this economy, and why unemployment is down by 1 million. I must say to the House that if we were to take the advice of the Opposition and abolish the new deal, we would have higher unemployment. We will have lower unemployment under a Labour Government.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): May I add my condolences on the loss of the soldiers in Afghanistan?

Now that the taxpayers' loan to Northern Rock has almost reached the level of the annual defence budget and is increasing every week by £3 billion--the equivalent of 15 hospitals--what guarantees has the Prime Minister received that this money will be fully repaid, beyond the vague assurances offered by Mr. Branson and the assorted collection of hedge-fund sharks who are behind him and others?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should make up his mind whether he wants Northern Rock to be rescued or not. The important thing, for the stability of the economy, the security of mortgage holders and the company's shareholders, is that it be rescued. We have taken the necessary action. At one stage, there was all-party support for that. I believe that we have done the right thing, and any settlement with any potential buyer will insist that the public funds are properly protected.

Dr. Cable: There is a sensible way to rescue the bank. Why is the Prime Minister so dogmatically opposed to the common-sense solution of public ownership on a temporary basis, which would protect the public loan, the north-east and the depositors? Is it that he regards the advocates of that policy, which now include the Financial Times, The Economist and, apparently, his own civil servants as too left wing, or is he petrified by indecision?

The Prime Minister: I am beginning to think that the hon. Gentleman is better at the jokes than at economics. When he talks about Northern Rock and public ownership as a temporary solution, he means that we should try to find a private buyer. That is exactly what we are going to do. All options are on the table, but we are trying to find a private buyer.

Q3. [170982] Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Tesco, one of the UK's most successful companies, generated a profit of some £2.5 billion last year and regularly trumpets its commitment to fair trade. Meanwhile, Tesco workers at a call centre in my constituency are reduced to taking blankets and hot water bottles into work because of the low temperatures. Tesco responded by issuing a memo to all employees, suggesting that they wash their hands regularly and, bizarrely, sing "Happy Birthday" at the same time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a response is entirely inappropriate in this day and age, that Tesco should include fair treatment of workers in its commitment to fair trade, and that Tesco's finest is its work force?

The Prime Minister: Tesco has a reputation for being a good employer. It has a union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, that represents its workers, and I am sure that those matters will be taken up with it. In addition, we are working with Tesco and many other retailers to create more jobs for local people. Of course, those must be jobs with the best conditions possible.

Q4. [170983] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The national health service saved the Prime Minister's sight, but under his Government thousands of people with wet age-related macular degeneration are going blind unnecessarily. There is a simple and effective sight-saving treatment that is not available on the NHS. Patients are told that they have to pay for private treatment or go blind. Is that morally right?

The Prime Minister: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. As he will know, tremendous advances have been made in ophthalmic surgery and treatment in recent years. This is essentially a matter for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to make recommendations, and I will ensure that this matter is before it.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend has seen, and values, the work of volunteers in many poor countries, who make such a contribution to our international development commitment. Today is international volunteers day and I hope that the Prime Minister will re-emphasise the commitment of the Government to supporting volunteers who play such an important part in bringing hope to impoverished communities.

The Prime Minister: I know that my right hon. Friend was herself a Voluntary Service Overseas volunteer in her youth and did a tremendous amount of work in Africa. I know that thousands of people have benefited from serving overseas, and thousands of people have had the benefit of that service. When I was in Uganda for the Commonwealth conference, I met some of the volunteers who are giving their time to help to rebuild schools and the economy in that area. I understand that VSO is 50 years old next year and many more young people want that opportunity in their gap years. I hope that it will be possible for many more people to link up with projects abroad, especially people from poorer areas.

Q6. [170985] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Further to our exchange last week and when we have a local market that appears to reward those who are fortunate enough to be able to buy more properties than they need but operates as if hard-working local families have no right to live there, does the Prime Minister agree that we now need to explore policy solutions to give people in need a real chance? Would he be prepared to meet me and a delegation from my constituency to continue that conversation?

The Prime Minister: Of course I am happy to meet a delegation to talk about housing, but the hon. Gentleman also asks about taxation and related capital gains. He should know that capital gains tax on a first dwelling is zero per cent. and that, whatever changes have been made to CGT for a second dwelling, the rate is still a great deal higher than that.

In respect of additional housing in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I have looked at what is happening in his local authority area. There are 382 houses under construction there at the moment, and the annual dwelling requirement is said to be 230 so, in his area at least, house building is moving. I hope that it can move forward in other areas as well.

Q7. [170986] Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): This week's conference in Bali is regarded as the world's last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming. Given that the world's most industrialised nations are responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions, what positive messages does the Prime Minister hope to hear from Bali?

The Prime Minister: The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been in Bali, working with others to try and get the first stages of an agreement. I believe that there is general good will for a binding agreement that will include all countries, including America in future years. I hope that we can make progress over the next few months. We, the European Union, have put forward proposals for a 20 or 30 per cent. cut by 2020, and there are discussions about a far higher cut in 2050. We are prepared to make the steps forward, and I hope that other continents will join us as a result of the Bali talks.

Q8. [170987] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Having fixed school spending per pupil for the next three years to favour Labour areas--[Interruption.] Yes, and having forced school closures in Shropshire and other rural counties, is not this scandal what the Prime Minister really means when he talks about education for the many, not the few?

The Prime Minister: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that education spending per pupil was falling under the Conservative Government. It has doubled under this Government, and will continue to rise. What will do most damage to his constituency are the proposals made by those on his Front Bench to transfer money out of the school-building and repair programme. The result would be 240 schools cancelled, or one in seven of the new secondary schools to be built. I hope that he will urge his colleagues to think again about that proposal.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): In Newham, we have 30,000 people on the housing waiting list, and 5,000 in temporary accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss how we can ensure that the build in Thames Gateway and Stratford city is appropriate to the needs of those families, and that it is of the right size?

The Prime Minister: The Thames Gateway is now the biggest regeneration project in Europe. It will create thousands of homes and jobs, and mean the redevelopment of an area of London that was neglected previously. I agree with my hon. Friend that, in that development, we need not just houses but affordable housing. That is why, in our discussions with those involved with the project, we are insisting on a very high level of affordable housing, either shared equity or housing for social rent.

Q9. [170988] Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): With three different police investigations under way, two members of his Cabinet and his protégé in Scotland falling foul of the law and his party general secretary facing charges, is this what the Prime Minister meant when he called himself a conviction politician?

The Prime Minister: If the Conservative party wants to play its part in sorting out politics for the future, it should adopt our proposals for national and local limits on expenditure and for greater transparency in how things are done.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Is the Prime Minister as pleased as I am to see today's announcement about a comprehensive plan for stroke services? Having visited a rehabilitation class in Stafford that was led by Stroke Association, may I urge him to make sure that our health and social care services fully involve the Stroke Association, patients and--crucially--their carers?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend may have seen a report this morning showing that voluntary organisations, as well as the private sector, are more involved than ever in the provision of public services. One of the advantages of involving the Stroke Association and others is that they can make known their views about how services should be shaped for the future. This week, we launched a cancer strategy and a stroke strategy. We have launched a new medical research centre that will be the leading research centre in Europe. The health service is moving forward to the 21st century with a Labour Government; it should not be damaged by a Conservative party.

Q10. [170989] Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): In June, my friend, Captain Sean Dolan, was killed by a mortar round from the Taliban. Six months later, there is no sign of a coroner's inquest into his death. Will the Prime Minister put his personal energy behind the issue, so that my friend's widow and the widows of the dead in all these campaigns can seek closure for their mourning?

The Prime Minister: I have a tremendous amount of respect for what the hon. Gentleman says on that matter. The coroner's inquest should be moved forward and we have put more money into making that possible, and made some changes so that it can happen. In the case of the tragic death to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and about which he talked to me at one stage, I think there is a board of inquiry at the moment, which would precede the inquest. However, I can tell him that more resources will be made available for coroners' inquests.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Last night was the first night of Hanukkah. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to pass on his best wishes to the Jewish community and acknowledge its great contribution to our society and life?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely. When I addressed the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I told them that their community plays an enormous part in our life, not only through all the voluntary organisations in the Jewish community, which do a huge amount of work, but also through the contribution that is made right across our national life by organisations that represent the Jewish community. I pay tribute to what they have done over the centuries in our country.

Q11. [170990] Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): A young girl, Monica, lives in my constituency in abject poverty. Her English father has died and her Kenyan mother is not allowed to work and is not entitled to benefits. She is fed by a small fund at the local school, but it has now run out. She is transported to school by members of the local Church, who also provide her with clothes. She is living in complete poverty. Will the Prime Minister meet my constituent to discuss the case, or intervene to sort the issue out?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady gives me details of a situation about which I had not been informed before this morning. I shall look at it carefully and, if necessary, meet her to talk about the issues. It is an unfortunate situation if someone is deprived of any income and that should not be happening.

Q12. [170991] Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister make it a priority to visit schools that have made the biggest contribution to raising standards, such as Battersea technology college, where the GCSE score rose from 5 per cent. in 1997 to 60 per cent. this year? Although most of the credit belongs to the head, staff, governors and pupils, which does my right hon. Friend think more likely to lead to an improvement of that magnitude--the £22.5 billion increase in education spending that has taken place since 1997 or a £21 billion cut in public spending plans such as that proposed by the Conservative tax reform commission?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate Battersea college--the staff, pupils and all associated with it, including the parents and governors. It is a spectacular achievement to move from such a low level to the national average of 60 per cent. of 15-year-olds gaining GCSE at A to C. We will continue to make improvements, which is why in the last few months we have announced more money for science, more money for maths and more money for literacy. That is why we are trying to improve the curriculum in all those areas and it is also why we are introducing personal tuition for pupils who have fallen behind. But I agree with my hon. Friend that it would not be possible if, instead of affordable tax cuts and public investment rising, we had unaffordable tax cuts that would mean public investment falling under the Conservatives.

Q13. [170992] David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the Prime Minister agree that following recent attempts on the lives of police officers by paramilitary organisations in the Province, there would be no public confidence in any early move to devolve policing and justice powers? Will he assure the House that there will be no attempt, either through the House or by back-door means, to push through such legislation on the Province?

The Prime Minister: First, on the serious incidents that the hon. Gentleman talks about, and the injuries and anguish for the police officers and the families concerned, I sympathise with them and I have talked to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Administration about them. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been looking at what has happened. We have to assure ourselves that everything is being done both to arrest the people responsible and to prevent any return to violence. On the issue of policing and security, this is a matter for continuing discussion between the Government and the Northern Ireland Administration, and I think that that is the proper way of moving this forward.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that the major announcements made by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on apprenticeships, and particularly adult apprenticeships, will be very welcome to my constituents in Blackpool and particularly to women returning to work after 15 or 20 years? Does the Prime Minister believe, like me, that that marks a huge contrast with what the Conservative party did in its last five years in government, when it put money into neither apprenticeships nor further education?

The Prime Minister: The apprenticeship was dying under the Conservatives. There are now 250,000 young people in apprenticeships and that number is going to double to 500,000 over the next decade. People must face up to this big challenge for our future: either we can educate young people to the age of 18--either in work, whether part time or full time, in training or in education--or we will fall behind our competitors. I am sorry that the Conservative party thinks that education to 18 is a stunt. It is the right way forward for the British people.

ENDS

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