First of all, Mr. Speaker, welcome back.
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending condolences to the family of Lieutenant Richard Palmer of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. He was doing an essential job for the security of the region and the wider world. We owe him and others who have lost their lives a tremendous debt of gratitude, and we pay tribute to their dedication and to their courage.
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.
Now that everyone has suddenly gone green, will the Prime Minister report on progress in achieving consensus on the Government's climate change levy, which reduces carbon emissions by 14 million tonnes every year?
The climate change levy will be responsible for over a quarter of the total expected UK emissions since 1990, so it is of vital importance. It is completely inconsistent for anyone to say that they care about reducing CO 2 emissions but oppose the climate change levy. May I point out that this country will not merely meet its Kyoto targets but meet them by double the amount?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and welcome back. May I start by agreeing with the Prime Minister about Lieutenant Richard Palmer, who died serving his country? Many people will have heard the moving tribute from his father, and we should recognise the family's courage too.
The heads of four children's hospitals, including Great Ormond Street, have warned that vital specialist children's services may be lost this year. They have been battling to get that message through to the Department of Health for 18 months. Why does the Prime Minister think that that has happened?
There is a negotiation over the tariff. There is a single tariff in the payment-by-results system throughout the NHS, which is a necessary part of the reform. All those four hospitals have received a very substantial increase in funding over the past few years—that has led to extra numbers of nurses and consultants—but it is important that they, like everyone else in the health service, live within their means. I have no doubt at all that the negotiation over the tariff will continue in subsequent years.
These hospitals have told us that that they will have to make deep cuts, and anyone who knows about them, including Great Ormond Street, knows that they have to deal with complex and difficult cases. Is not this just a case of mismanagement?
Let me turn to another example of mismanagement. The Chancellor's guru, Derek Wanless, has admitted that a far higher proportion of the increase in spending on the health service has been swallowed by staff costs than he intended. The contracts for GPs and consultants have turned out to be much more expensive than the NHS expected. Who is to blame for that piece of mismanagement?
I do not accept that GPs, nurses or consultants are overpaid. [Interruption.] I am very pleased that there is a difference between the two political parties. Incidentally, it is nonsense that lots of GPs are earning £250,000 a year—the actual average is under £100,000—but it is true that our GPs are now the best paid in Europe. I think that that is good. It is true that we have increased nurses' pay—I think that that is also good. It is also true that as a result of the dedication of nurses and doctors we are reducing waiting times in the health service, reducing waiting lists and improving cancer and cardiac services. May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that overall the proportion of money spent on pay in the national health service has not risen in the past eight years but fallen?
If the Prime Minister thinks that those contracts were well negotiated, he is the only person in Britain who does. Why has Professor Aidan Halligan, who is the nation's No. 2 doctor, said that the NHS suffers from "a leadership void", that it is "rudderless" and that
"real reform has been a deceit"?
He has spent years in the Department of Health, so why does he say those things?
If that is what he has said, I entirely disagree with him. The right hon. Gentleman has said that there is a great mystery about what has happened to the money that has gone into the NHS, so let me tell him where it has gone in his area. In 1997, more than 10,000 people in the Thames Valley strategic health authority area waited more than six months; today, the figure is 12. In 1997, more than 2,500 patients waited longer than 13 weeks for their out-patient appointment; today, the figure is none. There are also 3,000 more nurses, 162 more GPs—no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will tell them that they are paid too much—and 400 more consultants. A £155 million private finance initiative scheme is under way to relocate services provided at Radcliffe infirmary; there is a £112 million scheme to provide cancer services; £29 million has been allocated for the expansion of cardiac services; and £37 million has been provided for the redevelopment of the Nuffield orthopaedic surgery. The money has gone on cutting waiting lists and waiting times, improving cancer and cardiac services and providing more nurses and doctors. It is money well spent, and every penny piece of it was opposed by the Conservative party.
If the Prime Minister wants to come to my constituency, he is welcome. I will take him to Moorview hospital for the mentally ill, which is earmarked for closure under his Government. Perhaps he will explain to the staff and the patients why it will be shut. He could spend some time trying to find an NHS dentist, although he would have more luck looking for Lord Lucan riding on Shergar.
It is not only top doctors who have made such points, but Britain's most senior nurse, Beverley Malone, who has said that
"the Government is in denial" and that
"patients are suffering and nurses are losing their jobs".
The truth is that jobs are being lost because of Government mismanagement and a failure of leadership. Did he not begin his prime ministership by promising 24 hours to save the NHS? Why is he ending it presiding over the biggest administrative chaos in the NHS's history?
What ridiculous nonsense: 50 per cent. of the deficit is in 7 per cent. of organisations, which should suggest, even to the right hon. Gentleman, that the majority of organisations are in surplus or breaking even. No matter how much money is put in, it is important that there are proper rules for financial accountability, which we are introducing. It is absurd to say that the NHS has not improved. For example, look at what has happened to cardiac care in the past few years, because many people used to die while waiting for heart operations. When we took office, people used to wait for an average of a year—some people waited for two years—to get a cataract operation, but the wait is now less than three months. The right hon. Gentleman has talked about nurses, and there are almost 190,000 extra front-line staff in the NHS today who are better paid than ever before. Whatever happens, the Labour party believes in building up the NHS; the Tory party believes in undermining it.
Can the Prime Minister seriously consider an attack on Iran on the ground that it continues to develop dual-use enriched uranium, when India, which, unlike Iran, has never signed the non-proliferation treaty, has just been given the go-ahead by the Bush Administration to advance its fast breeder nuclear reactor programme, which is ideally suited for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons? Will my right hon. Friend give the House an absolute assurance that he will not support any attack on Iran?
First, I support the arrangement between the United States and India, which is a very different proposition from Iran. Secondly, I have said consistently that Iran is not Iraq and that nobody is talking about a military invasion. However, I must say to my right hon. Friend that when the President of Iran is talking about wiping Israel off the face of the earth and when young people are signing up to be suicide bombers directed at US, UK and Israeli targets with at least the tacit acceptance of, and possibly at the instigation of, the Iranian regime, this is not the time to send a message of weakness.
Staying on the issue of Iran, the Foreign Secretary has said that military action against Iran would be inconceivable and that to use nuclear weapons would be nuts. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?
As I said a moment or two ago and have said constantly, nobody is talking about a military invasion of Iran or military action against Iran. We are taking diplomatic action through the United Nations Security Council. I repeat to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what I said to my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher a moment or two ago. Let us be quite clear about what is happening and the reason why Iran is in the news headlines. It is because it is in breach of its international obligations and not co-operating properly with the International Atomic Energy Agency. I would have thought that this is the moment for the world to send a clear and united message to the Iranian regime that it has to desist from that and, in particular, to desist from helping and financing terrorist activities around the world and get back into line with its international obligations.
As I said, nobody is talking about these things. In respect of the President of the United States, let me just say this. The President of the United States is not going to take any option off the table—neither, incidentally, do I suspect that any President of the United States would at this moment in time. That is perfectly sensible for all the reasons that have been given many, many times by the President himself. However, we are actually pursuing a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran. That diplomatic solution is now being taken forward in the UN Security Council. There will be a report back by Mr. el-Baradei, I think within the next couple of weeks, and then the UN Security Council has got to sit down and work out what action to take. But it is important that we take action if Iran continues to be in breach of its obligations.
Labour councillors in Portsmouth wanted pensioners to have free bus travel at all times of day, but the Tories and the Liberal Democrats voted together to offer free off-peak bus travel or free parking vouchers. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is an example of both Opposition parties displaying chamaeleon qualities by pretending to be green but in fact promoting more use of private cars?
It will come as no surprise that I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. From this Saturday, those aged 60 and over and disabled people will be entitled to free local off-peak bus travel within their local area. That will benefit 11 million people. In addition, the Budget set a commitment for free off-peak national bus travel for every pensioner and disabled person from April 2008. I have no doubt at all that my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is another good reason for voting Labour.
According to Government figures, 72 per cent. of housing development is now on brownfield sites, but is the Prime Minister aware that two thirds of that figure is accounted for not by brown land but by beautiful, green, environmentally important gardens? Will he join with colleagues on both sides of the House to support my Bill to change the definition of brownfield sites to exclude gardens?
Of course, the figure of more than 70 per cent. is well up on the figure of just over 50 per cent. that we inherited, according to the same definitions. I know that the Bill has been tabled for Second Reading on
It must surely have worried every sane and sensible person that yesterday Hamas not only refused to condemn the attack in Tel Aviv, but effectively condoned it. How can the Prime Minister see a way forward so that we can ensure that poverty is tackled in the Palestinian Authority and that civil society is built up, but make it clear that we do not support those who support terrorism?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. We will continue to give the humanitarian assistance that we and others have been giving to the Palestinian people. I think that I am right in saying that Britain is the second largest, or even the largest, bilateral donor to the Palestinian Authority. We will continue that humanitarian help. I hope very much that Hamas realises that those who kill innocent people in this way, by the type of attack that has happened in Tel Aviv, are wicked and irresponsible, but more than that, that they do absolutely nothing to further the process of peace in the middle east or the two-state solution that we all want to see, which is an independent, viable Palestinian state and a secure state of Israel. The only way to do this is through peaceful negotiation.
As the Prime Minister prepares to help the police with their inquiries, does he feel that it was ill judged to have accepted a £2 million loan from one of his Ministers? Does not that represent a clear and ongoing conflict of interest for the Prime Minister? Did he declare that interest to his Cabinet Secretary? Does he not agree that the whole thing stinks, and that it is about time that he gave the £2 million back to Lord Sainsbury?
Will my right hon. Friend revisit the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to try to prevent the kind of electoral abuse that is occurring in Barnsley, where a group of candidates are standing in the local elections as so-called independents, despite the fact that they have registered as a political party? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the electorate are being misled?
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point, but it is also worth paying tribute to what Barnsley council has been doing. It is in the middle of a multi-million pound redevelopment of its town centre and it is investing more than £1,000 a year more per pupil in education. It has also cut crime, particularly domestic burglary and the theft of motor vehicles, by a significant amount in the Barnsley area, so it is doing an excellent job with the resources that it is being given.
The closure of the Ryton plant will be a desperate blow to the 2,300 workers and their families. Does the Prime Minister agree that, once a company has made that kind of decision, the money is best spent not on trying to save old jobs but on training people for new ones? Will he work with the Conservative leaders of Coventry, Rugby and Warwickshire councils to provide the necessary training and other help for those who are losing their jobs?
First, I express my sadness at the announcement of the closure of the plant and my sympathy to all those people and their families who are affected. We now have a very well tried and well tested set of arrangements for dealing with situations such as this, in which we work with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure that we do our level best not only to find alternative retraining and jobs for those who are displaced by news such as this, but to develop the economy of the region concerned. When such bad news hits the British car industry, however, it is important to recognise that, over all, the industry remains strong, with more than 200,000 jobs, and that it earns about £10 billion a year for this country. However, none of that can take away the dismay at the loss of so many jobs.
But the news comes at the same time as the fact that manufacturing output is now lower than when Labour came to power. Companies are struggling to pay higher national insurance contributions, to repair the damage done to pensions by the Chancellor's tax raid, and to cope with the highest tax burden in British history. All these things are making Britain less competitive. In the long-term interests of the work force at Ryton and elsewhere, will the Prime Minister take action to start reversing that decline?
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's analysis of what is happening. Let us be clear: there has been a loss of manufacturing jobs in all the major developed economies. Let us take the car industry as an example. Mini, Land Rover and Toyota have all raised production in recent times. The economic stability that has been provided by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor through low interest rates and high levels of employment—I think we have the highest employment rate of any G7 country at the moment—has given us a very good, strong record on jobs and on unemployment. It is inevitable that there will be job losses from time to time, but, as I understand it, Peugeot has also taken out two shifts at its French plant, resulting in the loss of about 1,500 jobs, and one shift at its Spanish plant. I suspect that this is to do with the global market, and with the company concerned, rather than with the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.
When faced with an angry mob in Iraq two years ago, the first thought of my constituent, Russell Aston, and five other military policemen was to deal with the safety of those whom they were training to be police officers and their helpers. They did that successfully. They then responded non-violently to the mob. Does the Prime Minister believe that there are adequate ways of recognising the ultimate sacrifice that some of our servicemen make when carrying out peacekeeping roles?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to each of those members of the Royal Military Police who lost their lives in June 2003. They were immensely brave people who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and the security of the wider world, and we owe them an immense debt of gratitude. As he knows, any awards would be made not by Government but by the military. I agree, however, that it is always important that we consider ways of marking the contribution made by such gallant people in extremely difficult circumstances in which they paid with their lives for the benefit and security of the wider world.
May I take the opportunity, after the local elections, to invite the Prime Minister to come to Harrogate theatre, where the play, "Cut and Run", is being performed? He will know that that is a classic farce about the running of the national health service. Will he then visit with me the local three-star foundation hospital, which has delivered on every target that he and his Government have set and has exercised financial prudence every year in balancing its budget? This year, however, it must close a ward of 31 surgical beds and a unit that deals with the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. How will this period of boom and bust help my constituents? If he cannot help to save those two wards, will he join the cast?
I do not know about the individual position of the hospital in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He is right, however, that that hospital has met all the targets for the reduction of waiting lists and waiting times, and that it has received substantial increases in investment. As a result of that, as I understand it, it is employing many more nurses, doctors and consultants. Whatever amount of money any Government put into the national health service, hospital trusts will have to live within their means. Otherwise, we will not have the proper systems and financial accountability in place. I am happy to examine the individual circumstances that he mentioned, but most people in his area would accept, as in other constituencies, that the national health service is in a much better state than it was eight or nine years ago.
Will the Prime Minister reconsider the proposed changes to the funding of adult education? Is he aware that those changes will mean that the types of course that wonderful colleges such as Morley in my constituency can offer will be severely restricted, and that many thousands and millions of people whose lives have been enriched by adult education will be affected by those changes?
We will consider that carefully. Obviously, there must be a balance in relation to how we spend money to ensure the most effective use for the work force that we want to build. I am also aware of my hon. Friend's point about leisure activities and the ways in which people enhance and enrich their lives through such courses. There always has been and will be a balance between the amount of money that we put into that and the amount that we put into the skills of the work force.
The Prime Minister has said previously that he would be surprised if waiting times for hearing tests and hearing aids were longer now than when he came into office. Will he ask his Cabinet colleagues who have English constituencies to indicate now if they know that their waiting times have grown longer in the past 12 to 18 months? Would he like to come down to Worthing, where waiting times are double what they were when he came into office, and explain to a well-run hospital and a financially prudent primary care trust why they must suddenly and unexpectedly save £1 million a month?
I do not know about the particular issue of hearing, but waiting times and waiting lists for patients for operations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency must have fallen dramatically. In relation to the numbers of people employed, in his area—[Interruption.] I can only tell him that the facts that I have are—[Hon. Members: "What about reality?"] Well, this is the reality—2,000 more nurses is a lot of reality even for the hon. Gentleman. Yes, there have been overspends in his area, which will have to be dealt with. However, that would be the case no matter what amount of money we put in. It has to be done. If we end up with a system that is more financially secure, that is to the benefit of people in his area, not to their disbenefit.
In Hackney, we have seen GCSE results improve dramatically in recent years. We already have one city academy, and there are three more in the pipeline. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that 53 per cent. of children in one of the poorest boroughs in the country are not achieving means that the city academy programme is essential for those children in the poorest neighbourhoods in Britain?
I agree with my hon. Friend 100 per cent. The city academy programme is delivering for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged kids in the whole of our country. Children who were ignored for years under the Conservatives are being given the chance of a decent education. There is one test: are parents trying to get their children into those schools, or out of them? They are trying to get their children into them, and for good reason.
The World Health Organisation told us recently that in Zimbabwe female life expectancy is now the lowest in the world at 34. Inflation is running at 913 per cent, and someone can be arrested for selling tomatoes on a street corner. In the light of the Prime Minister's commitment to the Commission for Africa, can he explain why western diplomatic efforts appear to have been impotent to date in dealing with the human tragedy that is continuing to unfold in Zimbabwe?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his analysis. The question is, what is the solution? I am afraid that the solutions are necessarily limited. Yes, what the regime in Zimbabwe is doing is a disgrace. People are suffering in a country that is potentially wealthy. We as a nation have had to give humanitarian assistance and food aid to people in circumstances in which, if the country were properly run, they could be looked after properly. The only issue is what we can do about it. What we are doing in this country is our very best to ensure that the right diplomatic pressure is put on the Zimbabwean regime to change, but I am afraid that there is a limit to what we can do.
I believe that while Zimbabwe remains as it is, it casts a shadow over that whole part of southern Africa. It is a tragedy, particularly—as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says—for the people concerned.
The district councils in Lancashire have failed to reach agreement on a Lancashire-wide bus pass scheme. I am told by the county council that the Government provided enough money for such a scheme to be established, but that some district councils have spent money on things other than pensioner bus passes. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter and ensure that the money provided by the Chancellor is spent for the purpose for which it was intended?
It certainly should be spent for that purpose. I gather than we have put about £350 million into the scheme and it is there to benefit people. There is absolutely no reason why those councils should not take action to benefit pensioners in the way that they wish and ensure that the money that has been invested is used for the purposes for which it was allocated.
Will the Prime Minister offer a credible response to the following question? When his fundraiser-in-chief and tennis partner was offered a £1.5 million donation to the Labour party, why did he refuse it in favour of a £1.5 million loan?