Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 3rd May 2006.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence 11:30 am, 3rd May 2006

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 May.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

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 Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence

Just what does it take for the Prime Minister to accept the Home Secretary's resignation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I believe it is important that a system that has not worked properly for decades is sorted out. The Home Secretary is sorting it out and it is right that he continues to do that.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

With educational standards constantly rising in our schools, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging head teachers to sign up eligible pupils to the Government's national academy for gifted and talented youth, so that many more young people receive the education that is best suited to their individual needs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the success of the academy, which is working with about 85,000 very able young people across the country. We want to extend the programme so that those who are especially gifted and talented in our schools, who have often not had opportunities in the state system, can access those opportunities irrespective of their wealth and get the very best education, tailored to their personal needs.

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

The Home Secretary was told last July about the scandal of dangerous prisoners released on to our streets instead of being considered for deportation. The Prime Minister has now had a week to find out what is actually going on in the Home Office. Can he explain why the rate at which prisoners were released and not deported actually accelerated after the Home Secretary found out about it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I can explain that. Back in August 2005, before any parliamentary questions were raised about the issue, the practice of the immigration department changed so that instead of relying on the prisons to notify it of the release dates of prisoners, it sent immigration officers directly into prisons. That, therefore, meant that many more cases were identified and I can give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. After that point, there were 1,000 actual removals and deportations and 3,000 cases considered, so the rate at which cases came to the immigration and nationality department increased dramatically. However, from 30 March, every case is considered before release and that, let me tell the House, is the first time that has happened for decades.

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

That is absolutely no explanation why the rate accelerated. Is not the reason why the number accelerated made clear by a senior immigration officer? He said:

"There was an unwritten rule that immigration officers could not go to prisons because senior officials knew that most of the prisoners up for deportation would automatically claim asylum. This was one of several 'creative' solutions thought up by senior officials to please ministers", so that the official asylum numbers would come down. Can the Prime Minister give us an absolute assurance that that was not the case?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I can, for the reason that I have just given. The whole number of cases being considered increased. The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that somehow the system was changed and weakened by the Home Secretary is wrong. About 1,500 prisoners are being deported a year. If we go back, not just over the period of this Government, but over the past couple of decades—[Interruption.] I say this not in excuse or mitigation but to show that the system has had faults from the beginning. If, for example, we take the time when the right hon. Gentleman was a special adviser at the Home Office[Interruption.] I am not expecting him to take responsibility; I am simply saying that whereas the system now deports 1,500 a year, at that time, the number of people removed on court recommendation, or as not conducive to the public good, was 370. At that time, only one in five failed asylum seekers were removed; now, we remove more than the number of unfounded asylum claims every month. The backlog of cases was 60,000; it is now a few thousand.

If the right hon. Gentleman would like to know how many cases were not considered then, I cannot tell him and neither can he tell me, because there were no such records. Incidentally, at that time, according to Government figures at that time from Earl Ferrers, there were at least 6,000 prisoners at any one time who were in our prisons whose nationality we did not know.

All I say to the right hon. Gentleman is this: this system has not worked properly for decades, and it is actually working now. We have to work through the backlog of cases, which we will do, but it is completely wrong to say that this problem was created or began under this Home Secretary.

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

People listening to that answer will, frankly, think it pathetic. This scandal has happened on the Prime Minister's watch and he cannot run away from responsibility for it. His assurances are worth so little, when last week at the Dispatch Box, he admitted that he did not even have the figures.

I have a letter from another immigration officer who has worked in the service for 30 years. He says that we

"are under instruction not to get involved in assisting the police with offenders . . . because these offenders are likely to claim asylum and tip the scales the wrong way. Thus are the figures massaged."

Should we not believe the people who have been working on the front line for nine years rather than a Prime Minister who did not know about this nine days ago?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman talks to people on the front line, they will tell him that there have been problems with this system for a very long time. The important thing is how we now overhaul not just the way the system works, but the system itself, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will deal with that in a few moments. The fact is that we have not deported all those convicted of imprisonable offences from the very beginning of this system. I think that it is now time that anybody who is convicted of an imprisonable offence and who is a foreign national is deported.

I just remind the right hon. Gentleman that, when this Government introduced a provision in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 to say that anybody convicted of any offence carrying more than two years' imprisonment should not be eligible for asylum and therefore could be deported, his party opposed that amendment. In addition—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but if we want to take the measures, let us take the measures. Let me also point out that, when we introduced the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that allowed us to carry out the early removal of these prisoners—in other words, instead of waiting to the end of their sentence, we could remove them early—his party also voted against that Act. So I suggest that we now take the measures necessary not just to improve the way the existing system works, which the Home Secretary has done, but to change it fundamentally for the future.

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

I look forward to the Home Secretary's statement. I stuck around to listen to his statement last week when the Prime Minister scuttled out of the building.

In March this year, the Home Secretary was told that a significant number of the criminals released and not deported had committed the most serious offences, including murder and rape. It is now clear that he did not tell the Prime Minister for three weeks. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is the sort of information that a Prime Minister should be told at once?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The important thing was that, from 30 March onwards, the new system that was put in place meant that the cases were considered prior to release. That has now been done; the backlog is now being dealt with.

I return to the point that I have made. On any basis, for years we have not been deporting all those people convicted of a serious criminal offence. I say now, "Let us deport all those people", and I hope that we can get support for that right across the House. Up until now, every time we have taken these measures, they have been opposed by the Conservative party.

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

Let us just be clear about what we have heard: murderers, rapists, paedophiles released from prison—and the Prime Minister does not want to know immediately. What sort of Government is that? At the weekend, the Prime Minister was asked whether the Home Secretary should resign. He said, "It depends." On what does it depend?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not believe that the Home Secretary has created the problems of this system. I believe that those problems have existed for a very long time, in the way in which I have described. I think that it is important that we take the measures necessary to sort out the existing system. That has been done and that is why, since 30 March, the cases have been considered prior to release. But I think that there is a far bigger question, which was raised by the shadow Home Secretary earlier. The fact is that even if all the cases are considered prior to release, we do not at the moment deport all those people convicted of a serious criminal offence. The truth is that even if we take those cases that have been considered, there are still a significant number that, having been considered under the existing system—which has, as I say, been in place for decades—do not result in deportation. Therefore, in my view, it is not just a question of the existing system; it is about making sure that that system is radically overhauled so that those who are convicted of a serious criminal offence are deported automatically. If we do not do that, we may consider all the cases in time, but we will not deport all the people who should be deported.

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

The fact is that 1,000 people were released from prison and their deportation was not even considered. This Home Secretary will for ever be associated with the scandal of releasing foreign prisoners on to our streets. While the Prime Minister keeps him in office, his claims to be tough on crime will be completely hollow. Are not people now paying the price for the arrogant attachment to office of a leader who has completely lost control?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That was the right hon. Gentleman's pre-arranged soundbite. Let me just tell him that, as I have just pointed out to him—I notice that he did not come back on any of the facts that I gave—this is a system that has not considered all those cases prior to release at any point. Even if those cases were considered, significant numbers have always not been deported. As I said to him a moment or two ago, at the time when he was working in the Home Office, it had to admit that about 6,000 prisoners in the system at any one time did not even have their nationality identified. All that I am saying, very simply, is this: there are faults with the present system in its implementation, which have been corrected since 30 March, but the real issue, which we have to face in this House if we want to deal with the public concern, is to change the system itself.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the decision handed down from the House of Lords relating to mesothelioma sufferers who were injured at work through being illegally exposed to asbestos? Is he also aware of the devastating impact that that will have on thousands of workers and their families, and can he give them some comfort today?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand the problem that my hon. Friend raises about injury through asbestos. Perhaps the best thing is for me to find out from the Department of Trade and Industry what the up-to-date position is and write to him about it.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That might be a question better asked of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not believe that the answer to this problem lies in reorganising the Home Office. I think that the fit between prisons, immigration and asylum, and crime is the right one. The issue is the way in which the system works. I make the same point to him as I do to Mr. Cameron: if we really want to deal with this issue, we have to be prepared to say that we are going to deport people back to their countries if they are convicted of serious criminal offences, because the majority of people that the public are concerned about are people whose cases have been considered, but who have not been deported under the existing system.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Let me make it clear that when the Prime Minister produces his proposals, we will obviously consider them in detail, but in the past nine years we have had dozens of pieces of law and order legislation—[Interruption.]

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Leader of the Liberal Democrats

In the past nine years, we have had dozens of pieces of law and order legislation and hundreds of new offences have been created. Is not what we need less legislation, better government and a new Home Secretary?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I think we need better legislation, and I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said that he will examine our proposals carefully. Let me just point out, however, that he has voted against every single one of the 12 or so measures that we have taken to tighten up the law on asylum and illegal immigration, and he voted against the criminal justice legislation and the antisocial behaviour legislation. So, there are people I will take lessons from on law and order, but not Liberal Democrats.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

Apart from the minimum wage, statutory holidays, Sure Start, low unemployment, low mortgages, free eye tests, prescriptions, TV licences and bus travel, and the £200 winter fuel allowance for pensioners, 2 million children taken out of poverty, 2 million pensioners taken out of poverty, more teachers, nurses, doctors and police, and lower crime, hospital waiting lists and class sizes, what have the Labour Government done for us?

J

Creepy toad. 2 million children / pensioners taken out of poverty? Made-up figures, which they hope people will believe if they repeat them often enough. Reduced wating lists? That's because you now have to wait to get on the waiting list! Labour spin and lies....

Submitted by James Maxwell Continue reading

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the People's Liberation Front would say, there is doubled maternity pay and doubled maternity leave. There is extra child benefit as well. There is, of course, the case that we have spent more on pensioners than we would have done if we had relinked the basic state pension with earnings, and many other things. I can recommend to my hon. Friend the excellent booklet published by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers on 300 Labour achievements.

C

Two points: 1) Mr. Blair blew the joke: he was clearly make reference to Monty Python's Life of Brian, but the political groups lampooned in the film were 'The Judean People's Front' and 'The People's Front of Judea', not the 'People's Liberation Front'. 2) Your linking to a...

Submitted by Calton Bolick Continue reading (and 2 more annotations)

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Under the Prime Minister's new theory of ministerial responsibility, the Home Secretary is staying on to sort out this shambles. Will the Prime Minister tell us how long the Home Secretary has got to do that and whether he will be standing down afterwards?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, for the reasons that I have already explained, since 30 March, for the first time in decades, cases have been considered before the release of foreign nationals from prison. I come back to the point that I made a moment or two ago. One part of dealing with this is taking measures now to legislate so that everyone who is a foreign national who serves a prison sentence is automatically deported.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland

I recently visited Bishop Barrington school in my constituency, which has got a new science lab and sports hall. The Labour county council, working together with the Government, has spent £38 million on refurbishing and redeveloping 64 schools in my constituency. Is Bishop Auckland unique, or is the pattern repeated throughout the country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is repeated in the next-door constituency to my hon. Friend's—I can tell her that—and also in constituencies up and down the country. The fact is that about £1,500 more per pupil is being spent by this Government. Anyone who goes to their constituencies can see, whether it is in primary or secondary schools, new buildings—often a new school—new computer equipment and extra teachers and classroom assistants. That is of course why larger and larger numbers of our children are passing their exams at 11, 16 and 18, and why the education system is improving all the time.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

When will the Prime Minister rewrite the ministerial code to reflect the new doctrine that the bigger the shambles, the more essential it is that the responsible Minister remains in office?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

For the very reason that I have just given to the Leader of the Opposition and others, this is not a problem created by this Home Secretary[Interruption.] It is perfectly obvious when one looks at the facts—I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear them—that this is a problem that for the first time is being resolved.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

The Home Office is a huge Department covering crime, antisocial behaviour, drugs, prisons, international terrorism and people trafficking—all sorts of issues. It is mission impossible for almost any Home Secretary—[Hon. Members: "Especially this one."] No, I think that this Home Secretary will sort the problems out and should remain in his job. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Home Office should be split up at some stage so that there are two Cabinet Ministers with responsibility for each of the new Departments?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I totally understand why my hon. Friend says that. In my view, the fit between immigration, asylum, crime and prisons, on the other hand, is a proper fit. The issue, which is important when we go back over the history, is that part of the problem is the rules that apply to people when they are eligible for deportation. For example, there was the case by the immigration appeal tribunal in the Chindamo case back in 2001, when the Home Office was prevented from considering deportation early in the prison sentence of the foreign national.

If we do not change the rules—it does not matter what structure we have—it will be difficult to do what I am sure the public want, which is to say, "If you come to our country and you are a foreign national, and you commit a crime, you should go back to your own country." That is the real part of the issue. It is absolutely understandable why people raise the issues that they do, but if we look back over the history of this issue, we find that this is a system that has never worked, not for reasons to do with structure in the Home Office but for reasons to do with the system itself.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Has the Prime Minister recently read paragraphs 2.7 to 2.10 of the ministerial code of conduct? When a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for International Development publicly calls for the Prime Minister to retire and when a PPS in the Home Office, no less, suggests that the Deputy Prime Minister should reconsider his position, does that not suggest that collective responsibility has broken down, or that the Government are in meltdown?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The question of my hon. Friend Mr. Clelland about the achievements of the Government gave the answer to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate why he wants to go through the details of the ministerial code. I think that the strength of the economy, the investment in schools and hospitals, issues like the minimum wage and 2 million pensioners lifted out of hardship and 700,000 children lifted out of poverty—the hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but many people are grateful for the progress that has been made.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

Just for the record, neither of the Parliamentary Private Secretaries at DFID, of whom I am one, called for my right hon. Friend to stand down. Further to the question of my hon. Friend Mr. Clelland, does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who has been in receipt of tax credit or pension credit, or all the other wonderful things that he mentioned, has a vested interest in judging on which side their bread is buttered? If they want their jam today to continue, should they not vote Labour tomorrow?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in drawing attention to the combination of tax credits, which give enormous support to families, particularly those with young children, and the extra increases in child benefit—child benefit was frozen under the Conservative Government—which has risen by 25 per cent. in real terms, along with the minimum wage. We did not merely introduce the minimum wage in the teeth of the opposition that was mounted by the Conservatives, but increased it. The combination of tax credits and the minimum wage is making work pay for people. That is one of the reasons why we have 2 million extra people in work. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are families that benefit from tax credits, as do pensioners. Without them, they would still be living in the poverty that they experienced under the Conservatives.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Prime Minister is probably not aware of the English cultural cleansing caused by Arts Council England's failure to promote England's traditional folk dance and song, nor that the council has spent £5.5 million for an arts facility that will promote contemporary Latin American art. Will he find out what is going on at the Arts Council?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right about one thing: I was not aware of it. I was hoping that he might give us a demonstration of English folklore dancing. I will certainly look into the matter and correspond with the hon. Gentleman. Personally, I think that there is a place for both.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

May I bring my right hon. Friend's attention to an article that appeared in The Times on Monday, in which Dr. Fox said that his party risked being

"tilted too much in any one direction, that makes us politically less stable and that makes us less attractive"?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that thinly veiled attack—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. That is not a matter for the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman should have a word with Dr. Fox.

J

Well done Michael Martin, stupid question asked stupidly. I hope he was suitably embarassed, and laughed at for his ineptitude.

Submitted by James Maxwell

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

Motorists who drive dangerously are regularly escaping prosecution through address scams that put them beyond the law. With the Road Safety Bill before Parliament, the Prime Minister could solve the problem now by telling Home Office Ministers to get a grip, protect the public and save lives. Will he do so?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will certainly look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. In principle, I would be deeply in sympathy with him, but I need to find out exactly why that has happened.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone should do their bit to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions? In that context, what advice would he offer to those planning to buy a new car or contemplating a 2,000-mile private jet round trip to publicise the dangers of global warming?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Everyone makes their contribution in their own way. The point that my hon. Friend makes is right in this sense: if we are to tackle climate change, it is essential that we get international agreement. It is worth pointing out to the House that, as a result of the growth being experienced by China, we estimate that even if we shut down all the emissions in this country, it would take the Chinese economy about 12 months to make up the difference. Of course, we must continue our leadership role on the issue. That is why we will more than meet—indeed, we will double—our Kyoto targets. It is important that we take measures in the United Kingdom, but there is no serious answer to climate change except at an international level.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The community health White Paper published in January this year, at paragraph 6.42, correctly states:

"community facilities should not be lost in response to short-term budgetary pressures", yet all four community hospitals in my constituency, plus a 26-bed elderly mentally infirm unit in Trowbridge and our midwife-led midwifery unit are all scheduled for the axe to sort out deficits. Given that the Secretary of State for Health today declined me an audience to discuss the impending disaster facing my constituents in West Wiltshire, will the Prime Minister at least attempt to reconcile the rhetoric in her White Paper with the bitter reality facing my constituents on the ground?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I cannot comment in detail on the issues in relation to the hon. Gentleman's health care system, though I am happy to correspond with him about that. After all, the West Wiltshire primary care trust funding has increased by 32 per cent. and will increase by 25 per cent. over the next two years. That is an increase of £31 million. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands that, whatever amount of money we put into the health service, PCTs and hospital trusts must live within their means. We need to sort the system out precisely so that the benefits in the White Paper can be achieved for patients. I point out to him, as it would be fair to give the other side of the picture for a little balance, that, in respect of those waiting more than six months for an operation in his area, in 1997 there were almost 12,000, and now the answer is three. That is at least some significant improvement.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I raise with the Prime Minister a legacy issue—the Olympics legacy. The Olympics has huge potential to benefit communities in London, especially in east London, where my constituency is. Will he commit the Olympic Delivery Authority to hold talks with local councillors so that projects to boost employment, sports and better lifestyle, skills training and sustainable development for the benefit of communities in London are taken forward?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I pay tribute to the work that is being done in my hon. Friend's area in respect of the Olympics. He is right to say that there are enormous potential benefits, and I am sure the Olympic Development Authority will be happy to meet local representatives. Two things will happen, beyond doubt. First, thousands of jobs will be created in the area. Secondly, after the games, the athletes' village will be converted into more than 3,500 apartments which will be a mix of social and other housing, particularly for key workers such as teachers and nurses. The London Olympic institute will be sited there as well, so it will be a huge development that brings lasting benefit to the people in my hon. Friend's area and in the whole of London.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

How can the Prime Minister say that every foreign criminal who serves a sentence of imprisonment should be automatically deported, when he knows perfectly well that his own Human Rights Act makes that impossible?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is wrong. That is not the reason. Over the time—[Interruption.] I am very glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman got to his feet, because I will remind him of what actually happened when he was Home Secretary. [Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The fact is that before the Human Rights Act[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before the Human Rights Act, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not deport all foreign prisoners, did he? [Hon. Members: "No."] No, exactly, which is my point. This system did not work while he was Home Secretary and has not worked whilst others were Home Secretary, and it is time to change it. But since the right hon. and learned Gentleman got to his feet, let me remind him what we inherited from him. The asylum backlog was 60,000, decisions took 22 months, and the number of removals was one in five. He has about as good a record as a Liberal Democrat would have had.