Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 11th January 2006.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before listing my engagements, may I say how sad we all were to learn of the death of Rachel Squire, the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, over the Christmas recess? She was a great servant to her constituents and won the respect of all who knew her for the brave and dignified way in which she fought her long illness. She will be deeply missed.

Although he was no longer a Member of the House, I hope that I can also say how much we are all going to miss Tony Banks. He was an extraordinary character and a unique personality, and I know that he had many friends on both sides of the House.

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 Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Richard Caborn, Minister of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

On the one hand there is the Tory leader of Bassetlaw council who believes that antisocial behaviour orders should be used only as an absolute last resort—he is the kind of man who says that this law is all gimmick—and, on the other hand, there are the hundreds of residents who pack my public meetings on antisocial behaviour and demand zero tolerance of thugs and bullies. I am with the people on this one. Is the Prime Minister, and, if so, will he hold to account those who fail to use fully the powers?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that most people believe that the use of antisocial behaviour orders, the powers to close crack houses and the use of fixed penalty notices have had a huge impact where they have been used properly in local communities, obviously combined with extra numbers of police and community support officers. I strongly urge all local authorities and local police to use those powers to the full. As we made clear with the action plan that we published yesterday, more powers will be available, if needed. They are important, they make a real difference to communities and they are absolutely in line with what local people want.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

May I associate myself with what the Prime Minister said about Rachel Squire? She will be missed on both sides of the House, and she was especially noted for her very good work on defence. I also agree with him about Tony Banks, who had a commitment to sport and a legendary wit, which was often directed at people trying to do my job. Personally, I also have fond memories of Merlyn Rees, the respected former Labour Home Secretary who died recently. Believe it or not, I remember going with him to the Republican party convention in America in 1992. I think he must have been new Labour before the term was properly invented.

The decision by Iran yesterday to break the seals of its nuclear facility has caused widespread concern. What steps does the Prime Minister propose to take to maximise the international consensus on taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me say that there will be a meeting of European Ministers tomorrow when we will discuss how we can take this forward now. The decision by Iran is very serious indeed—I do not think that there is any point in people or us hiding our deep dismay at what Iran has decided to do. When that is taken in conjunction with its other comments about the state of Israel, real and serious alarm is caused right across the world. The meeting will take place tomorrow and we are obviously discussing the matter closely with our American allies as well. A reference to the Security Council is entirely in line with what the International Atomic Energy Agency itself decided some time ago. The only reason why it suspended a reference to the Security Council was because Iran had suspended its enrichment facilities. That is why it is extremely important that we take a fresh look at this now.

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Iran needs nuclear weapons to defend itself. It's a bit late, as well as hypocritical, for nuclear-armed UK and the USA, to say nothing of the USA's nuclear-armed client Israel, to complain about Iran's nuclear ambitions. They should all have thought about that before the launch of the illegal US/UK attack on Iraq, which gave a clear signal to the region that weak states which fail to obey US orders are considered fair game. No-one should be surprised that Iran has drawn the obvious conclusion - acquire nuclear-weapons capacity, or face...

Submitted by Michael McCarthy Continue reading (and 12 more annotations)

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Clearly, if the matter does go to the United Nations Security Council—we hope that it will—one of the issues will be sanctions. The Prime Minister well knows that sanctions in the past have not always been effective in getting countries to comply with their international obligations. What steps will he take to ensure that they are effective in this case?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that the first thing to do is to secure agreement for a reference to the Security Council, if that is, indeed, what the allies jointly decide, as I think seems likely. At that point, we have to decide what measures we are going to take. We obviously do not rule out any measures. It is important that Iran recognises how seriously the international community treats it. However, it is better to go through the process of first having the meetings and discussions, and reaching agreement; we can then set out the measures that we want to take.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am sure that what the Prime Minister says about following the process is right. The aim we all share is non-proliferation. However, is it not the case, as he says, that Iran has not only taken steps repeatedly to acquire nuclear weapons, but has also made the very damaging remarks—threatening remarks—to which he referred, about the future of Israel? Given that, does not that underline the case for stepping up our efforts to encourage pluralism, a civic society and a liberal and progressive culture in Iran itself?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have no doubt at all that when we consider the issues, there are two things that we need to do. First, we have to take immediate steps to protect the security of the world. That is why a potential reference to the Security Council is important. That is absolutely right. Breaking the seals is a very important act. The statements on Israel are important statements, which, I am afraid, indicate a malign intention on the part of the Iranian regime.

Secondly, we have to consider the long-term issue of how we best protect the security of the world. I have no doubt that the best long-term security for us is the spread of freedom, democracy and values that all civilised people share. The important thing about the recent elections in Afghanistan and Iraq is that they dispose once and for all of the myth that democracy is something that western people want, but that those in other cultures do not want. In fact, democracy and freedom are values of the human spirit—they are universal values—and we have learned enough from our international diplomacy over the past few decades to recognise that the only long-term stable partners for countries like Britain, the United States of America and our allies in Europe are those that share our values.

Photo of David Marshall David Marshall Labour, Glasgow East

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive have just launched their bid to attract the 2014 Commonwealth games to Glasgow? Will he replicate the excellent assistance that he gave to the successful campaign to obtain the 2012 Olympics for London and do all he can to ensure that the 2014 Commonwealth games come to Glasgow?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure Glasgow would make an excellent venue for the Commonwealth games. Scottish people are passionate about sport. As we learned from the Commonwealth games in Manchester, they have a unifying impact on the whole country, too. I wish the Glasgow bid well and we will obviously support it in any way we can.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats

And a very happy new year to all hon. Members as well.

May I associate myself with the observations made by the Prime Minister about Tony Banks and Rachel Squire? Tony Banks was a rare talent who enlivened the lives of us all, particularly his Chief Whip. Rachel Squire, who was my neighbouring MP in Fife, was a woman of immense dedication and, latterly, of extraordinary courage. Her constituents have truly lost a champion.

The National Audit Office today reports that 1 million pupils are being failed by our schools. The Health Committee has described the latest proposals for health service reform as ill-judged. The police are up in arms about the Prime Minister's costly proposals for centralisation. Why are the Government making such a mess of public service reform?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me point out what in addition the National Audit Office report says so that we have a balanced discussion of the record over the past eight years. It is correct that it talks about 1 million children not getting the education they need. That is out of a total of almost 8 million. But this is also what it finds: over the past eight years, the number of failing schools has been halved by this Government; the number of schools with serious weaknesses has been more than halved. The number of secondary schools getting below 30 per cent. five good GCSEs has fallen from 900 in 1997 to just 340 in 2005. And the number of good leaders and managers within the schools has risen from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 75 per cent. today.

In addition, all the results at 11, 16 and 18 are better than they were in 1997. In addition, every single health service waiting list indicator, in-patient and out-patient, is better than it was in 1997. In addition, there are record numbers of police, and crime has fallen over the past eight years of this Government. So I think public service reform and investment is doing very well.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats

While the Prime Minister is anxious to achieve some balance in the argument, perhaps he would like to explain why one in five schools do not have a permanent head teacher—[Interruption.]

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats

I just knew that it was going to be one of those days, Mr. Speaker.

When the Prime Minister entered No. 10 Downing street, he rightly abandoned socialism, but has not Blairism become a byword for centralisation and a failure to deliver?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the heads vacancies, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, it can be difficult to find the head of an organisation when the post is vacant, particularly if it is a failing organisation. [Laughter.] If he is in favour of greater devolution of power, presumably he supports our choice agenda in the NHS and our schools White Paper, which gives more powers to schools.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Does the Prime Minister agree that while there has been considerable progress in tackling antisocial behaviour, there are still too many decent people in places such as Hall Green who do not receive proper, prompt assistance when they need it? Far from being a media gimmick, does not the respect action plan recognise those weaknesses, offering such people proper redress and, above all, showing them that we at least are on their side?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think my hon. Friend is right to point out that local communities need those additional powers. Yesterday, we suggested extending the power that is available to shut down houses used for drug dealing so that we can shut down homes that are used for persistent antisocial behaviour. It is important to do so, but it is also right to deal with the underlying causes, which is why we have doubled the number of people who can enter programmes that treat their drug addiction. It is why we have Sure Start and the new deal for local communities. It is important, however, to make sure that those communities have the powers that they need, and that the police and local authorities use them. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—these are not gimmicks, as someone said yesterday, but are vital if local communities are to reclaim order on their streets.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

May I start by welcoming the new acting leader of the Lib Dems? That is something that the Prime Minister failed to do, and I hope that it is not becoming habit-forming. Whether interim or otherwise, those of us who have recently taken part in such contests look forward to watching this one. This year, more than 2 million people are likely to die from AIDS, most of them in Africa. The international community is now rightly committed to ensuring that all HIV/AIDS sufferers have access to treatment by 2010, but will the Prime Minister consider setting interim goals between now and 2010 to make sure that that vital target is hit?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I should, of course, have welcomed Sir Menzies Campbell. I shall give him an even bigger welcome if his position becomes permanent, not temporary. [Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] It would probably be easier if I rejected him entirely. Well, I am happy to do that.

In respect of the AIDS programme, the reason why we have set the target as close as possible—there must necessarily be some discretion—to full coverage by 2010 is that that is the best we believe we can do, building up the programme over the next few years. We are about to increase it massively. The global health fund has just agreed $4 billion for the killer diseases and we want to build up the programme as quickly as possible. It is difficult for me to set targets year by year—[Hon. Members: "What?"]—on behalf of other countries, but in respect of our own programme we are trebling aid to Africa over the next few years. The number of people with HIV/AIDS whom we are helping with antiretroviral drugs and by other means is increasing the entire time, so the UK has an awful lot to be proud of in what it is doing in relation to HIV/AIDS. I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but it is difficult for me to take responsibility for what other countries will contribute, particularly to the global health fund.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am grateful for the answer, but I think the Prime Minister could play a role. The Department for International Development is co-chairing the UN committee that is reviewing the targets. The Prime Minister will know that the last target to help people with HIV/AIDS was catastrophically missed. The target was for 3 million people to have access to antiretroviral drugs by 2005, yet in the event only a million will have received those drugs. Will he look again at the case for setting interim targets, which would make it more likely that the 2010 target will be hit, as we all want to happen?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I say, I am happy to consider that, but for the reasons that I have given, it is difficult for us to start setting precise targets for measures that will include other countries. Let me come back to what the hon. Gentleman said—can we not do more on HIV/AIDS? This country has led the way on overseas aid and development in the past eight years. I remind him that when we came to office, the development aid budget had been falling. The UK was way behind other countries in our profile on overseas aid and development. Thanks to the work that the Chancellor and successive Secretaries of State for International Development have done, this country now leads the way on debt relief and in relation to aid and the treatment of killer diseases. At the G8 summit at Gleneagles, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we agreed a comprehensive action plan, the first of its kind for Africa. So I can assure him that I need no instruction from him or anyone else. We will carry on doing everything we can in order to promote action on Africa, and I am pleased that at long last the Conservative party is joining us in that.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the Cumbria and Lancashire strategic health authority, the number of people waiting between six and nine months has fallen from 7,593 to just 301—a fall of 96 per cent.—since 1997?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is not just for people waiting that length of time that waiting lists have fallen. Waiting lists in the national health service have fallen for every single one of the main indicators. When we came to office, hundreds of thousands of people were waiting on in-patient lists for nine months or for over six months. Those figures have come down dramatically. There is a maximum of six months, and we will go further and get to 18 weeks door to door for both in and out-patient lists by the end of 2008. [Interruption.] I can give the figures for out-patients as well. We have done extremely well in that regard also. When we first came to office, there were 157,000 people waiting for more than half a year on an out-patient list at any one time. Now there is none. There were 97,000 waiting more than 17-plus weeks, and now there are just over 200. There were 338,000 waiting over 13 weeks. Now the figure is 40,000. So there has been dramatic improvement across the range of in-patient and out-patient waiting times. That is the result of the investment and reform programme pursued by the Government and opposed by the Conservative party.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

If the national health service is doing as well as the Prime Minister is trying to persuade us that it is, why does Oxfordshire NHS patient Mr. Mike Collins have to borrow £10,000 to go private and get the heart treatment that he needs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to whatever position he holds. I accept that some people are still waiting too long, which is the reason why we set out a programme over a number of years to reduce the number of people on waiting lists. When we entered office, people were waiting for more than 18 months, but the maximum is now six months, and it will be reduced further. We have been able to do that because of the extra investment and the change. On the reform programme in the national health service, waiting lists began to fall dramatically in London and elsewhere when we introduced the choice agenda. The hon. Gentleman's Liberal Democrat party—let us not be presumptuous; it is not his Liberal Democrat party—has opposed every single change.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but that is what happened. [Interruption.] Then this must be a U-turn, which is good. If he is going to back our reforms, I am going to start backing him rather than the other one. [Laughter.] There is no end to the Liberal Democrat careers that I could sacrifice this afternoon. Where is the third one? The Liberal Democrats have got some hard thinking to do over the next few months.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

Will the Prime Minister congratulate Nottinghamshire county council and Nottingham city council on receiving the award for the best-performing local transport plan in Britain and reward them by making an early decision on the extension to the tram network? We have been waiting for more than a year, and supporters and opponents of the scheme are equally frustrated, so we need a decision.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am looking at the Minister responsible, who no doubt has the reward locked away in a vault. I must get back to my hon. Friend, because I do not know the current position on the tram programme. I will get in touch with him swiftly and remedy that ignorance.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

In October 2004, the Prime Minister rightly praised the staff of the Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust after his operation there. What is his message to staff and patients today, given that 300 jobs have been lost, that Macmillan cancer nurses are being assigned directly to the wards and that the trust has the second largest deficit in England of a massive £37 million?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In all fairness, the hon. Gentleman would want to give the other side of the story: there are almost 4,000 more nurses, 500 more consultants and more GPs in his area since 1997, and there has been a 7 per cent. increase in funding in real terms. I agree that that particular trust has a large deficit, but it is worth pointing out that 4 per cent. of NHS organisations are responsible for 50 per cent. of the overall deficit and that the majority of NHS organisations are in surplus or breaking even. It is correct to look at each organisation that is in deficit to see what can be done. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that obligation applies to not only the Government, but the trusts, which must provide proper financial management.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan PPS (Team PPS), Ministry of Defence

In my constituency, another company, Inventec, has announced that it will transfer its manufacturing facility to eastern Europe, which will result in the loss of some 370 jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree with many hon. Members on this side of the House that British workers deserve more protection when such decisions are made by faceless people who are driven by corporate greed and the exploitation of cheap labour?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I very much regret the job losses at Inventec. Inventec has been working closely with Scottish Enterprise, which is ready to step in with support services for those affected by the change, and the authorities are ready to put together a package of support and help for people who face redundancy. However, it is also important to recognise the huge increase in the number of jobs in Scotland over the past few years. I know that that is no consolation to those who have lost their jobs at Inventec, but we will do everything that we can to help people with retraining and finding new work.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

The Government seem to be content that an increasing number of convicted criminals are escaping a custodial sentence. As he embarks on what may well be his final full year in office, is the Prime Minister bothered that a pensioner with a minimal amount of unpaid council tax is more likely to go to jail than some muggers?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is actually wrong about that. The prison population has risen considerably over the past few years. That is not a particular boast for any Government. People are being given custodial sentences. Sentences are there for the court to decide, and over the past few years there has been an increase in numbers, running into thousands, of people being given custodial sentences. It is also true that detection rates are rising, which is good news.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh PPS (Rt Hon John Reid, Secretary of State), Ministry of Defence

What advice would my right hon. Friend give to parents in my constituency who recently received a leaflet encouraging them to oppose academy schools, which was delivered by Merton Conservatives?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In fairness to Merton Conservatives, Conservative policy changes so quickly nowadays that they may have a little difficulty in keeping up with it. As I understood it, it was the policy of the Conservative leader, at least yesterday, to support the academy programme. I hope that he will intervene with Merton Conservatives and tell them how important it is to have academies, which can offer real opportunities to some of the poorest kids in the inner cities.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

Does the Prime Minister recall telling the House at his previous Question Time on 14 December:

"Obviously, we were not consulted about this matter"—[Hansard, 14 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1296.]

when referring to charges being dropped against IRA members accused of being involved in the Stormont spy ring? As the Attorney-General wrote to the leader of my party on 22 December saying, "I consulted ministerial colleagues", would the Prime Minister now like to come clean about the extent of that consultation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know about the particular element that the hon. Lady is referring to. All I can say is that, as far as I am aware, I certainly was not consulted on whether this prosecution should be dropped. [Interruption.] Well, I have not studied the letter myself, but it has been put in the Library. I will do so, and I will write to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, is publishing a new Bill today on regulatory reform. Trailing that in this morning's Financial Times, he says that it is part of

"one of the most radical regulatory reform agendas in the world".

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that all Government Departments will be actively engaged in this process, as a lot of steps can be taken to improve regulation if that occurs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Bill will make it quicker and easier to remove outdated or unnecessary legislation, but it also makes it possible to implement the Law Commission recommendations. Most of all, as the Chancellor indicated before, we want to take a risk-based approach to regulation, and the Bill will allow us to do that. My hon. Friend will recall that we have introduced regulatory reform legislation before. We have managed to withdraw some regulation under that, but frankly we need to do better, and the Regulatory Reform Bill should commend itself—I hope that it does—to both sides of the House.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury

In his last few months in office, will the Prime Minister look at the grotesque unfairness of the Government grant allocation to local authorities, which sees council tax payers in west Berkshire receiving approximately a third of the amount per head of non-schools grant allocation compared with council tax payers in parts of the north-east of England? Will he explain—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Surely the hon. Gentleman's local authority has received significantly more money in real terms in the past few years. I understand that in, for example, education, there has been an extra £1,320 in funding per pupil in his area in the past few years. [Interruption.] I agree that maybe it should be more—we want to increase the investment in our public services—but I remind him that he fought an election promising to reduce the investment that we were making.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Yesterday, the Prime Minister launched the respect action plan to give communities better opportunities to tackle crime, drugs and antisocial behaviour. Does he recognise that, in Reading, under the dynamic leadership of the local Labour council, supported by Chief Superintendent Dave Murray, excellent progress has been made in cutting crime through the use of antisocial behaviour orders and getting drug-addicted criminals into treatment programmes? How will his respect action plan help us in Reading and throughout the country to do even better?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right that there is a dynamic leadership in Reading that has indeed delivered the action on antisocial behaviour that he describes. The important thing is that the powers that we outlined yesterday build on that. For example, they extend the ability to give fixed penalty notices and there are tougher actions for homes that are used for antisocial behaviour and for antisocial behaviour especially by younger kids. He is right that, in Reading and other areas, which I have seen for myself recently, such as east Manchester, Harlow and Swindon yesterday, where local authorities, local police and local residents use the powers, they make a real difference. Anybody who believes that they are simply a gimmick or knee-jerk populism should go to those areas, hear what local residents say, see the difference that they have made and recognise that they are a major part of an agenda for restoring community life in this country for the time in which we live, and allow local communities to put the law-abiding citizen, not the criminal, at their heart.