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Mr. Speaker: Order. May we have some calm? Of course, anything that I say from the Chair is said honestly, and I tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has no right to ask, on the Floor of the House, at Prime Ministers Question Time, who the Prime Minister is supporting for an office within the Labour party.
The Prime Minister: I was simply going to say[Hon. Members: Answer!] I am about to answer. The Chancellors record of having delivered the lowest inflation, lowest unemployment, and lowest interest rates in this countrys history, and of having managed the strongest growth of any major industrial economy, which, as a result, has delivered record investment in the national health service, is a rather better recommendation than having spent some time advising Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Turner and Newall is in liquidation, which means that there is very little money available for compensation for people suffering from mesothelioma. Will he join me in congratulations, as last Thursday it was announced that benefits previously paid will not have to be deducted from compensation, following the campaign that I conducted with Amicus? Will he confirm that that could only happen under a Labour Government?
The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done in campaigning on the issue, to the Amicus union, and to all the others who have taken up the cause of that particular group of employees. As a result of that successful campaign, about 4,000 people will each receive about £6,000 in compensation. That, along with all the money paid out in miners compensation, is an indication of the profound difference in values that the Labour Government bring to the government of this country.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Last night, the Foreign Secretary declined to commit the Government to an inquiry into Iraq, but later the Defence Secretary said that there would be such an inquiry. Which is it?
The Prime Minister:
The Foreign Secretary stated the position very clearly in yesterdays debate. We certainly do not rule out such an inquiry, and our motion stated
that lessons must, of course, be learned, which is always important, but this is not the time for such decisions. Had that motion gone through last night, it would have sent a signal that would have dismayed our coalition allies and the Iraqi Government and heartened all those who are fighting us in Iraq. That is why we opposed the motion and why it is important that we stand up and fight those in Iraq who are trying to prevent the democratic process from taking root.
Sir Menzies Campbell: With regard to an inquiry, is it not now time for a British strategy based on British priorities, and not one that depends upon the outcome of the American elections? And should that strategy not be phased withdrawal sooner rather than later?
The Prime Minister: Let me explain something to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. British troops have been in Iraq for three and a half years with a United Nations resolution. When British forces are trying to help those who want democracy to function in Iraq, and when American forces are trying to make sure that that democratic process is secured, they are not simply acting on behalf of America or Britain; they are acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution and with the full support of the Iraqi Government. The trouble with Liberal Democrat Members is that they want to pray the United Nations in aid when it suits them, but when it does not suit them, they ignore it.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of bus deregulation outside London. He may not be aware that in south Yorkshire for every three people who rode on a bus in 1986, there is now one passenger and two empty seats. Will he accept that bus deregulation for most areas has been a failed Thatcherite experiment? Will he back the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport not to turn the clock back to 1986, but to give real powers to passenger transport authorities to ensure that our constituents outside London have the same access to decent public transport as is currently available to people in the capital?
The Prime Minister: I fully understand why the Secretary of State for Transport has said that, and I fully support it. My hon. Friend has made his point in relation to Sheffield, and I have heard it in many different parts of the country. In London, where there has been a tougher system of regulation, some of the same problems have not appeared. Without in any sense turning the clock back, it is entirely right to look at the issue again.
Q2.  Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): What requests for Warrior armoured vehicles have been received from commanders in Afghanistan to help make good the currently inadequate protection available to our troops?
The Prime Minister:
I think that the Defence Secretary has just indicated that there have not been any such requests. In any event, if there were such requests, or indeed requests for any type of equipment whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, it would be a
duty to meet those requests. The work that we are doing in Afghanistan is extremely important, and, yes, it has proved to be very tough in the south of Afghanistan. When our forces begin operating in an area such as Helmand, they adjust their tactics and strategy, which is perfectly natural. They may well ask for more forces, troops or whatever they think necessary to accomplish the mission, which is entirely natural. What is happening down in the south is a remarkable tribute to what British troops are doing. It is absolutely vital to support the democratic process in Afghanistan. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us be clear that the very people who are disrupting the democratic process are the same people whom we are fighting world wide in this battle against terrorism, so we should support our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in taking them on.
Q3.  Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Warrington borough council has just said that it is minded to approve plans for the Omega development, which is the largest industrial development site in the north-west, but it cannot make the final decision because the Government office for the north-west has issued an article 14 direction. In view of the strategic importance of the site, will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in ensuring that the planning process is completed as soon as possible? Will he also assure me that Warrington will get the investment in education and skills to enable local people, particularly those in the most deprived areas, to take advantage of the 12,000 highly skilled jobs that will be created by the development?
The Prime Minister: I know something about the project, and I am very happy to follow its progress, because it is an extremely big development that involves a lot of potential jobs in the area. As my hon. Friend will know, Warrington Collegiate, for example, has a major £27 million project. In her constituency, there is about £1,000 a year per pupil in extra funding. We want to keep that funding going. It is important that the Governments position in respect of education and health remain that we do nothing that interrupts the flow of investment that is delivering real results on the ground.
Q4.  Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I sincerely thank the Prime Minister for his considerable support for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and its quest to cure that debilitating, and sadly invariably fatal, disease. Is he aware of the continuing negotiations with the Department of Health on matched funding towards our £15 million research target? Will he join me in inviting colleagues to spend a few minutes at the launch of the MNDAs research foundation in Strangers Dining Room today between 4 oclock and 6 oclock to advance our vision of a world free of MND?
The Prime Minister:
I look forward to meeting the chief executive of the MNDA foundation shortly. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will attend the reception, and I hope that as many other hon. Members attend as possible. We are not yet at the
stage of being able to respond to specific proposals from the foundation, but we will do so when we get them.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on behalf of the foundation. MND is a very serious condition. The people who campaign on it are often incredibly brave and committed people who, unfortunately, know that they will die as a result of having the disease, and we would like to support them in any way we can.
Q5.  Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister recall the Bill that I introduced last year, the Age of Sale of Tobacco Bill, which proposed to raise the age for the sale of tobacco from 16 to 18 to bring it into line with alcohol? Is he aware of the recent report by the Governments advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which fully backs my Bill? Does he agree that the time is right to introduce this measure in the next Queens Speech?
The Prime Minister: We will strongly consider what my hon. Friend says. There was virtually unanimous support for raising the age for the sale of tobacco to 18 from health groups, retailers, the tobacco industry, parents, schools and young people. We hope shortly to put measures before Parliament to bring that into force, and we are looking carefully at my hon. Friends proposals.
Q6.  Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): When the Prime Minister promoted the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) to be Secretary of State for Europe, and then demoted him hours later to Minister of State, did he anticipate that his Foreign Secretary would have to answer all questions on Europe at Foreign Office questions yesterday? Does he have any other odd job in mind for the right hon. Gentleman?
The Prime Minister: What my right hon. Friend is doing on behalf of this country in Europe is absolutely excellent. For example, we are able as a result to negotiate difficult matters on behalf of this country in the European Union. That, I may say, is a rather better position than that of the hon. Gentlemans party, which is to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the European Union and to separate itself out even from other conservative parties in Europe.
Q7.  Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): While it is vital that the UK play its role in reducing domestic carbon emissions to fight global warming, does my right hon. Friend agree that the real prize lies with an international solution? Can he tell the House what he is doing to encourage greater commitment from our international partners?
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that although it is important that we exercise leadership here in relation to climate change, the solution to this, given that Britain accounts for some 2 per cent. of worldwide emissions, must lie at an international level. That is why in the European Union we are working with partners to extend the European trading system, and why, in the G8 plus 5 dialogue that was started at Gleneagles last year and which includes
not only G8 members but India, Brazil and China, we are trying to secure a framework agreement whereby, when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, we will have a binding set of commitments on behalf of the international community. That will send the right signal not only to countries but to business and industry to invest. In the end, that is the only way in which we will tackle and defeat climate change.
Q8.  Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): In his letter to me about the decision to single out chaplaincy for dramatic cuts in Worcestershires hospitals, the Prime Minister rightly underlined the NHSs commitment to providing holistic care. He said
Patients religious and spiritual needs have to be addressed as part of an overall care package.
The Prime Minister: I do of course recall the correspondence, and I have corresponded with the priest who has been leading the campaign. I entirely understand the concerns that people have, but I think that such decisions must be taken at local level.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the past few years there has been a major expansion in the number of people working in the national health service in Worcestershire. Nevertheless, when trusts balance their books and make changes for the future, they must also make those decisions. I hope that they make them sensitively, recognising the tremendous pastoral care that is given and its value to local patients; but I do not think it would be right for me to interfere directly in that process.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree with meand with trade unions, business leaders, the people of Copeland and nuclear industry analyststhat a policy of nuclear generation as a last resort is really a policy of no nuclear generation at all?
The Prime Minister: I know that, for obvious reasons, my hon. Friend has a specific interest in this issue. If we do not make the decisions on nuclear power now, both our energy security and our effort to defeat climate change may be put at risk. The reason is simple: over the next 10 or 15 years, we will move from self-sufficiency in oil and gas to importing 80 or 90 per cent. of it. We will lose the existing nuclear power stations. We have already done an immense amount in terms of energy efficiency, renewables and so on, but without the component of nuclear power it is hard for me, at least, to see how we can both reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ensure that we are not dependent on foreign imports of oil and gas in the future.
Q9.  Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD):
This week the Select Committee on Trade and Industry made it clear that if the Government are to achieve their goal of social and financial inclusion, they will have to maintain the post office network at a level above that which is commercially viable for the Post Office. Does the Prime
Minister accept the Committees recommendation that, in principle, the social network payment must continue beyond 2008?
The Prime Minister: What I do accept is that there is a role for public subsidy. Indeed, I believe that over the past few years we have put some £2 billion of subsidy into the post office network, precisely because we recognise that it has a social as well as a commercial purpose. Now we are thinking about how we can sustain that purpose. The troubleas the hon. Gentleman will knowis this. I met the sub-postmasters, or their representatives, last week. They are people doing an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances, and providing a tremendous local service. However, we must ensure that that service is viable for the long term. We can support it, but it will still have to be viablesufficiently viable, in fact, for people to volunteer to run the post offices.
We will make an announcement in response to the sub-postmasters campaign shortly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the network has a social purpose, but obviously it must be limited by the extent of the funds available to us to subsidise it. We should be considering whether post offices can provide other services that give them a different and more modern rationale.
Q10.  Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Plymouths excellence cluster has cut fixed-term exclusions by three quarters in secondary schools and by almost 90 per cent. in primary schools in just one year, thus breaking cycles of disruptive behaviour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons learned from schemes of that kind, which tackle unacceptable behaviour head-on, should be applied more widely?
The Prime Minister:
I certainly agree that the excellence cluster in Plymouth has worked very well.
Similar things are happening in other parts of the country. In London, for example, as a result of targeted investment in education and action through the excellence in cities programmes, whereas in many boroughs 25 per cent. of kids or fewer would obtain good GCSEs, the figure is now no lower than 40 per cent. in any borough. In places such as Plymouth, results have improved dramatically over the past few years. I think that we should sometimes pay tribute not just to teachers and other school staff, but to the work that pupils and parents are doing throughout the country in giving us the best school results that we have ever had.
Q11.  Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I hope the Prime Minister is aware that, as a result of ongoing co-operation between Conservative Members and Ministersparticularly in the Home Officethere has been considerable strengthening of the legislation dealing with paedophiles. Sadly, just as that is happening, the Met police, who have a tight budget, are about to cut large numbers of the men and women who work in child protection. May I ask the Prime Minister to talk to his namesake in the Met police and ask him to reconsider, so that children in London and elsewhere can be protected?
The Prime Minister: I met some child protection officers in Downing street the other dayalthough they were not from London, but from different parts of the countryand they do a superb job of work. I simply say that the Metropolitan police budget has increased significantly over the past few years. Such decisions are principally for the Met Police Commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated that he is very happy to raise this issue with the Met Police Commissioner. I am sure that he will be in touch with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about it.
Mr. Speaker: I wish to make a statement to the House about ministerial statements. A ministerial statement is an important aspect of Governments accountability to Parliament, but to be effective the occasion needs to conducted efficiently so that as many Members as possible can contribute with direct questions. Following a recommendation from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in October 2002, the House agreed that, of the hour or so allotted to statements, the opening ministerial statement should last no longer than 10 minutes and that the reply from the official Opposition should be confined to five minutes. My view is that it is appropriate for the Liberal Democrats, or any other party, to be confined to three minutes. [Interruption.] I knew that I was being generous. The purpose of these restrictions, as the Committee made clear, is to give Back Benchers a fair chance to question Government Ministers on matters of public importance. I would expect Back Benchers to ask one supplementary question each. I am therefore informing the House that these rules will be adhered to in the new Session, so as to give Ministers the opportunity to make full statements to the House and be questioned effectively about them.
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