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The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken up the case of the hundreds of runaway children who, during the course of the year, go missing
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and cannot be found, and the fact that we do not have properly co-ordinated services to do so. I agree that we should encourage all local authorities to take this more seriously, and we need a national system by which we can find missing children. I look forward to meeting children’s charities, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will do in future, to talk about this very grave problem.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expression of sympathy and condolence?

Yesterday’s Rowntree report confirmed that the gap between the rich and the poor is as wide as it has been for 40 years. How does the Prime Minister propose to deal with that unfairness?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept this. What has happened in the past few years is that the number of people taken out of poverty as a result of the policies of this Government has risen very substantially. While child poverty trebled under the previous Conservative Government, it is coming down now. While pensioner poverty was very high, it is coming down now. I accept that in every advanced industrial country inequality is a major issue, but I have to read to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what Professor Danny Dorling, the co-author of the report said:

Sir Menzies Campbell: There are people earning less than £18,500 who now pay more tax as a result of the Prime Minister’s last Budget. Why does not he close the loophole for the very rich that he has created and use that money to cut tax for low and middle-income families? Why not legislate for the many, not the few?

The Prime Minister: The one thing that would happen to people earning less than £18,500 under Liberal party policies is that they would be worse off. The reason for that is that each one of all the major measures we have taken—the new deal, tax credits and the child trust fund—was opposed by the Liberal party.

Q2. [150181] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): . The political situation in Darfur is too fragile, and the humanitarian crisis too dire, to contemplate any further delays in deploying the hybrid peacekeeping force. Will the Prime Minister tell the House the approach he will deploy at the United Nations to show whether our Government have the spirit and soul to lead a global campaign to extirpate the spreading moral stain that threatens utterly to engulf this region of Africa?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has taken a major interest in Darfur, and he will know that the International Development Secretary is in Darfur at the moment looking at the situation on the ground. As a result of the conflict in Darfur, 200,000 people have died. There are 2 million people who are homeless and displaced as a result of it, and 4 million people who would starve but for food aid.

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It is urgent that the international community reach an agreement on the appropriate response. We are sponsoring a United Nations resolution to bring an African Union and UN force into the region as quickly as possible. I believe that, even before that force arrives, there should be a cessation of violence on the ground, and the President has a responsibility for making that happen. We would then be prepared to give emergency economic aid so that the people of this area are given the chance of a better livelihood, but we are prepared to take further sanctions against the Government and people in that regime if they do not cease the violence, stop the militias and make sure that people have a decent living standard in a region that for too long has suffered from poverty, famine and war.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): May I ask the Prime Minister if he will personally take time out of this busy day, first, to confirm that it is still the policy of his Government, as it has been of previous Governments, not to deport people to countries that have the death penalty, and in which they are in danger from the death penalty? Is he aware that in nine hours, this country is going to deport a Christian lady, Samar Razavi, who apostasised in Iran and fled that country? She is under a death warrant from Iran, but has been refused asylum. I do not ask him to comment on asylum; will he please look at the case with an urgent view to intervention?

The Prime Minister: Of course, I will look at the case that the right hon. Lady has brought to me—we shall look at it in detail immediately. I have to say to her that it is our policy not to deport to countries where torture is being practised. We are trying to sign new agreements with individual countries where they will guarantee to repatriate people, but on the condition that there will be no torture. We have signed three agreements already, and there are many more that we wish to sign and we will try to move this matter forward. I hope that the right hon. Lady will give us all the details today so that we can follow it up.

Q3. [150182] Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Yesterday, I held an Adjournment debate on the coroner’s report into the tragic death of four cyclists from Rhyl cycling club in January 2006. The coroner made some strong recommendations. What measures can the Prime Minister take to ensure a complete review of how police call centres handle ice-related accidents and of cross-border co-operation between local authority gritting departments. What measures can he take to ensure that legal advisers, solicitors and insurance companies cannot deliberately prolong and frustrate coroners’ inquiries and that there is a review into why the Crown Prosecution Service did not take action against the driver in this terrible accident?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending condolences to the families of the four cyclists who were killed in this tragic accident, which took place in January 2006. I want to pay tribute to the dignity with which those families have conducted themselves following this terrible event. It was on 27 June that the coroner raised a number of very serious concerns about what had happened, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will look into each of these with
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my ministerial colleagues. I understand that the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who has responsibility for policing, has already agreed to meet him and the families, and I was informed this morning that the Minister has also asked to meet the lead police officer for roads policing to discuss how the lessons highlighted by the coroner can best be learned. It is incumbent on us all, when a serious accident has caused such loss of life, to investigate all the circumstances and see what lessons we can learn.

Q4. [150183] Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Over the past year, one third of all small shopkeepers have been violently attacked, often by baseball bats and knives. As the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) asked earlier, how can letting out thousands of prisoners early help those people? Do not those shopkeepers, who serve all our constituents, deserve better after 10 years of this Government?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the length of sentences for people who are convicted of those crimes has been increased. That is one of the reasons why more people are in prison, even after crime has fallen. He should know that the number of people in prison has risen from 60,000 to nearly 80,000, and that the number of prison places will increase to 90,000 in the next few years. We are increasing not only the sentences inflicted on people who commit those crimes but the prison places available. Again, I hope that he will support us, as we have increased the number of police and community support officers so that we have neighbourhood policing that enables the shopkeepers that he mentioned—and all residents—to be properly protected.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): The Government’s policy of helping lone parents get into work has assisted thousands of families in constituencies such as mine to get out of poverty. However, for many, child care remains expensive and many employers are still reluctant to allow flexible working. What further steps will the Prime Minister take to help those parents who are trying to give their families a better life by getting off benefits and into work?

The Prime Minister: I hope that my hon. Friend’s work in her constituency will be repaid by the announcement that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is about to make. It has always been our intention to get more lone parents into work, providing them with the child care and training facilities that are necessary for them to do that.

Since 1997, the number of lone parents in work has been raised by more than 200,000—it has gone from 43 per cent. to 57 per cent. of all lone parents. In the next few years, we can make enormous progress, in partnership with employers. Today, I met a group of employers, especially from the retail sector, including all the major names—ASDA, Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer, B&Q—that wish to employ lone parents and others who are currently on the inactive register. They are prepared to give them training and support into work; we are prepared to help through the new deal for lone parents. It means that we will reduce the age at which benefit is claimed by lone parents for young children
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who go to school and it will be claimed as a separate benefit from income support. It also means that there are huge opportunities—perhaps 250,000—in addition to existing provision for lone parents and others to get into work.

Royal Navy

Q5. [150184] Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the planned size of the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet.

The Prime Minister: As we said in the White Paper that was published in July 2004, the Navy will operate a fleet of 25 destroyers and frigates. Investment in the Navy has increased from £780 million for capital equipment to £1.3 billion this year, with new investment of £6 billion planned in the next three years.

Dr. Lewis: In 2004, the then First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Alan West, now a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Administration, criticised the Government for abandoning their promise in the strategic defence review to keep 32 frigates and destroyers and reducing the total to only 25. He described that as piling risk on risk. Will the Prime Minister now guarantee that there will be no further reductions from the total of 25 frigates and destroyers?

The Prime Minister: Since those announcements, we have announced the biggest programme of investment in our Navy for future years. The hon. Gentleman knows that £6 billion of investment in the next three years is a major commitment to our Navy. We look forward to making an announcement soon on the future of aircraft carriers. I believe that we are fulfilling our commitment to create a modern Navy for the future.

I just repeat the shadow Chancellor’s comments:

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) had better talk to the shadow Chancellor first.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Prime Minister agree that it is not necessary to have a referendum before ordering two aircraft—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is a closed question. I called the hon. Gentleman because Fairfield shipyard is in his constituency. He should ask about the carriers, not a referendum.

Mr. Davidson: As I was saying, does the Prime Minister agree that it is not necessary to have a referendum before ordering two aircraft carriers? Does he also agree that this is the forum in which an announcement should be made, with his allies—I admit that some are only recent—behind him, and, in front of him, not opponents, but potential recruits?

The Prime Minister: I am glad that my hon. Friend describes himself as an ally. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement soon on the aircraft
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carriers, but our commitment to future naval investment in this country is very high indeed. I believe that the future of the Navy is best safeguarded by the levels of investment that we are putting in, and I am glad that he agrees with me that there is no need for a referendum on any issue at the moment.


Q6. [150185] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Many of my constituents will be somewhat concerned about the Prime Minister’s equivocal remarks about early release, which will probably now become a permanent feature of our criminal justice system. Was Harry Fletcher correct to point out that senior probation officers were overruled on early release decisions? Whom should one trust most: loyal, hard-working probation officers and servants of the Crown or Ministers obsessed with spin?

The Prime Minister: I have already said that the decision about early release on individuals was made against very specific criteria that were set down to the House of Commons. I repeat to the House that no prisoner who was serving a sentence for a serious violent offence was released. That was not part of the criteria that were followed. Nobody serving for a serious violent offence was released.

Q7. [150186] Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): My right hon. Friend might have noticed gaps in the Chamber last week, as hon. Members from all parts of the House played a game of tag rugby with rugby league greats, the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Football League, to support the British Asian Rugby Association in its work to bring people from all minorities into the community through participation in sport. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ikram Butt, Heather Taylor, who is not a teacher, and all those connected with BARA on the work that they do in bringing together people of all creeds and minorities through sport to make a cohesive community in our country?

The Prime Minister: I welcome the co-operation between the Asian and British Rugby associations. I also understand that my hon. Friend has been asked to be the sports ambassador for rugby league, and I welcome him to his new post. Participation in sport helps to promote community cohesion and we will do everything to support it, even if voices off are not.

Q8. [150187] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): As the principal architect of the public-private partnership for London Underground, can the Prime Minister explain how £500 million was spent on lawyers and consultants to create a construction that has now collapsed, leaving the British taxpayer with £3.5 billion of bank loans and considerable uncertainty about the future of public transport in the capital?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If Metronet pulls out, another company will be found to take its place, and another company will be found alongside the tube company that is the other private-sector company involved in the consortium. What the hon. Gentleman should remember
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is that we are engaged in one of the biggest civil engineering projects that has ever been undertaken in London. We are increasing the number of people using the tube from 1 billion a year to 1.5 billion a year. We are talking about a £17 billion investment that would always be done by private construction and engineering firms. We are committed as a Government to do something that the Conservative party is not prepared to do, and that is to provide £1 billion a year of extra money for investment in the tube. The number of stations already refurbished, the number of additional trains and the number of projects under way show our commitment to investment in the London Underground. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in that project.

Mr. Speaker: I call Bob Marshall-Andrews.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Very helpful, thank you. The Government have recently decreed that Parliamentary Private Secretaries will sit on Select Committees. Parliamentary Private Secretaries are de facto part of the Executive, and Select Committees, at least in part, are intended to scrutinise that Executive. The conflict is obvious and apparent. How does that accord with the welcome and noble sentiments that my right hon. Friend expressed two weeks ago on the independence of Parliament?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is raising an important issue, and I am sorry if we are going to lose his services in the next Parliament. He is referring to the role of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but they will not sit on the departmental Select Committees for which they are Parliamentary Private Secretaries. I can give him that assurance.

Q9. [150188] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): According to official figures, more than 1,500 prisoners have Sky television in their own cells, five prisons have swimming pools for prisoners’ use and two thirds of prisoners
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have keys to their own cells. Is the Prime Minister proud of that and what is he going doing to do about it?

The Prime Minister: We have increased sentences for those who commit the worst crimes. The hon. Gentleman should know that there are nearly 10,000 people in prison who are under indeterminate sentences as a result of the toughening of punishment. That is why we have raised the number of prison places from 60,000 to 80,000 and they will go up to 90,000 in the next few years. We are honouring our commitment to deal harshly with people who commit crimes.

Q10. [150189] Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the performance and behaviour of Greenbelt, a ground maintenance company that provides services to tens of thousands of homes throughout the UK? It charges up to £400 per household and provides little or no service. It is Farepak for homeowners. Last week, its lawyers sent a threatening letter to me and my constituent, Paula Hoogerbrugge. Paula, a single mum, has been monitoring the company’s behaviour on a national basis. The lawyer also contacted her employers with a threat to silence her or get her sacked. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning that behaviour?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for that information and I will look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): In 2004, when the Prime Minister was Chancellor, a budget of £20 million for 2006-07 and £40 million for 2007-08 was announced for the drug treatment and testing programme in prisons. Since then, it has been cut to £12 million and £12.7 million respectively. Now that he is Prime Minister, will he consider revising those back to the original figures?

The Prime Minister: I have to tell the hon. Lady that since we took office there has been a big increase in the amount of drug treatment in prisons, which will continue in the next spending round.

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