The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas):
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently consulting on the provisional local government finance settlements for 200607 and 200708. We expect to receive
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1293
several representations on the level of revenue support grant from shire counties and others in response to that consultation.
Peter Luff: Another Christmas, and the people of Worcestershire are being cheated yet again, with the Deputy Prime Minister giving us his traditional but not particularly popular performance of Scrooge. Are not my constituents entitled to ask what the Dickens is going on as they see that the gap between Worcestershire schools funding and that of their neighbours is growing yet again and that their county council is going to make cuts in other services to reach criteria imposed on it by the Minister?
Mr. Woolas: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would have complained whatever the settlement had been, as indeed he has for the past eight years. I can tell the House that over the 10 years to 200708, Worcestershire county council will have had an average increase in formula grant of some 4.5 per cent. per yearsignificantly above the level of inflation.
7. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions his Department has had with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly on his Department's civil resilience responsibilities in the event of a terrorist attack. 
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The ODPM works closely with the Home Office, which has the policy lead in respect of resilience and response to terrorist attack. We are leading on several fire resilience projects, in each case working closely at all levels with respective counterparts in Scotland and Wales. As I told the House on Monday, the measures that my Department has put in place substantially improved our ability to respond to emergencies, and yet again we had a key role to play in tackling the fire at Buncefield.
I take the opportunity to confirm to the House that the Buncefield fire is under control and that small fires from damaged valves are being allowed to burn under supervision. Monitoring the effects of the plume on the environment, health and food has been under way since the start of the incident, and I intend to visit the site on Saturday.
I pay tribute to the bravery, dedication and professionalism of the emergency services. The House will be amazed at the criticism that was made of their training and preparedness, especially while they were still fighting the fire.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comprehensive answer. May I, too, express my admiration for those in the services who fought the fire in Hemel Hempstead? How confident is my right hon. Friend about training sessions in every part of the country and the competence that can be expected from the agencies? How quickly can he ensure that they achieve the same competence as was shown in Hemel Hempstead?
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1294
The Deputy Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that training in our services has enabled us to engage in cross-agency trainingan exercise that is carried out locally, regionally and nationally. My Office invested heavily in equipment, such as that used in London on 7/7, in the Carlisle floods and in Hemel Hempstead at the weekend. Furthermore, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 provide the legislative framework. Each of our fire resilience project training programmes enables a consistent, co-ordinated response throughout the English regions. It worked well in Hemel Hempstead and, indeed, in the recent plastics factory explosion in Glasgow.
Mr. Crausby: Antisocial behaviour is of prime concern in Bolton, where the police have used ASBOs and unacceptable behaviour contracts effectively. However, they do that on a shoestring budget. Will my right hon. Friend provide the funds to ensure that the antisocial behaviour of the mindless minority will not be tolerated?
The Prime Minister: Obviously, it is important that we keep the steady stream of investment going into my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere. He is right to say what a difference antisocial behaviour legislation has made, as I know from my visit a couple of days ago to Harlow, where I saw for myself how the local police and local community had used the antisocial behaviour legislation to make a real difference to their people's lives. That is why it is so sad that the Conservative party dismissed it as a gimmick.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Since our exchanges last week, plans for an alternative education White Paper have been published. Reports suggest[Interruption.] It was not produced by the Liberal Democrats. I do not know[Interruption.]
Mr. Cameron: Excellent. This is only my second outing. I was told that I would never get a straight answer from the Prime Minister, yet on my second outing, I have done so. We are already working well together.
We are told that the alternative White Paper will propose cutting the power of head teachers, boosting the role of local education authorities, making it more difficult for new schools to be set up and putting the code of admissions into statute. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills said that that would undermine discretion and flexibility. Will not those changes render the Prime Minister's changes meaningless? So will he rule them out, too?
The Prime Minister: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will stick with the changes in the White Paper because they are the right changes to make. There is a difference between me and those hon. Friends of mine who have put forward different proposals today. There is also a difference between me and the hon. Gentleman, because last week, he confirmed that he was in favour of bringing back academic selection
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister said in his answer that there was a difference between his view and the view of his Back Benchers. So he faces a choice: with our support, he can have the reforms that our schools need; or he can give in to the Labour party. Which is it to be? White Paper or white flag?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has spent hours practising that one. Yes, there is a difference with the Back Benchers on my side who have published their proposals today; that is absolutely true. But the point is that there is also a difference with the Conservative party. Let us just be quite clear what that difference is. The hon. Gentleman wants to return to academic selection
So there is no doubt about this: he wants academic selection; I do not. I want fair funding and fair admissions, and I want the freedoms to be within that framework. Now, if he supports that, let's hear it.
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1296
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): May I ask the Prime Minister a question about an item of national importance and public interest? Last week we saw the collapse of charges arising from the IRA spy ring in Stormont that brought down the devolved Assembly. We were told by the Attorney-General that those charges collapsed in the public interest. On the basis of that alleged public interest, of which absolutely no detail has been provided, would it be possible to make a statement or share some information with us on why the charges were preferred, lasted for three years, then suddenly evaporated at the last minute?
The Prime Minister: I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. I have to say, however, that the decision whether to proceed with a prosecution is made by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is not, and cannot be, made by Ministers. Obviously, we were not consulted about this matter; it has to be a decision taken by the independent prosecuting authorities.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Last week, the Prime Minister acknowledged that he had been aware of the United States' policy of rendition for quite some time. If terrorist suspects are not being transported to a third country for the purposes of torture or mistreatment, will he explain to the House for what purpose they are being transported?
The Prime Minister: First, let me again make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that this Government are completely and totally opposed to torture or ill-treatment in any set of circumstances. Our country is a signatory to the United Nations convention against the use of torture, and we will continue to uphold its provisions absolutely. Rendition does not simply apply in those circumstances; it can apply in other circumstances, as the United States Secretary of State has made clear. To be fair, they have also said that they are totally opposed to the use of torture or ill-treatment in any circumstances.
Mr. Kennedy: In welcoming precisely what the Prime Minister has just said, does he not therefore acknowledge that our country is surely under a legal and moral obligation to investigate why flights are being allowed to pass through our country for rendition purposes? Full inquiries are now taking place in Italy, Spain, Germany and Canada. Why are they not taking place in the United Kingdom?
"Careful research by officials has been unable to identify any occasions since 11 September 2001, or earlier in the Bush Administration, when we received a request for permission by the United States for a rendition through UK territory or airspace, nor are we otherwise aware of such a case."
On United States Government flights coming in and out, those take place for a whole series of reasons. We receive visits from people from the United States Government the entire time.[Interruption.] I have to say that the Liberal Democrats are quite extraordinary sometimes. The idea that we should investigate every time that a United States Government plane flies into this country is completely absurd.
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1297
Q2.  Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What more is the Prime Minister prepared to do to help Plymouth police to ensure that drug barons and other hardened criminals are not able to profit from their ill-gotten gains?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a point on the action that we are taking against those engaged in organised crime. One of the most important powers that the police have is to be able to seize cash that drug dealers, or those suspected of drug dealing, may have on them. We want to lower the minimum amount that people must have on them before they can be subject to that procedure. We have recovered something like £185 million worth of criminal assets over the past three years. In Devon and Cornwall, which is my hon. Friend's area, the police have obtained cash forfeiture and confiscation orders with a value of more than £1 million just in the past year. We will also, however, give incentives to forces to do more of that confiscation work, and they will be able to keep a proportion of the money that they confiscate. Already, about an additional £180,000 has been paid into the funds of Devon and Cornwall as a result, and we want to extend that further. Again, however, I am sorry to say that the shadow Home Secretary opposed those measures when we announced them the other day.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Is the Prime Minister aware of the serious matter that has just been raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell)? Does he realise that the people of Northern Ireland, in both sections of the community, are angry that a serious matter has taken place, and all that we receive from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is the response that no questions will be answered in Parliament? The Northern Ireland people have a right to be heard in this place, and the Prime Minister has a responsibility in this place in relation to the safety of many hundreds of people who were visited by the police and told that they were in danger and the £3 million that has been lost down the drain on the issue. Will he see that the rights of the people of Northern Ireland are defended, and that there will be some place where public representatives can ask those questions and get answers to them?
The Prime Minister: I am certainly happy to see how much more information can be put in the public domain, consistent with the proper legal procedures. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept from me, however, that the decision was not taken by any Minister, and neither was there any political interference in that decision. The decision to prosecute is taken by the DPP, and he has decided not to proceed with it. I do not know the reasons for that; I simply know that that is what he has decided. I will, however, examine whether, consistent with the proper legal procedures, we are able to give more information, but the decision was taken solely on the authority of the prosecuting authorities.
Q3.  Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)
(Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Conservative-controlled Enfield council, which only last week turned down £1 million of economic development assistance because it refused to match-fund that sum?
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1298
That will affect the most disadvantaged and deprived parts of my community. Is not all this talk about concerned conservatism simply hot air? Sadly, the reality is that it is still the uncaring and nasty party that we all know.
The Prime Minister: If it is not out of order in this new era of an end to Punch-and-Judy politics, I suggest to my hon. Friend that it looks to me as though the Conservatives have been a trifle misguided on the issue. Let us put it no higher than that.
My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the fact that the only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they tell you that they are not going to help you, but they are really sorry about it.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Expanding free trade is the most powerful force for the reduction of world poverty, but there are some at the world trade talks in Hong Kong this week who argue that expanding free trade means forbidding developing countries to protect their environments. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is the wrong argument? Does he agree that it is perfectly possible for developing countries to have free trade and benefit from it, while allowing the environmental protections that we enjoy in this country?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I do agree with that, but there is another thing that I consider important. It is also important for developing countries whose economies are at a very low stage of development to get helpaid for tradeso that they can build the capacity that will enable them to trade. I was particularly pleased that the G7 Finance Ministers agreed to increase aid for trade to $4 billion, because that trade capability is also an important part of making free trade work.
Mr. Cameron: The difficulty of this week's talks demonstrates how important it is for the developed world to show real moral leadership. Does the Prime Minister agree that the developed world should show that leadership not by imposing damaging conditions on developing countries, but by taking the first step, and reducing its own tariff barriers?
The Prime Minister: I agree that we should reduce our tariff barriers. That is what we have asked for all along. It is important to recognise that the issue involves not just Europe, but America and Japan. We also want non-agricultural market access to be provided by Brazil, India and other parts of the developing world that are well on the way to becoming developed.
I believe that if we show the right imagination at Hong Kong and afterwards, we will get the right deal for this Doha development round, and I believeas I have said on many occasionsthat if we do not it will be a disaster, and not just for the developing world. Countries like our own stand to benefit enormously from opening up free trade.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon)
(Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Swindon borough council on achieving a two-star ranking? Does he recognise the significant contribution made to its success by Government remedial help, particularly from the
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1299
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? We thank the ODPM for its help over the past few years. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that that help will be available to struggling councils throughout the country in future?
The Prime Minister: I am happy to pay tribute to the Department of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and to Swindon borough council for the excellent work that it is doing. It shows that with the right level of investment and funding, and partnership between local and central Government, a real difference can be made to the quality of life of local communities.
Q4.  Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): May I return the Prime Minister to the issue of the Stormont spy ring? He says that the decision was made by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Can he say whether the DPP sought or received advice from the Attorney-General, or whether there was any consultation with any other Minister?
Is the Prime Minister aware that three possible reasons for the DPP's decision are being canvassed in Northern Ireland? One is that there was not enough evidence to secure a prosecution; another is that the Government have done a deal with the Provisional IRA; and the third is that they were protecting sensitive, if not embarrassing, evidence and agents. Will the Prime Minister tell us which it was?
The Prime Minister: I do not know whether the DPP was in consultation with the Attorney-General or not, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no Minister had anything whatever to do with the decision. I hope he accepts that. If he actually wants to create a stable atmosphere in Northern Ireland, he should bear in mind that it is helpful not to end up with conspiracy theories that owe very little to the facts and a great deal to the desire of people to stir up difficulty.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my anger and concern at the fake photographs published in the Daily Mirror that put British service personnel's lives at risk? And yet, we find that nobody is guilty and nobody is going to be charged in court; the whole thing seems to have been swept under the carpet. What can he do to put this matter right and to restore some credibility to the British justice system?
The Prime Minister: I have to say to my hon. Friend that I entirely understand the concernand, indeed, the angerin certain quarters, but again, these decisions have to be taken by the prosecuting authorities. I think that I would quite rightly be subject to a great deal of criticism if I sought to intervene in those decisions.
Q5.  Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Last week, the National Audit Office, the permanent secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury's own officer of accounts all told the Public Accounts Committee that
The Prime Minister: We are all agreed that there is a need for pensions reform, which is precisely the reason why we commissioned the Turner report. When we put forward our proposals next year, I hope that they will get support in every part of the House.
Q6.  Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister consider, as a well-deserved Christmas present to Labour Back Benchers, giving us a free vote on smoking, particularly as much of the pub and hospitality industry now supports a complete ban?
The Prime Minister: I take it from the fact that my hon. Friend says that it is well deserved that he is going to be fully supportive of the Government in all the Divisions to come in the next few months. I said what I said on smoking last week, and we will continue, obviously, to talk to people about it, but I would point out that, on any basis, the vast bulk of smoking in public places is going to be banned under this legislation. I am aware that a debate continues as to whether we should go even further, and I shall listen to that debate with interest.
Q7.  Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Is the Prime Minister aware that 97 per cent. of executions in the world take place in China, Vietnam, Iran and George Bush's United States, which passed the 1,000 mark this week? Since this is an area in which the European Union has considerable moral and political authority, what role is the Prime Minister playing, as EU President, in exercising international leadership to curb this practice?
The Prime Minister: There is a difference between Europe and America on this issuethere always has been and there will be so long as the death penalty remains in the United States of America. When the hon. Gentleman puts the United States of America alongside China, Iran and so on, it is worth pointing out to him that the rule of law applies in the United States of America. Although I strongly disagree with the death penalty, I think that, if we are looking at human rights abuses, it is sometimes right to look elsewhere and at the severe human rights abuses that happen around the rest of the world, particularly in countries such as North Korea, where we never hear any protests at all.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Prime Minister will recall the jubilation last year when the Chancellor announced that from April next year, pensioners and the disabled would receive free bus travel. But is he aware that there have been unintended consequences for Tyne and Wear, where there is a £7.3 million shortfall between the cost of running the scheme and the money being provided through the revenue support grant? If, at our meeting with the relevant Minister next week, we are unable to resolve this problem, will the Prime Minister agree to meet Tyne and Wear MPs to see whether he can find a way through this situation?
The Prime Minister:
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. I know that he has a meeting with that Minister next week, and I hope that the situation can be resolved.
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1301
Q8.  Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Before he leaves politics, will the Prime Minister tackle the problems in the NHS, especially in my constituency, where there are massive deficits, the worst bed blocking in the whole country and people are being turned away from out-patients? Now, moreover, there is a proposal to close obstetrics and gynaecology.
The Prime Minister: First, let us be clear that overall in the national health service[Interruption.] I will come to the hon. Gentleman's constituency in a moment. Let us be clear that overall, as well as record investment, we have had waiting lists down somewhere in the region of 400,000 since 1997. There has been a transformation in the position regarding cancer treatment, cardiac care, cataracts and many other diseases. At the same time as we draw attention to the problems that our health care system faces, it is essential that we recognise the huge progress that has been made.
It is true that there are deficits in the hon. Gentleman's area, but that is despite record funding being put in. I have to say that part of the responsibility for the problem must lie with local management, who have to make sure that they keep within their budget. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in his area, there are almost 3,000 more nurses, almost 400 more consultants and almost 300 more GPs. I agree that there are real issues that we and his local health authority have to resolve, but that takes place within the context of massive improvement since 1997.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Did my right hon. Friend share my pleasure in seeing the national minimum wage rise to above £5 in October this year? He will recall that I drew his attention to what I believe is an error in regulation 31(1)(e), which allows tips in restaurants to be counted towards the minimum wage. Will the Prime Minister give the people in the hospitality industry a Christmas present and bring forward a simple amendment to ensure that all tips and gratuities paid in restaurants cannot be counted towards the minimum wage?
The Prime Minister: It is not me who would be giving them that Christmas present, and we obviously have to be careful about the impact on business. I know that the Low Pay Commission will look into the issue carefullyit has been a longstanding grievancebut it has to be done in a way that also protects people's jobs and business.
Why has the Prime Minister still not gone to Congress in Washington to collect the gold medal that he was awarded more than two years ago for his great help in persuading public opinion in the United States and Britain to support the invasion of Iraq?
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1302
The Prime Minister: Because I have one or two other things to do at the moment. I have to say that I do not in any shape or form regret having supported the action we took. Today and this week is a particularly good time to remind ourselves that this week there will be the first ever democratic election in Iraq in which its people will be able to choose their Government for the first time ever. Alongside our alliance with the United States, that is something of which I am very proud.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): It would, I accept, be ridiculous to check all flights between the US and this country, but would it not be reasonable to check all flights between the US and countries with poor human rights records that happen to stop down briefly in this country?
The Prime Minister: I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary went through these issues in considerable detail the other day and, indeed, again yesterday, and I am sure that he will continue to do so. We have set out the position very clearly in respect of this country, and American Secretary of State Condi Rice has set out the position clearly in respect of the United States. Let me emphasise again that we do not support any illegal activity or, more particularly, the torture of people in detention. This country has never supported that and never will.
Q10.  Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Given the retiring Prime Minister's personal and positive support for London 2012, why is his Chancellor and potential successor blocking plans to give our elite athletes the £45 million a year that they need to raise us in the Olympic medal stakes from 10th to fourth placea move described by the British Olympic Association as being "devastating" for British sport?
The Prime Minister: The British Olympic Association and everyone else connected with the games will make numerous requests for money over the coming years. I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only are we very proud to have won the 2012 bid, but that we will fund it properly, as the Government should. The amount of money that we will put in will be significant and considerable, and the Treasury is absolutely right to make sure that every penny spent is properly accounted for.
The Prime Minister:
It is worth pointing out that, as a result of the EU's engagement with the QuartetRussia, America, the UN and the EUwe will have the first proper elections to the Palestinian Authority. They will be followed by elections in Israel, and we have also had the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank. If the two elections in the Palestinian Authority and Israel go well, there is every chance that we will make a significant breakthrough on the middle east. I certainly hope that we can.
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1303
Q12.  Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the Prime Minister explain why the Government have decided against holding a public inquiry into the events leading up to 7/7? Does he accept that, for the victims and their families, that is the only right way forward?
The Prime Minister:
I do accept that people want to know exactly what happened, and we will make sure that they do. There will be some five different Select Committee inquiries into the matter. We will bring together all the evidence that we have and publish it, so
14 Dec 2005 : Column 1304
that peoplethe victims and otherscan see exactly what happened. However, we know essentially what happened on 7 July, and I really believe that a full-scale public inquiry would divert a massive amount of police and security service time. I do not think that that would be sensible. I totally understand the concerns about this matter, but I hope that people will be satisfied with the large number of Select Committee inquiries, and with the fact that we will publish a full account of all the information that we have.