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The Prime Minister:
They can already judge for themselves because we have made it clear the reasons why my advicecertainlywas that the investigation would do enormous damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I said that because I believed then, and believe now, that it would do enormous damage to our co-operation on terrorism, and to issues to do with security and the broader middle eastquite apart from the thousands of jobs that would have been lost as a result of the loss of that contract, although that was not the reason why the decision was taken. I believe that that was right then, and I believe that it is right
now. Sometimes, in government, I have to give such advice and take responsibility for acting in the interests of the country as a whole. The Government have to put those views forward. I put them forward then; I believed them to be right then and I believe them to be right now.
Sir Menzies Campbell: As a result of that answer, can we now expect the other current investigations into allegations of corruption in arms salesin relation to Tanzania, for exampleto be dropped in the same way? How can the Governments handling of this squalid affair be in any way squared with the Prime Ministers promise that his Government would be whiter than white?
The Prime Minister: To be frank, I would have greater respect for the opinion put forward by the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he were prepared to accept that, irrespective of the damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, the investigation should none the less proceed. But when he attempts, somehow, to have it both ways by saying that there would not really be any damage, and that the investigation should none the less proceed, he simply indicates once again what the problem with the Liberal Democrats is: they are an object lesson in the absence of leadership.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Last Thursday, following months of refusing to discuss future plans with trade unions, local politicians ormost importantlythe work force, NCR in Dundee announced 650 job losses. It did so in the most callous fashion imaginable, assembling the 800 manufacturing staff in a room with a large-screen television, from which the chief executive announced via video link from America that 650 of them had been made redundant. Will the Prime Minister join me in reassuring the people of Dundee that we will do everything that we can to help them? Will he meet me to discuss how we can reassure the people of Dundee of the Governments commitment to full employment and high-quality jobs, including the 700 NCR jobs that remain in Dundee?
The Prime Minister: I sympathise fully with those who will lose their jobs as a result of the decision by the company. I know that the Scottish Executives Partnership Action for Continuing Employment has stepped in to try to ensure that other work is made available for those who are, sadly, going to be made redundant. It is also important that we safeguard the companys position in other parts of Scotland. I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what we can do. As a result of different measures taken over the past few years by the Government on a UK-wide basis and by the Scottish Executive, we now have very good schemes that go into effect immediately when redundancies are announced and that often help people to get alternative employment. It is important that we try to ensure that this operates in the particular circumstances to which my hon. Friend has drawn my attention.
Q2.  Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con):
Will the Prime Minister concede that an
unintended consequence of the Governments policy in the middle east has been to advance the interests of the Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis?
The Prime Minister: No; unsurprisingly, I do not accept that. The most important thing that we have done is to set the principlewhich the Iraqi people demonstrated by voting in the election for a non-sectarian Governmentthat the vast majority of people would prefer to live in peace, whatever their religious or ethnic background.
I raised this issue particularly when I was visiting British troops in Basra before Christmas. I am pleased to say that the operation that they are conducting in Basra is going well and is successful, and their clear view is that those who are creating the trouble are a minority, and that the vast majority, whether Shia or Sunni, want to live in peace together. I had a conversation the other day with the Vice-President of Iraq, who is one of the main leaders of the Sunni community, and he made the same point. We should never fall for the extremists propaganda that says that the majority want what they offer. Actually, the majority of people, in whatever part of the world, prefer to live and raise their families in peace and prosperity, and to treat their neighbours, of whatever race or whatever background, with some semblance of decency.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Mohammad Daud, the provincial governor of Helmand province, was principally responsible for the ceasefire in Musa Qala, which brought peace to that area and has saved lives. He was singled out by the Defence Secretary as, unlike other provincial governors, a man of integrity who certainly was not corrupt. Last month he was sacked. Will the Prime Minister make representations for his reinstatement?
The Prime Minister: I must say to my hon. Friend that Mohammad Dauds successor shares exactly the same strategy for Helmand province. I want to pick up on one implication of my hon. Friends comments. What British troops are doing down in Helmand province is remarkable; tragically, we have again had to remember those who have fallen in the service of their country. They fell fighting the Taliban, however, and that fight is having huge success in the south of that country. Every time that they are able to inflict such losses on the Taliban, reconstruction and redevelopment can proceed. The new governor of the province is helping very much with that. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, there are real reasons for optimism about what we are doing in Afghanistan. The alternative was seen clearly a few months back, when the Taliban executed a teacher in front of a class for teaching girls in school. Those are the two alternative futures for the country, and I know which side we should be on.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con):
Yesterday, it emerged that the Department for Education and Skills had issued guidance that will make it more difficult for head teachers to enforce school uniform policies. I know that the Prime Minister and I agree about the importance of school freedom and professional responsibility. I have one simple question, which
requires a simple answer: will he scrap this unnecessary and wrong piece of central guidance?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman probably has not seen the letter already issued by the Minister for Schools at the Department for Education and Skills making it absolutely clear that we support fully the right of schools to enforce their school uniform rules. [Interruption.]
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in spite of only having entered their second term since opening, the two new city academies in my constituency, St. Marks and Harris Merton, will be oversubscribed next year, such is the support of local parents and the community? Will he join me in congratulating the parents, teachers and staff at that school, and their enlightened sponsors, the Church of England and Lord Harris of Peckham?
The Prime Minister: I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating both the schools and sponsors who have put so much hard work into the city academy programme. In light of some of the publicity about the new school building programme, building schools for the future, let me say that, since 1997, 800 new schools have been built around the country. Those new or completely refurbished schools have made an enormous difference to what is happening in our country. In addition, more than 1,600 new science labs, better classrooms for more than 4,000 schools, hundreds of new sports halls and thousands of new computers and electronic whiteboards have been provided. As the results show, a revolution is going on in our schools at the moment, of which the city academy programme is an important part, and it is delivering quality education to some of the poorest kids in our country.
Q3.  Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I echo the tribute that the Prime Minister has been paying today to British troops. I was delighted to hear on Friday of his support for a substantial increase in defence spending. Has he ensured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer agrees with him?
The Prime Minister: It was the Chancellor of the Exchequers announcement of the extra defence spending a few years ago in the comprehensive spending review that meant that defence spending has been rising for the first time in years. In the 10 years before we came to office, there was a cut of something like a third. MoreoverI am grateful for the opportunity to point this outif the additional sums for Iraq and Afghanistan are included, we have been holding defence spending constant as a proportion of our national income in what is, of course, a vastly growing economy. That compares with, again, a cut of about a third in the years before we came to power. I agree that we have far more to do, but, thank goodness, our record is a lot better than that of the last Government.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Earlier this week the leader of the Scottish National party suggested that the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections would constitute a vote for a referendum on independence. Given that not a single constituent has ever contacted me to request such a referendum, does my right hon. Friend agree that people of Scotland have much more serious issues with which they wish this Government to deal?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. Of course issues such as crime, health, education and the state of the economy are immensely important to the people in Scotland who will vote in the forthcoming elections. As she says, however, the point is that the Scottish National party has now put on the agenda its desire for independence for Scotland and a referendum to achieve it. That would not only have a disastrous effect on the Scottish economy, but waste the enormous benefit that the Union has brought to England and Scotland over the past few years.
Surely the modern way forward for a country such as ours is devolution, with a Scottish Parliament to deal with issues that should be dealt with solely in Scotland, and a UK-wide arrangement enabling us to deal with issues such as the economy, security and defence with which we need to deal together. That is why it is so important for us to reject the option of independence.
Q4.  Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Following yesterdays television interview with the Prime Ministers former spin doctor Lance Price, will the Prime Minister confirm that he has not called the Chancellor of the Exchequer psychologically flawed?
Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating police in Burnley on their recent success in reducing crime, which last year alone was down by 6 per cent. in Lancashire as a whole? Does he think that that is due in any way to the increase in police numbers, which have risen by 336 in Lancashire since 1997? Will he personally guarantee not to jeopardise that investment through unfunded and irresponsible tax cuts in the future?
The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest in our police services. The work that has been done in Lancashire is remarkable: it has had an excellent record over the past few years. Given all the criticism of the Home Office, it is worth pointing out that crime has fallen, not risen, over the past 10 years. That contrasts with the record of the Conservatives, who doubled crime and, in the last few years before we came to office, cut the number of police. We have record numbers of police officers, we have police and community support officers, and we have falling crime.
Q5.  Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con):
If the Prime Minister were lucky enough to come to Hemel Hempstead, he would see a community rebuilding itself after the terrible Buncefield explosions that took place a year ago. He would also have an opportunity to visit Hemel Hempstead general hospital
and the acute facilities that treated all the injured people. There was huge investment in the hospital before the Government came to power, and, to be fair, there has been investment since. However, that investment is being thrown down the drain. The award-winning birth unit has been closed, the cardiac unit is being closed, the accident and emergency unit is being closed and the intensive care unit is being closed. I could go on. In fact, the whole hospital is being closed, although
The Prime Minister: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be the first to accept, as a result of the desire to centralise specialist services at Watford there will be far better specialist care for patients. The plan that he has described has been presented by child care clinicians precisely because they believe that it will help to provide better specialist services for people. He is, however, right to say that there has been massive additional investment in his area. That is why there are more nurses, more doctors and shortening waiting times.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I feel sure that my right hon. Friend would like to join me in congratulating Phoenix high school in my constituency, which last week was named as the most improved secondary school in England. However, is he aware that Tory councillors in Hammersmith and Fulham, who continually call for Phoenix to close, are now seeking to close the much improving Hurlingham and Chelsea school? Can he do anything to stop that?
The Prime Minister: Of course, such decisions are taken locally but I am sure that the strong campaign launched by my hon. Friend will have an impact, because where schools are improving dramatically we want to keep them improving.
Q6.  Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that the new primary care trust for Norfolk and Norwich started operations with a £50 million deficit, resulting in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency having actively to delay routine operations for 200 patients? What does he say to those constituents of mine who are waiting in pain, and in particular to Mr. Ben Mullarkey of Dersingham, who had to pay to have his hip replacement done in France? Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he said that we had 24 hours to save the NHS?
The Prime Minister:
I understand the difficulties that have been caused in the hon. Gentlemans area as that particular trust comes back into financial balance. However, it is worth pointing out that, at the same time as the trust is facing those financial difficulties, over the past few years in his local area the number of people waiting for more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment has fallen from 31,000 to 16. Only one patient in the whole of his strategic health authority is waiting for more than 13 weeks for a first out-patient appointment, and there has been dramatic improvement in both cancer and cardiac care. I understand the problems being faced as the trust comes
back into financial balance, but let us be clear that once that happens we will be able to use the additional capacity that we have provided and bring those waiting times down further. Our desire is to get to the end of 2008 with an 18-week combined in-patient and out-patient waiting period. That would be a dramatic improvement.
Q7.  Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The educational improvements that the Prime Minister has referred to have led Britain to improve its position in the international education league tables, but we still languish at No. 18 in the OECD league tables for skills. What does the Prime Minister plan to do to improve the skill levels of youngsters in this country?
The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right, and the two things that will be important are, first, the additional investment in schools which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds in the next few years, and also that we are moving to the new system of vocational education which will allow a far better choice for youngsters at the age of 14 to opt for a high-quality stream of vocational education. That is what we need to do. We have very much focused on lifting academic standards and there has been considerable success on that, although there is lots more to do. We now need to have the same focus on vocational education, and the combination of the money and the reform over the next few years should deliver results.
Q8.  Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Prime Minister will be aware of the hugely successful launch of Highland 2007 in Inverness on Friday, which demonstrated the renewed confidence and optimism in the region. In the year that we celebrate the culture, heritage and future of the highlands, will the Prime Minister ensure that his Government pursue policies that not only help to tackle the particular disadvantages faced by Britains most dispersed and remote region, but promote awareness of the contribution that the highlands has made to the UK over the years?
The Prime Minister: I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. The highlands has made an enormous contribution to the whole of the United Kingdom, and one of the reasons why we have special help and provision and we organise that in a way that allows the whole of the UK to support the highlands is that we recognise that it is far more sparsely populated than other areas and therefore particular help is needed for local services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue the investment to make sure that the highlands carries on playing the vital role that it does in terms of the future of Scotland and also the whole of the UK.
Q9.  Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Is the Prime Minister as appalled as I am by the decision of Conservative councillors in Wandsworth to close Battersea arts centre and to try to blame Government grants even though Wandsworth is in no danger of being capped and has the lowest council tax in the country? [Hon. Members: Hear, hear.] It also has huge reserves [Interruption.]
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Prime Minister and his Government are about to abolish the right to elect jury trial in serious fraud cases. Will he retain the right to jury trial for political corruption, such as the selling of honours?
The Prime Minister: The proposals that we have simply relate to fraud trials in the way that we have described. I doubt whether the Scottish National party will support those proposals, but it should, because they will free up[Hon. Members: He is Plaid Cymru.] Let me explain exactly why. They will free up money that we desperately need to make sure that we have both the police and the criminal justice system that allows criminals to be caught and punished.
Q10.  Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to support a viable network of post offices, and that the Post Office card account on which so many pensioners depend has a successor?
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