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UK: Prime Minister's Questions, 11 June 2008

42 days detention, Afghanistan and organ donation were on the agenda at today's PMQs. The Prime Minister also took questions on Carers, the EU Treaty And Education, Public Services, Universities, Elderly People, Scotland.

Prime Minister's Questions, 11 June 2008

TRANSCRIPT

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked --

Engagements

Q1. [209948] Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of Privates Nathan Cuthbertson, Daniel Gamble and David Murray of the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Sunday. The risks they bear and the sacrifices they have made are in our thoughts, not just today but every day, and we owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

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

Mr. Hands: May I join the Prime Minister in offering condolences to the soldiers' families?

The biography on the Prime Minister's website records no achievements in the past year, but it does boast about his popularity as a schoolboy. We are told that he "joined in every aspect of school life, quickly becoming popular".

Given the Stalinist adulation from the past, can he explain why this week he has become Britain's least popular Prime Minister ever?

The Prime Minister: I shall leave the schoolboy politics to the hon. Gentleman. On a day when we are debating national security, I would have thought that he could do better than that.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am sure that the whole House would wish to be identified with my right hon. Friend's comments about the brave soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question of up to 42 days' detention for terrorist suspects is more a matter of practical necessity than high principle?

The Prime Minister: It is a matter of necessity because of what the police and the security services have told us. Every senior policeman and every senior member of the security services has told us--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are going to begin today by allowing the Prime Minister to speak. [Interruption.] Order. I have told the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) before not to interrupt the proceedings, and I have often told him that he has defied the Chair. He will not do it today, or he will be out of the Chamber.

The Prime Minister: I would have thought that there would be agreement across the whole House that the first duty of a Government is to protect the national security of our country. I would be failing in my duty if I did not report to the House the advice of the police and security services, but I was about to go on to say that I do not rely on that entirely. We have seen in the recent cases that have come before us the amount, sophistication and complexity of evidence that has to be assessed. I refer the House to the airport case in 2006, in which there were 400 computers, 8,000 CDs and 25,000 exhibits. That is why some of the people who were detained were detained for 27 days. I have no doubt that the sophistication and complexity of these cases will require us to do more in future years. That is not only the advice of the police--that is the judgment that I make from having to look at terrorist cases every week.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Privates Cuthbertson, Gamble and Murray of 2 Para, who were killed on Sunday. Every week, quite rightly, we stand here and read out the names of those who have fallen, and we must remember every week that behind every name are family and friends who are suffering from the loss of a loved one. The Prime Minister and I have both visited Afghanistan. We know that our soldiers are doing incredible work in difficult conditions on our behalf, and, quite simply, they are the best of British.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree with me that it is clear why we are there. If we go, the Taliban come back, the training camps come back and there will be more terrorists on British streets. But after seven years of work in Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister give us a frank and candid assessment today, not just of where we are doing well, but where much more work needs to be done?

The Prime Minister: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the contribution of our troops and the bravery of all our servicemen and women who serve in Afghanistan and every theatre of the world. In Afghanistan, we are making progress in training the Afghan army and police, and in building economic and social development, which means that people in Afghanistan have a stake in the future. In the Afghan elections, 70 per cent. of registered voters voted, so Afghanistan became a democracy, and it was shown to be so by the elections. When the Taliban were in power, there were only 2 million children in education--none of them girls. Today, there are 6 million children in education and 2 million of them are girls, which is a result of the changes that we are making.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a long haul, but our duty is to stop the Taliban ever gaining power again and to stop al-Qaeda making inroads into Afghanistan. That is why 43 countries are part of the coalition in Afghanistan.

Mr. Cameron: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. I have seen the work of training the Afghan army, which is fantastic, and I have seen some of the schools that have been built, but is there not a risk that while we are winning militarily in Afghanistan, we are losing at least parts of the country? Has he heard the reports that the security situation around Kabul is deteriorating, and that corruption is paralysing the work of the Afghan Government? I am even told that some of the roads that we have built are being used by the Taliban and other bandits to extort money from ordinary Afghans, who are too terrified to use them. It is now six months since the Prime Minister made a full statement in the House about Afghanistan. Does he not agree with me that one of the lessons from Iraq is that it is only by being candid and frank, and by giving regular updates, that we can take the British people with us in this vital task?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to give the right hon. Gentleman regular updates of what is happening in Afghanistan, and the Secretary of State for Defence has just returned from Afghanistan where he was looking at the situation on the ground. Nobody is saying that the position in Afghanistan is easy, and everybody knows that in the spring attacks by the Taliban start again, but last year, because of the action against drugs and heroin, the number of poppy-free provinces doubled to 13. We hope this year to see more progress. It is not a case of things going backward; it is a case of us seeing progress. Our strategy, set out in December, which was the "Afghanisation" of the army and the police force, with people being trained by British forces and other troops, and with the police being trained through an operation led by the German police, is gaining ground. Our aim is that Afghans take more and more responsibility for their own affairs. We are able to tackle corruption by opening up local as well as national Government, and we invest, as we have in the dam project, in the economic and social development of Afghanistan.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he is doubting the reason for being there--[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Okay, the reason for being there is that we cannot allow the Taliban to get back into power, and we cannot allow al-Qaeda to get a grip on the province.

Mr. Cameron: I do not think that there is a big level of disagreement. All I am saying is that this is the No. 1 foreign policy priority and the No. 1 national security priority, and we must make sure that everything that the Government do reminds the nation of that.

I turn to the issue of the Government's proposal to ask MPs to vote tonight on holding people for six weeks before they are charged. This is an enormous step to take, and we need the strongest possible evidence before the Government can take it. How can the Prime Minister think that the case has really been made, when his own Director of Public Prosecutions--the very man responsible for prosecuting terrorists and the man who carries the can if it does not happen--does not support the measure?

The Prime Minister: We have made a judgment, after looking at all the evidence, including the evidence from the police and security services, that this is the right thing to do. I would not want to have to come to the House in a moment of emergency and ask for extraordinary powers, when we could, in a period of calmness, build in a process that will not give the oxygen of publicity to terrorists when we have to take action. The right hon. Gentleman said:

"When it comes to our national security, I will always listen to the police and security services, and take their advice with the utmost seriousness."

Ken Jones, the head of ACPO, has made it clear what the police think about the proposal. Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, has made his position clear. Lord Stevens, the man the right hon. Gentleman says he listens to on police matters, says in The Times today that

"there will be really exceptional cases where the Police Service will need to go beyond 28 days."

Taking into account the advice of the police and security services, but also looking at the weight, complexity and sophistication of the evidence that must be examined, it seems to me that we should put in place the legislation in a moment of calm. I do not want, in a moment of panic, for people to have to come to the House to bring in emergency legislation.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that he does not want to come to the House in a moment of difficulty, but under the concession that he is making that is exactly what he is going to have to do. He would have a stronger argument if he had genuinely lined up, if you like, a phalanx of the police, the prosecutors and the security services in favour of his case, but he has not. Yes, there are a lot of police who support it, but there are a lot who do not. When it comes to the prosecuting authorities, they do not support his case, and when it comes to the Security Service, it has not said that it has asked for this step. The Prime Minister has not made the case that the proposal is necessary. Is there not a danger that as well as being unnecessary, it will be counter-productive? When former Attorneys-General and soldiers who served against the IRA in Northern Ireland are all saying that this sort of measure could help the terrorists rather than hurt them, are we not taking a bad step? Is it not clear that the terrorists want to destroy our freedom, and that when we trash our liberties we do their work for them?

The Prime Minister: The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland does not need lectures about taking on terrorism. What he said is:

"Sadly, the day will come when 28 will not be high enough...but we have to plan for it."

That is precisely what I am saying to the House today. Our first duty is the protection of national security. We fail in our duty if we do not take preventive measures. I say in sorrow rather than anger that it is no use having opposition for opposition's sake. We must take no risks with security.

Mr. Cameron: This party does not need any reminders about the importance of fighting terrorism. The first Member of Parliament I ever wrote a speech for, Ian Gow, was murdered by the IRA. The first Member of Parliament who ever represented me, Airey Neave, is commemorated above that Door, murdered by the IRA. But we will not fight terrorism effectively if we undermine our liberties.

Let us have a look at one of the concessions that the Prime Minister has made. He proposes parliamentary debate immediately following what could be an individual case. Will he tell us how on earth that is going to work? Will Members of Parliament not want to ask the Home Secretary questions that she cannot answer without prejudicing a trial? In his attempt to save the totem of 42 days, has not the Prime Minister made so many concessions that he has an unworkable piece of legislation? Should not every MP in the House be thinking that this issue is not about the future of the Prime Minister but about our liberties, and should they not vote with their consciences?

The Prime Minister: It cannot be both draconian and absolutely useless in dealing with the problem. [Interruption.] No. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not know what is disturbing the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), but I will run the proceedings here.

The Prime Minister: I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that the former head of counter-terrorism has said that we will undoubtedly need this power. The former head of MI5 says that if 42 days is not adopted, regret it we will. Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer, says:

"My view is that the government is right to extend it beyond 28 days."

The Conservative party's members' website, ConservativeHome, also said this morning:

"A clear majority of the British people favour a longer detention period. We believe that the British people are right. They won't readily forgive any politicians who allow a major atrocity to occur because our detention procedures prove to be inadequate."

The right hon. Gentleman must answer also to members of his own party.

Mr. Cameron: That last bit is so below the level of debate--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Cameron: If the Prime Minister is saying that it is popular to announce that you are going to bang up terrorist suspects for longer without charging them, he is right; it is popular, but the point is that we in the House are meant to do what is right. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is impossible to be draconian and incompetent at the same time, but is not that exactly what the Prime Minister has achieved? We have a symbolic assault on our liberty that is unnecessary; we have a change in the law that many people, including the former chief inspector of constabulary, say is counter-productive; and we have a procedure that is unworkable. Is not the only way to describe what the Prime Minister is doing today as ineffective authoritarianism? When there is no firm evidence in favour of extending detention in a free and democratic country, should not a supposedly progressive Prime Minister come down on the side of liberty?

The Prime Minister: The protections for civil liberties built into the Bill are greater than at any time when we have dealt with terrorist legislation. The Director of Public Prosecutions has to approve the order; it has to come before Parliament with an independent legal opinion; the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee have to be informed; an independent reviewer has to look at all circumstances of the case; Parliament has got to vote on the issue; and a judge has to look at the case every seven days. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the civil liberties protections in this legislation are greater than ever before. I do not like opposition for opposition's sake. We should be facing up to an issue of national security. I would like to have achieved a consensus above party politics, but because it has been impossible to do so, the Government must make a judgment. The judgment is not that this is popular, but that it is right and necessary for the security of our country.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have been impressed by the incredible courage of Adrian Sudbury, who is using the last weeks of his life to campaign for more bone marrow donors to come forward. I have been impressed by the response so far of the Secretaries of State for Children, Schools and Families and for Health, but what more can my right hon. Friend do to help my friend Adrian to achieve his legacy and help 7,000 people to live?

The Prime Minister: I, too, have met and seen the courage of Mr. Sudbury who, as my hon. Friend says, is using the last few weeks of his life to try to make people better aware of the dangers that result when bone marrow donation is not available. The promotion of the donation of blood, bone marrow and organ is a priority for the Department of Health. We are looking at what we can do. The key issue is whether we can encourage people to be donors. I believe that in the next few months we will be able to put proposals that will assist, if not Mr. Sudbury, many other people who suffer as a result of these illnesses.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Privates Nathan Cuthbertson, Daniel Gamble and David Murray.

Does the Prime Minister accept that irrespective of whether this House has seven days or 30 days to approve the extension of the period of detention without charge, it is not possible to provide us with sufficient evidence and information to make that judgment without either making covert intelligence public or jeopardising the legal case against a terrorist suspect?

The Prime Minister: The purpose of this coming before the House is for the Home Secretary to advise us that, in her view, there is an exceptional terrorist threat--a grave terrorist threat that either has occurred or is occurring--and that the need for action is urgent, but that it has not been possible to assemble the necessary evidence to lay charges within the 28 days. It will then be for the House to vote on the commencement order and agree that an exceptional terrorist incident has occurred. It is not the business of the House to interfere in the individual case, but it should be able to vote simply on whether an exceptional and grave terrorist threat has occurred. Given that the right hon. Gentleman and others have referred to the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 in discussing this issue, I would hope that he understands that this is exactly the same problem that has to be faced in respect of that Act.

Mr. Clegg: Everyone knows that the Prime Minister's proposal will not become law--it will be blocked in the other place, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will challenge it in court and the European Court of Human Rights will declare it illegal--so why on earth is he playing politics with our liberties for a Bill that no one thinks is necessary, no one thinks will work in practice and everyone knows will never reach the statute book?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says no one thinks the proposal is necessary, but has he looked at what police chief constables have said? Has he looked at the statements that have been made by those people who have dealt with terrorism? It is quite wrong to say that no one thinks it is necessary. Indeed, a Liberal Democrat candidate in Bristol did a survey of all his constituents: 74 per cent.-- [Interruption.] Well, 74 per cent. said they were in favour and that

"The complexity of potential terrorist threats means that the police will need the additional time."

It is not only popular; it is necessary and right. There are many people who disagree with the right hon. Gentleman profoundly.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the proposed 42-day detention orders will apply only to those who wish to bring terror to the streets and will not impact in any way on the human rights and civil liberties of decent, hard-working British families, and that they will not have police posted outside their houses in riot gear and not have their villages or communities blockaded, as during the miners' strike? Perhaps colleagues and comrades on this side of the House will reflect on that when they are going through--

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is restricted not just to a terrorist threat, but to an exceptional and grave terrorist threat. It is stated clearly in the Bill that this is a reserve power. It is up to 42 days only under the most extreme of circumstances. I repeat to the House that the protections for civil liberties that are built into the Bill, which require the Home Secretary to act and not to have arbitrary treatment, are the greatest that we have seen when dealing with terrorist threats. I believe that we have managed to combine the need to take action that is preventive in case there is a terrorist threat to our country with the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary treatment. That is what we will continue to do.

Q2. [209949] Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): The Prime Minister might not have had an opportunity to see Monday evening's documentary entitled "Gordon Brown, Where Did It All Go Wrong?"-- [Interruption.] I do not know why Labour MPs are complaining. Half the Cabinet were happy to appear in it, including the Chancellor, who made it clear that, from last summer, he knew that millions would lose out because of the abolition of the 10p rate of income tax. Given that, why did the Prime Minister consistently deny that there would be any losers from his tax reform package?

The Prime Minister: Some 22 million people have benefited from the tax cut that we have just announced. In the 2008 Budget, £3 billion extra went to the poorest sections of our community. I do not think that the House will listen to Conservative Members, who have not even made a commitment to the abolition of child poverty, lecturing us about what is done for the low paid in this country.

Q3. [209950] Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I am sure that the House will join me, in national carers week, in my admiration for the 6 million unsung heroes who are looking after their loved ones and in giving thanks for the £225 million of extra Government money announced yesterday, but as life expectancy is increasing carers are retiring and still looking after their parents. Will the Prime Minister please tell me what extra measures he has in place, and will have in place, for those elderly carers?

The Prime Minister: I was proud to host a reception yesterday for national carers week and to see the publication by the Minister for Social Care of our new carers strategy. There are 6 million people in our country who are giving of their time to care for relatives, friends or neighbours, and they do so in a caring and compassionate way, which makes us proud of the whole people of Britain.

As part of national carers week, we have issued our national carers strategy. That will provide additional money for breaks for carers, respite care, for carers to re-enter the job market if they have been carers in the past and support for young carers. We are looking at the carers grant and what we can do for carers in retirement. We will report back to the House on these matters.

Q4. [209951] Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): If the Irish people have been permitted a referendum, why cannot the British people be permitted one? After all, the Prime Minister and other Labour Members stood in the last general election on the basis of a manifesto that promised to put the constitutional treaty to the British people in a referendum.

The Prime Minister: There are 27 countries in the European Union. Only one requires, under its constitution, every item of constitutional change to be put before the people in a referendum. Nine countries proposed a referendum; then the treaty was changed. This treaty does not represent a fundamental change in the constitutional arrangements. That is why the right place in which to debate it was the House of Commons, where we debated it for many days and where the Government's proposals won the vote.

Q5. [209952] Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Knife crime, mental illness and youth activities are just some of the issues being debated on www.mylifemysay.co.uk, an online discussion forum for young people. Some of those young people will be coming to Parliament to discuss the issues in front of Ministers and Members of Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend assist the discussion by telling them where the money came from to provide free swimming, and whether further money will be available to fund other activities?

The Prime Minister: It is because of our success in running the economy that we have been able to provide additional money for public services. In seeking to provide youth centres in all the constituencies in the country, we are looking at dormant accounts in banks and building societies and discussing them with those organisations. We believe that there are substantial funds that should be made available. We want to use those funds to transform youth facilities in every constituency in the country, just as we have transformed care of the under-fives in the last 10 years.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): May I give the Prime Minister a third opportunity to answer a fundamental question that he has conspicuously failed to answer twice so far? [Interruption.] Can he explain--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Members must allow the right hon. and learned Gentleman to speak.

Mr. Howard: Can the Prime Minister explain--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I said that Members must allow the right hon. and learned Gentleman to speak. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) should not be putting his tuppence worth in.

Mr. Howard: Can the Prime Minister explain how the House could debate and vote on the detention of a person without charge for up to six weeks without prejudicing any subsequent trial of that person?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows a lot about not answering questions. [Laughter.] I can tell him that he has misunderstood the legislation. It requires the Home Secretary to present to the House a statement showing that there is an exceptional and grave terrorist threat and that the need for action is urgent, and she must ask the House to support the action that she has taken. The legislation does not require discussion of the individual detainees; that would be wrong. The purpose of this legislation, like that of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, is to get the House to agree that these special measures are needed. That is the purpose of the debate, and that is the right way to proceed.

Q6. [209953] Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the University of Central Lancashire? Since 1828, when it was the Institution for The Diffusion of Knowledge, it has developed into one of the largest universities in the United Kingdom. It now provides education and skills training for more than 21,000 students, 2,500 of whom are in mainland China.

The Prime Minister: I am proud that the number of universities in our country is growing, and that the number of students in our country can grow as a result of the proposals of the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The University of Central Lancashire, with its 21,000 students, is another university that is giving young people opportunities that they have never had before. I hope that we shall be able to announce the provision of 20 more university campuses, so that every major town and city in the country is properly served by higher education.

Q7. [209954] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Every year 342,000 older people in the country are victims of abuse, including crimes such as intimidation, theft and assault. Tens of thousands of older people with dementia are routinely prescribed unlicensed drugs that keep them sedated and cut their lives short. Will the Prime Minister take action to close the loopholes in the law that allow the victims to go unprotected and the perpetrators to go unpunished, and will he meet me and a delegation to discuss what else needs to be done to tackle elder abuse?

The Prime Minister: I shall be prepared to talk to the hon. Gentleman about this matter. We are about to propose an NHS constitution. Our aim is to guarantee rights to every person who is a patient of the NHS, and I believe that whatever he is revealing about what happens to elderly people can be dealt with as part of the rights in that constitution.

Q8. [209955] Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may know that a number of newspapers in Birmingham and elsewhere have suggested in the past 24 hours that the national challenge announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will threaten hundreds of schools with closure, including 27 in Birmingham. Will he confirm that that is certainly not the plan's intention and that, rather, the aim is to work with teachers and parents, most of whom are already making huge efforts to do the right thing by children and raise standards? In other words, the intention is to avoid school closures, not the opposite.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The national challenge is intended to raise every school in this country to a higher standard. In particular, the aim is to deal with failing schools and to make sure that their results are better. Whatever action needs to be taken in terms of replacing head teachers or improving the service is part of the national challenge. I can also tell him that, in this and other areas, more money is being injected into the school system to make that increase in standards possible. We want every school pupil in the country to get the best possible education.

Q9. [209956] Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It is forecast that the Treasury is set to secure a windfall of anything between £4 billion and £6 billion as a result of the increased price of a barrel of North sea oil, yet Scotland has secured absolutely no benefit from that rise. Norway's oil fund is worth some £186 billion, and even non-independent Alberta has an oil fund of £8.8 billion. Given that windfall, surely it is time for a Scottish oil fund. If the Prime Minister continues to say no to Scotland on this issue, the Scottish people will say no to him and goodbye to some of his Back Benchers.

The Prime Minister: We are one United Kingdom, and we share the risks, rewards and resources throughout the UK. It is because we are one United Kingdom that Scotland has 200,000 more jobs than it had in 1997. Scotland has never been better off, as a result of a Labour Government.

ENDS

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