Engagements
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
11:30 am

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Sally Keeble (Northampton North, Labour)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 March.

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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

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Sally Keeble (Northampton North, Labour)

Will my right hon. Friend come to Northampton to open the new £5 million police call centre funded by the Labour Government, and to listen to the complaints from my constituents, who will not get their new community police support officers because the funds for them have been cut by Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council? Is that compassionate Conservatism or same old Tories, same old cuts?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Yes, we have supported the new Northamptonshire police call centre. As my hon. Friend says, it is a £5 million state of the art facility that will bring better services to the people in her area and others. That is in addition to extra numbers of police and extra community support officers. That is why it is important that we keep up the investment under Labour, not cut it under the Conservatives.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

Everyone in the House will be deeply concerned by what happened yesterday in the Palestinian territories. We understand the extremely difficult situation under which the British monitors were operating at the prison in Jericho, but is the Prime Minister satisfied that the consequences of withdrawing the monitors were properly thought through?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Yes, I am satisfied about that. The question gives me the opportunity to explain to the House and, indeed, to the country that for the past three months we have been warning the Palestinian Authority that the security of the monitors was at risk and that the procedures at the particular detention centre were not adequate and proper. That culminated last week, on 8 March, in both the US and UK consuls-general jointly writing to President Abbas, making it clear that unless the Palestinian Authority met its obligations, we would have to terminate involvement with the mission with immediate effect. So for months we have been warning about that.

Let me emphasise to the House that the monitors are unarmed civilians whose roles is not to do the policing and to make sure that people are properly imprisoned, but simply to monitor that the procedures agreed were being implemented. For a very long time they had been saying that the procedures were not being properly implemented, so the idea that the withdrawal was precipitate, uncalled for or not thought through is wrong.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

I am grateful for that answer. People will also have been concerned by the attacks on the British Council in the Gaza strip. Can the Prime Minister tell us what steps he is taking today to protect British citizens, buildings and organisations that have been working so hard to help the Palestinian people? Can the Prime Minister tell us whether they were given any advance warning to take extra security precautions yesterday?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

On the last point, I am not sure of the precise precautions that they were told to take, but I know that the matter had been discussed extensively with people, precisely because we were concerned about the situation that might arise. Perhaps I could make one other point. The United Kingdom has been immensely generous in the help that it has given to people in the Palestinian Authority area. We will continue to do everything we can to support the Palestinian people, but there is one issue that must be addressed by the Palestinian Authority—that is, security on the Palestinian side. If people want progress towards a two-state solution, which we have championed—an independent, viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel—the security within the Palestinian area is of prime concern. We have done everything we can to support them, but we need some help back from the other side. Incidentally, one other thing I should mention is that another reason for our concern was the recent statement from Hamas following the elections in the Palestinian Authority that it intended to release the particular people in that detention centre. I hope that people understand, therefore, that we could not continue with a situation where wholly unarmed people were put at risk.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

I am grateful for that answer. Specifically on the issue of Hamas, its election victory and the effect on the funding of the Palestinian Authority, do not the events of the past 24 hours reinforce the need to ensure that Hamas abides by the conditions set down by the international community, which are to recognise Israel, abandon violence and abide by all the previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, one of which concerned the running of the Jericho prison?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It is the case that in addition to the bilateral assistance, which in this financial year amounts to some £36 million, we have also supported the €120 million package from the European Union, so we are giving every support of a humanitarian kind to the Palestinian Authority. The only way that we are ever going to get a peace process beginning again in the middle east is if it is accepted that the solution to which the international community is committed—a two-state solution—can be proceeded with only if both sides accept the existence of the other state. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult to see how we can make progress. One thing should be made very clear again: we totally respect the mandate that Hamas secured in the elections. We supported those democratic elections, we support them still. But if it wants our help—both financially and politically—to make progress, it has to be on an understood basis, which means giving up violence, negotiating peacefully and accepting the existence of Israel.

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Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes South West, Labour)

Yesterday in the House of Commons, the Foreign Secretary admitted that he knew that when the UK and US monitors were withdrawn from Jericho, the Israelis would immediately seek to take the prisoners by force, giving the impression across the Palestinian territories of collusion. Given that yesterday the Israeli Government also reiterated their intention unilaterally to seize more Palestinian land by extending the wall, incorporating more illegal settlements into Israel and effectively annexing the Jericho valley, what are the British Government doing now to re-establish their shattered reputation as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am afraid that I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. Let me just explain the circumstances in which we came to do this monitoring function. We did it under what was called the Ramallah agreement, entered into in 2002, whereby people who were charged with serious offences, including the assassination of Israeli politicians, would be kept in the detention centre and we would monitor their detention. The agreement on both sides, with Israel and with the Palestinian Authority, is that the Palestinians would take charge of the detention, but it would be independently monitored by us. That was the agreement brokered. We have kept to that agreement every inch of the way. We have done the independent monitoring. The breach has been because the proper detention procedures were not being observed on the Palestinian side. I stress to my hon. Friend that three months of saying to the Palestinian Authority, including, last week, directly to the president of the Palestinian Authority, "Look, this is a serious situation, you have to act", is evidence of our good faith, not our bad faith. I repeat to my hon. Friend, I think it is important that the message sent out from this country, is that we stand ready to take this process forward and to help in any way we can, but it has to be on the basis that agreements entered into are adhered to by everybody.

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Menzies Campbell (Party Leader; North East Fife, Liberal Democrat)

The Prime Minister will remember that six years ago Mr. Darling then the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, now the Secretary of State for Transport, told the House that his Department should give accurate and complete information about pensions.

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Menzies Campbell (Party Leader; North East Fife, Liberal Democrat)

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer ever gets round to accepting Adair Turner's proposals, it will be some time before I get a pension.

The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also said that if someone lost out because of inaccurate information, the Government should offer redress as a matter of principle. What happened to that principle?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It is partly in recognition of it that we established both the Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme, so that for the first time there will be help for people whose pension schemes have been wound up. I accept and understand entirely the sense of loss, anger and anxiety of those who have lost pensions for which they have paid for many, many years, but we have been asked to give, on behalf of the taxpayer, a £15 billion commitment and we simply cannot do that in circumstances where the reason for the loss is the collapse of the pension schemes themselves.

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Menzies Campbell (Party Leader; North East Fife, Liberal Democrat)

What is the point of an independent ombudsman and a report which makes recommendations when the Government will not accept the conclusions? Does not the Prime Minister understand that if the Government fail to offer compensation it will operate only as a further diminution of public confidence in pensions?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Except that, as I said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, although of course we must and do treat seriously the ombudsman's findings, we are being asked as a consequence of them to give, on behalf of general taxpayers £15 billion-worth of commitment. We simply cannot do that. There is a review of the financial assistance scheme, which may be able to help some people, and we will expedite that review and do it as quickly as we possibly can, but it has to be understood that, in the end, if we were to stand liable for the whole of that loss, it would set a precedent of extraordinary financial proportions for this Government and any other.

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Chris Mullin (Sunderland South, Labour)

As regards the Education and Inspections Bill, how does my right hon. Friend respond to those who argue that a proliferation of foundation schools directly contradicts the advice in last year's White Paper, "Every Child Matters", which calls for schools and other agencies to work more closely together to secure a better education for all our children?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It is precisely because we understand concerns about selection and the possibility of new selection that we have strengthened admissions procedures so that schools have to act in accordance with the code, rather than have regard to it, so that local authorities have the ability to appeal when an admissions policy is breached and so that the admissions forum is strengthened. All those things will mean that, yes, schools will have the freedom and independence we want for them, but within a system of fair funding and fair admissions. I say to my hon. Friend that if people want that strengthened admissions code and procedure, the only way to get it is to vote for the Bill.

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James Paice (Shadow Minister (Agriculture & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; South East Cambridgeshire, Conservative)

The Rural Payments Agency had a target to pay 96 per cent. of farmers by the end of March, which was already 18 months since their last payment. Last week, Lord Bach said that the figure should be more than 50 per cent. Has the Prime Minister any understanding of the anger and financial distress of tens of thousands of farmers who are fending off their creditors because of the Government's incompetence?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Yes, I understand the concern. That is why the Rural Payments Agency is working extremely hard to make up the time and to make sure that farmers receive their payments. But I entirely understand their concern; we are working on the matter as hard as we can.

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Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire Moorlands, Labour)

Everyone in Staffordshire has spoken with one voice to keep Staffordshire ambulance service independent so that it can deliver the fastest response times, save the most lives at the cheapest cost and keep the best-trained community first responders. Further to the Prime Minister's answer to me on 12 October, can he assure me that Staffordshire ambulance service will be able to maintain its uniquely successful management system, rather than adopting the less successful practices of the other west midlands ambulance services?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I understand entirely the case that my hon. Friend and other colleagues from Staffordshire are making. As I understand it, there is a 14-week consultation, led by the strategic health authorities, which will end on 22 March. I can assure my hon. Friend that the outcome of the consultation exercise is not a foregone conclusion. No decision has been made, or will be, until the conclusion of the consultation. I can also assure her that all responses, including hers, will be very carefully considered indeed.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

Is not the real answer to Mr. Mullin that the evidence shows that schools with greater freedom over budgets, pay, staff, buildings, curriculum and admissions achieve better results? Does the Prime Minister agree that everyone who wants to see greater parental choice and less interference by LEAs and independent schools within the state sector should vote for the Bill tonight?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Of course I agree that it is important that schools have the freedom to manage their own budgets, staff, buildings and so on, but on this side, we do not agree that selection between schools is the answer. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on supporting the education legislation tonight, why has he only got a two-line Whip for his Members, and why is he trying to delay the Bill by voting against the programme motion? On 14 December, he asked me to "speed up" the Education and Inspections Bill; on 25 January, he said to me, "Why don't you get on with it?"; in February, he asked for an undertaking that there would be no delay; and this evening, he is going to vote to delay the Bill by voting against the programme motion.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

I'll tell you what: you worry about whipping your side, and I'll worry about whipping mine. I will support the Government's education reforms, but I do not support the undermining of Parliament. Trust schools give businesses, voluntary groups, faith organisations and others the chance to start new schools and to operate existing ones. In the past, the Prime Minister has said that he would like all schools to become trust schools. Is that still his ambition?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Of course I want schools to become trust schools, which is why we are introducing the Bill. [Interruption.] It will be for schools to decide, which is what the Bill says. Let me come back to the right hon. Gentleman's explanation of why he is voting against the programme motion tonight, and what is more Punch and Judy than that? If he wants this Bill to go through—he has said that I should not delay it—why has he not got his Members voting unanimously tonight, and why is he voting against the programme motion? [Interruption.] Well, let me tell him why that is and why he has got a two-line Whip. In the Bill, there is stronger protection against selection, there is a prohibition on interviews for admissions, there is a stronger admissions forum, there are tougher powers for LEAs to intervene in poor and failing schools and there is power for local authorities to give free school meals to all their pupils. Those are all good reasons—no wonder he is hesitating, but we should not.

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David Cameron (Leader of the Opposition; Witney, Conservative)

The Prime Minister is going to need to spend a bit more time talking to his colleagues rather than shouting at me. He is being ridiculous, because he knows that we do not support routine programme motions. We believe in parliamentary scrutiny—I know that the Prime Minister probably cannot even spell those words, but we happen to think that it is important. Why is a Prime Minister with a majority of 70 struggling to explain to his own MPs why we need to reform our schools?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

First, let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's extraordinary contention that he is voting against the programme motion because it is routine to do so. I have here a list of 22 Bills this parliamentary Session in which he has not opposed the programme motion. Why is he opposing the programme motion tonight? He is opposing the programme motion for the same reason he has got the two-line Whip—the reasons why people should support the Bill are to do with equity and fair admissions, which are reasons that he cannot get his side to accept.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

The Prime Minister is aware that I have been campaigning for some time on behalf of my constituents and others who have lost their pensions. Does he agree that those affected are not looking for a handout but their own money back, which they saved on Government advice? Will the Prime Minister give full consideration to the ombudsman's report, which seems to be being dismissed out of hand at the moment? Will he have discussions with the trade union community and Amicus on their European action with a view to finding a solution to this?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Of course, I entirely understand that if people have lost the pension entitlement that they built up over many years, they will be extremely worried and angry about that. The question, however, is the degree to which the Government have to stand guarantor. It is precisely because of the concerns that were raised that we introduced the Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme. The difficulty is that if we end up saying, as the ombudsman would like us to, that we stand surety for all that money, it is a £15 billion bill, and I honestly cannot commit the Government, or any Government, to that.

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Lee Scott (Ilford North, Conservative)

What encouragement will the Prime Minister give to the Ilford, North and Redbridge-based Drugsline Chabad on its 15 years of excellent work in tackling the problems of drug and alcohol abuse? Will he congratulate it on its new pilot scheme involving the Jewish and Muslim communities, showing how that can benefit the entire community of London? Will the Prime Minister please encourage it?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am happy to offer that encouragement and to congratulate it on its excellent work over 15 years; long may it continue.

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Helen Jones (Warrington North, Labour)

As today may be a somewhat challenging day for the Prime Minister, can I cheer him up by suggesting a policy that would be very popular? If he rejects the moves by the big supermarkets to deregulate Sunday trading, he would be supporting families, protecting small businesses, and pleasing the Churches, and he would get the enthusiastic support of Labour Members. Can he think of any reasons for not doing that?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

As my hon. Friend probably knows, the Department of Trade and Industry is conducting a review of the Sunday trading rules. It is right to consider these issues because a great deal has changed in the 12 years since the restrictions were put in place. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is meeting the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers to listen to its concerns. If my hon. Friend wishes to make today less challenging for me, the remedy is in her own hands.