First of all, I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deep condolences to the family and friends of Major Paul Harding of the 1st Battalion the Rifles, and Corporal John Rigby of the 4th Battalion the Rifles, both of whom died in Iraq; and Drummer Thomas Wright, of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment. All three of them were outstanding soldiers and will be deeply missed.
Mr. Speaker, since this is the last time that this, the saddest of duties, falls to me, I hope that the House will permit me to say something about our armed forces, and not just about the three individuals who have fallen in the past week. I have never come across people of such sustained dedication, courage and commitment. I am truly sorry about the dangers that they face today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that some may think that they face these dangers in vain. I do not, and I never will. I believe that they are fighting for the security of this country and the wider world against people who would destroy our way of life. But whatever view people take of my decisions, I think that there is only one view to take of them: they are the bravest and the best.
Before listing my engagements, because this is the last time that I will be able to do so, may I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your gentle courtesy and kind forbearance toward me over the years? I have had need of both.
Now to my engagements. This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have no such further meetings today, or any other day.
I thank the Prime Minister for that comprehensive answer on his engagements. I am sure that the whole House wishes to associate itself with those words of condolence.
In 1997, the Prime Minister said that there were
"24 hours to save the NHS".
Why is it that, more than 87,600 hours later, his successor is indicating that there is still a need to save the NHS? Given that Enfield Chase Farm hospital is tomorrow publishing plans to cut maternity and accident and emergency services, is it more or less likely that in the next 24 hours, with a new Prime Minister, local health services will be saved?
Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows, the proposals for the hospitals in his constituency were reviewed by Sir George Alberti, who is someone who has spent a whole lifetime of service in the national health service. He said:
"Put starkly, it is evident that high quality modern care cannot be provided for all specialties in all three acute hospitals in the area."
He therefore said specifically that there had to be change. However, that change goes alongside 26 different facilities and schemes, with a value of £1.7 billion, that have opened in the hon. Gentleman's area, and thousands more staff. Whereas in 1997, people used to wait more than 18 months for their operation—people used to die on waiting lists—now, those waiting lists are at record lows.
The Prime Minister can relax, because I will not ask him about Venezuela today.Like thousands of other parents, I have watched anxiously as my daughter has prepared for her exams, but we can safely predict that when the GCSE results come out in August any rise in pass rates will provoke the Conservatives and their media allies to devalue the work of teachers and young people. So if in response I state our socialist belief that education is a path that should be open to the many, not the few, will the Prime Minister—
Order. I have to hear a question. I have not heard one yet.
First, let me shock my hon. Friend by saying that the definition of socialism that he has just given—that it is for the many and not the few—is one that I wholeheartedly share. Secondly, let me say that it is absolutely right that we recognise that results are better not because of a downgrading of the exams, but because our pupils are performing better as a result of the investment and changes that have been made in our school system. The fact is that the exams are monitored by a wholly independent body. The other fact that it is necessary to point out is that, whereas in 1997 just over 80 schools in England got more than 70 per cent. five good GCSEs, the figure today is more than 600. That is the difference that investment and reform have made.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Major Paul Harding, Corporal John Rigby and Drummer Thomas Wright, who died serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that the Prime Minister was absolutely right to put on record once again the huge debt that we all owe to our armed forces. Their professionalism, courage and heroism is a constant source of inspiration and pride throughout our country.
Before I wish the Prime Minister well for the future, I would like to ask some questions about the floods in Britain and the situation in the middle east. On the floods, four people have lost their lives, thousands of homes have been flooded, and many people are in temporary accommodation. The emergency services are clearly doing an incredible job. Will the Government ensure that they have all the support that they need, and that the local authorities under the greatest pressure get all that they require?
First, in respect of the flooding, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it has meant that four lives have been lost. I think that we should all send our condolences and sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives. In respect of what we now have to do, we have increased the amount of money for our coastal defence protection to something in the region of £600 million a year. We are doing an immense amount for the future to make sure that we have proper provision in place. I am afraid that we will have to spend a lot more money and invest a lot more in the years to come. In addition to that, of course, under the Bellwin scheme, it will be open to local authorities to be reimbursed for the additional costs that they face, and I know that those requests will be looked at sympathetically. It is a very difficult situation; thousands of properties have been affected, and I am afraid that hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of damage has been caused, but we will of course do everything that we can, in conjunction with the Environment Agency and the local authorities, to try to improve the situation.
I am grateful for that answer. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rightly praised the work of the RAF. He said that armed forces liaison officers were "ready to provide support" if necessary, but that otherwise there was no need for any further Army deployment. Will the Prime Minister assure us that, if necessary, that decision can be changed, and military resources can be deployed?
We will, of course, keep that decision under review, and we will put in any further resources that are necessary. It is worth pointing out, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to do so, that not only have our armed forces—in this case the RAF—played a very important role, for which we thank them, but the emergency services as a whole have responded to the crisis in the most exemplary manner, as indeed they always do.
May I turn to an issue that might be relevant to the Prime Minister's future? Clearly, this is a very difficult time in the middle east, with the desperate situation in the Gaza strip and instability in the west bank, all against the backdrop of a Palestinian economy that has failed to develop. Can the Prime Minister tell us what his first priority will be, if and when he takes on his new role?
The absolute priority is to try to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community: the only way of bringing stability and peace to the middle east is a two-state solution, which means a state of Israel that is secure and confident of its security, and a Palestinian state that is viable, not merely in terms of its territory, but in terms of its institutions and governance. I believe that it is possible to do that, but it will require a huge intensity of focus and work.
When it comes to the Palestinian territories, clearly what is on everyone's mind in this country is the fact that Alan Johnston is still in captivity. All of us who saw that chilling video will feel enormous sympathy for him, his family and his colleagues. His continued captivity is utterly senseless and serves no cause. Will the Prime Minister agree with me that, as many Palestinians have demonstrated, both in the territories and here in Britain, their interests can best be served if he is released immediately?
I should say in respect of Alan Johnston that we deeply regret the fact of his continued imprisonment, and we are working closely with the BBC and the Palestinian Authority to do everything that we can to secure his release. I am sure that the majority of Palestinian people want to see him released. It is worth simply pointing out that he was a journalist doing a job as a journalist. It is completely without any justification at all to take him as a target for any action of whatever nature. I would also simply point out that I believe that the majority of Palestinian and Israeli people want to see a situation where hostage-taking and violence is a thing of the past, and the two groups of people can live together in peace.
On behalf of everyone on these Benches, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his remarkable achievement of being Prime Minister for 10 years? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] For all the heated battles across the Dispatch Box, for 13 years he has led his party, for 10 years he has led our country, and no one can be in any doubt about the huge efforts he has made in public service. He has considerable achievements to his credit, whether it is peace in Northern Ireland or his work in the developing world, which will endure. I am sure that life in the public eye has sometimes been tough on his family, so on behalf of my party may I wish him and his family well, and wish him every success in whatever he does in future?
Let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for those very generous sentiments. For all the political disagreements between us, it is always important to be able to work with people on issues of national importance across the political divide, and I have always found him most proper, correct and courteous in his dealings with me, and I thank him for that. Although I cannot wish him well politically, none the less, personally, I wish him and his family very well indeed.
My right hon. Friend will know that I have not made a habit in the past 10 years of standing up at Prime Minister's Question Time and praising him and his Government for the good work that has been done in that period in Rother Valley—a constituency that was ravaged by the previous Government's pit closure programme and under-investment in public services. Does he agree that the investment that the Government have put into public services has served my constituents well in the past three days? Hundreds of them have been removed from their homes because of flooding in the villages of Catcliffe, Treeton and Wiston. Will he make sure that his predecessor—[Hon. Members: "Predecessor?]— gets his priorities right? I am sorry, I should have said that his predecessors did not get their priorities right, but will he make sure that his successor does so?
First, I express my sympathy to my right hon. Friend's constituents who have been displaced by the floods. Secondly, I thank him for what he said about the Government's record of investment in communities such as his. In those former mining communities, there has been an enormous amount of regeneration and, in addition, we can count as a very proud achievement the fact that thousands of former miners have been paid compensation amounting to several billion pounds. That is something I do not believe would have happened under any Government other than a Labour Government.
May I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence, and in his generous tribute to Britain's armed forces? Is he satisfied that proper provision has been made for those servicemen and women who suffer both physical and psychological injury as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan? What assurances can he give them and their families that they will not be forgotten?
On Monday evening, I held a reception in Downing street for staff in the medical services—staff employed by the armed forces as well as staff in the national health service—who work for our armed forces. They are an immensely committed group of people, and they do a wonderful job for our armed forces. At Headley Court, Selly Oak and Peterborough, and in the many different facilities up and down the country, we do our level best to provide the highest quality of care for them, and of course we should continue to do so even after they are discharged from hospital.
As the Prime Minister knows, he and I have had a number of disagreements, not least on Iraq. In our personal dealings, however, he has been unfailingly courteous, and I should like to express my gratitude to him for that. As he leaves office, may I, on behalf of my colleagues, extend our very best wishes to him and his family?