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The Prime Minister was asked—


1. [200667] Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 1 December.

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. Blunt: On Monday, the Government-appointed South East England regional assembly rejected the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for concreting over the south-east. In the new year, the Deputy Prime Minister will re-impose his plans on the south-east. Will the Prime Minister explain the point of that body, which the Deputy Prime Minister will ignore, as he ignores our properly elected local councillors, who are infinitely more capable of deciding housing numbers in their own areas?

The Prime Minister: The South East England regional assembly is responsible at this stage for examining alternative options for the development of the south-east. We are at an early stage in the process and should take it one step at a time. Let us be clear that anyone who looked at housing supply in this country would recognise the need to build more homes in the south-east. We need to build more homes, the majority of which will be on brownfield sites. We will protect the green belt, but those hon. Members who suggest to their constituents that more homes are not required are simply misleading them.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that more than 500 jobs have been lost at Swan Hunter on the Tyne. Can he help those men by getting orders into that shipyard to get them back to work?

The Prime Minister: We are doing our best to make sure not only that we get the necessary orders for the Swan Hunter plant and for other plants, but that anyone who is made redundant is given full help in order to be able to retrain and get another job. Exactly the same package of measures that has been put in place in my constituency and other constituencies where jobs losses have unfortunately occurred will be put in place there. From my experience in my constituency, I know that that package of measures is immensely successful in getting people new jobs. Since the Government have been in power, I am glad to say that we have 2 million more jobs in this economy. People remember the days when unemployment was 3 million and people had no help to get new jobs.
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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): On Monday, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life repeated the Committee's view that allegations against Ministers should be considered by members of an independent panel, drawn up in agreement with the Opposition, which would be ready to act whenever an allegation is made. That recommendation was originally made in April 2003, and the Prime Minister rejected it. Will he now reconsider it?

The Prime Minister: No, for the reasons that we gave at that time. We believe that it is better, if an allegation is made, to appoint people on an individual basis and not to have a standing panel. That is the right way to do it. In this instance, we have someone of unimpeachable integrity who will examine all the facts of the case and come to a conclusion.

Mr. Howard: Let me tell the House what Sir Alistair Graham, the man appointed by the Prime Minister to chair this important Committee, said a couple of days ago:

The Prime Minister said that he wanted the highest standards in public life. He appointed the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Committee has made clear recommendations. Why has not the Prime Minister accepted them?

The Prime Minister: We did not accept this recommendation because we believe that it is better to appoint people on an individual, case-by-case basis. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the speed of the inquiry's being set up, but the allegations were made on the Sunday in the newspapers, and that day, at the insistence of the Home Secretary, somebody was appointed to examine them. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees that Sir Alan Budd is a man of independence and unimpeachable integrity. He will have the opportunity to look at the facts of the case and to make those facts known to the public. I cannot see what is wrong with that way of proceeding.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Is there not a huge amount of untapped potential in our secondary schools? When my right hon. Friend looks at schools' results, will he see what more can be done to ensure that that untapped potential is a resource for the community and that an arbitrary cap is not put on it?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree that there is still a great deal to do in improving the standards in our school system. However, in her constituency, as in other constituencies up and down the country, we now have the best ever primary school results, the best ever GCSE results and the best ever A-level results. As opposed to the previous Conservative Government, who in the time before they left office were actually cutting spending per pupil, we have increased it by £800 per pupil in real
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terms since taking office. That is the difference between a Government who believe in education and a Government who do not.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): How much will each individual end up having to pay for their identity card?

The Prime Minister: As I have already explained, the reason we should introduce identity cards is that in any event we will have to introduce biometric passports. Of the £85 cost, £70 is attributable to the biometric passport, and only £15 to the additional amount for the identity card. Given what that does for us as a country, in terms not only of security but of access to services and tackling issues such as illegal immigration, I think that that is money well spent.

Mr. Kennedy: Two years ago, the Home Office said that the entire scheme would cost £3 billion. Two days ago, it said that the revised estimate, which is not a final maximum figure, was now running at almost twice that amount. Given the history of this Government when it comes to introducing complex information technology systems, not least for the Child Support Agency and tax credits, will the Prime Minister rule out any company that has had its hands in those fiascos having anything to do with identity card systems? Does not all this, financially and in terms of potential complication for the individual citizen, have all the hallmarks of another Government fiasco in the making, with the individual being left to pick up the tab?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong on the costs. The ID card element is around £85 million a year, and that is spread over several years.

Let me go back to the point that I am trying to make to him. In any event, because many countries—the United States, those in Europe and elsewhere—are introducing a requirement for biometric visas, it is important that we introduce biometric passports here. That will already mean considerable change over the next few years. It makes sense in those circumstances, given the new biometric technology, also to have an identity card. The additional cost of that is quite small in relation to the overall cost. We think it is necessary not only because of issues to do with security and terrorism but, as I said to the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago, because of issues relating to access to services—for example, ensuring that people who use the national health service are entitled to do so.

We think that it is legitimate and right, in this day and age, to ask people to carry identity cards, and that is why we will proceed with it. However, there will be a very full debate in the House of Commons.

I think that Sir David Steel got it right. When he was asked about it, he said:

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the huge anger and disappointment in my constituency about the eleventh-hour proposal from the director of infantry to cut the
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Royal Regiment of Fusiliers? My right hon. Friend knows about the huge recruiting footprints in towns such as Rochdale that the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers have had. Will he assure me that the top four success criteria, which the Army Board set out, will be adhered to, thus kicking the poor decision into touch?

The Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that no decisions have yet been taken on the future of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. She knows that the review is being conducted by the Army, which wants to ensure that it maintains the traditions of the regiment and much of the history to do with it, which is tremendously valuable to people, but have greater flexibility in the way in which our armed forces are deployed. That is the balance that it is trying to strike. The Army should be allowed to reach its decisions, which it will do over the next few weeks. I think and hope that, once the decisions are properly explained to people, they will accept their wisdom.

2. [200668] Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): On 21 June, the Prime Minister wrote to me following two tragic road deaths at Ashton in my constituency. He said that the Highways Agency would consider what measures would improve safety at the location. On 13 August, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport wrote to tell me that the Highways Agency would report in two months. He said the same on 13 September and on 16 November. On 17 November, Ian Lycett was killed at Ashton in the same place. Does the Prime Minister wonder why people say that he is all talk?

The Prime Minister: First, I should like to express my deep regret about what has happened to the hon. Gentleman's constituent and to others who have been killed at that place. I am not aware of the subsequent correspondence. I shall have to look into it and get back to him.

3. [200669] Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to Mrs. Rosy Garnett from York, who today will receive a cheque for £1,000 as a reward for taking a stand against drug dealers in her neighbourhood and giving evidence against them in court? Does he agree that it is essential to maintain strong crime fighting partnerships between the police, the local authority and the public, such as the Safer York partnership, and will the Government fulfil their part of the bargain by continuing to provide additional resources for the North Yorkshire police?

The Prime Minister: First, I congratulate Rosy Garnett and all those others who have won awards for taking a stand against antisocial behaviour. In my hon. Friend's constituency and in many others, the new legislation has been well used by the police, local authorities and, most important, local people. There are also record numbers of police officers in my hon. Friend's authority and elsewhere in the country. I assure him that we shall continue to supplement them with community support officers. When the idea of community support officers along with record numbers of police was first introduced in the House, many people
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opposed it. People are now beginning to see that community support officers are a worthwhile addition to our policing force.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): This week, yet another horrific murder occurred in London. Sadly, it was not an isolated incident: 211 people were murdered in London last year. The Prime Minister promised to be

What has happened to violent crime and gun crime since he became Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: First, in respect of the horrific murder that took place a short time ago in London, I think we would all like to express our sympathy to the family concerned.

According to the British crime survey, violent crime is down. It is correct that, on recorded crime, it is up. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that that is largely because of changes that have been made, for example, in recording domestic violence. Of course, violent crime and gun crime are too high. That is precisely why we have introduced new measures in criminal justice legislation to provide that anyone who is caught in possession of a firearm will be given a minimum sentence of five years.

Mr. Howard: The British crime survey figures do not include murder, rape, drug offences or crimes against children, which is why the Prime Minister never mentioned them when he was Leader of the Opposition and why he then used the recorded crime figures only. On the recorded crime figures, violent crime is up by 83 per cent., 1 million violent crimes are committed every year and gun crime too has doubled. He said:

Can he tell us what has happened to detection rates since 1997?

The Prime Minister: I do not have the figure in front of me for what has happened since 1997. I do have the figure for the last year, when the rate of detection increased. However, I have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the British crime survey is taken as the most authoritative crime survey overall. That is why it is used.

In respect of crime, let me just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that when the Conservatives were in power crime doubled, and when he was Home Secretary police numbers fell. In relation to violent crime, when he was Home Secretary—on both recorded crime and the British crime survey—it rose, which is simply to say that this is an issue here and in many other countries. We are taking action on it. The new legislation that we are introducing now, as well as that which we have introduced over the past couple of years, has tightened the law considerably. We will continue to do it. Let me just draw the contrast: on any basis, crime under this Government has fallen; it rose and doubled under him.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister, to make his point against the last Government, has just used the recorded
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crime figures. On those figures, crime fell by 18 per cent. when I was Home Secretary; it has risen by 16 per cent. under this Government. Now, let me tell him what has happened to detection rates under his Government. For violent crime, they are down 35 per cent.; for sexual offences, they have fallen by half; overall, detection rates have fallen by more than 10 per cent. since he took office.

Criminals now have a better chance of committing a crime and getting away with it than at any time for the last 25 years. Now, the Prime Minister—

The Prime Minister: rose—

Mr. Howard: He will have to wait a moment longer.

The Prime Minister promised to make criminals face up to their offending behaviour. How many crimes have been committed by prisoners let out before the end of their sentence on his early release scheme?

The Prime Minister: First, let me just correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is true that recorded crime went up under the last Conservative Government, but if he wants to take the British crime survey, it also went up by over 50 per cent. under the last Government. In respect of his record, I said that violent crime went up when he was Home Secretary, and it did. Recorded crime went up by 18 per cent. So, let us have no more from him about how he managed to achieve this great reduction when he was Home Secretary.

The fact is that violent crime has been rising for a number of years. In relation to early release, fewer than 2 per cent. reoffend. These are people who are going to be released in any event. I might just say that when that early release scheme was introduced to the House, it was supported by everyone, including Conservative Members.

Mr. Howard: More than 3,500 crimes have been committed by prisoners released early under this scheme. The Prime Minister says that that does not matter, because they are only 2 per cent. of the crimes committed in this country. That is a disgraceful thing to say, and it will be no consolation at all to the victims of those crimes. The failure rate under the early release scheme has almost doubled since the Home Secretary extended it. Is not it the simple truth that under this Prime Minister the fight against crime is being lost and crime is out of control?

The Prime Minister: Let us just be quite clear: overall, crime has been falling, not rising. That is not simply my view; it is the view of any independent analyst who has looked at the crime statistics. It is also the case that crime doubled under the Conservatives or, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to use the British crime survey, it rose by over 50 per cent.

The point is that under this Government we have record numbers of police officers and the new antisocial behaviour legislation. We now have new measures on drugs and drug addiction and crime. We have community support officers. I did not say it does not matter if people commit crimes; of course it matters. It is no consolation to anyone who is a victim of crime to be told that crime has fallen, but neither is it any
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consolation to have a former Home Secretary who cut police numbers lecture the rest of us on crime when he was part of a Government who doubled it.

4. [200670] Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have a remarkable and courageous constituent called Jane Tomlinson, who, despite being diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and despite the great pain that she suffers, has set about raising £1 million, and has almost achieved that total, for four organisations that help to alleviate the pain and suffering of those with cancer. Will he join me in paying tribute to Jane, and will he also—perhaps the greatest tribute of all—rededicate the Government's efforts to improve cancer services in the NHS?

The Prime Minister: I would like to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of Jane Tomlinson in raising money for and awareness of cancer. She serves as a true inspiration to those suffering from cancer. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to make this a priority. Ninety-nine per cent. of patients with suspected cancer are now seen by specialists within two weeks of being referred by their GP, which is up from 63 per cent. in 1997. We are investing in the region of £600 million extra a year in cancer services, with more than 1,000 extra cancer consultants. Since 1996, premature deaths from cancer are down by 12.2 per cent., which represents 33,000 lives. We now have the fastest falling death rates in the world for lung cancer in men and breast cancer in women.

5. [200671] Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Can it possibly be right that after £500,000 of taxpayers' money has already been spent on establishing and promoting a new microsystems company in Plymouth, the entire project has now been lured to Scotland by the promise of additional grants, which are also out of taxpayers' funds? Apart from the crushing blow that that decision has caused to the economy of Plymouth, is it not a terrible waste of public money? If I write to the Prime Minister with more detail about this case—I do not expect him to know the detail today—will he please investigate and find out whether a serious misuse of taxpayers' money has taken place?

The Prime Minister: Certainly, I will examine the matter for the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot give him a guarantee as to what I will decide when I have done so.

6. [200672] Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Four years ago, on 23 December 2000, an 18-year-old student in my constituency was knocked down and killed by a taxi. On Monday this week, the papers informed us that the taxi driver intends to sue the parents of the dead boy for the trauma that he suffered as a result of that. I spoke to the parents last night, and they are devastated by the actions of this taxi driver. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is the compensation culture gone mad? What actions can be taken to curb such excesses?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I do not know the exact circumstances to which my hon. Friend refers, but if they are as he says, it is an extraordinary thing to have happen. The Government's view is that in relation to causing death by dangerous driving, it is extremely important that we toughen up the measures, not weaken them. I cannot comment on the particular case, and it
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would not be right for me to do so. Obviously, however, I agree with him on his general point that some idea of the compensation culture should not offend common sense.

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