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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [60083] Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 March.

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.

Ms Barlow: May I seek to cheer my right hon. Friend with good news from the south coast, where Operation Reduction, a combination of police enforcement and drugs treatment, has led to a 48 per cent. reduction in burglary, a 45 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime and a   26 per cent. reduction in robbery in Brighton and Hove? On this historic 10th Budget day, given the Government's record in crime prevention, may I appeal to him to ensure that Operation Reduction gains a further 12 months' funding from 1 April, and would he like to see—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. When I am on my feet, the hon. Lady must sit down. She has had a very good innings.

The Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that this programme in her constituency, which has seen such huge reductions in acquisitive crime, will also mean that across the country over the next few months, we will have somewhere in the region of almost double the number of people in drug treatment. That is a very important part of cutting overall crime.
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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Can the Prime Minister tell us, is this the Chancellor's last Budget?

The Prime Minister: What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that I think that he will be sitting on that side of the House for a long time to come.

Mr. Cameron: Oh, come on, don't be so coy. Let me put the question in a way that I suspect about 350 Labour MPs would like it put. When is he off?

The Prime Minister: I regret to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we shall be here—I shall be here—for the time that is necessary to carry through the programme on which we were elected, since, I might just remind him, there was a general election less than a year ago, and for the third time, we won it.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agrees with me that when local schools have problems, they should be given the opportunity to turn themselves around. Will he join me in condemning Leicestershire county council, which is making the decision this afternoon to close Rosebery primary school, without the opportunity for that school to be given a chance to improve itself over the next year? It has taken the council a matter of weeks to come to the conclusion that it wants to close the school, despite the massive support from parents, governors, teachers and the local community to keep it open.

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will realise, part of the purpose of the education legislation that we are putting through at the moment is precisely to ensure that local authorities take greater account of the wishes, needs and desires of parents. I know that Rosebery school in his constituency has a very high reputation and I hope that his representations are successful.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): After the events of the last week, does the Prime Minister still believe that Members of the House of Lords should be appointed and not elected?

The Prime Minister: There will be a debate on that in the months to come, because there will be the opportunity to debate the House of Lords and its composition. In my judgment, it is important that whatever happens after that debate—as I have said before, I will listen to it carefully—we do not do anything that challenges the primacy of this House.

Sir Menzies Campbell: The debate would be much better informed if the Prime Minister would tell us his personal view on the subject.

Can it be right that the Labour party is financially indebted to a Minister of the Crown? Is not that a potential conflict of interest?

The Prime Minister: If I may respectfully say so to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he has had his own problems in relation to party funding for the Liberal
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Democrats, as all parties probably have. That is why it is sensible that we allow Hayden Phillips to conduct the negotiation on how the system is changed for the future.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we were elected on a clear commitment to introduce ID cards, and that the attempt by some Members of the unelected House to allow criminals and others to opt out of carrying the card is not only anti-democratic but ridiculous?

The Prime Minister: It is particularly absurd because the purpose of the amendment is to decouple the passport from the identity card. It is vital and necessary—indeed, it is a requirement—that we introduce the new passport with the biometric details. It is therefore absurd to try to detach that from the introduction of an identity card, which can give so many benefits in terms of preventing identity fraud. It is particularly absurd that the argument now being put by the Conservative party against identity cards is cost, because the whole point of linking the passport to the identity card is that 70 per cent. of the cost is in the passport. So it makes perfect sense to link the two.

Mr. Cameron: The murder of Mary-Ann Leneghan has truly shocked the whole country. Four of the six gang members convicted were on probation when that dreadful murder took place. What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that the probation service properly assesses the risk that people under its charge pose to the public?

The Prime Minister: That particular case was indeed shocking and appalling. Anybody who has read even the most cursory details could not fail to be sickened by that horrific crime. However, in fairness to the probation service, it is important to state that those people were not on early release, nor were they subject to penalties that involved imprisonment at any stage; they were on probation for far lesser crimes. However, a broader issue is raised not only by this case but by many of the other recent cases, and that is how we monitor offenders through trial, conviction, and subsequently—if they go to prison—when they are released. That is the purpose of the reforms to the National Offender Management Service, which is being introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Cameron: Is it not the case that the reorganisation of the probation service, the part creation of the national offender management scheme and the shortage of staff have combined to create a demoralised service? Is not that part of the problem?

The Prime Minister: First, we have increased funding significantly over the years. Secondly, I do not believe that that is the problem. The problem is to do with how we track those who may be highly dangerous offenders, and ensuring that instead of treating the offence, we treat the offender. In other words, we must ensure—this is the whole purpose of the reforms that we are introducing—that if someone has a record of violent or sexual crime they are tracked and monitored even when they finish their sentence. The purpose of the changes to
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the National Offender Management Service is precisely that. I really do not think that it is an issue to do with the funding of the probation service.

Mr. Cameron: While early release may not have been an issue in this case, will he ensure that the review of the probation policy commissioned by the Home Secretary includes the early release schemes, which cause widespread concern and still let far too many prisoners out of prison far too early?

The Prime Minister: My understanding is that the early release scheme had cross-party support when it was introduced. Release on parole has been going on for many years. I do not agree that the problem has to do with morale in the probation service or the level of funding. It is to do—[Interruption.] I am about to explain. It is about the procedures that we apply to offenders. In my view we have to apply those procedures even when someone has finished their sentence. The problem at present is that someone may be convicted of a violent sexual offence, serve a term of imprisonment and be released from prison once they have served their sentence—and it is at that point that we need new procedures and rules that mean the person is subject to monitoring and supervision and, if necessary, recall, even after they have finished their sentence. That is at the heart of the issue.

The changes that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is making to the National Offender Management Service will be extremely important in making sure that prison and probation work far more closely together. There are real issues to do with how the probation service is organised rather than how it is funded, which need to be addressed.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Two weeks ago I attended an event at my local Tesco superstore to promote its involvement in Fairtrade fortnight, yet two days later, the company announced that it was shedding more than 400 jobs in my constituency, with no prior consultation with either local politicians or trade unions. I have since received correspondence from Tesco indicating that it knew about that decision for more than a year. Will the Prime Minister join me in reminding Tesco that fair trade should mean not only a fair price for the people who supply the tea, coffee and chocolate that the company sells, but a fair deal for the communities in which it locates and the people whom it employs?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, and I hope that any company faced with a situation where it has to make redundancies obeys the proper procedures. The information and consultation directive from Europe should assist in that process. Obviously, I do not know enough about the circumstances in the individual case that he raises, but I am happy to look into it for him.

Q2. [60084] Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In the light of the recent financial scandals, which is the Prime Minister looking forward to most—helping the Italian police with their inquiries or helping the Metropolitan police with their inquiries?
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The Prime Minister: I might respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that Labour has been a little more open on the issue of loans than the Conservatives have. However, as we have appointed Hayden Phillips to look into the whole area, the sensible thing is to try to reach consensus on the right way forward, because party political funding is difficult for any political leader.

Q3. [60085] Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the announcement by the Low Pay Commission that the national minimum wage will be increased from £5.05 to £5.35 per hour from October? The national minimum wage was once described as "extreme, dangerous and absurd" by the previous leader of the Conservative party, so what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of its impact on poverty?

The Prime Minister: The latest increase in the minimum wage will benefit about 1.3 million people, 66 per cent. of whom—two thirds—are women. As a result of a combination of the minimum wage and tax credits, not merely have we lifted many, many families out of poverty, but we have made work pay. The minimum wage is an issue we had to fight strongly—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): What about unemployment?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman shouts out about unemployment, but may I remind him that we have 2 million extra jobs under this Government? I realise that he represents the neanderthal tendency of the Conservative party, which I admire in one sense, because it is so genuine. It used to be said that if we introduced a minimum wage, unemployment would go up, but actually we introduced the minimum wage and employment has gone up.

Q4. [60086] Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Could the Prime Minister tell us which of his policies was responsible for the defection to Labour of Mr. Alan B'Stard?

The Prime Minister: I am not in a position to comment on Mr. B'Stard, but I believe that the reason why we have managed for the first time in our history to win three general elections, and why the hon. Gentleman's party has spent a longer consecutive time sitting on the Opposition Benches than ever, is that we have combined a strong economy, investment in public services and social justice.

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that the prospects for cross-party consensus on tackling the long-term environmental challenge will prove elusive while the main Opposition party continues to oppose the climate change levy?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and it is worth just pointing out that the climate change levy, I think, now accounts for about 40 per cent. of the reduction in emissions that this country will achieve by 2010. Therefore, support of the climate change levy is a complete test of whether someone is serious about the environment—and whether a party is
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serious can be determined not by people cycling, or not, to the House of Commons, but by whether they are prepared to take the tough, difficult long-term decisions to reduce CO 2 emissions.

Q5. [60087] Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The Deputy Prime Minister said in evidence to a Select Committee:

it should be

We are inclined to agree with him. Does the Prime Minister? What is he doing to end the colonial government of the English regions and make his right hon. Friend happier?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman may remember, we did have a referendum in the north-east. There are different ways that we can devolve power. One of the ways that we are doing it is, for example, devolving power to schools in local communities. Local area agreements for local authorities are immensely important. And of course, the regional development agencies have been a major factor in regional regeneration. So there are many models of regional devolution.

Q6. [60088] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): When the Prime Minister was elected he promised to rule and be whiter than white. At what point did he change course, and why?

The Prime Minister: I would simply point out to the hon. Lady that we have introduced in the Electoral Commission laws, and, indeed, in the party funding laws, transparency for the first time—[Laughter.] Yes, it is true that we will have to go further, but I might remind her that prior to 1997, no one knew who funded any political party—in particular, the Conservative party.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Can the Prime Minister explain to the House why, even before the loan scandal and the Metropolitan police investigation, 80p in every pound of individual donations to the Labour party came from people who were subsequently ennobled by him?

The Prime Minister: I am proud, actually, that the Labour party has the support of successful business people and entrepreneurs. I am quite sure that that is not the case with the Scottish National party—for the very good reason that its policies would wreck the Scottish economy.

Q8. [60090] David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Has the Prime Minister seen the article in The Sun today, featuring 12 people who were murdered by prisoners out on early release? Will he now support the campaign to stop all forms of early release and make Britain a safer place in which to live?

The Prime Minister: I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the early release scheme, when it was introduced, had the support of both sides of the House,
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and that parole schemes have been in existence for many years. We do indeed look at how we can tighten up those schemes, but it would be a mistake to change the whole of that scheme, which, as I say, had support across the House when it was introduced.

Q9. [60091] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the sportsmen and women who are doing so well over in Melbourne? Will he also join me in    helping to support the Glasgow bid for the Commonwealth games for 2014, and help us as much as he helped London in winning 2012?

The Prime Minister: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating all our athletes on their successes at the Commonwealth games. Let us hope that that continues throughout the remainder of the games. I can tell him that I fully support the Glasgow bid—it is an important bid—and as Manchester found when it hosted the last Commonwealth games, they bring fantastic opportunities for the city. It has been an amazing thing for Manchester, and has very much helped with the renaissance of the city. I know that Glasgow is doing well in any event, but the Commonwealth games there in 2014 would be a great event.

Q10. [60092] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What possible justification can there be for making nurses and other medical staff redundant at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford and the Horton hospital in Banbury?

The Prime Minister: It is important, surely, to put that into the context of the overall numbers of nurses in the Thames Valley strategic health authority. There have been almost 3,000 more nurses and almost 400 more consultants. Now it is correct that the John Radcliffe hospital has severe financial difficulties. That is why we are looking, with the hospital, at how it can get over them—but let the hon. Gentleman be in no doubt at all that in real terms the increase in the funding is almost 7 per cent., and there has to be a finite amount of money available. What is happening with the new financial system in the national health service is that for the first time, a proper account is being kept and hospitals have to live within their means—and it is important that they do so. In some cases that will mean hard decisions, but as one of the chief executives of one of the trusts was explaining the other day, those are necessary for the long-term health of the national health service.

Q11. [60093] Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The whole House will join me in celebrating the fact that this week is the 60th anniversary of the first Bill that introduced the national health service, which was presented by that great socialist Nye Bevan. Does the Prime Minister agree that if Nye Bevan were looking down now, he would applaud—[Interruption.] He would applaud the massive unprecedented investment in the health service by this Government. Will the Prime Minister give us a progress report? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: No wonder Conservative Members are shouting, because on 19 March 1946, the NHS Bill was presented to Parliament to create the NHS, but what did the Conservative party do? It voted
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against it, just as it has voted against the extra investment that is now renewing our national health service so that we have more nurses and doctors, more operations are being performed, waiting times and waiting lists are falling and, of course, cancer and cardiac deaths are massively down. That is the national health service renewed for the 21st century.

Q12. [60094] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): But the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), told me last Tuesday, at column 398WH of Hansard, that my local hospitals trust should be "commended for their actions" and "supported in their proposals" to sack 300 staff, cancel operations and cut wards, theatres and other essential services. My constituents, who are losing jobs and services, want to know who is responsible for that. Is it the board, which is appointed by the Secretary of State, or is it the Secretary of State herself?

The Prime Minister: Surely the reason why there is a deficit is not that there have not been huge increases in    funding. Surely even the hon. Gentleman can understand that there has been an increase every single year in real terms, including one this year of 6.4 per cent., so the West of Cornwall primary care trust is now getting more than £172 million. That has delivered falling waiting times, falling waiting lists and, indeed, more staff—but it is important for his constituency hospital, like the others, to live within its means. There is massive investment going in. It is correct that as a result of the new financial system that is being introduced, hospitals and primary care trusts are having to ensure that they do indeed live within their means. That is important, because whichever Government are in power there will be finite resources. The hon. Gentleman asks what is responsible. Sometimes what is responsible is the fact that hospitals and trusts need to change the way services are delivered so that they deliver the right number of targets that the Government have set down, but do so in a way that prevents them from going into financial deficit. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State congratulated the trust in the hon. Gentleman's area not because anyone wants to see anyone made redundant, but because it is important to do what I have described.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): When Feargal Sharkey opened a new music studio in central Wrexham recently, an orderly queue of young people formed to make their bookings. Will my right hon. Friend commend the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Wrexham borough county youth service on their excellent initiative of opening the studio? Will he urge all hon. Members to open up space in their constituencies for a very loud and open rock music studio, because such studios engage our young people?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was trying to think back in my memory which band Feargal Sharkey was a member of—the Undertones, am I right? I am sure that the initiative will be absolutely excellent. It is one of the things that enables young people to get fully involved in the joys of music.
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Q13. [60095] Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): More than 8,000 people were on a waiting list for NHS dental care last year in my constituency. Thanks to the hard work of the primary care trust, that was down to 3,000 until this Monday, when a major NHS dental practice pulled out of care, meaning that the figure is back up to 9,000. When will the Prime Minister get a grip on the NHS dental crisis in this country?

The Prime Minister: The majority of dentists are agreeing to the new contract, but it is true that some are not. We are therefore bringing new dentists in and training more dentists, because we have opened a new dental school—but as I have explained before, we cannot force dentists to come into the NHS contract if they do not want to. I am pleased to say, however, that about 90 to 95 per cent. of them are coming in. I am sorry about the people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but we cannot force people to be part of the NHS dental contract. I point out, however, that for 5 per cent. less work it is now paying £80,000 a year.

Q15. [60097] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Last week I asked the Prime Minister a perfectly straightforward question about long-term care of the elderly, and he gave me a totally inadequate reply about pensions. So can I ask him again: why do elderly people in this country continue to have to sell their homes to pay for their care in old age, eight years after he said that he would leave the country if that was still the case?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thought that my reply was inadequate. What I actually said to him was that we have put a lot more money into help for elderly people and their care, but there is a limit to the amount of resources that we have.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Last year, despite rising oil prices, the UK had the highest economic growth rate in Europe. We used to have more than 10,000 unemployed in York; now the figure is below 2,000. How have our Labour Government managed to avoid the recessions that we had when the Conservatives were in power?

The Prime Minister: That is due to the strong economic management of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. What we have now is the longest period of sustained economic growth that this country has had. We have low interest rates, low inflation, high employment and low unemployment. That, of course, is enabling us to make the investment in the public realm and the public infrastructure that is also delivering better schools and better health care.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Would the Prime Minister agree that public confidence in the office of the parliamentary ombudsman is fatally undermined if when she produces a detailed and lengthy report on the scandals in the pensions industry, its findings and recommendations are dismissed out of hand by the Government?

The Prime Minister: They are not dismissed out of hand, but I think I am right in saying that even those on the Conservative Front Bench have made it clear that
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they cannot commit to the £15 billion that accepting the recommendations would mean. In the end, that is £15 billion that has to come from the general taxpayer. It is not that we reject the ombudsman's findings out of hand, but they come with a financial cost, and the financial cost is huge. If it really is £15 billion, the hon. Gentleman would have to accept that that is something that the country could not afford.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Now that the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills have announced the extra money for youth services in England, will my right hon. Friend encourage local politicians to reach out to young people directly to ensure that they decide how the extra money is spent on facilities for them?

The Prime Minister: As a result of the additional money put into skills, we now have about 300,000 or more apprenticeships in the country, and very large numbers of people—hundreds of thousands of them—are being helped through to skill levels for the first time. The results of the extra measures, and also, of course, of the further education White Paper that will be published shortly, will allow us to expand significantly the help that we give people, not merely when they are at school but when they leave school and urgently require reskilling.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Could the Prime Minister have another shot at a question he was asked 20 minutes ago: is he in favour of a predominantly elected House of Lords? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I have said before when I have answered that question that I will wait for the debate and I am not going to commit myself. It is important that we do that. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has to accept that there are different views on an elected House of Lords everywhere, and I am not going to express mine at this moment in time. However, there will be an opportunity for the House to vote on this at a later point in time. The one thing that I have said before, and I say again now, is that I will not do
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anything that challenges the primacy of this House, and it is important that we avoid ending up with gridlock between the two Houses of Parliament.

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): At the end of last year 5 million more people visited Government-funded museums than in 2001, when this Government made admissions to those museums free. That is a 66 per cent. increase in visitor numbers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a triumph for a policy that allows people equal access to culture, regardless of their income?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh, but as she says, that means an extra 5 million visits. There has been an increase of 66 per cent.; visits to London museums rose by 65 per cent. That means that young people particularly, often for the first time, have the chance to go to museums, as do others for their leisure. They are therefore able to see some of the best museums in the world. If anything indicated the strength and correctness of the policy, it is that there are two thirds more visitors today than when we came to office.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Why did the Prime Minister not ask the Electoral Commission to investigate the party loans issue?

The Prime Minister: We have abided by the party loans rules completely. Again, I say to the hon. Gentleman that whereas we have now put out all the names—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Oh yes; whereas we have disclosed those names, his party has not.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating West Lothian district council, a Labour council, which last week was voted the best performing council in Britain? Will he congratulate Graeme Morrice and Alex Linkston, the chief executive, on their leadership, and does he agree that not only is Labour working nationally, but Labour works locally?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to congratulate West Lothian council, the leader of the council and everyone who is part of it in my hon. Friend's constituency. It shows the important role that Labour local councils play up and down the country.

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