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11 Oct 2006 : Column 293

Let us look at another thing the Government said. The Secretary of State for Health told us that this was the best year ever for the NHS. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, since then, 20,000 jobs are being cut, 80 community hospitals are under threat and 60 major hospitals face cutbacks? Would he describe it as the best ever year for the NHS?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted that we have got on to the national health service. There are not 20,000 jobs going in the national health service. Since the Government came to power, there are 250,000 extra people employed in the national health service. Let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman, since he is launching a campaign on Saturday about cuts in the national health service, that his policy proposal earlier this week was for an independent commissioning board that would apparently be free to commission all services. [Interruption.] Nobody on the Government Front Bench is in favour of an independent commissioning board. It would be free to commission all services, and we know from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that there would be no limits to independent commissioning. Therefore, under the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal, if the board wished to commission maternity services, paediatric services or diagnostics from the private sector, it would be able to do so without limit. How does he put forward that policy proposal on the Monday, and then launch a campaign asking me to intervene in local decisions and provide more money at the end of the week?

Mr. Cameron: I do not know why the Prime Minister is attacking our health policy. One of his Health Ministers has said it is worth looking at and the Chancellor is going around briefing everyone that he would introduce it. I know that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor do not talk any more, but if he read the newspapers he might find out what his Chancellor thinks. The Prime Minister is living in a fantasy world. In the real world, community hospitals are closing, nurses are facing the sack and beds are being lost. No wonder Labour is not trusted any more with the NHS.

Let us look at something else that the Prime Minister told us. He told us in January—Labour Members will enjoy this one—

Does the Prime Minister still think that today?

The Prime Minister: Let me just say— [Interruption.] I do not resile from anything that I have said, but let me just go back for a moment to the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman has just proposed a campaign, saying that he would reverse all those decisions that are being taken by local decision makers on the NHS. Let me read to him from his campaign document—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister has gone on too much about the Conservative party’s campaign document. [Interruption.] Order. I have given the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition some elbow room, and I ask both to take my advice, or sooner or later it will be my instruction.

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The Prime Minister: I am delighted to say why—

Hon. Members: Order.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know how to chair the proceedings. Let the Prime Minister speak.

The Prime Minister: I am simply explaining why I will not accept the policy on the NHS proposed by the Conservative party. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is launching this policy proposal because he wants us to accept it, and the reason I will not accept it is that his proposal is for an independent board to take all commissioning decisions and to allocate resources. That would mean no accountability for politicians in this House about the decisions that are taken, and it would mean that, since there are no limits to the private sector involvement, none of these services that he will protest about at the end of the week will be guaranteed under his proposals made at the beginning of the week.

Mr. Cameron: It was a pretty straight sort of question, and the Prime Minister has told us that he is a pretty straight sort of a guy. Does he back the Chancellor as his successor? Yes or no? I do, does he?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is a lot happier talking about that than he is about policy, but I will talk about policy. I will talk about the policy on the NHS, our policy and his policy, because in the end the issue for the country is who has the right policies for the future, and it is the Labour party that has made record investment in the NHS, which he voted against. It is this party that has delivered better waiting times, improved cardiac and cancer care and accident and emergency departments, and his policies would put all of that at risk, and that is why we will stick with our policies,not his.

Mr. Cameron: Everyone can see that the Government are divided and paralysed. We have a Prime Minister who does not trust his Chancellor, a Chancellor who has been accused of blackmail, the latest Home Secretary wants the Prime Minister’s job, the Deputy Prime Minister does not have a job but is still being paid, and all the while hospital wards are closing and the prison system is in chaos. How many more months of this paralysis have we got to put up with?

The Prime Minister: There is no paralysis. We have record investment in the health service, which is delivering the results that we say. The reason it is important that we resist the right hon. Gentleman’s “campaign against the cuts” is that the changes that we are making in the NHS are necessary to make it fit for the modern age, when it is changing rapidly, when new technologies and treatments are coming in, and when 70 per cent. of cases are now day-care cases. He can make all the remarks that he wants, but it is this Government, on welfare, on pensions, on energy, on the NHS, on education, who are driving forwards, while his party has a series of policies that face both ways and have no credibility whatever. If he wants to be taken seriously as a leader he should get serious on substance.

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Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Last week the Government confirmed that paid maternity leave will be increased from six to nine months from April next year, making a huge difference to the lives of about 400,000 women a year and many expectant mums in my constituency. Given that I will not be able to hang on that long, will my right hon. Friend consider putting in a good word with the Chief Whip for me?

The Prime Minister: That is an interesting suggestion. First, I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend and hope that all goes well for her piece of individual delivery. Over the past few years, we have improved maternity pay and maternity leave, we have introduced paternity pay, we have expanded child care places by about 1 million, we have given free nursery education for three and four-year-olds, and we will expand that still further, we have given the right to flexible working for the first time, and we are ensuring that in maternity pay and maternity leave we are prepared to go even further. That is the difference between a Government who deliver on policy and one who do not.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence to those who have lost their lives since the House last met. We should never forget that each and every one of them leaves behind a grieving family and friends, and we should not forget the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have also lost their lives.

Turning to Northern Ireland, with which the Prime Minister will be engaged later today and for which he has the support of the vast majority in the House, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government are still committed to the “Shared Future” agenda, which the Government published in March this year and which advocates integration, not separation, for the Northern Ireland community?

The Prime Minister: I certainly can confirm that. The “Shared Future” agenda is essential for the people of Northern Ireland, and we published an action plan to achieve it earlier this year. Obviously, what is necessary now is to get political stability within the right political framework for the future, and we hope that we can do that.

Sir Menzies Campbell: The Prime Minister knows that the 24 November deadline is only some six weeks away. In the past, deadlines have come and gone. What is different about this deadline? And if it is not met, what will the Government do?

The Prime Minister: It is a few hours before the talks begin, and it would probably not be sensible to speculate about what will happen if they do not work. It is important to recognise that this deadline is not merely a deadline in legislation. If we are to make progress in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to realise that the issues will not change—the issues have been there all the way through. We have not had a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland over the past few years—since 2002—because we have been unable to resolve the outstanding issues, which will not
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change or go away and which will still be there, irrespective of what happens. In my view, this is a one-off opportunity to build on all the progress that has been made and put in place a future for the people of Northern Ireland that will last, that will allow prosperity, that will allow people to celebrate the diversity of Northern Ireland and that will allow people to pursue their political objectives in a peaceful way. I think that that is an historic opportunity, and we should seize it.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Last month, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we saw the excellent work being done by the charity War Child for street children and child soldiers. Today, Amnesty International has expressed grave concern about the number of child soldiers still being held by warlords. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the Government will put pressure on the new Government in the DRC to take immediate action to get those child soldiers released from the hands of the warlords?

The Prime Minister: That is a problem in the Congo, and it is a problem in other parts of Africa, too. We have a clear position: we put maximum pressure on any governmental or non-governmental bodies that engage in a form of child slavery and oppression that is truly disgusting. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do everything that we can to eradicate it in the Congo and elsewhere.

Q2. [92521] Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): In a major land-swap deal, Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council wants to build a museum on the site of Charles Darwin’s birth and recreational facilities on land near Shelton hospital. Both sites are owned by the Government, and the council has unfortunately experienced a lot of red tape in purchasing the land. Will the Prime Minister use his good offices to help the council secure the land, rather than making it proceed through a compulsory purchase order, which would cost Shrewsbury’s taxpayers more money?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he makes a speedy recovery. I know a little bit about the issue, and I am sure that it is worth while, but I need to check whether it is possible to intervene in a helpful way. I will get in touch with him as soon as I can.

Q3. [92522] Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said this month:

Does my right hon. Friend agree with her, or does he feel that we should not try to identify criminals but understand them better, and perhaps give them a hug?

The Prime Minister: What Dame Pauline Neville-Jones says is very sensible, and is yet another example of the Conservatives’ policy of facing both ways, as she chairs their security commission. The reasons why
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identity cards are important are simple: 70 per cent. of the cost will be necessary for the new passports in any event; identity fraud and abuse is a major question; and apart from the benefits for the individual in having secure identity, it is impossible to say that we are serious about tracking who is in and entitled to be in this country and who goes out unless there is such an identity system. Therefore, anyone who is serious about dealing with illegal immigration must get serious on the subject of identity cards.

Q4. [92523] Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Will the Prime Minister give serious consideration to the petition delivered to Downing street last month on behalf of the residents of Potters Bar protesting at the closure of one third of the beds at Potters Bar hospital, a modern, purpose-built community hospital that only opened in 1995? Will he consider that issue affecting an excellent community hospital?

The Prime Minister: Yes, but as the hon. Gentleman will know, the reason being put forward for the changes is not that they will diminish community facilities but that they will provide them in a different way— [Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is a change going on throughout the health service for perfectly good reasons. His petition to me, of which I have read the reports, makes the point about the differential in funding between different parts of the country. It is true, for example, since he has said it in his local newspaper, that there is a 20 per cent. gap between the funding per head in his constituency and that in my constituency, but that is based on the figures for mortality though cancer, mortality through coronary disease and low birth weight. Actually, it is

That is a quote from the Conservative campaign document.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Given the latest obesity figures, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Labour councillors in Hull who introduced the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme, which has doubled the uptake of healthy free school meals in Hull?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to congratulate them, and I am sure that it is an important part of the public health drive in Hull and elsewhere in the country. The reason it is important is that, as we extend community facilities, as we see changes in school dinners and in competitive sport in schools—which has increased to 80 per cent. from the 50 per cent. that we inherited—and as we are able to provide greater local community services in which public health is a major part, the general health of the nation will be improved, which will reduce the long-term costs in our health care system.

Q5. [92524] Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): On 29 April this year, on behalf of my constituents, on an issue of major importance, I asked the Home Office a simple question: how many foreign prisoners had been released from Peterborough prison
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in the previous 12 months? Five months on, I have yet to receive a satisfactory reply. Having once described himself, with his customary humility, as a pretty straight kind of a guy, why is it impossible to get a straight answer to a straight question from this Prime Minister and his Government?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I do not know the figures in respect of Peterborough, and I will have to look into that and reply to the hon. Gentleman. Let me make one thing clear. In removing foreign prisoners, in relation to which, in certain instances, there are difficulties in the courts and elsewhere, we are keeping figures on foreign prisoners for the first time in years. Under the previous Government, no such figures were kept at all.

Q6. [92525] Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I join in the House’s welcome for the package of measures announced by the Secretary of State to support our troops serving bravely in the difficult theatres of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, but will my right hon. Friend think more widely about what further measures of support can be given to our troops serving overseas? Is it right, for example, that people serving valiantly in other countries should be asked to pay council tax in this country?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the measures that were announced yesterday, including the important tax-free bonus of more than £2,000 for completing a six-month operational tour. The separation allowance announcement is also important. In addition, we are considering other issues, one of which is the council tax, which he mentioned. The Ministry of Defence is discussing that with the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is another specific issue involving soldiers from Commonwealth countries who fight for our armed forces, but have difficulties with naturalisation because of residence requirements. That is something that we want to look at as a matter of urgency and I hope that we can announce changes in the next few weeks.

Q7. [92526] Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Two businesses alone in Pembrokeshire contribute some £200 million to the Exchequer between them in tax every single month. Given the enormous sums now being raised in tax from companies and householders in Pembrokeshire, will the Prime Minister please explain to local people why their NHS dentists have disappeared, why their last full-time fire station is being downgraded, and why the excellent Withybush hospital in Haverfordwest is being earmarked for closure? It is an appalling record of public service cuts.

The Prime Minister: I shall just point out where the money has gone in the hon. Gentleman’s area. It has gone on 400 more consultants, 7,500 more nurses, and 100 more dentists. In education, there are 1,700 more teachers and 5,700 more support staff. Class sizes are also at historically low levels. The hon. Gentleman
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might also want to know that unemployment is at a historic low, interest rates are at a historic low, inflation is at a historic low and the economy is the strongest it has ever been.

Q8. [92527] Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in the negotiations taking place between the Bulgarian authorities and the UK authorities on the transfer of Michael Shields from a Bulgarian jail to the UK? What qualities does my right hon. Friend believe Bulgaria would bring to an enlarged European Union?

The Prime Minister: It is important that we continue with the enlargement process, because it helps countries to make political and economic progress. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the individual case and I know that she has raised it with me before. We will continue to raise it with the Bulgarian authorities, but we have to be careful about interfering with another country’s independent judicial process. I can assure her that we will monitor the case closely and we are in touch with the Bulgarian authorities about it.

Q9. [92529] Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): When the Prime Minister wrote to his Secretaries of State on 19 May, setting out key challenges ahead, why did he not mention tourism—one of the country’s main industries—in his letter to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport?

The Prime Minister: Tourism is of course a vital priority, not only for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but for the Department of Trade and Industry. I am pleased to say that we are improving the quality of tourism all the time—especially as a result of the investment in skills—and attracting more and more people to places in this country such as his constituency, for good reason. We will continue to do everything we can to support our tourist industry.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the House about climate change. I have written to him recently on behalf of many constituents to request the introduction of a climate change Bill. Am I likely to be satisfied and happy with the reply when I receive it from my right hon. Friend?

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