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

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Nigel Waterson (Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions; Eastbourne, Conservative)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 May.

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the families of Lieutenant Commander Darren Chapman of the Royal Navy, Captain David Dobson of the Army Air Corps, Marine Paul Collins, Wing Commander John Coxen and Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, who are missing, believed killed, following the tragic incident in Iraq on Saturday. We owe them and others who have lost their lives in Iraq a great debt of gratitude and we again pay tribute to the heroism, commitment and professionalism of our armed forces in the service of their country.

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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Nigel Waterson (Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions; Eastbourne, Conservative)

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and join him in his condolences for those tragically killed in Iraq the other day.

How concerned is the Prime Minister that only one in four of the electorate thinks he is doing a good job?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the end, the Government of this country is decided at a general election. There have been three; there was one a year ago. His party lost.

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Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes South West, Labour)

My constituent, Mr. Jonathan Downey, was one of the victims of the 7 July bombings in London. He was killed at the Edgware road station incident. His widow has been in touch with me about a number of issues relating to support for the victims' families. Soon after the event, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor suggested that special compensation would be made available to the families of victims of the London bombings. Is the Prime Minister in a position now to say when that additional help will be made available?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I again express my condolences to my hon. Friend's constituent for the loss of her husband.

I think that there is recognition that the nature of the attack on 7 July was wholly exceptional. For that reason, we have been looking to see what more we can do in terms of additional support for the victims and their families. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be in a position to announce details of that shortly.

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

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the servicemen and women who died in Iraq. They were serving their country.

Three weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister about the crisis in children's hospitals. He said that everything was fine so can he explain why the Minister responsible for hospitals has resigned?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The Minister for hospitals has certainly not resigned, as far as I am aware, in respect of anything to do with children's hospitals. Mr. Cameron did indeed ask me about children's hospitals and I explained that there were issues in respect of the payment-by-results tariff. Discussions are continuing between the hospitals that wrote to the Department of Health, and I hope that those discussions will result in a satisfactory conclusion.

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

Jane Kennedy was the Minister for hospitals and she has resigned. I know that things are bad, but the Prime Minister ought to know who is actually in his Government. She said that the Government's reforms had resulted in the crisis at Alder Hey and her attempts to speak out had been overruled by No. 10.

Last week, I asked about dangerous foreign criminals who were released instead of deported. We were told that there were 79 who had committed serious offences. Then we were told that there were 90. This week we are told that there are 150. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that the number will not go up again?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The number has gone up simply because as the police investigate each of the cases, the details change— [Interruption.] That is perfectly obvious, if one thinks about it for a moment. However, of the 1,000 cases of foreign national prisoners who were part of the backlog that had built up over a considerable time, three quarters have been considered. Almost 600 deportation orders have been given and about 30 deportations are already under way. There are 126 of those people in detention. We will continue to work through the backlog, as I explained before, but I might just state to the right hon. Gentleman that now, as a result of the changes that have been put in place, all cases are considered before release. As I explained to him last week, there is a quite separate issue with which we must also deal, which is, in the end, at the heart of the matter: we need to ensure that those people who are convicted of a serious criminal offence and become foreign prisoners are deported, not retained in this country.

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

If it is all going so well, why did the Prime Minister sack the Home Secretary? After three weeks of investigations, he still cannot tell us how many dangerous criminals who have committed serious offences are roaming the streets? Are not the crises in the health service and the criminal justice system symptoms of a Government who are paralysed? In the past three days, former Ministers have been queuing up to tell the Prime Minister that it is time to go. We have heard from the former Education Secretary, Pensions Secretary, terrorism Minister and local government Minister, and they have all said the same thing. Presumably the Prime Minister appointed them because of their judgment. Why does he think that he has lost their confidence?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

If I can just go back to deal with the two policy issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised— [Interruption.] Well, I know that he is not very comfortable with policy. Actually, because I thought that we might be debating these types of issues, I asked my staff to look up what policies he has. I have found two: one on children's clothes and one on chocolate oranges. Other than that, he does not seem to have any, so I am delighted to have a policy debate with him.

On the health service, in respect of children's hospitals, there is an issue to do with payment by results and the tariff. At a meeting a few days ago we listened to the representations of the four hospitals that wrote to us, and we are satisfied that we can reach a satisfactory conclusion. I might just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we are putting more money into the health service than ever before and getting better results than ever before, but he opposed that additional investment.

I have explained the situation regarding the foreign national prisoners to the right hon. Gentleman. As I said a moment or two ago, for the first time we now have in place a proper system that allows us to consider deportation prior to a prisoner's release. However, as I said last week—I repeat it—in my view, there should be an automatic presumption of deportation for anyone convicted of a serious criminal offence, and I hope that he agrees with that.

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

From that answer we can see that the Prime Minister will not even address the fact that he is losing the support of his party. He lives in a world best summed up by the analysis given to him about his local election results by the No. 10 planning committee. The leaked report said that

"people were angry with Tony because they love him so much, and they are angry because they think he might go".

I think that that is what they call the view from the bunker.

Until a week ago, the Prime Minister was telling us that he would serve a full third term. Why did he change his mind?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It will not surprise the right hon. Gentleman to know that I have no intention of debating that with him—[Hon. Members: "Why not?"] Frankly, there are probably enough lining up to do that already.

What is interesting about this exchange is that policy is the one thing that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about. I agree that it has been a difficult time for the Government, but, in the end, it is policy—policies on the economy, on investment in our public services, on things like the minimum wage and lifting children and pensioners out of poverty, on overseas aid and, yes, on the environment, on which he has already changed the policy he had a few weeks ago—that will determine the fate of this Government and the decision of the electorate at the next general election.

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

The issue of how long the right hon. Gentleman stays in office is of key public interest. I remind him of the clearest pledge that he gave about this issue. He said:

"A full term is a full term and that is what it means".

The right hon. Gentleman said that when he went to Khartoum. Presumably he wanted to see the place where Gordon was murdered— [Laughter.] I am glad that I have put a smile on the face of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Will the Prime Minister unravel a mystery for us? Why does he not trust the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take over the Government now?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

No doubt the right hon. Gentleman has been rehearsing those lines all morning. [ Interruption.] I think so. I thought that it was a little rehearsed.

I simply issue an invitation to debate policy. The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned two—one on the health service and one on law and order—but he is not really prepared to debate those matters. He is not the first Conservative leader either to call for or predict my departure. There were four others, but I am still here, and they are not.

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

There is hardly a politician in this place who is not predicting the right hon. Gentleman's departure. Has not the Prime Minister put himself in a Catch-22 situation? If he sets a timetable for leaving, he has told us that there will be paralysis. If he refuses to set a timetable, his Government will remain paralysed. Is it not becoming increasingly clear that he should go—and go soon?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that kind advice, which I am sure was meant in the interests of me and my party.

It is important for us to deliver our manifesto. That manifesto is about making sure that we keep a strong economy. We have the lowest interest rates and the lowest unemployment for decades. It is about delivering extra investment in the national health service and schools. It is also about improving the minimum wage, maternity pay and maternity rights. Further, as we shall see over the next few weeks, it is about sorting out the pensions issue and energy policy.

There is one difference between me and the right hon. Gentleman. I am here delivering the manifesto on which we were elected. The right hon. Gentleman wrote his party's last manifesto, and now he does not stand by a word of it.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we still have a mountain to climb in terms of getting the right skills for the population? We had the news from Australia just a few hours ago that London has won the bid to host the London skills olympics in 2011. This is a real boost, considering we beat Australia, France and Sweden.

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I congratulate all who managed to win the opportunity to host the world skills competition in London. We won the competition, as my hon. Friend has stressed, against fierce competition from other countries, because over the past few years we have put extra resources into skills education. We have allowed about 750,000 people to get qualifications that they did not previously have. It is the emphasis that we have placed on a skilled work force that has allowed us to make this progress.

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

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy for those who gave their lives in Basra and their families and friends.

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the extent of anxiety and hardship that has been caused in rural areas by the Government's mishandling of the single farm payment scheme?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Yes. Of course we do. That is why, after the chief executive of the agency resigned, we tried to ensure that the money was paid through to people. It will be extremely important to ensure that the changes that have been made over the past few months are kept going so that people receive the payments due to them.

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

The Prime Minister knows that this arises not just from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There istrouble at the Home Office and, judging by today's report from the King's Fund, there is trouble in the national health service. Following the right hon. Gentleman's reshuffle, does he accept that the people of the United Kingdom are much more likely to be motivated by appreciation of the Government's performance than by personalities? Does he accept also that his Ministers will be judged by their achievements, not their preference for him or the Chancellor of the Exchequer? When will the Prime Minister do something about the NHS, about DEFRA and about the Home Office?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We actually are doing something about the national health service. I agree that difficult changes are being put in place— [ Interruption. ]

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Michael Martin (Speaker)

Order. May I ask Members on both sides of the House to settle down?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Difficult changes are being put in place in the health service, but the important thing is that we achieve our target of an 18-week maximum wait not just for in-patients but for out-patients. That is revolutionising the national health service, and it means that people can book an appointment. It builds on the fact that we used to have hundreds of thousands of people waiting more than six months for an in-patient appointment, and we do not any more. People used to wait years for simple operations such as operations for cataracts, but they do not do so now. It builds on the fact that we have about 85,000 extra nurses in the national health service. That is a pretty good list of achievements, and I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to say so.

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Chris Mullin (Sunderland South, Labour)

May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to Amnesty International's publication today of a report on the havoc caused by the trade in small arms? Does he recall that a recommendation of his Commission for Africa was that negotiations should begin on an arms trade treaty by the end of 2006? Will he put his weight behind such negotiations, because I fear that not much will happen if he does not?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The point that my hon. Friend makes is very important indeed. There will be negotiations so that we can achieve a treaty, hopefully at the United Nations General Assembly this autumn. That was raised not just during our European Union presidency but at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We are in touch, too, with all those people in civic society who have led the campaign, and I very much hope that we will secure a treaty that is sufficiently effective to include all the major arms-exporting states. This is not just about constraining illegitimate sales of defence equipment but about tackling illicit and irresponsible transfers, particularly, as he said, of small arms, which do so much damage and tragically kill so many people in Africa.

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Patrick Mercer (Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs; Newark, Conservative)

May I draw the Prime Minister back to an answer that he gave my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron? Last week, he said unequivocally that

"everyone who is a foreign national who serves a prison sentence is automatically deported".—[ Hansard, 3 May 2006; Vol. 445, c. 963.]

A few days later, the Lord Chancellor said that

"unless there are special circumstances we need to think about whether or not somebody who commits an imprisonable offence should be deported."

Can the Prime Minister tell the House who is determining Government policy?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman why the point that he is making is wrong. [ Interruption. ] He asked me, and I am about to give the answer. The fact is, the people who should be deported are foreign prisoners. In other words, they are foreign and they have been in prison. The point that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor made was not that this is about everyone who is convicted of an imprisonable offence, as some of those people may not go to prison, but that everyone who is in prison should be deported. That is why they are called foreign prisoners.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

When preparing for a speech on workers' memorial day at the memorial in Bathgate, I was shocked to find that in 2004-05, 220 workers died in UK workplaces and that there was a 29 per cent. rise in deaths in Scotland to 36. What will the Prime Minister do to reverse the trend since 1998, as the UK index has risen from 100 to 107? In the same period, the index for workplace injuries has gone down to 82 in the European Union.

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I accept, as my hon. Friend implied, that this is a serious issue, although I would point out that fatalities are at a record low, with major injuries down by two thirds since 1974. As he may know, the Health and Safety Commission published a strategy on workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010, and we will make further improvements based on the recommendations in that report. I hope that that will deal with some of the issues that he has raised.

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Simon Burns (Whip, Whips; West Chelmsford, Conservative)

Will the Prime Minister please help to expedite authorisation of the Broomfield hospital private finance initiative scheme in Chelmsford?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

As I understand it, the PFI review team visited the trust in the hon. Gentleman's constituency last week. I understand that it was a successful meeting. A number of financial and contractual issues need to be resolved, and we expect the work to take approximately six months but hope it will have an optimistic conclusion. The scheme is worth £170 million or more, so it is a very important development. I think I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that it will go ahead as quickly as possible, once the remaining issues have been sorted out.

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John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan, Labour)

More than 25,000 people die every year in the United Kingdom from deep vein thrombosis. That is more than from breast cancer, AIDS and road traffic accidents put together. As this is national thrombosis week, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Lifeblood, the thrombosis charity, on raising awareness of this deadly and debilitating disease? Can he tell me what measures his Government will introduce to reduce that alarming number of deaths in our hospitals?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. There are about 25,000 deaths a year from thromboembolism. It is a serious issue, as he rightly implies, that requires comprehensive action. Following the report last year of the Select Committee on Health, the Department of Health established an independent expert working group, which will report to the chief medical officer. Recommendations will be made by the summer, so within the next few weeks we will be in a position to say what more we can do to try and tackle the problem.

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Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative)

A 77-year-old farmer in my constituency fired a warning pellet at a stray dog that was worrying his sheep. A dozen armed policemen in six police cars arrived in his drive, arrested him in front of his terrified grandchildren and detained him in a cell for hours without allowing him to speak. When the Prime Minister said he was tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, was that what he meant?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

For fairly obvious reasons, and with respect to the hon. Lady, I do not know anything about the case that she has raised. How the police respond to a particular incident is for them. I have learned enough about such cases to be wary of commenting on them until the full facts are known.

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Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, Labour)

Given the African Union discussions last week culminating in the Abuja agreement, will my right hon. Friend explain to the House his understanding of the impact of that agreement on the long-suffering people of Darfur, who are of course entitled to the support of the whole international community?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I pay tribute to all who have been involved in the negotiations, particularly the President of Nigeria and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who played a crucial role, with others, in achieving the agreement. I would make two points to my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke. First, it is important that the Government of Sudan end their opposition to the UN force taking over from the African Union. Secondly, we must make sure that in the new force that is deployed, we have sufficient firepower to enable us to ensure that any agreement is properly policed. We are considering the matter urgently, with the United States of America, particularly, and with other NATO partners, to see what more we can do.

The situation in Sudan is very serious indeed. Thousands of people are dying needlessly. It is a classic example of why the Commission for Africa report recommendation about a standing peacekeeping force for Africa is so important. In the end, the problem in such situations is not just humanitarian: unless the opposing sides can be kept apart, which requires military force, it is extremely difficult for humanitarian aid to be effective. We will continue to work hard on the problem.

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Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

This Saturday will be the first anniversary of the massacre in Andizhan of innocent, unarmed civilian protesters by Uzbek security forces. What are the Government doing to ensure that President Karimov and his loathsome regime will be held to account by the international community for that act of butchery?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, the UK was at the forefront in condemning the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force that resulted in that killing. It was under our presidency that the European Union imposed measures such as a visa ban and an arms embargo. We will look at strengthening those EU measures, and we have been sponsoring a United Nations resolution through the European Union. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep up the pressure on Uzbekistan in order to make sure that the human rights situation is changed.

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Rosie Cooper (PPS (Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; West Lancashire, Labour)

As West Lancashire has very little burial space and no crematorium, local people are forced to pay neighbouring local authorities a high premium to use their burial plots or crematoriums. Will the Prime Minister join local clergy and residents in calling on Conservative-controlled West Lancashire district council to meet its moral obligation to allow local people to bury their dead nearby?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I know that that is an important issue in my hon. Friend's constituency. As she knows, local authorities currently have no duty to provide burial grounds, although most do so and planning for burial ground provision is part of authorities' normal strategic duties. We are reviewing the matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will make an announcement shortly.

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Mark Harper (Shadow Minister, Defence; Forest of Dean, Conservative)

On 8 February, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Health and the entire parliamentary Labour party heard me present a petition to the House signed by 6,056 of my constituents to support the Dilke memorial hospital, which was built with contributions from coal miners in the Forest of Dean. Today, we have heard about plans to close the hospital owing to NHS deficits. My constituents receive just £1,128 of health spending per head, while the Prime Minister's enjoy £1,442. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It is fair to point out that funding for West Gloucestershire PCT, which includes the Forest of Dean, has increased by 31 per cent., which is £53 million, and will increase by a further 20 per cent., which is another £50 million, over the next two years. Whatever amount of money we put into the health service, PCTs and hospital trusts must live within their budgets. One thing is absolutely sure—if people vote Conservative and get a Conservative Government, they will get less money, not more, in the health service.

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Betty Williams (Conwy, Labour)

As my right hon. Friend will know, the only way to travel to and from the island of St. Helena is by sea. [ Interruption. ]

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Betty Williams (Conwy, Labour)

At a recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Malta, delegates from St. Helena expressed their gratitude for UK investment, which will enable them to open an airport by 2010, but there are infrastructure problems involving water, electricity and the health network. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any plans by the international community to help the residents of that remote island—

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

When my hon. Friend first mentioned St. Helena, I wondered what was coming in the rest of her question. I am happy to add that important issue to the other issues that I must resolve, but I am not entirely familiar with her point.

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John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon, Conservative)

I offer my support to the Prime Minister on his decision to relieve the Deputy Prime Minister of departmental responsibilities—it is very good for all of us to see nine years of unremitting incompetence finally rewarded. However, I want to go further in my support, because the Prime Minister has been criticised for allowing the Deputy Prime Minister to keep his salary and the vast perks of his office. I am with the Prime Minister, however, because the new arrangement is an improvement: he is right that it is better to pay the Deputy Prime Minister for not running a Department than it is to pay him for running one.

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I remember the hon. Gentleman's Deputy Prime Minister—after his two years in office, the Tories achieved their worst election victory on record. [Hon. Members: "Oh"] The hon. Gentleman remembers Michael Heseltine, who became Deputy Prime Minister and two years later the Tories had the worst election result in their history. This Deputy Prime Minister has presided over three election victories, so I prefer Prezza to Hezza.

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Chris Ruane (PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Office of the Secretary of State for Wales; Vale of Clwyd, Labour)

May I congratulate the previous Tory Government on their £8 million investment in the St. Asaph business park in my constituency in 1990 and on their £2.5 million investment on a flyover for that business park? Before the Prime Minister starts to think that he is dealing with the first Labour defection of this Parliament, may I say that that business park lay empty for seven years under the Tories and that, since 1997, the Labour Government have created 2,700 quality jobs. What measures will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that that economic success continues in my constituency and in the rest of Wales?

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Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

People remember that, in my hon. Friend's constituency and many others, those were the days when interest rates averaged 10 per cent., there were 3 million unemployed— [Interruption.] Oh yes, we do not forget those days. Under this Government, we have 2 million more jobs, the lowest unemployment rate for three decades, interest rates half what they were under the Conservatives and record investment in schools and hospitals. That is why my hon. Friend is right to be proud of his Government.