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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has no plans to review the damping mechanism in the 200607 social services formula. The ODPM has laid the Local Government Finance Report (England) 200607 in the House for debate on Monday 6 February. It would not be appropriate to withdraw that report at this late stage, as authorities must set their budgets to a statutory timetable.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)
(Lab): That was obviously a very disappointing response. May I point out, further to what was said by my hon. Friend
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the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), that many northern metropolitan authorities, such as those that I represent, have experienced heavy damping down of education and housing management, to name but a few services? We are now seeing heavy damping down of children's social services. I implore the Minister to think again about what is a very important issue for many northern metropolitan authorities.
Jim Fitzpatrick: As I said in my answer, we shall debate the settlement on 6 February. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government replied earlier in respect of the details of damping down of social services, but let me point out that this is the ninth successive year in which we have delivered an above-inflation increase to local authorities. By 2008, that will represent a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in expenditure.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the families of the two British soldiers killed in Iraq this week, and will agree on the remarkable job that our armed forces are doing with courage, dedication and sheer professionalism in the service of their country and to help Iraq to become the democracy that its people so clearly want. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the latest report from the Equal Opportunities Commission? It concludes that one in five private firms pay women far less than men for the same work. That means that 10,000 women in my constituency are losing out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that constitutes disgraceful discrimination of the highest order in a democratic society in the 21st century? Will he tell me what we as a Labour Government will do to put matters right?
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend is right to point out that such discrimination still exists, although actually the gender pay gap is at an all-time low of some 13 per cent. I look forward to the report from the women and work commission which will be published in the next few weeks. It will not only draw attention to the serious problems raised by my hon. Friend, but provide us with some solutions.
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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal Douglas and Corporal Pritchard. Their deaths will be a devastating loss to their friends and families, and they remind all of us of the debt that we owe all our soldiers for the work that they do on our behalf.
We will carry through the programme of change and reform, particularly in relation to schools, welfare, and antisocial behaviour and crime, because we believe that it is the right agenda for the country. In respect of schools, for example, we think that there have been enormous improvements over the past few years, but we need further change, reform and investment to take the change programme further still.
Mr. Cameron: I have noticed that the Labour Chief Whip is a little quieter than normal. She is probably the first Chief Whip in history to put the Prime Minister in the frame for losing a key votewhich is an interesting career move, to say the least.
Is it not becoming increasingly clear that when the Government do the right thing, such as introducing education reforms, they can do it only with Conservative support, but when they do the wrong thing, they cannot carry either their own Back Benchers or the country?
The Prime Minister: I obviously do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Bill was the wrong thing to do, and for reasons that we have set out on many occasions. He said that he will support schools reform, which is finethat is a position for him to adopt. We believe it right to have these reforms, even though there has been tremendous progress in our schools in the past eight or nine years. Indeed, school results at the ages of 11, 16 and 18 are now better, we have the highest number of teachers for 25 years, we have doubled the number of support staff and there is record investment going into our schools, all of which was opposed by the Conservatives. Even though the situation is far better than in 1997, it is not acceptable that almost 40 per cent. of kids do not get five good GCSEs.
Mr. Cameron: Every week I ask the Prime Minister about education and every week he says that he will stick to the Bill. But every weekend, I read about a climbdown, so I am pleased that he is sticking firm. Looking ahead[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. There is a Whip shouting next to the Chair. This happens every Wednesday and I tell him: get away from the Chair and do not shout when the Leader of the Opposition is speaking. That is not a Whip's duty. He has other duties and he should attend to them.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My advice to the Whip in question, given current circumstances, would be to get away from the Whips Office. That would probably be a better move.
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Looking ahead to the Government's programme, is not the right approach to stop attacks on freedom of speech such as last night's, to scrap the identity card scheme that even the Government's own terror adviser is now questioning, and to press ahead with education reforms, which we will back for the good of the country?
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that, obviously, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman about last night's Bill. Nor do I agree with him about identity cards, for reasons that I gave when we had this exchange a couple of weeks ago: they are an important part of fighting crime in the early 21st century. But as for changing positions, we have made it clear that we are in favour of these school freedoms, and of making sure that there is no return to selection and that schools have to abide by the code of practice. It is the right hon. Gentleman who has changed his position on education policy. [Interruption.] Well, he has denied that over recent weeks, but let me quote what he said back in September last year:
"The fact that grammar schools continue to improve at a faster rate shows how wrong it is for Labour to continue undermining them . . . Giving all schools greater freedomsincluding the ability to select pupilswill help this".
Q2.  Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): In view of the looming debt of £100 million facing the Queen Elizabeth hospital private finance initiative scheme, hospital scheme cost overruns amounting to £2.5 billion over the next five years, doubts about the affordability of the Barts and Royal London hospital development, and Treasury objections to the excessive profits being creamed off by PFI companies, is it not time to abandon PFI as an irrational nonsense invented by the Tories, and to replace it with cheap and accountable public investment?
The Prime Minister:
I am afraid that the answer to that is no, it is not time to do that, and for a very simple reason. There is now the largest hospital building programme in the NHS since it was created. When we came to office, under the old system, we had run-down NHS buildings and more than half the stock had been created before the NHS was formed; now, as I said, we have this huge hospital building programme going through. Of course, with any hospital building programme, PFI or otherwise, we have to make sure that we get value for money. But there is a reason why more people are being treated than ever before, in more modern facilities and at a faster speed: it is investment, yes, but also change and reform, including PFI.
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Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Today, we all express our sympathies to the families of the two British servicemen who died this week in Iraq, and it is right, too, to remember all those others who have died and been injured, some grievously. Drawing on the lessons of Iraq, is it not imperative that when dealing with Iran, there must at every stage of the process be explicit United Nations authority?
The Prime Minister: Of course, we have agreed with our partners to report Iran to the UN Security Council because of what that country is doing in breach of its international obligations, but it is also important that we send a signal of strength. Whatever our views on the wisdom of the Iraqi conflict, we in this House have just sent our deepest condolences to the families of the soldiers who have tragically lost their lives. When people try to stop us helping Iraq to become a democracy and a more stable nationthe benefits of which will be felt not just in that country and the region but here as welland to kill our soldiers or innocent civilians, it is important that we do not walk away but that we stand up and fight back.
Sir Menzies Campbell : Last September, the Foreign Secretary said that military against Iran was "inconceivable". Today, he is reported as saying that Iran has a "final opportunity" to change course. What does he mean by that?
The Prime Minister: The matter is now before the Security Council, and we are pursuing it by peaceful and diplomatic means. However, Iran has breached its obligations in respect of nuclear weapons and is exporting terrorism around the region. Given that, and what it is doing in respect of human rights, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognises that it is important that we sayat this moment above all othersthat it must come back into compliance with its international obligations, and that we all support the action necessary to make that happen. As I say, we are pursuing that in the UN Security Council, but it is important that Iran understands that this House is united in determining that it should not be able to carry on flouting its international obligations.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): The Prime Minister has been kind enough to share with the House his views on Iran. However, will he now share with us his views on the election of Hamas in the putative state of Palestine?
The Prime Minister:
The most important thing is to say to Hamas that we respect its mandate and the fact that it won the elections. However, the only basis for progress in the middle east is a two-state solutiona secure and confident Israel and a viable Palestinian state. We will not be able to take the process forward if one of the partners has in its constitution the desire to get rid of the otherthat is, the state of Israel. That is why Hamas faces a very fundamental choice. If it chooses democracy and peace, and to work side by side with Israel, then of course we stand ready to take the process forward. However, we cannot do that if Hamas' fundamental position is inconsistent with the outcome that we all want.
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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): This week, we heard that the problem of climate change may be even worse than previously thought, and that the Government will not meet their targets. Later this month, the Government plan to close four out of the eight eco laboratories that monitor climate change. What happened to joined-up government?
The Prime Minister: We have set a Kyoto target, which we will meet. It is very tough on CO 2 emissions, as the right hon. Gentleman knows and for all the reasons that he knows. This country is leading the international debate on climate change. As the recent report from the international body on the environment showed, we are now ranked fifth in the world in terms of our environmental record. That is a very good record for this country.
Mr. Cameron: But will the Prime Minister look at the case of the laboratories? The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), said in a letter:
The Prime Minister: There is a debate, because of the Research Councils UK decision[Interruption.] It has taken the decision to close the laboratories, and there is of course a debate about whether that is right or not. The basic point about the Government's climate change policy is that we will retain the renewables target and reduce CO 2 emissions in the specified time. However, there is no point in the right hon. Gentleman raising these issues while he remains opposed to the climate change levy. That levy is the only sure way to secure the reductions in CO 2 emissions that we want. I therefore hope that he will change his position on the levy.
Mr. Cameron: It was a simple question: is the Minister right? Sir David Attenborough has called those laboratories world leaders in biodiversity research. They make a crucial contribution to measuring the effects of climate change. I fear that the Prime Minister has not really considered the matter; will he go away and think about it, have a look at the evidence and come back to report to the House next week?
The Prime Minister: I do not agree. Research Councils UK takes those decisions. The key thing for us if we are to meet our Kyoto targets[Interruption.] If we are to tackle climate change seriously, we need to do two things. First, this country has to meet its Kyoto targets, and we are meeting them, in part through the climate change levy; the right hon. Gentleman remains opposed to it, but it is that which is helping us deliver on the Kyoto targets. Secondly, we have to build international support for action on climate change, which we are doing. The speech last night by the President of United States shows that there is growing consensus that we need to invest more in renewables and in clean technology, in which regard we are leading the way.
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)
(Lab): The recommendations in the Government's new White Paper on health, published on Tuesday, on care outside
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hospital represent the best opportunity for a generation to improve patient care and bring real choice to people in the communities where they live. Will my right hon. Friend ensure meaningful change in how the national health service is operated to ensure that real power shifts from secondary care hospitals to primary care settings, where people really want improvement in their services?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this matter and knows that that is precisely what the White Paper is designed to achieve. As a result of the incentives and changes introduced by practice-based commissioning, there will be a real incentive, not merely a duty, for general practices to offer care at the most appropriate point and to make it easier to access and more convenient for patients. For example, practices will be able to do blood tests and so on far more quickly and where it is convenient for people, rather than sending them to the secondary sector.
Q3.  Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Before he retires, will the Prime Minister have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? His right hon. Friend has, over the past five years, pocketed more than £60 million from speed camera fines. Yet when I asked Labour-controlled Lancashire county council for some money for a road safety improvement on the A59, I was told that it had no money. Will the Prime Minister ensure that all the money raised from speed camera fines is used for road safety measures?
The tragedies in Iraq and the recent book by Professor Sands again raise issues about the legitimacy and legality of the war. Will the Prime Minister therefore take this opportunity to cast definitive light on one matter that remains obscure? Before the war, was the Cabinet made aware of the existencenot the contentof the Attorney-General's original written opinion, dated 7 March?
May I make one point to my hon. and learned Friend? I understand entirely why he was against the original Iraqi conflict, but British troops have been in Iraq for the past two and a half years, with a United Nations mandate and the full support of the Iraqi Government, who are themselves, for the first time, the product of direct election by the Iraqi people. I believe that it is right, legally and politically, for us to stay there and see the job through, because that is in the interests of the Iraqi people and the British people.
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Q4.  Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Prime Minister will recall that the Government rightly voted against the artists resale right directive, which will drive, art, business and jobs out of the United Kingdom, but that it was imposed by majority voting. Is he aware that the Department for Trade and Industry is now embellishing and gold-plating the implementing regulations, in defiance of what he said about that danger? As the regulations will be debated tomorrow in Committee, will he bring the DTIthe Secretary of State is sitting on the Front Bench with himinto line with his own promise to end damaging over-regulation, or were those just more empty words?
The Prime Minister: No, I do not agree. In fact, there is a strongly contested point which he assumes as a matter of a fact is about gold-plating: it is not. It is about the nature of the directive itself. For the reasons that the Minister has given, the directive is right. As for qualified majority voting, I think that I am right in saying that that particular version was introduced under the Single European Act, which was part of the legacy of the previous Conservative Government. If I were the right hon. Gentleman, I would pay more attention to working out with whom the Conservative MEPs will sit in the months to come.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the signing at the London conference yesterday of the compact and the new national development plan for Afghanistan represents a real way forward for that country and, if supported by the international community, could contribute to peace and stability in the region?
The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend obviously, but it is important at this momentwhen terrorism is fighting back in Afghanistan and Iraq and when it is clear that the peoples of both those countries want a free democracy, because they voted in their millions for thatfor the international community to help those countries become different. As failed states, they were a threat to the whole world. It is worth reflecting for a moment that the security that we are able to provide in Afghanistan and Iraq to help those countries become democracies is not only of assistance to them, butin changing them from failed states into democraciesis of direct benefit to the security of this country, too. That is why it is important that we stay the course and see it through.
Q5.  Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
(Con): Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister told the House that he wanted to listen to what local people say when determining the changes to police forces. Given that in Essex, the police authority, the chief constable, Essex county council and 15 of our 17 MPs, including the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), have all publicly pledged to back the stand-alone option, will he now
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honour his pledge to listen and ensure that popular police forces around the country, such as Essex, are allowed to stand alone?
Q6.  Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): What advantages does my right hon. Friend see arising from the partnership between Jobcentre Plus and Marks and Spencer, which he saw when he visited Brent Cross shopping centre in my constituency last week to hear first hand from lone parents, disabled people and the former homeless, who are now employed by that company in secure employment and worthwhile careers? Does he agree that that provides a valuable example of best practice in what can be achieved in helping disabled people back into work?
The Prime Minister: I found it very inspiring to talk to the people in my hon. Friend's constituency, some of whom have been unemployed for many years but who have found work through Jobcentre Plus and the new deal and because Marks and Spencer has realised that people with disabilities could be an excellent work force and there were people who would commit themselves long term to the company. It underlines how important it is that we get more people off incapacity benefit and into work. The pathways to work pilot has been very successful and, as we said last week, we will roll it out across the country.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): May I associate myself with the remarks already made by others? Our deepest sympathy goes to those who have lost loved ones in the war in Iraq. It has often been said that bereavement is not good at talking. We all know that and we have our own feelings about such matters. I am sure that the whole House will be in the same mind as me on that.
Has the Prime Minister read the two reports that have just been issued, one by the Independent Monitoring Commission and the other by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning? Is he not alarmed that after all that was said against my party when we said, "Don't take what the IRA has said as truth, examine it", the commission, which was set up by the Government, admits that perhaps it was misinformed and that its judgment in September that all arms had been decommissioned was a misjudgment? When a Government
The Prime Minister:
A fair summary of what the IMC said is that it drew attention to its belief that a strategic decision has indeed been taken by the leadership of the IRA to give up the armed struggle. The IMC has also said, however, that it is concerned about violence and criminality. Let me make it clear once again: all criminal
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activity has to cease. That is absolutely crucial, but it would be quite wrong if the right hon. Gentleman were suggesting that there had not been very significant progress or that the statement that the IRA gave last July was not highly significant.
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