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3 Dec 2008 : Column 26

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Leader of the Opposition said earlier that there were no social policies in the Queen’s Speech, but will he ensure that the Conservative party supports the legal target to eradicate child poverty, which is the biggest social ill that we have in this country? Will he do so—yes or no?

Mr. Cameron: Yes, of course we will support it, but the problem with the Government’s approach is that they keep legislating for things that they are not achieving. Child poverty is getting worse. [ Interruption. ] Yes, and if they wanted child poverty to improve, they would take up our plan to abolish the couple penalty that would lift 300,000 children out of poverty.

We need a new powerful independent office of budget responsibility, so that the Government never end up in such massive deficit. We need a debt responsibility mechanism, so that the Bank of England can call time on levels of private debt in our economy. We now live in a country with national debt doubling under Labour to £1 trillion, putting us on the brink of financial bankruptcy. We live in a country with more than 1 million violent crimes a year—almost doubled under Labour—on the brink of social bankruptcy. We live in a country where counter-terrorism police are used to arrest MPs who hold the Government to account, and that is what I call political bankruptcy.

The Prime Minister is wrong in recession; he is wrong for the recovery. Largely responsible for the collapse of our economy, he is absolutely clueless about the collapse of our society. He is yesterday’s man, so will he get on and call an election so that the people of this country can put this dreadful Government out of their misery and start the long-term change that our country needs?

3.57 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I know that the whole House will wish me to start by sending our profound condolences, as the Leader of the Opposition did, to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks of 42 Commando Royal Marines. They were killed in action in Afghanistan last Thursday. We owe them our gratitude for their service and their sacrifice to our country.

It is also a noble tradition to remember Members who have served the House and who have died during the year. I am sure that all Members will want to join the Leader of the Opposition in remembering two Members who deserve the title, “House of Commons people.” The sad death of Gwyneth Dunwoody last year robbed the House of its longest-ever serving woman MP. First elected in 1966, Gwyneth was the third generation of a family dynasty of political women who have perhaps done more than any other to give voice to women in politics today. She was the granddaughter of two suffragettes, and she was the daughter of one of the first female Ministers. If she challenged the Government, she was always critical of the Opposition. She will be sorely missed from her place in the House—a seat located close to the officials’ box— from which, during decades of Transport questions, she was heard to shout “Nonsense” and “Rubbish” to officials, as Members on both Front Benches spoke. On her role as Chairman of the Transport Committee, foolish was the witness who had not prepared fully for an evidence session. Legendary was the loud tapping of her pen if witnesses dared to
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speak from notes: grown men made weak at the knees. Always formidable, always her own person and fiercely independent, she is already sorely missed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

When during his long and fatal illness, John MacDougall arrived in Westminster for a vital vote last year, he was given a standing ovation by Members who came to meet him. Such was his popularity with fellow MPs. He was an apprentice in the dockyard at Rosyth; an engineer; then in the coal mines; then leader of the council; then convenor and then provost of Fife council—one of the first in Britain, three decades ago, to provide free bus travel for the elderly. His constituency was next door to mine, and he embodied the values and ethos of Fife. I met John only a day before he died. I thanked him for all his endeavours on behalf of the people of Fife. I told him that his achievements were great and would be remembered for many years to come, and he gave me one instruction: to ensure that Glenrothes was safe for the future.

John’s campaigning on behalf of sufferers of asbestosis and mesothelioma, from which he himself suffered, has helped to raise awareness of that terrible illness, and as hon. Members know, the Government are examining how we can provide better support for both them and their families. John never wavered in his understanding that his first job was to serve his constituency, and he will be sorely missed.

I thank the proposer and seconder of the motion. Few Members have the distinction of having piloted one private Member’s Bill through the House; even fewer have the distinction of having piloted two groundbreaking Bills, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) is a member of that elite group, the first Bill giving rights to people with disabilities and the second holding the Government to their overseas targets. Those are formidable achievements of which he and his constituents can justifiably be proud.

Once, my right hon. Friend spoke at an international conference about international development and worldwide poverty and about the difficulties faced by people suffering in so many countries. So successful was his speech that, either because of a failure of translation or for some other reason, food parcels started to arrive in Scotland for people there.

More than 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of campaigning for my right hon. Friend when he was first elected to Parliament. I remember that the constituency name then was Coatbridge and Airdrie. I found on the streets that he was known by everyone as a former councillor and provost of the area. His opponent was a young Conservative, who was so keen to make himself popular that he said that, if elected, he would buy a house in Coatbridge and marry someone from Airdrie, or vice versa. Needless to say, my right hon. Friend was returned with a huge majority.

When, during the last election campaign, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who has spent all her life serving the public as a teacher, a councillor, a deputy council leader and then an MP, I found, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, that her most notable opponent was not the Conservative party or the Liberal party, nor even her
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other opponents representing the Monster Raving Loony party or the Church of the Militant Elvis, but someone well known to the House: Robert Kilroy-Silk. Hon. Members may remember that after defeating Mr. Kilroy-Silk, she was returned to Parliament with an increased majority. As we know, Mr. Kilroy-Silk has found a more appropriate place for his talents: eating insects in the celebrity jungle—although he was the first to be voted off as a result of his behaviour.

In paying tribute to the outstanding and selfless contribution of all those who have served in our armed forces, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have lost their lives, those who have been wounded, and those who risk their lives daily in the defence of our security and to bring peace and stability to the peoples of those countries, I can confirm to the House that we are looking anew at the Afghanistan policy. The review takes into account the dangers that now exist on the Afghan-Pakistan border. It also takes in the need to complement military action with enhanced protection by helicopters and the new fund for asking other countries to provide helicopters, as well as proper burden sharing, with help to train the Afghan army and police, to strengthen their systems of governance and to develop their economy. We have recently increased our forces beyond 8,000, but I repeat that with 41 countries involved, there must be fair burden sharing.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Why will the review not take into account the latest poll, which shows that 68 per cent. of the British population do not want us in Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: Afghanistan is our front line against the Taliban; it is also our front line against al-Qaeda. The reason why 41 countries are pledging support for action in Afghanistan is that they know that what happens in Afghanistan can directly affect what happens on the streets of London and major cities and towns in our country and others.

It is, however, right that there is proper burden sharing. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that in the next few months, as we discuss the need for more troops in Afghanistan, we will look to other countries to make their fair contribution to that burden.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Does the Prime Minister accept that there is widespread concern among the armed forces that there is dislocation between various Government Departments? I very much welcome his review, but will he say who is in charge of it; and will he put a Minister in charge of Afghanistan policy, to answer on the totality of that policy? I promise him that, at the moment, one gets very different perspectives from the different Departments involved on the challenges that we face in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister: The review, which I am leading, will bring together, as it has over the past year, all the Departments that are responsible: the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development in particular. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have led the way in telling America and other countries that military action must be complemented with special help so that people have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, with training of
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police and of the armed forces, and with reform of government in dealing with corruption and other issues in the government of Afghanistan. If he were being fair to us, he would understand that we have led the way in asking our allies to look at a co-ordinated strategy that is comprehensive in dealing with the issue.

I also want to confirm that our troops are completing the final phase of the task that we set ourselves in Iraq—training Iraqi security forces, building economic development, and speeding up the local democracy that is needed in the Basra area for which we are responsible. In the months ahead, there will be a fundamental change of mission and presence, and we will move to a long-term relationship with Iraq similar to that which we have with other countries in the region. We want a democratic Iraq, strong local government, armed forces who are properly trained, and police who are independent. We want the people of Basra to have a full stake in their future.

A week after the terrible events in Mumbai, the whole country and, I believe, the whole House are in a state of shock at the scale and devastation of the murder of innocent people. It underlines again the threat that a democratic society faces from those who would use terror indiscriminately against ordinary people. I have sent this country’s condolences and sympathy to all who have suffered from this loss of life. Terrorists cross borders to murder innocent people. Our response must be to work across borders to protect them and demonstrate that terrorism will not succeed in undermining democracy.

Our country has offered Prime Minister Singh and India every support in countering extremism. We have sent men and women from the Metropolitan police. We have agreed on the need to generate even closer co-operation against terrorism. I have spoken to President Zardari of Pakistan and urged him to offer the fullest support to India in rooting out terrorism and to show that he will bring to justice any terrorists who seek haven in his country.

We cannot hide from the truth about Zimbabwe, which is now facing chronic state failure. In addition to broken down schools and hospitals and rampant inflation, we now have a cholera epidemic, which is not just spreading within Zimbabwe; it threatens South Africa, too. We have increased our aid to ordinary Zimbabweans. I have called on United Nations humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations to mount a new effort and initiative with our support to get help to those who most need it. We are working hard with the region’s Governments, so that they can work together to do what needs to be done most acutely and most immediately to uphold the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people, to support the bravery and resilience of people still in Zimbabwe and to ensure that they can exercise the maximum pressure on the Mugabe Government and in support of democracy in Zimbabwe.

I want to repeat to the House that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo we will act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe as we work to facilitate a political solution to the conflict that has already displaced 800,000 people. We are working with partners to get aid through, but I have also written to contributors of peacemakers to ask them to encourage the rapid deployment of the extra forces who are needed to save lives. We have been prepared to put money up. I believe that we will be able,
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after talks yesterday, to raise the number of peacekeepers from 17,000 to 20,000, so that people can see that there is safety and security for people in the DRC as we search for what is most needed: a political solution.

I can also announce that we are bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to London later in December to establish how best we can use 2009 to make real progress towards political and economic solutions in the region.

I can also say that, following the historic agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland, we will bring forward proposals to sustain devolution in Northern Ireland. I thank all parties in Northern Ireland for coming together to make the final part of a devolution settlement possible and now something that can be delivered, with policing and justice devolved in the next few months.

We are finding that the solutions to every crisis require not just action in our country but action internationally. In the challenges to our security and to our economy, and to our environment posed by climate change, the world is having to act together to resolve those problems. We know that climate change, terrorism and global poverty are the problems of a changing global society. The lesson of recent months is that the problems that we face can be met only by acting co-operatively on the basis of our interdependence, not by glorying in isolation. The financial problems that we have require action not just in Britain but in every country. After a year when oil prices have been volatile, the climate change and energy challenge can be met only through action that will lead, I believe, to a settlement at next year’s crucial Copenhagen summit.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Prime Minister re-examine the £487 billion banking package, because surely he shares our disappointment that more lending is not taking place to decent businesses in our country?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman signed the report that said that we should give up regulation in mortgage finance. I criticised a Conservative Member last week for saying that the recession should take its course, but what the right hon. Gentleman said yesterday on his website is even more amazing:

That is the Conservative party’s answer to the problems that we face, not taking the necessary action.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): When the Prime Minister was in opposition, he adroitly used information that public servants gave him, which he believed it was in the public interest to know, and placed it in the public domain. Does he believe that a Member of Parliament doing exactly what he did when he was in opposition should be arrested?

The Prime Minister: I notice that Conservative Members do not want to talk about the economy. [ Interruption. ] That is absolutely true. I uphold the right of Members of Parliament to pursue their duties in a way that is necessary for the public interest. Today, the acting police commissioner has said that the police are investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office potentially involving national security.

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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Earlier this afternoon, Mr. Speaker told us that he regretted the fact that the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was searched without a warrant. Does the Prime Minister share that regret?

The Prime Minister: That is a matter for the inquiry to decide, which is the right thing to happen. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is for the Prime Minister to answer the question that was put to him.

The Prime Minister rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Benyon, calm yourself—it is the best way.

The Prime Minister: That is not only a matter for the inquiry. I want to defend the operational independence of the police. You cannot pick and choose whether you support the operational independence of the police—either you support it or you don’t.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): Will the Prime Minister answer the question: does he believe that it was wrong of the police to enter this place without a warrant—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: That is precisely why an inquiry has been set up. An inquiry is being set up in this Chamber, and an inquiry has been set up by the police themselves. We should wait until the outcome of the inquiry. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should be calm. They may not like the answers, but the Prime Minister is entitled to give whatever answers he wishes to give. [ Interruption. ] Mr. Duncan Smith, when I am on my feet, you have got to be quiet.

Several hon. Members rose

The Prime Minister: I shall make some progress, and then I will come back to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

In the legislative programme, as we did in the pre-Budget report, we are setting out the detail of real help for home owners and families, real help for small businesses, real help for jobs, real help for young people and real help for communities not only for the downturn but for the upturn that will follow. Today, we are introducing for the first time legislation to abolish child poverty in our country. We are also introducing legislation that will give, for the first time, young people who qualify the right to apprenticeships. We are also bringing forward legislation for an NHS constitution that will give rights to patients.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): With apologies for going back for a moment, may I ask the Prime Minister calmly and courteously whether or not he regrets that the action was taken without a warrant? Such action might be justified on occasion with a warrant, but does he regret that it was done on this occasion without a warrant?

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