HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc1261-8
Q1. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 September.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.

Julie Morgan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency there is a high number of pensioner households? What does he plan to do to help those pensioners, and in particular the one in four single women pensioners who live in poverty?

The Prime Minister

We have a number of different measures that will help single women in retirement in particular. First, there is the extra money that we are giving through the pension credit; then there is the £200 fuel allowance; there is also the free television licence for those over 75; and there is the state second pension, which will help about 20 million low-income earners to get a better retirement income. We have continued to put a substantial amount—about £10 billion a year extra—into pensions, but we will not, as the Conservatives want us to, abolish the state second pension; and we will not abolish the pension credit, because it is helping many people to get relief from poverty.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

The justice gap is the difference between the number of crimes recorded and the number that result in the criminal being brought to justice. The Home Secretary says that this is the key measure of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and a crucial indicator of success in reducing crime. What has happened to the justice gap since the Prime Minister took office?

The Prime Minister

The most effective measure of crime is the crime survey. Let me point out that, as opposed to the Conservatives, under whose tenure of office crime doubled, it has fallen 30 per cent. under us. The level of detection and conviction is important, but I understand from the Home Secretary that there has been an improvement of some 50,000 in the past year.

Mr. Howard

The Prime Minister is paid to discharge his constitutional responsibilities, and they include answering questions at the Dispatch Box. Now let me give him the answer that he was not prepared to give. I will tell him what has happened to the justice gap since he took office: it has got wider. Recorded crime is up by 825,000, but the number of cautions and convictions is down by 42,000, so under this Government there are more crimes but fewer criminals are being caught and convicted.

Now let us look at another gap. Five years ago, the Prime Minister promised to stop incapacity benefit being an alternative to long-term unemployment or early retirement. What has happened to the number of people claiming that benefit since that promise?

The Prime Minister

First, let me revert to the so-called "justice gap" for a moment. It is the case that during the time in which the Conservatives governed, crime doubled. It is also the case that, in the British crime survey, crime has fallen by 30 per cent. It is further the case that there are record numbers of police and they are now being supplemented by community support officers. This party in government has a better record on crime than the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party ever had.

On incapacity benefit, I think that about 300,000 fewer people are coming on to it than when we took office.

Mr. Howard

The question I asked was about the number of people claiming, which has gone up by 120,000. This week, the head of the Prime Minister's own antisocial behaviour unit said: I can think of countless families who are drinking or drug using with the money … the Government is giving them. That is what the head of his own unit said.

Does the Prime Minister agree with another of his advisers, his former chief economic adviser, who said this week that under this Government, "the regulatory burden" has "increased", "the tax system" has become more complicated and the tax burden is "rising too"?

The Prime Minister

First, let me correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman on incapacity benefit. It is true, of course, that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit trebled under the Conservatives. There are still many people on incapacity benefit today who came on to it before 1997. The question is how many are coming on to the benefit each year now as opposed to 1997—and the numbers have declined by 30 per cent. I agree that there is still a lot more to do, which is precisely why we want to tighten up the gateway of people coming on to incapacity benefit. Let us be quite clear, however, that for a long period under the Conservatives incapacity benefit was the result of the way they shunted people off unemployment benefit to make sure that they never appeared in the official figures. So we will take no lessons from the Tories on incapacity benefit.

As for the economy, let us compare the economy now with the economy when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office—[Interruption.] He was a Cabinet Minister for 10 years. Under this Government we have the lowest inflation, the lowest interest rates, the lowest levels of unemployment for more than 30 years. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Employment Secretary, there were 1 million extra people on the dole. That is the difference between the two parties.

Mr. Howard

Let me remind the Prime Minister about the question that I asked him. It was about the views of his former chief economic adviser, who said that the regulatory and tax burden had gone up. Let me give the Prime Minister a hint: his former chief economic adviser is right, which is why for the first time ever our national income per head is lower than that of the Republic of Ireland.

In respect of the Prime Minister's NHS plan, four years ago the Government promised to tackle the problem of hospital cleanliness, so have the figures got better or worse?

The Prime Minister

I have to return to the original point on the economy. Let me make it clear that the burden of tax is less than it was under most of the years of the previous Conservative Government, but it is true that we have increased national insurance to fund improvements in the national health service. We are proud of doing that; it is the right thing to do. It means that, for the first time, instead of health waiting lists going up—they were 400,000 under the Conservatives—they are 300,000 down under us.

In respect of the other policy issue that the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about, which I am afraid has just slipped my mind—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

The economy.

The Prime Minister

No, the economy was the issue before it. What was the last one? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hospital cleanliness."] Yes, that was it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that that is a major issue. We accept that, which is why we are investing about £300 million extra in hospital cleanliness over the next couple of years. However, that real issue should not detract from the Government's record on the health service, where waiting lists have fallen, people are able to get access to health care far quicker and there have been record increases in the number of doctors and nurses. I agree that there is still more to do and that hospital cleanliness is one example of that. However, cutting investment in the national health service—we should remember that the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against all the extra investment for the NHS—is not the answer.

Mr. Howard

The problem of hospital cleanliness is rather an important one, and if the Prime Minister concentrated on answering the questions that I am putting to him, it would not have slipped his mind.

The number of deaths from the MRSA superbug has actually doubled since the Prime Minister took office. Those who work in the NHS, including the chief executive, say that Government targets make matters worse. The National Audit Office says that more than one in 10 local hospital managers refuse to allow specialist teams to close wards to deal with those infections because of the Government's targets. Will the Prime Minister instruct his Health Secretary today to insist that the recommendations of infection teams are followed?

The Prime Minister

First, the additional money that we are putting in will make a difference, and its effectiveness will be measured. The Leader of the Opposition talks about MRSA levels, but the proper computation of those levels has been available only under this Government. It is correct to say that we have more to do on this issue, but I do not believe that the answer is to get rid of Government targets. We are putting record investment into the health service and it is important that we demand outputs for it. That should not interfere with clinical judgment, but if we are putting the money in, it is important that we get the results out. That is what we are doing.

Mr. Howard

I asked the Prime Minister to take specific action today to deal with this dreadful problem, but yet again all we have had from him is more talk. Crime is up, incapacity benefit is out of control, tax is rising, hospital infections are spreading and there is a crisis in pensions, but the Prime Minister's message to the people of this country is that his priority is to ban fox hunting. When will he get to grips with the problems that people really care about?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman finally got to his point at the end. When people look at this Government's record, they will see a record on the economy that is strong, with the lowest rates of interest, inflation and unemployment for more than 25 or 30 years. They will see record levels of employment, rising living standards and record school results. The British crime survey shows not only that crime is falling but that we have record numbers of police. In respect of the NHS and education, people can see that the investment is working. This country is stronger, fairer and more prosperous than it was seven years ago, and I believe that that is one reason why people reject the Conservatives.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend review the application of the double jeopardy rule to our soldiers serving abroad? Surely it cannot be right for soldiers whose commanding officer has dismissed as unfounded the serious criminal charges that they faced to have those charges resurrected by the civilian authorities?

The Prime Minister

The House will accept that we have to investigate allegations of abuse and, if necessary, prosecute them. We would also be subject to criticism if we did not do that but merely said that we would not take up the issue. I want to make one thing clear to my hon. Friend: the vast bulk of British soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere around the world do a magnificent job. They do not mistreat prisoners, but treat the local communities extremely well, which is why they are so popular as peacekeepers. Even so, where there is mistreatment, I am afraid that we have to investigate it.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD)

I am sure that the Prime Minister and the House are well aware of the outstanding contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the British armed forces over many generations. A relatively small number overall of Gurkha soldiers who complete their service in our armed forces here seek British citizenship. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that their right to be accorded citizenship is long overdue?

The Prime Minister

As I think I said a week or two ago, we are examining this issue very carefully. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement in the next few weeks, but obviously we understand the strength of the case that is being made.

Mr. Kennedy

As the UK chairman of the Gurkhas pointed out to me earlier this week, many of those who are seeking British citizenship would be a positive asset to our country both socially and economically, as they were in the armed forces. The Prime Minister is right to praise our armed forces, not only for the combat tasks they undertake but for their hurricane relief support work and their work saving lives during the floods in Cornwall this summer. Would not it be a great morale boost for the Gurkhas and for the armed forces as a whole if this much respected and decorated regiment were to be acknowledged in that way?

The Prime Minister

Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Gurkhas on my own and the whole House's behalf for the fantastic work that they do. They are an integral part of the British Army, and we are proud to have them with us. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the issue is not just the Gurkhas themselves, because the strength of that case is clear, but we simply have to examine what the consequences might be of agreeing to that case. We are doing that, and I shall be able to make an announcement in the next few weeks.

Q2. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

In February, Stephan Pakerra, a 14-year-old Leicester schoolboy, was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old with a claw hammer and a knife. There were more than 50 injuries to his body. The parents of the victim believe that the perpetrator of that savage attack was influenced by the video game "Manhunt". Later today, there will be a meeting in Westminster to discuss video games and their effect on children. Will the Prime Minister ask the Home Secretary whether he will commission new research to look at a connection between video games and crimes of violence? Will he meet a delegation of concerned parents about the issue?

The Prime Minister

I am obviously happy to meet any of my hon. Friend's constituents or people concerned about this issue, and the Home Secretary will have heard what my hon. Friend has just said. I offer my deepest sympathy to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. I can also say, from what I have been told about this game, that it is obviously in no way suitable for children. In fact, the sale of the game to a person under 18 should be illegal. Responsible adults should have the right to watch and choose what games they play and films they see, but children need to be protected. We have Europe's strongest system for controlling the sale of computer games that are not suitable for children. It is run by the Video Standards Council, which applies the familiar British Board of Film Classification rating system. Given the prevalence of these games, however, this issue is worth looking at closely, and I shall certainly discuss with the Home Secretary how we can take matters forward.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister quite rightly told us that the planet was in danger and that we must generate much more power from renewable sources, yet Talisman Energy, which wants to develop the world's largest wind farm in the Moray firth, says that the greatest single threat to the viability of that project is the charges being proposed by Ofgem and the National Grid Company. Can the Prime Minister explain why it should cost £20 per kilowatt to connect to the grid in the north of Scotland, whereas anyone can be subsidised by £9 per kilowatt if they want a wind farm in central London—[Interruption.] Though not the Prime Minister's hot air, perhaps. Will the Prime Minister intervene to join up the thinking of his Government on those matters?

The Prime Minister

We are committed to increasing the amount of renewable energy. Obviously, wind will be a substantial source of that, particularly off shore. I do not know about the particular position that the hon. Gentleman asked about, and I can certainly look into it. I have to say that the Government's commitment over the past few years to renewable energy makes it clear that we are increasing the proportion of our energy needs that is met by renewables. We are making a substantial investment and will continue to do so.

Q3. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab)

May I take my right hon. Friend to the Government's alcohol strategy and to the important speech that he gave earlier in the year about binge drinking? This morning, my noble Friend Lord Mitchell and I hosted the launch of the charity NOFAS UK—the National Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome—and its video for schools. Will my right hon. Friend lend his support to the video's message that if pregnant women binge-drink there is a serious danger to their children in the future? In particular, will he lend his support to the incorporation of the issue in the forthcoming public health White Paper?

The Prime Minister

On the specific issue of foetal alcohol syndrome, we know that excessive drinking may affect the brain of a developing foetus. The evidence is absolutely clear, and I am sure that responsible women who are pregnant will take account of it. The forthcoming public health White Paper will build on the progress that we have made with the alcohol strategy. It will deal with this as a matter of public health, but, in addition, strong measures are now in place in relation to binge drinking and antisocial behaviour. As the Under-Secretary of State for Wales was saying a few minutes ago, the powers to deal with that exist, and we urge the police and local authorities to use them. On the specific issue of public health, we will deal more with it shortly when the Government's White Paper comes.

Q4. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con)

The Prime Minister kindly met me earlier in the year to discuss the growing problem caused locally by Travellers buying greenbelt land and illegally developing it. However, the Government's recent response—the 28-day temporary stop notice—is widely seen as a fudge, because all it does is postpone the problem and thereafter our inadequate planning laws kick in. Will the Prime Minister recognise that the Government's indecision on the issue is now causing increasing anger and threatens the peace and harmony of many local communities, for all concerned? Will he now re-examine my private Member's Bill, which proposed a fair solution to the problem and had good cross-party support, but was blocked by the Government without explanation?

The Prime Minister

As I think I said to the hon. Gentleman when we met in February, I am basically sympathetic to the points that he makes. As he knows, we are undertaking a policy review on the position of Gypsies and Travellers, which we will publish shortly. My understanding is that the 28-day delay allows the local authority to take prompt action. I know that he disagrees with that and thinks that we need additional legal powers. I am happy to look at the question again and discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, but we think that the powers are valid—as I think my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said to the hon. Gentleman when we met. I entirely agree that it is a major issue in certain communities—I know that from my own constituency—and it is important that the powers are in place to deal with it effectively. I will go back and have a look at the issue again, but it is worth pointing out that we have strengthened the law, and the advice we are receiving—although I will check it carefully —is that the law is sufficiently strong to enable us to deal with the problem. I understand that it is an issue in some areas and I will look into it carefully myself.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

This Sunday sees the first significant extension of open access land in England under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the establishment of a legal right to roam fulfils a Labour ambition that goes back many generations. Will he today send a message of solidarity and celebration to those who will gather in the Peak district in my constituency this weekend to celebrate the right to roam?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the Act introduced a major new right for which people have campaigned for more than a century. By the end of December 2005, walkers will have new rights of access to some 3,200 sq miles of open country and registered common land in England. It is important to realise that the Act and the countryside code strike a proper balance between the rights of walkers and those of landowners. I hope and believe that matters can be resolved sensibly, so that people have access to more of our countryside, which they have wanted for many years, without interfering with the proper use of the land by its owners.

Q5. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told other countries to take seriously the threat of climate change, so why does he have a domestic energy policy that makes no sense and that will desecrate large areas of our country with unreliable wind turbines, which will not solve the problem? At the same time, nuclear power, which does make a positive contribution, will be allowed to wither away without replacement. Will he close the familiar gap between what he says and what he does, and get a domestic energy policy that measures up to the scale of his environmental rhetoric?

The Prime Minister

It was this Government who played a major part in negotiating the Kyoto protocol, and we have also reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy, far from being an accidental part of our strategy, is a vital part of our ability to meet our targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman is against it. We made it clear in the White Paper that we have not shut the door on nuclear power, but until the issues of cost and public concern about safety can be met there is simply not the consent to go ahead with it. That is why it is important that we continue to invest in new technologies, such as renewable energy. It is a perfectly coherent policy to say that we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and renewable energy and greater energy efficiency are good ways to achieve that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the arrest and detention in Jerusalem of my constituent, Hajira Qureshi, a student of mathematics at Cambridge university? No charges have been brought against Ms Qureshi or her two companions, yet they were subject to a raid of their hotel room at 3 am and were strip-searched. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the Israeli authorities and protest about that unprovoked attack on British citizens?

The Prime Minister

According to the Foreign Secretary, we are following that up, but of course I understand my hon. Friend's concern. We are aware that three British nationals were arrested by Israeli authorities; they have been seen by our consular authorities who are providing all the assistance they can. I understand that they were subsequently released from custody. We have raised the matter with the chief of police in Jerusalem and we shall continue to pursue it with the Israeli authorities. At this stage, that is all I can say to my hon. Friend.

Q6. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

Although the Isle of Wight is one of Britain's prime tomato producers, it is hard to find island tomatoes in local supermarkets, yet I can buy mangetout from Sierra Leone. It costs the same to get a beef carcase to a wholesaler from Argentina as it does from parts of Britain. What is the Prime Minister doing to cut food miles?

The Prime Minister

For some reason, the mangetout section has been left out of my brief and I apologise for that. To be absolutely frank, I do not know, so I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman on the subject—but I am sure that we are doing something.