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17 Oct 2007 : Column 819

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the next question, may I ask the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) to be quiet as well? He is not the only one, but if I get him to be quiet I am sure that the others will follow.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister called my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) the Foreign Secretary. I have to say to him that it is just a matter of time.

Let us be clear about what Labour’s representative on the European Convention, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart)—[Hon. Members: “Where is she?”] Where is she? She has probably been sent for re-education. Let us be clear about what she said:

It is a simple question: is she not right?

The Prime Minister: We will do what is right in the interests of the British people. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to trade quotes, he should listen to the chairman of his own democracy commission, who says that the proposal for a referendum under the Tory plans is “crackpot”, “dotty” and “frankly absurd”. I know that the Leader of the Opposition likes pre-rehearsed soundbites— [Interruption.] I know that he is good at PR— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: I acknowledge that the Leader of the Opposition is good at PR, but did he not go too far last weekend when he went to California and said in a newspaper interview:

That is the last thing on anybody’s mind.

Mr. Cameron: People will look at the Prime Minister and just say, “Here is a man who breaks his promise.” Why does he not admit that the reason he will not have a referendum is that he is scared of losing it? Does he not understand that if he breaks his promise on this, no one will trust him on anything else?

The Prime Minister: If we were deciding whether to join the euro, we would have a referendum. If the treaty were the old constitutional treaty, we would have a referendum. Because it is an amending treaty that is not fundamental change, we have managed to negotiate red lines in Europe which mean that the national interest is protected. Britain will decide on justice and home affairs; Britain will decide on foreign policy where it is multilateral; Britain will decide on social security; and Britain will decide on national security. We will at all times stand up for the British national interest.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): On Saturday evening, I sense that the nation will be watching its television sets as England plays South Africa in what has been an extraordinary Rugby world cup. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to send a message to the team.

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The Prime Minister: I think I might be able to speak for the whole House here. I think the whole House wishes to congratulate the England team on a magnificent performance in reaching the final. I think the whole House wants to wish Brian Ashton, Phil Vickery and the whole team our best wishes for Saturday’s match. As someone who, like my hon. Friend, follows rugby, and met the England team recently, I wish to send our best wishes so that England returns with the world cup on Saturday night.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD) rose— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Vincent Cable.

Dr. Cable: Does the Prime Minister agree with the comments of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that there is a moral case for rewarding marriage through the tax system?

The Prime Minister: May I first of all say—and I think I speak for the whole House—that we send our best wishes to the former leader of the Liberal party, who is a distinguished parliamentarian? He is a man of integrity, he is a man of honesty and he is a man of decency. Let me welcome the shadow Chancellor of the Liberal party to his position as temporary leader of the Liberal party. If things go on in this Parliament at this rate of change, every single Liberal Member will have the chance to be leader of the Liberal party.

As far as the tax issues are concerned, it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that we have made the changes that we have on inheritance tax; it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that— [Interruption.] It is only possible because we recognise marriage in the tax system. But as far as children’s tax credits and child benefit are concerned, I believe that the duty of every citizen of this country is to support not just some children in our country, but all children.

Dr. Cable: I thank the Prime Minister for his gracious comments and for his welcome.

Both of us are happily married men, but why has the right hon. Gentleman crafted an inheritance tax system that discriminates against millions of unmarried couples and their children? And why is he lining up with the Tories to defend the principle that these families should not merely be condemned to the everlasting flames of hell, but should be taxed more on the way?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me into the secrets of his marriage. It has always been the case that marriage is recognised in the inheritance tax system. I have not seen him making very detailed proposals to change that in recent years. As far as inheritance tax is concerned, if we took up his proposal and extended it to everyone, that would be a very great additional expense. I do not know how Liberal party policies would be able to cope with yet another spending commitment, because in the last few days we have had commitments to a border police force, high-speed rail links, more money to Visit Britain and reducing VAT on historic buildings—£18 billion of spending commitments in all. The most
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recent one that I want to draw attention to is more investment in bullying prevention; perhaps they should look at that as a party.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that the Treasury Committee, which is looking into Northern Rock, would have a lot more clout if only it could intervene before such financial dealings got out of control? Is he aware that the Notting Hill finance group has got another financial scam—to spend £3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money and raise only £650 million? That is another Northern Rock waiting to explode. And one of them has got previous—he was involved in Black Wednesday.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a £6 billion black hole in the Conservatives’ promises. They cannot afford to pay for their spending commitments and are back to where they were in 1992—with more spending, lower taxes and less borrowing. Where did that end? It ended not only in Black Wednesday, but with 3 million people unemployed, public spending cuts and 15 per cent. mortgage rates. And the economic adviser to the Chancellor at the time is now the Leader of the Opposition.

Q2. [158503] David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Prime Minister should be aware that the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers regiment has sent more than 100 Territorial Army soldiers to Iraq in support of hard-pressed regular British soldiers. Will he therefore explain to the House why funding for the Territorial Army has been slashed by millions of pounds, and why the Royal Monmouthshire has been told that it can no longer recruit?

The Prime Minister: I shall immediately look into what the hon. Gentleman says about the Royal Monmouthshire, but I can tell him that expenditure on the defence forces as a whole is going to rise by more than £1 billion a year over the next few years. We have just made it possible for there to be extra commitment to equipment in Afghanistan. We will do everything in our power to support the magnificent men and women fighting for our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I hope that that would be common ground between the parties.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that obesity is the most important public health issue facing our nation today? Not only does it shorten the lives of sufferers but, ultimately, it affects the whole of society. Does he share my view that obesity cannot be tackled by Government alone, but will he outline the Government’s proposals to deal with this very important problem?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is a doctor, and he brings to the subject a great deal of knowledge about the damage done to young children when obesity is allowed to go unchallenged. Not only must we deal with the advertising of unacceptable foods and persuade the food labelling authorities to make food labelling better to deal with those foods, but we must have a push on fitness in our schools. That is why we will move from two hours to five hours of sport a week
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in our schools over the next few years, and every young child will have the chance to enjoy a range of sports. That will be possible only because we are able to spend the money necessary to recruit sports teachers and improve sports education in our schools. That would not be possible if we had a £6 billion black hole in our finances.

Q3. [158504] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Last Friday, I saw how moved the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary were at the opening of the armed forces memorial near Lichfield. It has places for the names of 16,000 men and women who have lost their lives serving their country since 1945, but will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to clarify precisely how many troops currently in Iraq will return to the UK before Christmas?

The Prime Minister: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who made that new national memorial possible. It is in the centre of our nation, so friends, relatives and families from all over the country can visit and pay tribute to those who have lost their lives since the second world war. As he rightly says, there are already 16,000 names commemorated in the stone of what is a most magnificent statue and memorial, which has been created using donations from large numbers of people. I hope that all Members of Parliament will be able to help their constituents to visit it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Iraq. As I have said before, the numbers go down from 5,500 to 2,500 by next spring. They go down from 5,500 to 4,500 and then to 4,000 in southern Iraq over the next few months.

Q4. [158505] Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): In view of the appalling ongoing situation in Burma, I welcome yesterday’s announcement by European Ministers of stronger sanctions against that country, but I especially welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s promise of aid if the Burma regime moves towards greater democracy and reconciliation. What more does he think that we can do to help the people of Burma?

The Prime Minister: I think that hon. Members of all parties in this House will agree that the Burmese regime is repressive, illegal and undemocratic. The sanctions agreed by the EU this week are an important way to deal with the export and import of timber, but we must move forward and look at investment sanctions as well. Members of the Burmese regime must know that unless they change, we will step up the sanctions against them. At the same time, we support the efforts of Mr. Gambari, the UN envoy who is now in the region. I hope that he will be given the chance to meet a wide range of people in Burma so that he can assess the situation.

My hon. Friend has taken a big interest in these matters over the years and, as she said, we are ready to support a reinvestment programme with funds so that the poverty, injustice and inequality that exist in Burma can be tackled if there is a move towards reconciliation and democracy in that country. Our strategy is not only to push the regime to change, but to offer to a new
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regime and Government our support for economic development and social improvement. I believe that all countries around the world, including China and the Asian countries, will be prepared to support that initiative.

Q5. [158506] Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): This week an English Heritage survey found that 75 per cent. of respondents felt that seaside towns were shabby and unattractive, and that the Government should invest more to preserve what is distinctive about them. My constituency of Torbay works hard to upgrade its facilities and to make it an attractive place, and I am sure the same is true of all our seaside towns. What are the Government going to do to help the renaissance and regeneration of these important contributors to the British economy?

The Prime Minister: I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do more for our coastal towns over the next few years. We must make them more attractive for tourism and we must aid their economic regeneration. That is why we have increased real-terms expenditure on coastal towns by nearly 40 per cent. over the last 10 years. As a result of employment growth, there has been a 12 per cent. rise in employment in coastal towns over the last decade, compared with 7 per cent. for the economy as a whole. Regional development agencies and local government will be given the resources that are needed so that we can regenerate, where it is necessary, the coastal towns that can serve our economy by being great tourist attractions as well as lovely places to live in.

Q6. [158507] Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency 7 per cent. of people were claiming jobseeker’s allowance in 1997 and that the figure is now just 3.1 per cent.? Does he agree that the main reason for that success is the implementation by the Government of the new deal and the creation of better pathways into work?

The Prime Minister: There are two and a half million more people in jobs than in 1997. Two million people have been helped by the new deal since 1997 either to get training or a job. A large number of people are coming off incapacity benefit as a result of the measures we are taking. More single parents are going into work; there are now 700,000 single parents—not more than 1 million—on the inactive register. We have taken the number of people on income support and other benefits down by 1 million over the last 10 years, but that is possible only because we have a new deal that is able to help people get back into work. Unfortunately, the Conservatives would scrap the new deal. Let the debate begin: do we want a new deal that will help people to get jobs and equip them for the future so that British workers can get British jobs, or do we want a £6 billion black hole in public expenditure?

Q7. [158508] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that during the past year Army families were forced to call the Ministry of Defence special housing helpline 400,000 times? After 10 years of Labour Government, how does that dreadful state of affairs square with his pledge in Basra to uphold the military covenant?

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The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Ministry of Defence accommodation, because as part of the spending round we have agreed that over the next 10 years £5 billion will be spent on accommodation. That is not simply for renovating existing barracks; it will also make it possible for young servicemen and their families to become owner-occupiers for the first time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support the additional expenditure. I have to tell the Conservatives that when we decide to make additional expenditures on defence, housing and health—where I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he had to apologise for the Leader of the Opposition when the right hon. Gentleman said that hospitals would close—I hope that the Opposition, instead of having a black hole in their figures, will support that extra public investment.

Q8. [158509] Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend visited Ceres Power in Crawley, which is developing a low-energy fuel cell that will probably make sure that many of our homes have low-energy output in the future. In last week’s comprehensive spending review, the important environmental transformation fund was announced. How will Ceres Power and similar companies be able to take advantage of it?

The Prime Minister: I was very grateful for the chance to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency; she is a wonderful MP, representing the interests of her constituents. Last week, we announced that we will continue with our programme that is doubling science investment, and one of the major beneficiaries will be the environmental and energy industries. I see not only British inventions flowing from that but new British jobs in the years to come. Again, I hope that there will be all-party support for the rapidly increasing science budget so that British inventions can create British jobs for British workers.

Q9. [158510] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and concern about the proposed changes to hospital provision in south-east London, particularly the cuts and downgrades proposed to our own hospital, Queen Mary’s, Sidcup? Can he confirm that the consultation will not be a sham and that he will actually listen to what local people say—or is this just another example of London being let down by Labour?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that in London alone there have been 27 new hospital schemes over the past few years; there are 44,000 more NHS staff; there are 650 more dentists; and there is more investment going into the hospital service than ever before. I hope that he will not fall for the scare stories peddled by the Leader of the Opposition about hospitals that are not closing and about the effects of the Darzi report. We are investing more than ever in hospitals and the health service in London, and that is possible only because the economy is moving forward and we are able to create the wealth in this country as a result of a Labour Government.

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