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UK Prime Minister's Questions, 25 June 2008

Zimbabwe, Energy Prices and the NHS were on the agenda at today's PMQs. The PM also took questions on Child Poverty, Trade Union Laws, Crime, IRA, Immigration, Education, Free bus travel, Railway, Seaside resorts, Organ donations and the Gurkhas.

Prime Minister's Questions, 25 June 2008

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked --

Engagements

Q1. [213427] Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the two servicemen killed in Afghanistan yesterday. They will remain always in our thoughts and we owe them a deep debt of gratitude for their sacrifice.

This morning, I had meetings and discussions with ministerial colleagues, including, as the House will want to know, on the subject of bringing forward next week immediate legislation to enable the courts to grant anonymity to witnesses in cases such as those involving organised crime and witness intimidation. I hope and believe that we can do that with all-party support. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings with Ministers later today.

Mr. Mahmood: I echo my right hon. Friend’s words on our gratitude to all the servicemen who have lost their lives defending the values that we all cherish.

What action will the Prime Minister take to encourage the African nations to help resolve the current crisis in Zimbabwe?

The Prime Minister: Following the United Nations Security Council resolution, promoted by the United Kingdom, that the conditions are not there for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, we will stand alongside African leaders who do not accept the legitimacy of the election and who do not accept the legitimacy of the regime and the criminal cabal surrounding President Mugabe. I understand that the Southern African Development Community will meet today and the African Union will meet on Sunday. It is our hope that the UN and the AU can work together for a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe and we are ready to commit substantial resources to Zimbabwe once democracy returns.

I can also confirm that we are preparing intensified sanctions, both financial sanctions and travel sanctions against named members of the Mugabe regime. I can also announce that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is working with the England and Wales Cricket Board. We want to ensure that Zimbabwe do not tour England next year and we will call for other countries to join us in banning Zimbabwe from the Twenty20 international tournament.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the two soldiers from the Parachute Regiment who were killed in Afghanistan yesterday? Our troops are doing an incredibly difficult job in tough circumstances and they have our full support.

Let me ask some further questions, if I may, about Zimbabwe. I believe, as I believe that the Prime Minister does, that there is a real opportunity for Britain to take the initiative. There is universal anger at the stolen election, universal support for the leader of the opposition’s pulling out of the race, condemnation from the UN Security Council and, for a change, strong words from Zimbabwe’s neighbours.

May I ask the Prime Minister about three specific actions? First, at the forthcoming G8, which President Mbeki will attend, will the Prime Minister push for a declaration that all states present will cease to prop up the regime and will refuse to recognise its legitimacy?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the UN passed a strong presidential statement on Monday. South Africa was very much part of that statement, which made it clear that the elections could not take place in the present circumstances and called for an end to violence. I will, of course, raise the matter in every international forum. I raised it in the European Union at the Council last Thursday and Friday, and there was a strong statement from the EU. I have talked to other members of the G8, including President Bush, about the situation.

I believe that the hope that exists for a peaceful outcome to the problems that we face lies in the fact that, as the right hon. Gentleman has indicated, the leaders of so many African Governments—of Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Angola, Senegal and Kenya—as well as the African National Congress have made it absolutely clear that they cannot support the current regime. They want the full civil and political rights of the Zimbabwean people restored.

I want us to work with the African Union and the UN, and I believe that it would be best if a joint delegation went to Zimbabwe. What we want to achieve is a peaceful transition, the promise of support for a new regime, and an end to the violence that has caused so many deaths.

Mr. Cameron: We support very much what the Prime Minister has said. We too welcome the UN statement, and I also welcome what he said about sporting sanctions in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood). Will he clarify one point arising from our discussions on Monday? He said that he would no longer recognise the legitimacy of the Mugabe regime, but may I ask him a bit more about what that means? The Foreign Secretary said on Monday that it is not possible to ban Mugabe from attending summits

“until he is no longer the president of Zimbabwe.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 46.]

So when the Prime Minister says that he does not recognise the regime’s legitimacy, what does he actually mean? What will the practical consequences be?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, we are bound by international laws in the question of the regime, but we do not recognise the legitimacy of the Zimbabwean Government. We do not believe that Mugabe has honoured the results of the previous election, or that the current elections can be free and fair. We want to see a peaceful transition as soon as possible.

If we look back at the elections that did take place, it was clear that Mugabe lost them and that Tsvangirai was ahead. It is also clear that the Parliament in Zimbabwe has a majority against Mugabe. That is why what African leaders have said in the last few days is so important. For the first time, many of them have condemned both Mugabe’s regime and his behaviour. We want to work for a peaceful transition. I believe that the statements made by the UN Secretary-General calling for an end to violence and offering his help to that end, as well as the strong statements from President Kikwete of Tanzania, are the best symbol of the way forward—that is, the UN and the African Union working together for a change of regime.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister mentioned tighter EU sanctions. Will he confirm that, when they are drawn up, our Government will specifically propose a full visa ban for Mugabe, his officials, their families and associates? Will the sanctions also propose financial measures, which must include a full assets freeze on institutions complicit in the regime as well as a ban on their transactions? Does he agree that this matter is not just for Governments, and that businesses and individuals that have any dealings with Zimbabwe must examine their responsibilities and ensure that they do not make investments that prop up the regime?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman may also know that 160 individuals are under bans and sanctions as a result of decisions already taken. We are looking at extending the bans, as he suggested, to the families of the people involved. The bans will include financial sanctions, but also travel sanctions. We know the names of the individuals surrounding Mugabe, and we therefore know the names of the criminal cabal trying to keep him in power. We will name those individuals, and that will be part of the next stage of the sanctions.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that businesses should also look at their involvement in Zimbabwe. We have taken a decision that we will force through sanctions against the individuals who are part of regime. We do not want to do further damage to the Zimbabwean people, but businesses that are helping the regime should of course reconsider their position.

I believe that the whole world has woken up to the evils that have been going on in Zimbabwe, and that the whole international community, with a few exceptions, is now united in calling for action. What we want is an end to the violence, and a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe. That is why the efforts of the AU and the UN are so important. We will support them in their efforts and offer the Zimbabwean people help with reconstruction once democracy is restored.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): On yesterday’s “Today” programme, it was argued that speculators are responsible for the doubling of the oil price. The US Congress has been examining the situation, and is working very hard to limit the damage being done by speculators—who, by the way, control more than 71 per cent. of the futures market. However, the speculators are likely to move to London where, the Congress argues, the rules are more lax. What are the Government doing to protect the poor people who are having to pay the high prices at the petrol pumps?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a huge issue, because oil prices have trebled over the past two years, and they have risen very substantially in the past few months. I was in Jeddah and met all the oil producers to talk about these matters.

The first thing that we know is that the American Congress is looking at this matter. The Financial Services Authority is looking for any evidence of market manipulation and the Treasury is looking at what financial speculation may have taken place in the marketplace. If there is any evidence of that, we will act. We will also work with the rest of the European Union, which is examining the issue.

I have to tell my hon. Friend that there is another issue here: demand for oil in the world exceeds the supply of oil, and it will for years to come. That is why we are making bold decisions for which I would hope we would have all-party support—first of all, to have energy independence through having nuclear power in this country. While we have made the decision, the Opposition have ducked it.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the two soldiers who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan yesterday.

Before the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, I think that some people thought he was a man of principle. Over the past 12 months, time and time again, we have seen him abandon what he knows to be right for what he thinks is expedient. This afternoon, he has the chance to do the right thing when veterans from the Gurkhas march on No. 10 to hand in their medals in protest at the way in which they have been treated by this Government. I have asked him four times to receive those medals, and every time he has refused. Will he now have the grace to receive them today, or will he turn them away yet again?

The Prime Minister: I do thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the question of the Gurkhas, because it allows me to explain what has actually been done. We respect the fact that Gurkhas have fought for the United Kingdom for two centuries. They have served in conflicts throughout the world. We greatly value their contribution, both past and present, and we know that they are operating in Iraq and continue to serve with great distinction in Afghanistan.

The Government have improved the way in which we are treating the Gurkhas. Serving Gurkhas, and some who are recently retired, for the first time have membership of the armed forces pension scheme. They have a genuinely improved deal, and 2,232 retired Gurkhas who were serving on 1 July 1997 or later have also been offered those arrangements.

There are other things that we are doing, including equality of take-home pay with the British Army, the creation of national insurance records, changing the immigration rules to help retired Gurkhas, married accompanied service after three years in the brigade and the opportunity to transfer to one of the two armed forces pension schemes. All those things we have done. The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that we have been inactive; we are trying to honour our obligations to people who have served the country well.

Mr. Clegg: Once again, we have a long list from the Prime Minister that misses the important issue. On Friday, it is Veterans day, a day when we celebrate the courage of those who risk their lives for our country. The Prime Minister says that he values courage above all else, so why will he not do the thing that would really help some of the most courageous veterans of all? Veterans of the Gurkhas who have to rely on charity and who face deportation because his Government will not grant them British citizenship are protesting outside right now. When will he act to correct that gross injustice and give those brave veterans the recognition and citizenship that they deserve?

The Prime Minister: I have just told the right hon. Gentleman that the immigration rules were changed in 2004 to include post-1997 retired Gurkhas. The opportunity is now there to transfer to the wider Army after five years; there are increased opportunities for Gurkhas after leaving the Army; there are opportunities to obtain settlement and naturalisation—that is citizenship—while serving in the wider Army; and we have given the pensions that I have just identified. He cannot say that we have done nothing to help the Gurkhas. We have shown how we value the Gurkhas in this country.

Q2. [213428] Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Child poverty was a matter of national shame when the Conservative Government were in power. My right hon. Friend deserves enormous credit for the 600,000 children whose families have been taken out of poverty, but now that we face difficult economic times, will he give a recommitment to the eradication of child poverty by 2020? Frankly, if this Government and this Prime Minister will not give that commitment, no other party in this House will make the same offer.

The Prime Minister: We are the only party that has made, and is making, this commitment, and I ask other parties to join us in making the commitment even now. When we came to power, 3.5 million children were in poverty. Absolute poverty in this country has fallen so that the figure is 1.7 million, and we have a long way to go. Relative poverty has fallen by 600,000. Even in difficult economic circumstances, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the pre-Budget report and the Budget that 300,000 more children will be taken out of poverty. We have doubled child benefit. The child tax credit was £27 for the poorest child when we came to power; it is now more than £70. We have done what the previous Conservative Government failed to do: we are tackling child poverty.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Britain is facing a wave of potential strikes that are threatened by, among others, housing benefit staff, social workers, teaching assistants and refuse collectors. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister rule out categorically any further changes that would weaken in any way the trade union laws introduced by past Conservative Governments?

The Prime Minister: We have no plans to change employment laws further. Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be better if he would support us when we are trying to negotiate three-year pay deals with the public sector. We have negotiated them for teachers, nurses, health service workers and civil servants, and they are now in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Inland Revenue. Two million people are covered by public sector pay deals. The shadow Chancellor said on “Newsnight” last week:

“I’m not against opening negotiated pay deals.”

A few hours later, he had to clarify the statement, saying:

“I am against reopening public sector pay deals”.

Perhaps the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) can tell us the position of the Conservative party on supporting stability in the economy.

Mr. Cameron: The whole House will have heard the Prime Minister say that he has no plans to change trade union laws. This is the same man who, as Chancellor, said that he had no plans to introduce taxes, and then introduced extra taxes. If he genuinely has no plans to introduce new trade union laws, will he explain why he is going ahead with the Warwick Two process, in which the trade unions and Government Ministers will sit down and discuss policies, including the laws governing industrial action?

The Prime Minister: Of course we are going to discuss policies with every section of the community—surely that is what politics is about. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was quite anxious to talk to the TUC as well.

I come back to this point: is the Conservative party supporting our three-year public sector pay deals? They are unique. They are a barrier against inflation and they give us stability for the future. They are a signal to the rest of the public sector and to the private sector. However, the Conservatives are silent on that, just as they were on the 22 million people benefiting from a low tax rate with the personal allowances coming down. They should tell us whether they support economic stability, low inflation and low interest rates, which is what this will help to achieve.

Mr. Cameron: Do you know what? If the Prime Minister wants to ask us questions and he has had a year in office, why not call an election? He said that he needed more time to set out his vision. I think that we have had a year; why not bring on the election?

Is the Prime Minister really telling us that his Ministers are going to sit down with the people who provide 92 per cent. of the governing party’s income and that there will be no mention of trade union laws? Is it not the case that trade union leaders look at this Prime Minister and see just weakness? Tony Blair—remember him?—said:

“I have not created New Labour to see a Labour government give away power to the unions”.

He also said that

“you can’t go back to the situation where 90 per cent. of the funding is provided by trade unions”.

Is not that exactly what has happened? We have a bankrupt Labour party. It is in hock to the unions and a wave of strikes is threatened. As the Prime Minister lurches to the left, should not we all conclude that new Labour is dead and buried?

The Prime Minister: The same old Tory party—it cannot even talk to the trade unions. In the past year, we have made the big decisions about the future of the country. Nuclear power: we decided; the Conservatives ducked it. Airport expansion: we are deciding; they have ducked it. Three million houses: we are deciding; they have ducked it. Today, on planning, we are deciding, and once again they are ducking it.

The right hon. Gentleman’s year started with the indecision over grammar schools and has ended with him losing his shadow Home Secretary. For him, politics is just show business; it is devoid of substance and is opposition for opposition’s sake. You can get by without substance some of the time, but you cannot get by without substance all of the time.

Q3. [213429] Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): This Saturday, more than 100 representatives of voluntary organisations and other organisations in my constituency will get together with the police, the city council, the fire service and other statutory agencies to examine how we can best work together to combat crime. All hon. Members know that one of the things that often inhibits people from reporting crimes or standing up to antisocial behaviour is the fear of reprisal or intimidation. My right hon. Friend said a few moments ago that there were plans in relation to witness anonymity. Will he say a little more about that, and about how we can best reassure people that we will back them when they stand up for their local community?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The policies that we are proposing will mean punishment and prevention of crime. It is quite wrong to deprive witnesses of their anonymity when it is needed, especially when we are dealing with organised crime, witness intimidation and gang and gun-related crime. That is why the Secretary of State for Justice will announce tomorrow that we will bring forward legislation to clarify the situation arising from the court’s judgment. We want to make sure that there is a right for the courts to offer anonymity, as the police and so many other people have asked for in the last few days. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell his seminar on Saturday that we will continue with our policies to ensure that the public are properly protected against crime. I also hope that the Conservatives will reconsider their former shadow Home Secretary’s opposition to DNA and CCTV, and to what we are doing to make this country safe from terrorism.

Q4. [213430] Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): On behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, may I also send our sympathies to the family and friends of the two very brave servicemen who have lost their lives?

Did the Prime Minister see reports this week suggesting that the Government were going to legalise the IRA? Will he confirm that the Government’s intention is not to make the IRA legal but to make it completely redundant by removing its army council?

The Prime Minister: I hear what the hon. Lady is saying, and I think that she is referring to the report that was done by Lord Carlile. We have no plans to do that at all. We believe that the provisional army council should be brought to an end as soon as possible, and we will work with all parties in Northern Ireland to maintain the stability of the settlement. I praise her party and the other parties that have been involved in making the settlement work.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for setting up a border police service that will protect our borders? Will he add to that an important segment? Some of our troops who have been seriously injured and might therefore no longer be suitable for front-line service want to continue to wear a uniform. They ought to be added to the border police force to protect our borders from terrorism, drug-running and illegal immigration.

The Prime Minister: We have already set up the Border and Immigration Agency, which is 25,000 strong. My hon. Friend is referring to a proposal from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which the Government are happy to consider. The Home Secretary said that at the beginning of this week. The policing Green Paper to be published shortly will look at a number of proposals for policing at the border, including that from ACPO. It will also include other proposals that may not involve structural change. I believe that we must have the strongest possible protection at our borders, and we will provide that. Again, I hope that the Conservative party will reconsider its opposition to identity cards for people coming into this country, because that is one way in which we could protect against illegal immigration.

Q5. [213431] Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Both our parties voted to support the extension of education to the age of 18. In East Devon, that will mean having to find approximately 450 extra places by 2015. The only obvious site available for those students in Exmouth is the recently vacated Owen building on the Rolle college campus site. While the Minister for the South West is broadly supportive of the idea that the building should continue to be used for education, the Minister for Higher Education is of the belief that it should be sold to the highest bidder. In the interests of joined-up government, and if the Prime Minister is genuinely in listening mode, will he meet a cross-party delegation from East Devon to try to break this logjam?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly look at the proposals that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. In his local authority area, there are two new schools; 19 schools have been rebuilt; 390 additional classrooms have been provided; and funding per pupil has risen substantially. There are also 600 more teachers and 1,800 more teaching assistants. That is a Labour Government working, and it would not have happened if we had accepted the Conservative party’s advice not to spend more on education.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): When the Labour Mayor introduced free bus travel for children and young Londoners, it was warmly welcomed, especially by low-income families. Although it makes sense to require young people to carry identification to tackle bad behaviour, does my right hon. Friend know that, due to delays in processing identity cards, increasing numbers of young people are being turned away from buses, and low-income families are being fined for being on buses without identification? Will he use his good offices with the Mayor of London to ensure that that mess is sorted out and that a good policy does not turn sour because of bad administration?

The Prime Minister: I want every child to benefit from the three-year bus pass set up by the previous Mayor, for which the whole of London is grateful. I have been denied the chance to raise the matter with the Mayor since he vacated his seat in this House, but the Transport Secretary will be in touch with him very soon.

Q6. [213432] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): As a Scottish MP, the Prime Minister will have noticed the strong success of the recently reopened railway between Stirling and Alloa, where passenger numbers are currently three times greater than the projected figure for 2011, and the reopened line to Ebbw Vale in Wales is similarly a success story. If reopening lines in Scotland and Wales makes such good economic sense, why has the Department for Transport ruled out, despite the strong social and environmental case, reopening lines in England, such as the line from Lewes to Uckfield?

The Prime Minister: Last year, we said that we want to double the capacity of the existing network, which includes the whole of the United Kingdom. We have invited Network Rail to examine options for supporting further growth, which might include new lines and electrification. The hon. Gentleman will find that Network Rail and the Government are looking at those issues. I also hope that he acknowledges that we have committed £10 billion to increasing capacity over the next five years, which will result in the single biggest increase in capacity for a generation, 1,300 new carriages and funding for major projects in all parts of the country. We are honouring our commitment to the railways of this country, which is why more people are using the railways than at any time since the 1940s.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Next week, the nation will celebrate the 60th birthday of a much-loved national institution. May I, as an eminent sexagenarian, ask my young friend the Prime Minister what action he is taking to ensure that we have not only a better national health service, but the best national health service?

The Prime Minister: We are very proud of our national health service, and we want to make it better in the years to come. That is why we want more access to GP services; that is why have agreed a new contract with GPs; that is why we have been building more hospitals; that is why we are determined to deal with the problems of cleanliness in hospitals; that is why we are employing more doctors and nurses; and that is why we are investing £15 billion over the next 10 years in cures for cancer and other diseases, so Britain can and will remain a world leader. We introduced the national health service in 1948, and I hope that the parties that did not support us then will support us in the future.

Q7. [213433] Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Prime Minister’s script included references to ducking, so perhaps he would like to support the “Birdman” competition off Worthing pier in the first weekend in July.

If the Prime Minister cannot do that, will he consider meeting the operators of seaside arcades, who will not benefit from today’s decision to give help to bingo halls? Many of those gentle gaming machine operators are suffering greatly, while the Government appear to have increased serious gambling by deliberate decision.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may know that I met a delegation of Members of Parliament from seaside towns last week—I am happy to meet representatives from seaside towns. We are determined to bring greater economic prosperity to the seaside towns and resorts of our country, of which we are very proud.

On the specific question, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Minister for Sport is announcing today that the Government intend to consult on whether bingo halls should be permitted to offer additional gaming machines. We will also bring forward to this year the review of stakes and prizes on lower categories of gaming machines. We are determined to do everything that we can to maintain a healthy industry and to make our seaside resorts even more successful in the years to come.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Twenty-four hours ago, a young constituent of mine who suffers from cystic fibrosis had a life-saving double lung transplant. In a year celebrating the 60th anniversary of the NHS, I can think of no better tribute to the NHS or the donor family than saving a life. When will my right hon. Friend be able to come back to the House to report on the work being done by the organ donation taskforce that is looking forward towards an opt-out system?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Any life saved as a result of the willingness of a family, or of someone who is himself losing his life, is something that we should both welcome and celebrate in respect of what has been achieved for a young life. As my hon. Friend knows, cystic fibrosis is one of the most difficult diseases and work is now being done on a cure for it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have proposals to change the system for organ donors. I believe that there is a general welcome in the country for taking further action. At the moment, only about 25 per cent. of the country are carrying donor cards, but according to surveys 90 per cent. believe that they would be prepared to make their organs available. We want to find a way to a better system. There are legal implications in all the proposals. We will come back to the House soon, but all of us will want to do more to save lives in this country.

Q8. [213434] James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): How would the Prime Minister characterise his first year in office—“Casino Royale” or “Temple of Doom”?

The Prime Minister: I have learned in the first year that every day difficult decisions have to be made—education to 18, the lowest waiting lists in history, neighbourhood policing, more people in work than ever before. I am proud of our achievements.

ENDS

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