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Q1.  Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
(Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 1 March.
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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 who were killed in Iraq yesterday. They were doing a vital and important job, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I am also sure that the House will join me in sending our warm wishes to Mr. Speaker for a speedy recovery.
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.
Andrew Miller: Let meon behalf of the whole House, I am sureassociate myself with my right hon. Friend's remarks about the soldiers, and, indeed, the absence of Mr. Speaker.
My right hon. Friend will know that in my constituency, local industry has done a tremendous amount in addressing issues of climate change. To remain competitive, however, industries need the strengthening of international agreements. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to develop such agreements?
The Prime Minister: Along with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Secretary of State for International Development, I met representatives of the "Stop Climate Chaos" coalition yesterday. We need to do three major things. First, we need to strengthen the international framework, both through the United Nations process and through the G8-plus 5 dialogue, which has been very useful indeed. Secondly, we need stronger action at European level, especially on the extension of the emissions trading system post-2012. Thirdly, obviously, we need action here. We are giving careful consideration to the idea of a carbon budget, which was advanced by the coalition yesterday. However, I think that this country has led the way over the past few years in respect of the environment and climate change, and we must continue to do so.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I join the Prime Minister in expressing our sympathy for the families of the two British soldiers who died in Iraq yesterday? They died serving our country, and we should honour their memory. I also agree with what the Prime Minister said about Mr. Speaker, and wish him a speedy return.
On a happier note, may I thank the Prime Minister for the flowers that he sent to my family? He may not know that I received flowers from both No. 10 and No. 11. I am delighted to be the first man in history to get bunched by both our Prime Ministers.
Yesterday, the Government published their Education and Inspections Bill. The phrase "trust schools", which appeared throughout the White Paper, has now disappeared. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is renaming those schools "foundation schools," and that they will have all the same freedoms?
The Prime Minister:
Let me first congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the birth of his child, wish him and his family well, and say thank you to him for his
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thanks to me for the flowers? I am glad that the Chancellor was immensely generous in sending him flowers as well. Whether he will be as generous in the Budget I do not know. I certainly hope that that is the limit of his generosity to the right hon. Gentleman. We do not for legal reasons need to mention the words "trust school". It is exactly the same for specialist schools, which are not mentioned in legislation either. However, the trust schools will have exactly the freedoms that we have set out in the legislation and those freedoms will allow schools by a simple vote of their governing body to become self-governing trust schools.
Mr. Cameron: Good, so trust schools remain. That is important. That is clear. Let me try to clarify something else. The Government's White Paper said that local authorities would not be able to provide new schools. The Prime Minister made a concession and said that they could, but that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills would have a veto. Will he confirm that, as the Bill goes through the House, that veto will remain in the Bill?
The Prime Minister: It has to remain for this reason. We have made this clear all the way through. The change was made because we listened to the Local Government Association, which includes Conservative as well as Labour members, which said that, if the driving force behind this is parental choice and parents want a new community school, it seems a bit much to prevent local authorities from being in the competition to provide a new school. However, let me emphasise that, if a local authority proposes a new community school, it is not then the deciding authority. That decision is made by the adjudicator. Of course, the Secretary of State has to have the power to ensure that it is in accordance with parental choice.
Mr. Cameron: Good, so the veto remains in the Bill. Given that the Prime Minister has our support, he does not have to make any further concessions to the rebels, so will he make it clear that the Bill will not be weakened any further?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I do make that clear, but let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not know whether he agrees with what we have done, with local authorities being able to propose community schools. If he doesboth Conservative and Labour members of the Local Government Association have said that that should happenthat is a point of agreement between us. Also, as far as I am aware, he now supports us on selection and agrees that we should put in safeguards against selection. So we now have a very happy consensus between us and I look forward to seeing him in the Lobbies.
Mr. Cameron: The right hon. Gentleman will see me in the Lobbies. We back school freedom. That is 200 of us. If he can just find 150 of his own MPs, we can get on and pass the Bill.
Two former Cabinet Ministers, the right hon. Members for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) and for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), have said that the Prime Minister's position would be untenable if he relied on
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Conservative support. Does he agree that that is nonsense and that he should just get on and do the right thing for school standards and for our children?
The Prime Minister: We are doing the right thing for our children. What we have done so far as a result of the changes and the investment and reform in our schools is that we have raised standards substantially. We have 100,000 extra staff in our schoolsteachers and teaching assistantsthe biggest ever building programme for schools is under way, and this country's schools have had the best results they have ever had for children at the ages of 11, 16 and 18. We will continue to do the right thing for children in our country because we want to ensure that every child, no matter what their background, gets the best start in life.
Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What information is available about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and what intelligence reports are available about his activities?
The Prime Minister: On the whereabouts, for obvious reasons, if I knew, I could not say. In respect of the activities, there is absolutely no doubt that, around the world, al-Qaeda and linked groups are causing, and are engaged in, acts of terrorism that are killing many innocent people. Whatever part of the world it is, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, any of the middle eastern countries or indeed Europe, that organisation, with its evil ideology, continues to kill wholly innocent people in an attempt to destroy the values that I believe most people in the world share of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy that the Prime Minister made at the beginning and extend our good wishes to the Speaker for a speedy return.
The Prime Minister recently described Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay as an anomaly that would have to be dealt with sooner or later. When will it be dealt withsooner, or later?
The Prime Minister: As I said, I hope that a judicial process can be put in place that means that Guantanamo Bay can close, as I think it should for the reasons that I have given. However, the reason why I always qualify my answer on this issue is as follows. This arose out of the worst terrorist act that the world has ever known, in which 3,000 totally innocent people lost their lives in New York. The people who were picked up in Afghanistan were engaged in helping the reactionary forces there to defeat American and British troops. So I agree that Guantanamo Bay is an anomaly, which is why it has to end, but I am afraid that when I answer questions on it, I will always draw attention to the circumstances in which it was introduced.
Sir Menzies Campbell:
Along with the outrage of Guantanamo Bay, there remains the continuing problem of the unequal extradition arrangements between the United Kingdom and the United States. How can the Prime Minister be comfortable with an
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extradition treaty that results in British citizens having inferior rights to American citizens, and which the US Senate shows no signs of ratifying?
The Prime Minister: I do not accept that the rights of British citizens are subject to unfairness. I am very sorry to have to say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Liberal Democrats, but I sometimes wish that they would spend a little of the effort that they put into attacking the United States on understanding why these international terrorism issues are so important, and why it is important that we stand with our allies in defeating global terrorism. [Interruption.] People can say what they like about it, but I am also entitled to say what I like about it. I find the uneven way that the Liberal Democrats always express themselves on this issue[Interruption.] I am sorry, but I find it an affront, given what people are facing right round the world: a global terrorism that I would have thought we could unite against and defeat.
Q2.  Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Is it not the case that the terrorist attacks on Londoners last July murdered people of all faiths and were condemned by people of all faiths? If someone carries a placard announcing, "Europe, you will pay. 7/7it's on its way", would not most British people agree that that statement glorifies terrorism? So will my right hon. Friend say to the Lords, glorification
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that the point has been made.
The Prime Minister: The point has been made, and obviously, I agree with it.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): On bird flu, is the Prime Minister personally convinced that all the necessary preparations have been made? In particular, are there sufficient quantities of bird flu vaccines, and when will the Government set out the circumstances in which vaccination will be used? Is it not essential that we avoid repeating the mistakes made during the foot and mouth outbreak, when decisions on such issues were made too late in the day?
The Prime Minister: I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman on vaccination. A series of peopleour chief scientific adviser, the chief veterinary officer and othersadvise us and sensibly we follow their advice. I am not an expert on this issue and nor is the right hon. Gentleman, but these people are. The reason why we have taken the view against vaccination, on their advice, is that they say that although vaccination is effective in stopping birds dying, it is not effective in stopping the virus spreading. Their worry has always been that vaccination masks the disease, rather than stopping it spreading. That is their reason and it is sensible in these circumstances to stick closely with the expert advice that we receive. And yes, I am satisfied thatin so far as it is possiblewe have all the necessary precautions in place.
Yesterday, the chief scientific adviser said that he anticipates that bird flu will arrive in Britain.
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Why are the Government waiting until April to carry out the full field trial of their contingency plans? Is there not a strong case for bringing forward that trial?
The Prime Minister: The advice that we have is that exercises engaged in during Januaryand during this monthprovide us with a sufficient basis for the precautionary measures that we are going to take. In addition, the so-called Newcastle strain of the disease, which led to an exercise being carried out last December, has given us a fairly strong basis on which to work. But as I said earlier to the right hon. Gentleman, there are people whom we meet regularlyI met them myself just the other dayin order to be satisfied that the necessary precautions are in place. It is important that we maintain the right balance between taking the right precautionary measures and not worrying or concerning people unduly. As the chief scientific adviser said, the fact that the H5N1 virus has been found in Europe enhances the risk of it coming here. Its possible spread into poultry involves one set of considerations, but whether that transmutes into some different, human form of the virus is a completely separate issue. As I said, we get regular updates from those who advise us about the precautions that we should take, and we try to strike the balance that I set out, in the right way. I am very happy to make available to the right hon. Gentleman any of the information that we have so that he can satisfy himself on that point too.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Today is Ash Wednesday. Will the Prime Minister say that he and his Government are definitely giving up side deals in Northern Ireland for Lentand, hopefully, for good? Will he set a date for the restoration of the institutions that are currently suspended, and call an end to the malingering and posturing of the parties involved?
The Prime Minister: We will do our best to try to get an agreement, as we have over the years. However, the hon. Gentleman has long experience of dealing with these matters and will know that, in the end, the Government can facilitate but that it is for the parties involved to agree. If he can give me a little bit of help and reach agreement with the other political parties, I am very willing to come in behind him.
Q3.  Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In the south-east, reservoirs and rivers are at their lowest levels for three decades, and hosepipe bans have been in force for seven months. Since the Government are insisting on proposals to build more than 500,000 new homes in the area, does the Prime Minister accept that they have a responsibility to deal with that deficit in local infrastructure first?
The Prime Minister:
It is important that we combine any development with the local infrastructure, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that no responsible Government could not plan to build more homes. The country needs them, and they are a necessary consequence of any sensible housing policy for the future, but he is right: of course it is important to put in infrastructure planning at the same time, and that is what we are doing. That requires substantial extra investment, and fortunately my right hon. Friend the
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Chancellor has made the money available. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to suggest that it would somehow be wrong to plan ahead for the increase in housing, because it is necessary.
Q4.  Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, and of the "Stand Up for Social Care" campaign run by Community Care magazine? The aim is to raise the profile of the 1.5 million people who work in social care. Will he ensure that adequate resources are made available, so that social care workers can be equal partners in delivering on the health and social care agenda?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right, and the Government have provided some £11.5 billion for local councils for adult personal services this year, an increase of £850 million on the previous year. She is also right to draw attention to the need to continue to develop the adult social care service, and the Green Paper entitled "Independence, Well-Being and Choice" is a very important part of that. Incidentally, I also pay great tribute to the work done in this area by the voluntary sector.
Q5.  Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Will the present inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary examine whether the Home Office acted improperly in relation to an extradition request involving Mr. Mills?
The Prime Minister: We will, of course, examine any allegations that are made, and reply to them fully.
Q6.  Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): I trust that my right hon. Friend enjoyed the very warm welcome that he received in Aviemore last Friday, when he addressed the Scottish Labour conference and went on to break the ground for the Glendoe hydroelectric scheme. Did he notice that, after he left, the conference passed an excellent resolution on energy that urged that consideration be given to clean coal and new-generation nuclear plants, alongside the use of renewables? Does he consider that to be the sensible approach? The Tories and the Scottish National party reject onshore wind and nuclear generation, respectively. Does he agree that they are playing fast and loose with our energy future?
The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says and I think that the position adopted by the Scottish Labour party was extremely sensible. We need all of those things together, including the renewables. We obviously need to consider the issue of nuclear power for the future and clean coal technology is also dramatically important. I hope that when we publish the results of the energy review, my hon. Friend will see reflected some of the sensible concerns that were expressed in Aviemore last week.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East)
(Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that his Education and Inspections Bill is more radical than it first appears? Does he agree that it will deliver a final blow to the failed comprehensive education system and the overweening powers of local education authorities?
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The Prime Minister: Well, it is interesting that the Conservatives indicate that they are against the principle of all-ability teaching. The hon. Gentleman is a bit behind his leadership, which has switched positions on that subject over the past few months. I believe absolutely in all-ability teaching and I think that it is important. But I also think that schools should have the freedom to develop in the way that they want, within the process of all-ability teaching, and the freedom to manage their assets and staff in the way that they want. Under this Government, we have seen dramatic improvements in the number of children getting the right results, as a result of investment that the Conservative party opposed each and every point of the way.
Q7.  Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is totally unacceptable to have 22 per cent. price increases in gas at the same time as profits of £1.5 billion for British Gas? Has not the time come for a windfall tax to ensure investment in new gas streams in the UK and the further introduction of storage facilities in order to bring the price down to help the poor consumer?
The Prime Minister: Well, I agree with my hon. Friend that there has been much concern about the recent rises. It is true that even with those increases we are still well below the EU median level and other countries have also seen significant price increases, but he is right to draw attention to the steepness of the price rises. One answer is to liberalise energy markets in Europe still further, and that is an important part of the answer. But I entirely understand the concern that he raises.
Q8.  Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Some 11,000 fewer people in Altrincham and Sale have an NHS dentist than when the Prime Minister came to power. Why does he think that is?
The Prime Minister: Back in the 1990s[Interruption.] I am sorry, but a contract was introduced by the previous Government in the early 1990s that allowed dentists to leave the NHS if they wanted to. It is the Labour party that has put more money into dentists and is hiring more dentists from overseas, but we cannot force dentists to come back into the NHS. That is why there are not more NHS dentists in the hon. Gentleman's area.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Major cities appear to be prioritised by regional bodies in north-west transport projects. Does my right hon. Friend agree that long-standing local priorities, such as the Ormskirk bypass in my constituency, which has been second in the Lancashire priorities for the past 10 years, cannot be dismissed and demoted at a stroke?
The Prime Minister: I understand entirely the concern that my hon. Friend raises and the investment in that has significantly increased. I am of course happy to look into the point that she raises and to write to her.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park)
(LD): The Prime Minister will be aware that the family of Emily Jenkins, who was tragically killed in the 7/7 bombings, has set up
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a charity to post on the internet basic, non-confidential information about the victims, in a timely manner, to reunite victims and relatives. Why will his Government not give the necessary permissions for the scheme to go ahead, especially in the light of the failure of existing systems to give any timely guidance to relatives on 7/7?
The Prime Minister: I thought that we had a very great deal of provision available for those families who tragically lost people in the 7/7 bombings. I am happy to look at the initiative that Beverley Chambers has put forward, and I will reflect on that and get back to the hon. Lady as soon as possible.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly congratulated the Leader of the Opposition on the birth of his son. I, too, wish him, his wife and his baby well, but I feel a little embarrassed because I have not sent him any flowers. However, should we remind the Leader of the Opposition about the Labour party's child trust fundthe so-called baby bondwhich has been advantageous for many of my constituents?
The Prime Minister: An immense amount has been done for children in this country, not just through tax credits but, as my hon. Friend rightly says, through the trust fund; and of course, for some of the poorest families in the country, as a result of the rises in child benefit, the minimum wage, the child care tax credit and the children's creditall of which the Conservatives opposedwe have done an immense amount to lift children out of poverty. Indeed, about 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since we came to office.
Q10.  Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to extradition, surely the Prime Minister cannot be comfortable that, as a result of his recent legislation, British citizens accused of non-terrorist offences can be extradited to the United States of America, yet the promised reciprocal legislation in America is not in place. What will he do to put pressure on the President to introduce that legislation quickly and when will it come into effect?
The Prime Minister: The issue, as I understand it, is actually within Congress itself. However, it is important that we make sure that we get the reciprocal provisions in place and we will continue to do all that we can. We still believe, however, that it is right to have those extradition proceedings in place in respect of America.
Q11.  Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which we pushed through the House despite opposition, gives local authorities tough powers to deal with environmental issues such as litter, fly-posting and graffiti. Is the Prime Minister convinced that local authorities will use those powers?
The Prime Minister:
Around 20,000 fixed-penalty notices have been issued by local authorities, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that not enough local authorities are using them. As I constantly say about this issuewhich is linked to antisocial behaviourwe have given local communities the
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powers and resources but it is up to communities themselves to use them. He is right to say that local authorities now have a great deal more power than before, and fixed-penalty notices are a simple way to make sure that things such as dog fouling and littering can be easily dealt with by local authorities, but they need to use the powers they have been given.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Given that more than 1 million hard-of-hearing people say that they use subtitles whenever they can, does not the Prime Minister think that it sets an extremely bad example that there is no such facility on our own Parliament channel and will he take urgent action to make sure that deaf people have the same access to democracy as everyone else?
The Prime Minister: For once, I am in the happy position of saying that it is not up to me to decide how Parliament arranges its affairs, but I am sure that those who are looking at these things will[Laughter.] I do not know that an outbreak of laughter is the right response from my right hon. Friend[Interruption.] I am sure he will. No doubt discussions in the usual channels can take place; but it is a matter not for me but for Parliament.
Q12.  Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has done a fantastic job delivering lots of thingsin particular, off-peak local travel for pensionersso will he put the icing on the cake by reducing the qualifying age for a free TV licence to 65 so that our pensioners can travel, keep warm and watch the telly in peace?
The Prime Minister: Well, I am not sure that I can promise to do that, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right in drawing attention to the fact that something like 3.5 million households have benefited from free TV licences. There is also the winter fuel allowance and, as he says, free travel for OAPs at off-peak times. Taken together with the money spent on pension credit, there has been a massive increase in the support that the Government have given to pensioners. In addition, incidentally, 4 million pensioner households have been lifted out of fuel poverty, so I cannot promise to do more, but my hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to what we have done already.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean)
(Con): In a written answer to me this week, the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that the Government's success criterion for the alternative
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livelihoods programme in Afghanistan is only a 10 per cent. year-on-year increase in the uptake of legal livelihood opportunities. Is that really adequate to the challenge we face in Afghanistan, especially with the forthcoming deployment of British forces? If we fail, we shall create not stability but further insurgency, and put our troops at great risk.
The Prime Minister: Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the issue and the problem, but we have to make progress as we can and a lot depends on the security situation. If we can go faster, we will, but we have set a target that we believe is reasonable at the moment. What is happening in the south of Afghanistan is an attempt by al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regain control of a country that wants a democracy; millions of its people voted in democratic elections for the President and Parliament. Of course, it is important that our troops do all that they can to secure the situation so that the country can move forward in peace, but we have set targets on the change of livelihoods on the basis of advice given to us as to the realistic prospect of what we can achieve on a year-by-year basis.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): This could be the last question in the session today. Could the Prime Minister take the opportunity to explain to the wider world why there is such wide and deep unease about the trust schools proposal among Labour Members, yet such unfettered enthusiasm among Opposition Members? Is not this politics scripted by Lewis Carroll?
The Prime Minister: I will take a bet with my hon. Friend that there will be more Labour MPs than Conservative MPs in the yes Lobby for the Education and Inspections Bill. [Hon. Members: "Oh?"] Well, we will wait and see. He is entirely entitled to take the view that he does, but the reason why I believe in these reforms so passionately is that, over the past few years, we have made big improvements in our education system; but it is not good enough when, even for all the progress and improvementfar more kids are getting the GCSEs that they need at 16 than 10 years ago40 per cent. still do not get five good GCSEs. Now in some of the poorest areas, for the schools that have been worst performing, it is necessary in my view to take radical action. We want to do that with local authorities. We want to make sure that we do it in a way that encourages schools to develop, so that every child, no matter what their background or what their class, gets the best start in life, and I think that those are good Labour principles.
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