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Council Tax

6. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): If he will make a statement on council tax increases in England. [152485]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): We are investing an extra £3.7 billion in grants in 2004–05. In total, we have increased grants to councils by 30 per cent. in real terms since 1997. Despite that significant extra investment, some local authorities have said that they are going to impose large council tax increases. Under those circumstances, it appears inevitable that I shall have to use my capping powers this year—and I will do so.

Angela Watkinson : Last year, the London borough of Havering had the lowest grant increase in the whole of Greater London. This year, it is second only to Kensington and Chelsea. I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has a particular grudge against Havering, but will he join me in congratulating the Conservative administration in Havering, which, over those same two years, has improved public services, cut waste and controlled the runaway council tax? This year it is bringing in a council tax increase of only 6.5 per cent.—the lowest increase in nine years.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady will be aware that the borough of Havering received a grant increase of more than 4.4 per cent. last year, while council tax rose by 14.9 per cent. That grant increase was above inflation, as it will be for every local authority this year. Every local authority must make a judgment in this matter, but we do not want there to be high council tax increases. Given that Havering has a

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Conservative majority, perhaps she should get together with the 17 resident councillors on that council and produce a reasonable tax increase.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Warwick district council seems minded to impose a council tax increase of 20 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend give them some advice?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My best advice is that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire will be writing to the council. That will happen when any local authority raises council tax unreasonably. I will take that into account when I exercise my sophisticated view about implementing capping.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [152494] Mr. Peter Viggers: (Gosport) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4th February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): 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.

Mr. Viggers : Plans to build an accommodation centre at the Daedelus site in Lee-on-the-Solent for 400 young men who are political asylum seekers have been abandoned. Does the Prime Minister recognise that that shows that his asylum and immigration policies are unworkable?

The Prime Minister: We were asked to consult on those proposals, and we did so. The hon. Gentleman's question shows that we have listened to the consultation. People have asked us to take action on the issue of asylum, and we have done so, having just about halved the number of asylum applications from the level that existed some time ago. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is no use in people asking us to take such action if we are not prepared to back it up with the measures necessary to make it effective.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend about the experience of a constituent of mine? She was a victim of domestic violence, but when the offender was released early, she found that the present system offered little or no support. Does he agree that it is very important that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill currently going through the other place should provide that the system gives proper and full support when prisoners are released early, and that their victims should expect to be safe? I also want to state that I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East

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(Mr. Goggins), who has listened carefully to my constituent's case. I hope that that will inform the progress of the Bill.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We know that a large proportion of violent crime is now, effectively, domestic violence. That is why we have decided to legislate on the matter. As my hon. Friend says, that legislation is long overdue. I only hope that it manages to pass through the House with the support of all parties.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): On 1 May, 10 countries—including Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic—will join the EU. We welcome that. However, Britain, unlike almost every other EU country, has imposed no transitional controls on the free movement of citizens from the accession countries of eastern Europe. Will the Prime Minister explain why?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises a justified point. It is important that we recognise that there is a risk that people from the accession countries will come into the country. It is precisely for that reason that we are looking at the concessions that we gave. If closing off those concessions means that we can deal with the problem, we will do so.

Mr. Howard: Almost all the other EU Governments have imposed the controls already. All this Government have done is to screen advertisements on Slovak television, asking people not to come to Britain. Is not the imposition of controls likely to be rather more effective than an advertising campaign?

The Prime Minister: May I point out that the legislation on this matter that passed through the House was supported by the Opposition, as well as by Labour Members? However, I cannot say fairer than that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised a matter that the Government are looking into already. We will take whatever measures are necessary to make sure that the pull factor that might draw people here is closed off.

Mr. Howard: But the treaty that was incorporated in the legislation that we supported gave member states, including the UK, the right to impose the controls. If other countries have controls and we do not, will not people from the accession countries be much more likely to come to Britain? Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Finland and most other EU countries have imposed controls already. Why have the British Government not done so?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely for that reason that we are examining doing that now. The reason why doing it in the right way is important is that if we decide to withdraw that concession, it has to be done in a way that will be fully effective. In addition, we have to look frankly at whether people's eligibility for benefits in this country is too generous under the existing regime. That is why we are looking at both issues. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is raising points on which the Government are already acting.

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Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that a number of drug dealers are using the recent reclassification of cannabis as an opportunity to open cannabis cafés in various parts of the country. I understand that one is planned for Glasgow, but does my right hon. Friend agree that what Glasgow needs is more jobs, not more drugs, and will he commit the Government to using all their resources to ensure that those cannabis cafés do not proliferate?

The Prime Minister: Yes, which is why we have taken action against such cafés. It is important that we continue to do so. I point out once again that the possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence. The purpose of what we have done recently, however, is to ensure that the police, where they need to do so, can target their main resources and activity on dealing with hard drugs. It is important to deal with all those things.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): Given the two conversations that I held with the Prime Minister the night before last and the words repeated by the Foreign Secretary in his statement yesterday, will the Prime Minister confirm that, as they pointed out, the Government are not prepared to subcontract any investigation of their political judgment over the war in Iraq, and that it would indeed be undemocratic to do so, in their view? If that is the Government's position, will the Prime Minister confirm, beyond any remaining doubt whatever, that this new inquiry is not intended to address the central political public question to which people want to get an answer?

The Prime Minister: The inquiry is certainly not going to address the issue of whether it was right to go to war or not. That is a question for the Government first, then for Parliament and then, ultimately, for the people to decide. Yes, of course, it is important that the inquiry look at the use of the intelligence and the gathering and evaluation of it—all of that can be done. What it should not do, however—one cannot put this to a committee—is decide whether we took the right decision or not. That decision ultimately has to be taken by the Government and by Parliament. Of course there will continue to be an entirely legitimate debate about whether it was right or wrong to go to war in Iraq, but that in the end has to be conducted by me and by him—not by a committee.

Mr. Kennedy: Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that this new inquiry will follow the precedents set by the Franks inquiry into the Falklands. May I remind the Prime Minister of the remit of the Franks inquiry? It was specifically charged to


The Prime Minister: I do not think that is right. I shall look carefully at the terms of the Franks inquiry, but my recollection is that it was about the discharge of Government responsibilities up to the invasion of the

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Falklands by the Argentine Government. That is a quite different thing from deciding whether war was justified or not, which is in the end, I am afraid, a decision that we have to take as politicians. All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman, as I have said to him on many, many occasions, is that the debate on whether the war was justified will carry on—we shall be debating the matter later today. I take one view, he takes another; that is democracy and we do not need a committee to tell us that. But what is sensible is to go into the intelligence—how it was used, gathered and evaluated—so that we can learn the lessons from that. In my view, that is a sensible inquiry, but to attempt, as I put it myself, to subcontract to some committee the issue of whether it was right or wrong to go to war is not merely wrong: ultimately it is profoundly undemocratic.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Has the Prime Minister seen the film "Groundhog Day"? In that film, they keep repeating over and over again the same series of incidents. I rather suspect that if we have this second inquiry—or is it the fourth?—there will be people on the Opposition Benches, in the rest of Britain and in the media, who will demand another inquiry and another inquiry. The truth is that only the removal of the whole Government would satisfy those tinpot Liberals. Some of us voted against the war, some people voted for it. That is a political decision. I stand by it and they will have to do the same. It will be a matter for the judgment of the British people.

Hon. Members: Answer!

The Prime Minister: I could not have put it better myself. Indeed, I did not put it better myself.

Q2. [152495] Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Given what the Prime Minister says about the importance of the independence of the BBC, was it appropriate for the Prime Minister's official spokesman to say that Greg Dyke's initial statement and apology did not go far enough?

The Prime Minister: I made it clear, as have other members of the Government, that we fully respect the independence of the BBC and the freedom of the press, but it is not an interference with the freedom of the press or the BBC to say that, if an allegation is made that is totally false, it should be withdrawn.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to read the plaudits and praise heaped upon the head of Lord Hutton prior to his inquiry by sections of the national media, many of whom described his inquiry as a model for others to follow? Does he share my surprise at how quickly their tune has changed? Does he agree that, if a week is a long time in politics, 48 hours is an eternity in Fleet street?

The Prime Minister: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend says—other than that I cannot say that I was surprised.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): In his 2002 party conference speech, the Prime Minister announced that

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The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for reminding me of my conference speech of a couple of years ago, but I can tell him that, through the Housing Bill that has gone through Parliament, it is the case both that landlords who are abusing the system can have the machinery and the administration for their receipts of benefits withdrawn and that the tenants can now be subject not just to antisocial behaviour orders in the normal way but to interim orders, too.

Mr. Howard: That was not the question that I put to the Prime Minister. Why does he not just tell us in plain English that he dropped that initiative? That was announced in a written answer on the very day of the tuition fee vote last week. He does not seem to know that it was dropped. He does not seem to know about it. It was quite a good day to bury bad news. Well, let me now ask him what is happening to his initiative to give top-performing schools earned autonomy. Can he tell us how many schools have been given that much trumpeted autonomy?

The Prime Minister: Actually, I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the specialist schools have far greater freedom. [Interruption.] Well, they are top-performing schools—in case the Opposition have misread the results. And the city academies have far greater freedom than any of the existing schools, and what is more, under the legislation that we pass, there will be greater freedom, in fact, for all schools in relation to the hiring of teachers, the curriculum and the way they organise their schools. So it is the case that top-performing schools are getting more autonomy.

Mr. Howard: This was a specific initiative, which was the centrepiece of the Government's Education Act 2002, and it has been dropped—along with initiatives on night courts, withdrawing child benefits when children play truant, on-the-spot cash point fines, record tokens to encourage youngsters to behave and a whole host of others. Is there not a clear pattern: a gimmick dreamed up, a headline grabbed, an initiative dumped, and the Prime Minister's reverse gear in full working order?

The Prime Minister: Well, unfortunately, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong in every particular. The top-performing schools are indeed being given more autonomy, which is precisely why the city academy programme and specialist school programme are under way. In respect of child benefit and truants, the parents of those who play truant can be fined under the new antisocial behaviour legislation. On-the-spot fines are precisely what we legislated for in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Has he forgotten fixed penalty notices? He actually voted for them, but he shakes his head.

The police now have the power to give on-the-spot fixed penalty notice fines for antisocial behaviour. That is precisely what we are doing. All that he is drawing

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attention to is the fact that we are legislating against antisocial behaviour and in favour of schools, and he supported most of it.

Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): I was told yesterday by the Post Office that Tesco, following its acquisition of a chain of convenience stores, is going to close 80 to 100 post offices across the country. It has not consulted the Post Office, the Government or the communities affected. Given the concern across the whole House about post office closures, will the Prime Minister look into this as a matter of some urgency?

The Prime Minister: I can look into it for my hon. Friend, although, obviously, it is ultimately a commercial decision for Tesco. It did give us the assurance, however, that when reviewing those stores with post offices, it would work closely with Post Office Ltd. Obviously, we will look closely at that to make sure that that assurance and undertaking were implemented. I point out yet again that under this Government hundreds of millions of pounds worth of support is going to post offices up and down the country. I am afraid that that does not mean that all post offices will remain open. It is incumbent on those who say that every single post office will remain open, however, to say how they would fund such a commitment.

Q3. [152496] Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Can the Prime Minister say, with the benefit of hindsight, and looking back to the run-up to the war with Iraq, whether there is anything at all that he said or did at the time of which he is now personally ashamed or embarrassed?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I am not ashamed of having taken the decision to go to war. It was the right decision. I recall that the majority of Conservative Members supported that decision. There is nothing quite so appalling as the sight of people who used to support the war now trying to make political capital out of anything that they can dredge up in order to cast doubt on that decision. I am not ashamed of the fact that we went to war. We did the right thing, the world is a safer place as a result, we are better able to tackle weapons of mass destruction world wide as a result, and this country and its armed forces should be proud of what we achieved.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): The Prime Minister will know that many of my constituents work in call centres and have been very concerned about recent closures, particularly when, as in the case of Abbey National in Warrington, the aim is to transfer jobs abroad. Does he therefore join me in welcoming the recent decision by Carphone Warehouse to open a new call centre at Birchwood in my constituency? Will he do all that he can to encourage other firms to follow this example and invest in British workers, especially those excellent people who happen to live in Warrington, North?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I welcome the new jobs in Warrington. My hon. Friend will understand that it is not possible to protect all jobs in the British economy. There will be a turnover in jobs: some jobs will

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come and some will go. Overall, however, the strength of the British economy means that employment is now at its highest ever level, unemployment is at its lowest for more than 25 years, youth unemployment has dropped dramatically, and long-term youth unemployment has gone down to just a few thousand people country wide. We remember the debates that used to be had in the 1980s and 1990s about unemployment, and the fact that we have such a strongly functioning economy and programmes such as the new deal gives people greater hope on jobs in this country than we have seen for a generation.

Q4. [152497] Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that last week Private Jonathan Kitulagoda was killed by a British suicide bomber while he was on patrol in Kabul in Afghanistan. He was travelling at the time in an unarmoured Land Rover. If he had been in an armoured vehicle, he might well be alive today. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many more of our soldiers will die before they get the equipment that they need?

The Prime Minister: It is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to put his question in that way. I do not know the precise circumstances in which this individual soldier died. I am deeply sorry for him and his family. I do not know about the decisions as to what vehicle he was travelling in. I suspect that those decisions will be taken by people on the ground. Of course, we will look into all these matters, but it is wrong to put the question in that way. It is unfair to people, and it does absolutely nothing for the grief of anyone concerned.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that following the successful progress of the Higher Education Bill into Committee, he should work with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to deliver, through the comprehensive spending review 2004, the public service agreement commitment to give 50 per cent. of young people the opportunity of a university place? Does he further agree that those additional places will form the foundation on which to give economies and towns such as Ipswich, Swindon, Doncaster and Cumbria the chance of a university of their own?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A young person who gets the grades and is able to go to university should be able to do so; no arbitrary limit should be put on them. Our aim of getting half our young people into university puts us at the forefront of international competition, as is right. Given that many of the degrees that people take at university will be two-year foundation course degrees in technical or vocational subjects, the policy is extremely important not only for academic, but for vocational study. That is why I wholly deplore the policy of the Conservative party, which is to cut the number of people who are able to go to university.

Q5. [152498] Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): Can the Prime Minister explain the impact of his Government's policy of rural proofing?

The Prime Minister: It means, for example, that on the common agricultural policy we have been able to

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consider whether modulation and diversification in the farming industry are a better way of proceeding than simply continuing farmer support. Rural proofing is about ensuring that our policies do well for rural areas.

I shall give the hon. Gentleman a second example—the money that we have put into rural buses. Because we know that many people in rural areas cannot travel about if they do not have decent bus services, we put an extra £20 million into them.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): May I ask the Prime Minister what the Government's policy is on the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece, and if there has been any progress in the negotiations with the Greek Government?

The Prime Minister: In the end, I am afraid that it is a matter for the trustees of the museum; the British Government's position remains unchanged.

Q6. [152499] Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): May I take the Prime Minister's mind back to the statement on student support that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills made on 8 January this year? During the debate, Lord Butler of Brockwell was quoted as having said:


The Prime Minister: There should be no assumption that there are to be further changes. As we have made clear, if there is any desire for such changes, they will have to go through this House. It is important to recognise that all universities need more resources, which come from the taxpayer or from a balance between the taxpayer and the student after graduation. Most people, when they look at that policy, think that it is a fairer way of proceeding. It is a far better policy than that which the hon. Gentleman apparently supports—that 100,000 fewer initially, then up to 250,000 fewer young people should be able to go to university.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): A new inquest has just opened into the New Cross fire, which occurred in my constituency 23 years ago and took the lives of 14 young black people. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the fortitude of the families, led by George Francis; to the support of Ministers and of Lewisham council; and particularly to the painstaking reinvestigation by the Metropolitan police, which has led to the inquest and to the hope that justice will at last be realised, so that closure can be placed on this terrible tragedy?

The Prime Minister: I understand that, as my hon. Friend says, it is the 23rd anniversary of the fire in New Cross that claimed the lives of 14 people. I offer my sympathy to the families and friends of those who died. I also pay tribute to the hard work of my hon. Friend on this matter. The Government would like to see a conclusive resolution to a particularly difficult and

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appalling case. The High Court ordered a second inquest on the matter, which, as my hon. Friend says, started this week; that must now take its course.

Q7. [152501] Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will the Prime Minister investigate with Dorset county council ways of avoiding its proposed closure of Leeson house, an excellent residential outdoor educational centre that is used by children from my constituency? Will he reaffirm his belief that the experiences offered by such facilities should be available to all children?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the hon. Lady is right in what she says about the facility, but in the end, these are obviously decisions that have to be made locally. We are increasing substantially the money that is available to councils in respect of such facilities, but ultimately the decisions must be made locally.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the appalling cuts in social services that are being made by the Conservatives who run the London borough of Barnet? After their £10 million overspend, they are now making the most vulnerable in our society pay for their mistakes by cutting Springwood day centre, Flightways day centre and the Age Concern budget. Will he look into this matter and see whether anything can be done to stop the appalling cuts that are affecting my community?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those issues, on which I know that he has campaigned long and hard. Of course, he is right to say that there has been a substantial increase in the amount of funding, but it is important that it be used to preserve local services, because those services provide a vital means of support for the local community.

Q8. [152502] Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Ministry of Defence has issued a press release to the Campbeltown Courier saying that the Machrihanish base in Kintyre is being considered as a possible site for dumping radioactive waste from submarines. In the recent consultation process, Machrihanish was not included on the list of possible sites. Why is it being considered now, after the consultation is over? There is no radioactive waste at Machrihanish at the moment, and the site is clearly unsuitable. Will the Prime Minister alleviate the concerns of local people by ensuring that Machrihanish is ruled out as quickly as possible as a possible site?

The Prime Minister: It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to learn that I am not aware of the particular issue to which he refers. Of course, in respect of any radioactive waste, very strict procedures and rules must be adhered to, and I am sure that they would have been in this case.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are now 60 million rats in the United Kingdom—and the numbers are growing? Does he agree with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which has strongly criticised water companies for their failure to bait sewers

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effectively? Is it not time that they faced up to their responsibility? Finally, will he remember that at any one time, every person in the United Kingdom is no more than 9 m away from the nearest rat?

The Prime Minister: First, I did not know that there were 60 million rats in the UK; in fact, I am not sure that I wanted to know that. I am told that the control of rats and mice is mainly the responsibility of local authorities under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949, with which I am sure the House is familiar. However, I can also tell my hon. Friend that the Local Government Association and the water industry published a joint protocol in 1999 setting out arrangements for closer working between sewerage undertakers and local authorities in respect of rodent infestation in sewers. I hope that, just as I am now enlightened, he is too.

Q10. [152504] Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke resigned from the BBC because they acted in good faith in defending bad information from their subordinates. Can the Prime Minister confirm whether the same principle applies to his Government?

The Prime Minister: It is important that the Government take responsibility for any information that is put out to people. That is precisely why we held the Hutton inquiry into the allegation that we had falsified the information that we put out to people. I

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remind him—I am sorry that this is difficult for those who wanted the Hutton inquiry to reach a different point of view—that Lord Hutton took the view, absolutely conclusively on the evidence, that that charge was unjustified.

Q11. [152505] Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Over the last year, many children in my constituency have had the opportunity to attend either newly built schools or refurbished schools, and more such schools are planned. However, far too many children still go to school in old buildings that cannot cope with the demands of the 21st century. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government are committed to continuing to fund schools so that all children can attend schools fit for the 21st century?

The Prime Minister: We are committed to what my hon. Friend said. There are 21,500 schools repaired or refurbished, and 650 are being completely replaced or completely modernised. Over the next couple of years, £2 billion will be available under the "building schools for the future" programme. My hon. Friend will know that in Sheffield alone investment has risen fivefold with, in addition, private finance initiatives worth more than £140 million. Every penny piece of that investment will create a better future for our children. It is essential that we maintain it. It is not, as is sometimes said by the Conservative party, money wasted. It is money that is a vital investment in the future prosperity of this country.

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