Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 12th October 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Baron John Baron Shadow Minister (Health) 11:30 am, 12th October 2005

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 October.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our sympathy and support to all the countries and people affected by the earthquake in south Asia. The greatest loss of life and damage appears to be in Pakistan, where tens of thousands are feared dead and millions are homeless. At the moment, we know of no British citizens among the casualties, but there will of course be many families in this country who have lost relatives or friends, and they are in our thoughts. The House will want to know that Britain is playing its full part in the international aid effort, and I am able to announce that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will commit a further £10 million today in response to the United Nations Flash appeal and to support the wider relief effort. We will continue to respond as needs unfold.

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.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Shadow Minister (Health)

The Prime Minister will be aware that there is growing concern about the Government's proposed offence of inciting religious hatred, in that it could, and will, stifle our freedom of expression and is unnecessary. Will the Prime Minister allay those fears by doing something that his entire Front Bench has been unable to do so far—define the term "religion" and provide just one example of an act that would be caught by that legislation that could not be caught by existing legislation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Obviously, incitement to racial hatred is already a crime. The reason for this legislation is that the problem with incitement to religious hatred not being a crime is that there can be people against whom hatred is incited who may be of one religion but not of one ethnic grouping. That is the reason for it. If, for example, people incite hatred against Muslims, that may not be against an ethnic grouping but it is against a religious grouping. That is the reason for the introduction of the measure. I understand the concerns and it is important that we take account of them, but I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that before any prosecution is launched there will have to be the consent of the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions. What this is aimed at, as with incitement to racial hatred, is not people making jokes about race, religion or anything else; it is against those who are going out to stir up divisions in our community in a way that is deeply unhelpful to community relations. Just as we obviously must take careful account of the objections that have been made, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also take account of the opposing point of view.

A

Tony Blair would rather put immigrants before British citizens. July 7th was waiting to happen it was only a matter of time. Im suprised it didnt happen sooner/

Submitted by Andrew Thomas Read 2 more annotations

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central

I congratulate the Government on their swift and effective response to the devastating earthquake in south Asia. Access is still difficult to the most remote communities affected in Pakistan. Can my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government are doing to provide greater helicopter support to ensure that relief supplies reach those communities? I have spoken to many leading relief agencies working in Pakistan and they have highlighted the desperate need for mobile medical units and field hospitals with surgical facilities. What is my right hon. Friend's response to that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are chartering helicopters and will make arrangements to get them to the affected regions so that they can help both the UN and the Red Cross. As I mentioned a moment or two ago, in addition to that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will announce a further £10 million-worth of help, on top of the £2 million already offered, in response to the UN Flash appeal. We shall continue to do everything we possibly can. Once again, let us reiterate that people in the affected area and also their relatives in this country are in our thoughts and prayers at this time.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I join the Prime Minister in offering our profound sympathy to all those affected by the terrible disaster that has struck south Asia. It is not just a disaster for south Asia; it is a British disaster, too. Thousands of British people may have lost generations of their kith and kin, and our hearts go out to them.

I join Mr. Sarwar in congratulating the Prime Minister on the speed of the British response. He will be aware that a disaster of this kind always poses real challenges in co-ordinating the aid effort. Can he tell us more about that and, in particular, about the way in which the British contribution is being co-ordinated?

After the floods in Mozambique five years ago, concerns were expressed about the co-ordination between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, in the past half hour in the House, similar concerns have been expressed about such co-ordination in Darfur and Afghanistan. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that there is proper communication and co-ordination of their efforts in the current emergency in south Asia?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that I can give the right hon. and learned Gentleman that assurance. There is close co-operation now between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, the Foreign Office. We sent a team of people to co-ordinate our effort almost immediately the earthquake happened—and, by all accounts, they are doing a superb job. In addition, of course, what is important is that we give the maximum help to the UN effort. Part of our help is obviously in cash or in the provision of the tents, blankets and so on that we are sending, but part of it is also to boost their own capability on the ground. Our people have very good experience of that, and I understand, certainly from all the accounts that I have had, that they are doing an excellent job. As far as I am aware, there is no problem with co-ordination in that respect.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

As the Prime Ministers knows, we fully support the Secretary of State for International Development's proposals for an enlarged central emergency fund, but the fund already exists, although apparently it is not being used. The Secretary of State said this morning that the reason for that is that people are worried that it might not be replenished. Well, with great respect to the Secretary of State, that is not the most compelling answer. Can the Prime Minister tell us why that fund has not been used and what representations the British Government are making to ensure that it is used without delay?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend has just said to me that the reason that the fund has not been used is that it has been too small. That is not because of a lack of British contribution or British effort, incidentally—we are putting an immense amount of effort into UN relief around the world. However, this is obviously something that is being looked at by the UN and other Governments. I have to say that, in this instance, my understanding is that the UN is doing everything that it possibly can to help. When I spoke to the President of Pakistan over the weekend, I did not simply express our condolences—I said that we would give any additional help that we could. I think that the Pakistani Government know that all they have to do is ask and we will deliver whatever we possibly can.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

On an important local issue, the Prime Minister will know why Staffordshire ambulance service is the best in the country. Can he assure me that its merger with poorer-performing ambulance services in the west midlands will not cost the lives of my constituents?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The purpose of the review is obviously to ensure that the ambulance services work as well as they possibly can, and that includes a proposal to move to a single ambulance service for the west midlands. Obviously, we must look at all the consultations and representations that are made to us, but in the end the review is not cost driven, but efficiency driven, and we must try to ensure that we have the most effective proposal to deliver decent ambulance services to people in the midlands and elsewhere.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Obviously, I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy that the Prime Minister and the current leader of the Conservative party have quite properly made—[Interruption.]

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Very proper expressions have been made about the terrible events that have happened as a result of the earthquake. The statement that the Secretary of State for International Development made to the House when we reconvened was very warmly welcomed, and we pay tribute to the work that he and his officials are doing in those most difficult circumstances.

Returning to the Prime Minister's present legislative proposals, which involve imprisonment without charge for 90 days, it seems to be absolutely clear that there is no consensus within the Government on this measure. What exactly is the view of the Attorney-General about it? Are the reports that we have read that he remains unpersuaded correct, or is this just going to be another occasion when the Attorney-General's internal views go unreported to the House?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No—those views appear to have been quite extensively reported at least. There will be different views on this issue in political parties and across the House. What I have to try to do—and I am going to try to do it, if I can, in a spirit of reaching consensus on the issue—is to take the proposals that have been made by the police, lay them out before people and then have a debate about whether they are a sensible way to proceed. I have to say that, for the reasons that the police have given, I have found that their request for this power is absolutely compelling. I have to try to do my best to protect people in this country and to make sure that their safety and their civil liberty to life come first. That is what I am going to try to do.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

If the Prime Minister is serious about looking at sensible alternatives, surely he should look at the rest of his proposed legislation. The Terrorism Bill, as published, will create serious new offences and, for example, offences that we have argued for and that the Government are now supporting, such as that on acts preparatory to terrorism. That will enable suspects to be detained for the existing 14 days. In such circumstances, why does the Prime Minister remain so wedded to the proposal for 90 days? Surely it is wrong; surely he is going to have to back down.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The reason that I remain wedded to that proposal is that the people who are in charge of fighting terrorism in this country—in particular, the senior police officer in charge—say, for reasons that I find personally absolutely compelling, that it is necessary to have that power to protect the public.

It is not a matter of mystery why we are putting the proposal forward. It was originally put forward by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and it is now being backed by the chief police officer in charge of fighting terrorism in this country. He set out his views in a memorandum, with examples, last week. I have said that I found them compelling. Let us have a debate about the strength or otherwise of the proposals, but I believe that the case is convincing.

The reason that the chief police officer gives is also very clear. The particular nature of this type of terrorism means that very often the police will have to arrest people relatively early in the conspiracy to cause terrorist offences. Therefore, the police will need a longer period of detention to get the evidence necessary to charge those people properly. That is the reason the police give. Rather than allegations of whether we are backing down or standing firm, we should debate the substance of the proposals, consistent, I hope, with the understanding right across the House in the aftermath of 7 July, when more than 50 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks and consistent with our obligation to do our level best to protect the citizens of this country.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Last Friday, Balfour Beatty was fined £10 million for sustained industrial negligence leading up to the Hatfield rail crash that killed four people, injured 102 and, according to Mr. Justice Mackay, had put 750,000 lives at risk. Afterwards, one of those who had suffered as a result of Hatfield said that the company had been driven by greed and profit margins, not by concern for people's lives. My right hon. Friend is apparently determined to impose this private contracting culture on the national health service. Will he think again?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is right that we should do everything we can to reduce waiting lists and waiting times, and we have done so with immense success. Let us remember that before the Government came to power, waiting lists rose by about 400,000; they have now fallen by more than 300,000. That is a result, in part, of the reforms and changes that we have put through.

I also have to say to my hon. Friend that we have used the private sector for generations in the construction of hospitals. What we are trying to do is make sure that we get proper value for money, and that when we deliver new hospital projects they are on time and on budget. Actually, with the private finance initiative we have found that they have been.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister will not be surprised to hear that I agree with him about the use of the private sector in public services. He said a fortnight ago that every time that he had ever introduced a reform, he wished, in retrospect, that he had gone further. Who stopped him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is always important, with any reform, that we test it very carefully, and that is what we have been doing. As a result of the reforms, I am pleased to say that we have the best school results that we have ever had. Hospital waiting lists and hospital waiting times are falling. We are reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. All that is a result of the investment and reform that were put through by this Government and opposed by the Conservative party.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question: who stopped him from going further in his reforms? I will give him a clue—two words; three syllables. I will give him another clue. Who said that when it comes to the public services, the user of the service is "not sovereign"? So, who was it that stopped him from going further in his reforms? Why does he not come clean and tell us?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The very reason we are going further is because the experiments that we have put through and the tests that we have implemented have shown that reform works. As a result, there is not merely extra money going in. For example, when we came to power, people used to wait two years for their cataracts treatment; now, they wait three months. When we came to power, barely 50 per cent. of children got the right test results at 11; now, the figure is 75 per cent. We used to have a situation in which most of the stock in the national health service—the actual buildings—was built before the health service was started, but over the next few years, as a result of reform, the private finance initiative and also investment, we are going to renew the national health service stock. Yes, we are going to take these reforms further—that is because they work. They work in good combination with the investment produced by the strongest economy that this country has seen.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Two questions asked, none answered. Let me ask the Prime Minister about a specific example. Yesterday, he talked about extending reform in education. Will he now guarantee to offer all parents the choice and freedom that his city academies offer only a few?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will certainly be extending choice and opportunity for parents in the education White Paper, although the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to watch for the details when the White Paper is introduced. Let me make this point to him: there can be no choice unless we also put in the investment to create better schools.

When we came to power again—[Interruption.] This is important because of the change that has happened in our education system. There were significant numbers of London boroughs in which, on average, fewer than 25 per cent. of children were getting five good GCSEs. Today, no authority has a figure below 40 per cent. We used to have a situation in which only 30 schools in the whole of London got more than 70 per cent. good GCSEs, but now almost 100 schools achieve that. That is the difference that we are making. Choice cannot be introduced simply by a choice mechanism—it must go alongside investment, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed every penny piece of that investment. If he wants to lecture me about reform, perhaps he will come to the Dispatch Box to say that he was wrong to oppose the investment.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Yet a third question not answered. We agree with the need for investment, but have always said that investment has to be accompanied by reform. The Prime Minister has not engaged in real reform. Is not his tragedy this: when he had the authority, he did not use it? In the past eight years he has been timid; now, he is just weak.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he supports the investment, but he voted against it.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is precisely what we are doing, so why is the right hon. and learned Gentleman not supporting it? He says that he supports investment and reform, yet he opposed the investment. He says that he supports reform, but the payment-by-results system that is being introduced was opposed by his shadow health spokesman just yesterday.

Let us be clear. The Conservatives do not support the investment or the reform. Why? Because in their 18 years they ran down public services and were only ever interested in public services for a few people at the top. It is this Government who are delivering decent public services for all our people. That is the difference between a strong Labour Government and a Conservative Government who never cared for anyone but a few at the top, and never will.

Hon. Members:

More, more.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My constituent, John Packwood, spent 11 months in a Spanish jail before being extradited to Morocco without even a prima facie case against him. He now finds that he has no entitlement to consult an English lawyer. Thankfully, with great compassion and understanding, Mr. Mohamed Lididi, of the Moroccan Ministry of Justice, has agreed that he may do so on this occasion. Will the Prime Minister lend his support to ensure that any British subject is in future entitled to consult a British lawyer?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Obviously, I know nothing about the individual case and there is no point in trying to comment on it. To be frank, I am not sure offhand what the procedures are for people who need to consult British lawyers. I am perfectly happy to look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. Had he given me advance notice of his question, I might have been able to work out a better reply.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's record investment in affordable housing is transforming the lives of thousands of people? However, too many families in Hackney are still unable to move into family sized accommodation. Recent research by Shelter shows that eight out of 10 of those families are concerned about the impact that that has on their children's education. Does he agree that we need to build more family homes for those families that are trapped in small flats?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I do. It is why the London Housing Board is putting more of its £1.7 billion affordable housing budget into building homes of three bedrooms or more. My hon. Friend is right that it is a real problem, especially for people in London and the south-east. Again, it is only if we are prepared to take the measures both on building more homes and on supporting affordable homes that we will resolve the problem. [Interruption.] It is all very well for the Opposition to shout that they are concerned about this, but they oppose the development of extra housing, which is a necessary part of dealing with the problem in London and the south-east.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs; Treasury), Leader, Scottish National Party

Can the Prime Minister explain how it is possible for the House to have full confidence in new terrorist legislation when existing anti-terrorist legislation is used inappropriately to detain 82-year-old pensioners at English holiday resorts? Can he also explain how it is possible to have confidence in the justice system when thugs who manhandle such pensioners are neither detained nor arrested, but apparently escape with impunity?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We should debate the terrorist law on a sensible basis. We know that people in our country and around the world want to commit serious terrorist offences here, and we had a serious terrorist attack in the centre of London. Therefore, it is not surprising that we are debating how we protect our citizens better. All I am saying is let us have that debate based on the facts. We should at least take account of the fact that the senior police officer in charge of anti-terrorist activity says that our law is defective and has made what I think are reasonable proposals to change it. Let us debate those on a sensible basis.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

October is breast cancer awareness month. Women across the country have been heartened by the much improved survival rate figures recently reported by Cancer Research UK. Those are mainly due to early and better access to screening, but that life-saving facility is available only to women over 50. Will my right hon. Friend consider making that available to women in their 40s as well?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We do. Obviously, we have brought down the age limit, as my hon. Friend knows, which has had a big impact. It is worth pointing out that over the past 10 years long-term survival from breast cancer has improved dramatically in this country, which is the tremendous result both of the good work by doctors and nurses and of investment and earlier screening. My hon. Friend is right that we must consider how we can take this further. We must do so according to advice given to us about its appropriateness and how we best use resources for the health service. There is no doubt, however, that as a result of screening earlier we have saved lives. That is a testament not just to the good work of people in the national health service, but to the programme of investment and reform.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

The Prime Minister will welcome the recent success of the Assets Recovery Agency in targeting properties purchased in the Manchester area on behalf, it is believed, of senior members of the Provisional IRA. That is further evidence of their ongoing criminal activity. Will the Prime Minister give the Assets Recovery Agency the necessary resources to recover all the IRA's criminal assets, including the £26 million that it stole from the Northern bank, and will he ensure that every step is taken to bring an end to IRA criminal activity?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We obviously support strongly the work of the Assets Recovery Agency, and it is important, particularly in light of the significant and welcome report by the Decommissioning Commission, that we make it clear that there is no activity of any nature—not simply paramilitary activity, but criminal activity—that is acceptable. It is not acceptable on the republican side, and it is not acceptable on the so-called loyalist side either. The only way that we will manage to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again, as I know the hon. Gentleman wants and as I want too, is if everybody understands that it is not just terrorist campaigns that must cease—it is deeply welcome that they have done so—but all criminal activity that must cease. There cannot be any ambiguity about that.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Labour, Alyn and Deeside

I thank my right hon. Friend and the Government for the tremendous support that they have given the Airbus A350 project, which will create and safeguard thousands of jobs in north Wales and the UK. Will he give the same level of support to the European Trade Commissioner and his difficult but vital talks at the World Trade Organisation, which will shape the future of the civil aviation industry in this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Commission has rightly made it clear that it will defend Airbus launch investment robustly in the World Trade Organisation talks. I thank my hon. Friend for what he said. The launch aid for the A350 has obviously been extremely important in providing high-quality skills in our country, and it is important for the future of our manufacturing base. Airbus is a good example of European co-operation, and it has made a huge difference to the strength of the European economy. I expect that 20 or 30 years ago the idea of a European consortium challenging Boeing would have been considered far-fetched, but today such a consortium does so right around the world with considerable vigour and skill.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Deputy Chairman (Candidates), Conservative Party

Last month in Finchampstead in my constituency, two youngsters, Steven Bayliss and Twood Nadauld, were cruelly murdered by knife. It would be wrong for the Prime Minister to comment on the specific case because it is sub judice, but would he reflect that it would be wise to restore full stop-and-search powers to the police?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We keep all police powers under close review. It is important, particularly in the context of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, that we take whatever measures we can. I shall certainly pay close attention to the details of that case as it proceeds, but there is an opportunity for us to debate these issues when dealing with that Bill. My general predisposition, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is that if the police desire additional powers, they should be given to them. There are many other issues that go along with stop and search that we must weigh carefully in the balance, but we should do everything that we possibly can to ensure that tragic incidents and crimes, such as the one that affected his constituents, are not repeated.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

May I welcome the Government's commitment to tackling the issue of women's pensions? However, only 16 per cent. of retired women have a basic state pension in their own right, because they are not properly credited in the national insurance system for their years of caring for children and older relatives. Will my right hon. Friend commit to a change that will ensure that carers come into the pension system in the near future on the same basis as workers, because that is only fair?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will look at the matter in the context of the Pensions Commission report. My hon. and learned Friend has raised a valid point, but it is worth pointing out that some 1.3 million women have been lifted out of absolute low income and some 700,000 women have been lifted out of relative low income because of the approach that we have adopted over the past few years. Two thirds of those who are entitled to the pension credit are women, half of whom are over 75, and almost all of the 2 million carers who will benefit from the second state pension are women. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that we must examine how to go further, but those of my hon. Friends who were in the House at the time will remember the years when pensioner poverty was a constant theme. Although we must do more, the worst aspects of pensioner poverty have been tackled as a result of the policies pursued by this Government.