This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My right hon. Friend must be well aware of the concern in this House and beyond regarding the stories that are circulating about bugging and surveillance. Can he assure me that the inquiry that he has announced will be thorough, will examine all the issues of concern, and will report back promptly to the House? At the end of the day, our constituents must be assured that they can talk to us in confidence.
The inquiry will be detailed; it is under a very distinguished chairman, Sir Christopher Rose; it will report back quickly; and the Justice Secretary will make a statement to the House of Commons. It is right to put in context what has happened over the past few days, and to say that we all benefit from the work of the police and security services and the surveillance necessary to defend our security, preserve our freedom and in some cases save lives. In addition to the inquiry being held, however, protections are in place under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, including authorisation by a senior officer, the right to appeal, oversight by an independent tribunal and the annual reports on the number of intercepts and surveillance operations taking place. The Justice Secretary has said that he was not aware of any information regarding covert recording or anything like that until last weekend. Where there are questions, however, it is right to investigate. In the meantime, it is right for us not to add to the game of speculation, nor to presume the results of the inquiry.
I have set up quite a number of reviews and it is right to do so. We are in the process of making the changes that are necessary for the future of this country. We will report today on one of the reviews, the Chilcot review, and I hope that there will be agreement that that was the right thing to do.
The Prime Minister has established 52 reviews—one every four days. It is no wonder that he does not have time to open his post. They include reviews of behaviour partnerships, physics and even sunbeds—I presume that that is to keep the former Welsh Secretary busy now that he is not in the Government. The former Home Secretary, Mr. Clarke, says about the reviews that the
"current uncertainties"— in government—
"are widespread, debilitating and give ammunition to Labour's opponents."
He specifically mentions hospitals, schools and local government. Who is the source of this dithering, or does the Prime Minister need a bit more time to find out?
I would just repeat the words of the former Chancellor: too many soundbites, not enough substance. When it comes to the reviews, we are reviewing the policy of super-casinos—that is what the public want us to do; we are reviewing the policy on cannabis—that is what the public want us to do; we are reviewing the policy on affordable housing to build eco-towns—that is what the public want us to do. I do not think that the Opposition understand that the world is changing around us. We need to review the right things to do. We are doing that. As a result, we are the party that has created 3 million jobs, the party with low inflation and low interest rates, and the party that is investing in education and health.
When will the Prime Minister understand that it is not reviews but decisions that people want? Let us look at the list of policies that the former Home Secretary says are incomplete. These are the policies that the Prime Minister's former Cabinet colleague says he is dithering about: local government, trust schools, foundation hospitals, housing, disability—[Hon. Members: "Reading!"] I have to read, because there is such a long list of things that the Prime Minister is dithering about. He talks about soundbites, but he cannot even think of his own: he has to borrow them from the former Chancellor.
Let us take just one example—A-levels. The Prime Minister's Schools Secretary says that there will be an open-minded review, and that he cannot guarantee their future. Will the Prime Minister contradict his Schools Secretary, and tell us that A-levels are here to stay?
Let us look at what we are doing on education. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is wrong for us to have a review. We are proposing education to the age of 18; he is against it. We want education for all; he wants education for some.
We are proposing diplomas. We have said we will make a decision in 2012, and that A-levels will continue to exist. That decision will be made in 2012, and it is the right decision for the country: to build on diplomas with A-levels. The right hon. Gentleman is opposing it.
We are proposing that the number of apprenticeships be doubled. The Conservatives are not supporting that policy of the Government. We are proposing additional expenditure on education and school buildings. The right hon. Gentleman is proposing to transfer the money to another programme.
We are the party that is investing in the future. We are the party for the long term. The right hon. Gentleman's is the party of the short-term gibe.
A-levels are staying. We made the decision that until 2012 diplomas would go side by side with A-levels, and then we would make a decision about the future. That is right for the country.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: does he support education to the age of 18, as we do? Yes or no? We are for education for all. The right hon. Gentleman is for education only for some.
Everyone wants more children to stay at school until they are 18. Everyone wants better vocational education. But the Prime Minister has a very simple question to answer. He just said that A-levels were safe until 2013, but we want a guarantee beyond that. We want to know that A-levels will stay for good. The Schools Secretary cannot guarantee their future, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says that they will be out of the door, so let us try it one more time. Will the Prime Minister confirm that A-levels will stay for the long term?
Yes, and it is right to test the new system and to make the decision in 2012. But I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question. We are for education until the age of 18. We want to give every child the right, free of charge, to stay in education until the age of 18. Is the right hon. Gentleman for that policy, or is he against it?
Anyone listening to this will recognise that this Prime Minister cannot answer a question, and cannot make a decision. He cannot make a decision: I think he is incapable of it. Parents, teachers and children listening to this who want A-levels to continue just want a straight answer. Will they not look at the Prime Minister and say "This is a hopeless, dithering Prime Minister"?
I have given the answer: A-levels and diplomas will go side by side. What the right hon. Gentleman has failed to tell us is whether he supports education until the age of 18. We have said that we will give every child and young person the right to education until the age of 18. It is the biggest change in the educational system for 60 years, and the right hon. Gentleman is unable to tell us whether or not he supports it. This is the Leader of the Opposition who wants to look both ways on an important policy. I tell him this: we are investing in the long term, and he refuses to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend ask his Cabinet colleagues responsible for energy and for defence to work closely together to deal with concerns raised recently about the interaction between wind farms and defence radar systems? Will he ask them to ensure that any concerns expressed about a particular application for a wind farm are proportionate to our defence needs, but do not prevent the urgent need to make progress in installing wind farms around the United Kingdom?
I was discussing this very matter with colleagues on Monday. It is important to recognise that offshore wind will be a very important part of the development of renewable energy for the future. We will have to invest in it in the future, but we will also have to deal with the military and security problems that will arise as a result. We are currently discussing these matters in order to reach a sensible conclusion.
This week's bugging controversy should not come as a surprise to the Prime Minister. After all, it is this Government who have turned the British public into the most spied upon on the planet: 1,000 surveillance requests every day; 1 million innocent people on the Government's DNA database; and 5,000 schools now fingerprinting our children at school. Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he spoke so stirringly a few months ago about the great British tradition of liberty?
I take it that the right hon. Gentleman and the Liberal authorities support CCTV. I take it that they support the intercept action that is taken when it is necessary for national security. I take it that he accepts that only 1,500 intercepts have been commissioned by Ministers as a result of urgent security needs. Does he accept these things or not?
The Prime Minister seems to see no limits. He is creating a surveillance state. Why has he consistently refused requests for more power to be given to the Information Commissioner? Why does he not do what is already done in Scotland and remove the DNA of innocent people from the database? Why will he not act immediately to stop the scandalous fingerprinting of our children at school?
People in this country are reassured by the presence of CCTV; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not proposing to remove it. That is one very important part of the investigatory and surveillance powers that we give the police to carry out their work. I would hope that the right hon. Gentleman would look at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and see the protections that have been put in place where there is surveillance and where there are intercepts. They include authorisation by a senior officer, the right to appeal to an independent tribunal, and a commissioner for surveillance who looks at matters and reports annually. We are taking the steps to protect the liberties of the citizens; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support that.
Gateshead council is planning the development of a 20-acre brownfield site near the town centre for housing, 25 per cent. of which would be affordable housing. However, the completion of the acquisition of the site is being held up by the British Rail residuary board on the rather curious premise that the council has depressed the valuation of the site by planning affordable housing. Should this public body not be more au fait with Government priorities and objectives, and will my right hon. Friend look into this matter and try to break the logjam?
I will of course look into the matter. There is a need for affordable housing in every part of the country, and we will wish to do the best that we can to meet the target of 3 million new houses by 2020, a very substantial number of them affordable for first-time buyers. I will look into the issue about public sector and private sector land, and I will write to my hon. Friend.
At the last election, the Government promised a referendum on the EU treaty. Now, four Labour MPs who are campaigning for that referendum have been told by the Prime Minister that they could lose the Whip. Is it now the case that keeping one's word with the voters is incompatible with membership of the Labour party?
What was called the constitutional concept was abandoned, and no country except Ireland is proposing to hold a referendum on the European treaty. The question the Conservatives must answer for themselves is whether, after the ratification of the treaty, they are going to propose a referendum which could mean a fundamental renegotiation of our membership of the European Union. The questions now go to the Conservative party.
Next year, Dover gets its high-speed rail link, and regeneration of the town and the port will take off with the potential to create thousands of new jobs; but that will be realised only if the last few miles of the A2—the route to the port—is dualled and upgraded. That work is being thwarted by the South East England regional assembly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that assemblies such as SEERA are preventing places like Dover from reaching their true potential? He will not be surprised to learn that they are all controlled by Tory councillors.
My hon. Friend campaigns for the future of Dover with vigour and determination. I agree that urgent decisions on transport are having to be made throughout the country. The A2 is an important regional route. I gather that there has been an application for support from the growth fund, and I suggest that he asks for a meeting with the Department for Transport to discuss these issues.
Does the Prime Minister agree it is a real tragedy that following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 a rain of rockets has fallen on towns such as Sderot? Now, there has been this most recent suicide bombing. Does he agree that if Israel were given a greater degree of security, the lives of Palestinians would be transformed out of all recognition?
I agree entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is important that we move forward by guaranteeing the security of Israel and then responding to the urgent needs of the Palestinian people. The talks that are taking place, which started at Annapolis and are continuing in talks between Prime Minister Olmert and the leader of the Palestinian Authority, are important if we are to get the breakthroughs that are necessary. I want to see more action dealing with the poverty that now exists in the two areas of the Palestinian Authority, but I also want to be able to safeguard the security of Israel. I shall be talking soon to Prime Minister Olmert about those very issues, and I hope to be able to attend the Palestinians' investment conference to support them in their activities in the next few months.
My right hon. Friend is aware that this Government have done good work in dealing with institutionalised poverty through welfare reform, the minimum wage, working tax credits and minimum income guarantees. Does he agree that there is still much to do, particularly to protect people in the workplace from rogue employers who criminally exploit agency workers by paying them less than the minimum wage and by hiring and firing in breach of the law?
That is why we are looking to see how we can progress the agency workers directive and why we created a vulnerable workers forum to examine the problems faced by people in some of the lowest paid jobs in the country. I must also remind my hon. Friend that the biggest single measure that we have taken to protect vulnerable workers—the creation of a minimum wage—was opposed by the Conservative party.
A report is made every year by the chief surveillance commissioner—the commissioner responsible for intercepts. He provides the information that is available for people to look at. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about these issues.
Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States, is it not important that we maintain a strong and close relationship with such a significant ally? Is not the sign of such a relationship a willingness to discuss areas of difference, for example climate change and the middle east, so that together we can make a difference?
The relationship between a British Prime Minister and the President of the United States is one of the most important. Every Prime Minister and every President will be very keen to preserve and extend that relationship. As my hon. Friend says, there are genuine issues that we have to discuss together, not least, as he mentions, climate change, and security issues around the world. I shall be meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later today to discuss our co-operation on a range of foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan.
As compensation for breaking his promise on the referendum, the Prime Minister made a new promise to this House. He said that it would be able to consider the treaty incorporating the substance of the constitution line-by-line in a Committee of the whole House, yet not a single clause relating to immigration, asylum and border controls has been, or will be, considered in a Committee of the whole House, be that through line-by-line examination, amendments or a vote. What are his promises worth?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the sale of counterfeit cigarettes across south Yorkshire and across the country generally has been described as a ticking health time bomb? A recent committee of Barnsley metropolitan borough council reported the warning that many of those cigarettes contain heavy metals that could screw a person's health. In addition to the activity of the Customs and the police, will he consider a national campaign to raise awareness against this danger and avert a health crisis?
I shall look at the issue that my hon. Friend raises, because counterfeit products that are sold to children are a danger indeed. I remind him that legislation is before Parliament to strengthen sanctions against shops that repeatedly sell cigarettes to children, and on
Within the last hour it has been confirmed that troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade in my constituency are to be deployed to Afghanistan. Last week, I was in Helmand province and I can report that the spirits of our brave men and women are exceptionally high. However, will the Prime Minister take action to ensure that our European allies do more to provide troops on the ground and helicopters and all other logistical support?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has visited our troops in Afghanistan. They are doing a superb job, morale is extremely high and they are making a huge difference, not only through the actions they take but in training Afghan troops for the future. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an announcement has been made by the Secretary of State for Defence about 16 Airborne going to Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman is also right in that what we are seeking, especially at the NATO summit in a few weeks' time, is a determination on the part of all our allies to ensure that the burden sharing in Afghanistan is fair. We have 15 per cent. of the troops in Afghanistan, and other countries, including Spain and France, have made announcements that they will add to their troops. We need proper burden sharing, not only in personnel but in helicopters and other equipment.
Local developers in my constituency have put forward proposals to build on virtually the entire green belt in the area. I do not expect the Prime Minister to comment on individual proposals, but does he agree with me that Labour stands for sustained, planned development of affordable housing with good public transport available, not for rewarding speculative greed?
When we came to power, brownfield was 56 per cent. of new development. We set a target of 60 per cent. and it is now at 75 per cent. as a result of the decisions that we have taken. I shall look at the point that my hon. Friend raises about his constituency, but I can tell him that there is a proposal for an eco-town next to it, and I hope that that will gain some support.
As we have already heard, the next deployment of 16 Air Assault Brigade to Afghanistan has been announced this morning. However, that does not include the 600 extra troops that senior officers in the brigade have requested. They have been told that there are simply not enough fighting men for war on two fronts. Could the Prime Minister personally ensure that there are enough bayonets on the ground to hold the territory that we have so bloodily won against the inevitable Taliban assault in the spring?
The statement that I made in December was widely welcomed. I said that our troop numbers would be around 7,800, and we would maintain them at around that number for the foreseeable future. I repeat that we are providing 15 per cent. of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. There are 41 countries making contributions and it is right that there is greater burden sharing. That is also the view of our armed forces, and I will strive to achieve that in both personnel and equipment.
As a parent, what guidance would my right hon. Friend offer to 15 or 16-year-old youngsters who do not see their future in the sixth form, do not wish to go on to higher education and do not see academic studies as right for them? As Prime Minister, what will he do to allow them to realise their ambitions?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We know that every young person will need skills in the future to obtain the best jobs available, and that is why those who do not choose the academic route should have the option of apprenticeships or preparation for apprenticeships. That is why we are increasing the number of apprenticeships, which were dying out when we came to power in 1997, to 250,000, and will double that number in the future. I had hoped that there would be all-party support for that, but unfortunately the Conservatives cannot support the long-term investment that we are making in education.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who refers to excellent work by the police in her area. The reason that is possible is that we now have the highest number of police in our history and we have community support officers. We are building neighbourhood policing for the future. I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to ensure that people in our country not only see that the streets are safe at night but feel that they are safe.
In answer to the two previous questions, the Prime Minister escaped from his involvement in Afghanistan by talking about jointery with other nations. When I was there last week, in Lashkar Gah and Camp Bastion, I was horrified by the shortage of helicopter availability, which means that our troops are late getting into the line and coming home from it. Will the Prime Minister reiterate what his predecessor said—namely, that whatever our generals need on the front line, he will supply it?
We are in constant discussion about what is right for the future. Not only do we have 7,800 troops in Afghanistan, but we are putting new helicopters on the ground over the next few months and we are making available additional equipment. Under urgent operational requirements, we provided £6 billion over the past few years for new equipment, so whatever equipment has been needed, we have been prepared to provide it.
In my previous life, I was proud to have been responsible for the building known as Mouse Castle, which was the refuge for suffragettes who suffered starvation and brutality in the fight for women's right to vote. Given that today is the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage, what more does my right hon. Friend intend to do to ensure that more women are represented in this place—more than the one in five who sit mostly on the Labour Benches—in honour of those suffragettes and their suffering?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should celebrate the fact that 90 years have passed after the beginning of the suffragette movement. She is also right to say that we are all proud that as a result of our victory in 1997 and subsequently, there are more women in the House of Commons than ever before, and we want to see more after the next general election. I agree with her that there should be a permanent memorial to the campaign that was mounted for the right to vote. Perhaps a monument on Parliament square would be a good indication of the support of the whole country.
Bizarrely, the Prime Minister has referred twice in these Prime Minister's questions to the popularity of eco-towns. Obviously, he is not aware of the overwhelming opposition to them in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Maples. If he is capable of taking a decision and wants to prove that he is a true democrat, will he take this opportunity to rule out both those sites now?
Unfortunately, the Conservative party is not only against eco-towns but against building homes altogether. There have been 60 applications for eco-towns, so it does not sound as though they are unpopular—it sounds as though they are popular. Once again, the Conservative party is on the wrong side of the argument.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has issued a public warning about the significant threat from the Real IRA and its need to take profile precautions. I know he will agree that all democratic parties should join in condemning the Real IRA, which is stuck in the Provo thing of the past, but does he also agree that, beyond that proper condemnation, the best thing that all the democratic parties can do to unite in defying and denying the throw-back agenda of the Real IRA is to secure the devolution of justice and policing sooner rather than later?
This is our objective: I condemn absolutely any organisation that preaches the cause of violence in Northern Ireland. We have come such a long way over the past few years thanks to the co-operation of all the parties and the people of Northern Ireland. We are determined to build on that with economic prosperity for Northern Ireland in future years and that is what we will do, working with the people of Northern Ireland.
Now that the Information Commissioner and an information tribunal have instructed the Government to release the John Williams draft of the 2002 Iraq dossier, saying that it could add to what we know about the role that spin doctors played in presenting the case for war and highlighting discrepancies in the evidence produced by the Foreign Office, will the Prime Minister release the document immediately? If not, why not?
In 2004, the Sharp Corporation of Japan committed investment to Wrexham and the UK for the manufacture of a new generation of photovoltaic cells and renewable energy modules. What effect does my right hon. Friend think that rejection of the Lisbon treaty would have on future inward investment in the UK?
We all know that Japan invests in Britain and that it sees Britain as its road into the rest of the European market. We all know that 60 per cent. of our trade is with the rest of the EU. Those people who want to detach us from the rest of Europe are making a huge mistake, not just politically and environmentally but economically. This Government have created 3 million jobs and are determined to create even more.