The Prime Minister:
We hoped for a long time to avoid having to do this, but we have had to do it because, as I have said, the projections for the prison population, which we do on a year-by-year basis, have been exceeded even at the top end. As I have also said, I regret having to do this. However, as a result of the measures announced yesterday and those announced by the Chancellor in the Budget, we will now have an
extra 9,500 prison places. We will be able to make sure that this is a temporary measure. Most importantly, violent crime is falling and the crime rate is coming down because we have more investment in prisons and the police and tougher measures, many of which the Tory party voted against.
Mr. Cameron: We have had foreign criminals let out of prison when they should have been deported, and the Prime Minister now plans to release more prisoners this year than the entire prison population of Australia. Ten years ago, he told us that he would be tough on crime; now he is releasing 25,000 criminals on to our streets. Should he not, just this once, apologise for what can only be described as an abject failure to deliver?
The Prime Minister: When we came to power in 1997, crime had doubled. When we came to power in 1997, there were no proper plans for making sure that we had the money to invest in our prison system. As I have said, I regret very much having to take the measures on early release. However, over the 10 years of this Government we have reduced crime, increased the number of police officers and introduced measures on antisocial behaviour, and we have 20,000 extra prison places. When we compare the 18 years of a Government who doubled crime with the 10 years of this Government, it is clear who people should vote for on law and order.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Has the Prime Minister read an article in this mornings Financial Times in which someone called Lord Harris, who I understand owns several academy schools, is quoted? He is reported to have said in a conversation:
I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Adonis]. He rings me up and says, Do you want this school? and I ask what its like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.
Does the Prime Minister believe that the language of that exchange is appropriate for people charged with looking after the education of young people, or does he think that it is more appropriate for 21st century spivs?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I have only got a week to go and I am not keen on making too many more enemies. However, I will have to doubly disappoint him. First, I think that Lord Adonis has done a superb job on the city academy programme. Secondly, although Lord Harris is from a different political party, as a result of the work he has done in education, not least in Peckham, he has given some of the poorest kids in the country the opportunity to get a decent education for the first time. If those two people are having an exchange about how we can improve our education system and give opportunity to kids who do not currently have it, that is good.
The Prime Minister: It is precisely because of the concerns over whether people are paying an appropriate level of tax that a review has been set up that will report around the time of the pre-Budget report later this year. However, it is important to distinguish between that question, which it is perfectly legitimate to raise, and condemning all the work that private equity companies do, because that would not be right at all. But yes, of course people have concerns about this issue, which is exactly why we said that we will look into it in a sensible and serious way and reflect on what we can do.
Sir Menzies Campbell: While this review is taking place, we are giving a tax break of £6 billion per annum to some of the wealthiest people in the United Kingdom. Would it not be much fairer to give tax cuts to lower and middle-income families, who have suffered most under this Government? Would that not be an illustration of governing for the many, and not the few?
The Prime Minister: I know that the Liberal Democrats like to say, Here is this great pot of gold that is waiting to be redistributed to the families of the country. Incidentally, it is just nonsense. However, there are real issues here, and they have been raised right across the political spectrum and by sensible people within the private equity field itself. The serious way of approaching this is to examine these claims carefully and to deal with the matter in the pre-Budget report, and that is what, very sensibly, the Chancellor is doing.
Q2.  Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): May I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the promise that he made to me on 8 January 2005, the day when my constituency was devastated by floods? During our telephone conversation, he said that moneys would be available to build flood defences to protect the people of Carlisle. Some £30 million was made available and those defences are being constructed. However, given the problems that we have seen today in the south of England, and given the problems of global warming and climate change, is he convinced that, following the comprehensive spending review, there will be enough money available to protect other communities from the devastation that we suffered in Carlisle?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a perfectly reasonable point, and it is one of the reasons we are committed to spending an additional £600 million in this financial year on our costal defences. Since 1997, we have invested some £4 billion in coastal defences. This is an indication of how, over time, as a result of the changing climate, countries will have to invest very large sums in protecting ourselves against the changing weather. However, I entirely agree with hon. Friend, and I can assure him that this will obviously form a very significant and serious part of the comprehensive spending settlement.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recall meeting representatives of Mountain Rescue England and Wales on 14 March. Will he find time during his final days in office to review its request for public funding similar to that available in Scotland? If he is unable to resolve the issue, will he ensure that the request is in the in-tray of our right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?
The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I explained to those representatives when I met them, I will take a close interest in this issue right up to the time of my departure. It is a very live issue that we are considering.
Q4.  Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Readings increasingly congested roads are becoming a major constraint on economic success. We urgently need a third Thames bridge and north-south bypass. While Reading chokes, the local authorities are spending their time squabbling with each other. Will the Prime Minister help me to sort out those squabbling neighbours?
The Prime Minister: I understand the hon. Gentlemans concern and the desire for a new road crossing. The trouble is, as he knows, there is a dispute. He called it a squabble, but unfortunately the view he expressed is not shared by some of the local authorities. The trouble is that it will, in the end, have to be resolved at a local level. I know that the Department for Transport is also engaged with the issue and I am sure that it will do everything it can to mediate, but to get it done local agreement will in the end be necessary.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that since being elected to this House I have campaigned for formal recognition of the Bevin Boys and the role that they played in our world war two success and the defeat of Nazism. In January, the Prime Minister acknowledged their role and said that he would make progress on some kind of formal recognition for those brave men. Will he be able to bring that to a conclusion before he leaves office next week?
The Prime Minister: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that he has mounted for some recognition for the Bevin Boys and the extraordinary work that they did in world war two, without which our war effort would have been seriously hindered. We will have a special commemorative badge for the Bevin Boys, and we will announce that later today. It will provide some recognition for the tremendous work that they did, express the sense of gratitude that the country has for them, and show why it is a good idea that on this day we should commemorate their work.
Q5.  Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): When the Chancellor says that he wants to see Britain governed in a different way, and Government to be more open and accountable, what does the Prime Minister think that he means?
The Prime Minister: I am sure that over the course of my right hon. Friends premiership he will want to carry on changes that we have been making. For example, we now have a Freedom of Information Act and devolution, which we have never had before. We also have a London Assembly and Mayor, which we have not had before. I am sure that such changes will continue over the years and fortunately, in the circumstances, that is something that I happily leave to my right hon. Friend.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Crime has been falling for many years: why are there huge increases in the number of people, including women, in prison? Does my right hon. Friend now agree with a former leader of the Tory party that prison works?
The Prime Minister: I have never agreed that, in itself, prison is what works, but if people are committing violent offences or are a threat or danger to the public, it is important that they are imprisoned, if that is what a court feels is appropriate. There are more people in prison because sentences have been getting tougher. I mentioned a few moments ago the more than 5,000 people who have been recalled to prison as a result of the breach of their licensing conditions. In 1997, that figure was around 200. People out on parole would breach their conditions, but nothing would happen to themnow it does, and that is one reason why the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the last year. In the crime partnership areas where crime has been highest, specific focus has been put on 44 of them and crime, especially violent crime, has fallen by 7 per cent. or more in the last year in those areas. We have to protect the public first, and that is what we are doing.
Q6.  Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Last Saturday, a 23-year-old man was lost at sea off my constituency when his small boat overturned in Hoy sound. Two months ago, eight Norwegian seamen lost their lives when the Bourbon Dolphin capsized and sank 85 miles off Shetland. In both cases, as in so many others, the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in co-ordinating the search and rescue, was crucial and very much appreciated. Will the Prime Minister, in the time that remains to him, knock some heads together among the senior management of that agency to ensure that the current industrial dispute is resolved and the coastguards are paid the money they deserve? Or will that have to wait until things get so bad that the dispute escalates and lives are lost?
The Prime Minister:
First, I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the family of his constituent who died. Secondly, we of course regret that the dispute is going on. Thirdly, I will be happy to look into the matter and
to correspond with him about it. Obviously, we want the maritime service to return to full strength as quickly as possible.
Q7.  Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Over the years, my right hon. Friend has visited my constituency on a number of occasions [Interruption.] Some visits have been more memorable than others, but on his most recent visit he came to the £2 million local improvement finance trust scheme at Woodgate Valley primary care centre, one of 200 LIFT schemes across the country. Does he agree such schemes demonstrate real investment in the NHS and real commitment to our patients, compared with the half-baked ideas that we get from the Opposition?
The Prime Minister: I recall the LIFT scheme in my hon. Friends constituency, and it is one of the many around the country that have led to some 2,500 GP premises being renovated. In 1997, 50 per cent. of the NHS estate was older than the NHS itself, but today that figure is 20 per cent. As a result of that massive capital investment, waiting times are falling and we are also able to provide the most up-to-date equipment for our constituents. I deprecate the Oppositions policy to scrap the target of an 18-week maximum wait for NHS treatment, with an average of seven or eight weeks. That policy would be a disastrous and retrograde step, whereas we intend to keep to the targets and make sure that we deliver on them.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Since taking office, there has been more investment in schools, local health services have been protected and young families have benefited from more free nursery careall provided by the new Scottish National party Government. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the First Minister on those excellent developments?
The Prime Minister: I think that I prefer to say that investment on any scale can be made only because my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has run the most effective economy in this country for 30 years or more. We are able to invest in health and education because of the sensible policies of this Labour Chancellor, not because of the SNPs economic policies.
Q8.  Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Today, world refugee day is being marked across the globe. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in praising the refugee awareness projects being run by Refugee Action in Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool? The project workers go into local communities to challenge the many myths and media distortions about refugees and asylum seekers, and to help the refugees who have genuinely fled persecution in their homelands to find a safe haven in this country.
The Prime Minister:
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the Government are making a financial commitment to supporting refugee week. It is right for us to reduce the number of unfounded claims and make sure that only genuine asylum seekers can claim asylum here, but none the less we must make it clear that this country should always be open to genuine
refugees fleeing tyranny. This country has a very proud record in that regard, and I am sure that that will continue.
Q9.  Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As there might just be some misunderstandings over the next few weeks, does the Prime Minister agree with Baroness Morgan, his old friend and former Downing street aide? On the radio this week, she said that the Chancellor was
really involved in the nitty gritty of how to phrase the argument, and it made a difference.
The Prime Minister: The position on Iraq was the position of the whole Government. I happen to believe that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, as is standing up against those people who would by terrorism prevent democracy from flourishing in Iraq. I pay tribute to the support provided by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It is important that those fighting us in Iraq understand that our position on Iraq is shared by the whole Government, and I am sure that they do.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend able to use his influence in the case of baby Sebastian, who was born in Texas to my constituent Samantha Lowry and abducted to Mexico at the age of nine weeks by her estranged and unstable partner? Does he agree that the best place for Sebastian is with his mother, who is best breastfeeding him? Will he use his influence with the Mexican Government to get the case dealt with as soon as possible?
The Prime Minister: I am aware of the case and I sympathise with Samantha and her family. I assure my hon. Friend that full consular support is being provided to the family by UK consular staff in Houston and Mexico City. We are also in touch with the FBI about the case, and are ready to give every support to the US and Mexicos FBI to ensure the safe return of Sebastian.
Q10.  Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all be concerned about the growth of air travel, especially in relation to climate change? What are his suggestions for curbing that growth?
The Prime Minister: We must be careful, because many people have travel opportunities, particularly on cheap flights, that they have never had before. As politicians we must be careful that we do not appear to say that opening up such opportunities for people is somehow wrong. The best way to deal with aviation is through the European Union emissions trading system. As a result of the work done by the Government there is the prospect of aviation coming within the system, which will incentivise business and industry to develop ways of saving on harmful emissions. Personally, I do not believe the way to do so is to try to ban domestic travel on aeroplanes, as I think some people in the hon. Gentlemans party have suggested. I do not think that is realistic.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Last week, my right hon. Friend opened the new management centre at Knowsley community college. Apart from that and 240 extra medical staff in the NHS, a brand new hospital, an 18 per cent. increase in GCSE passes, seven new learning centres and halving the rate of unemployment, what has my right hon. Friend ever done for Knowsley?
The Prime Minister:
In addition, we have the minimum wage, paid holidays, extra increases in child benefit and all the investment that has gone into this country over the past few years. The reason we have been able to invest, as I said a moment or two ago, is that we have run a strong economymy right hon.
Friend the Chancellor has been its steward over that time. It is important always to recognise that for the first time this Labour Government are able to combine a more just and fair society with a well functioning, strong economy. Under this Government that is exactly what will continue.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the recent exchanges, my constituent, Lord Harris, was referred to as a spiv. Will you rule, Mr. Speaker, that that is inappropriate language to describe a member of the other place?