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29 Apr 2009 : Column 881

The right hon. Gentleman is also right that the focus of our development spending is on providing opportunities that help people out of poverty, and that includes the increased spending on education in Pakistan. According to our knowledge, it is correct that people can get free education, board and lodging at madrassahs, but must then submit to an extremist ideology as part of that education. If we can increase the number of schools in Pakistan, and particularly the opportunities for girls to get education, that will make a huge difference in the long term to how Pakistani people see their future, free of terrorism. That is exactly what we will do.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has rightly reminded the House that Pakistan and its people have been great victims of terrorism yet, despite that, the overwhelming majority remain wedded to democracy. In accepting that his proposals for greater economic assistance to Pakistan are important in showing that democracy has its own rewards, will he remind all our allies in Washington and elsewhere that in any military action it is necessary to work to sustain the democratic institutions of Pakistan, not undermine them?

The Prime Minister: That was well expressed by the Pakistani leaders I met yesterday, who are worried about the airspace incursions. At the same time, the Pakistani leadership wish to rid themselves of the al-Qaeda elements that operate in their country, and know that the focus of al-Qaeda’s organisation and bases has moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We must find ways of working with them to deal with the terrorist threat, and we will do so.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): If, as the Prime Minister has indicated, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban are now working closely together and co-operating, is it not about time that the Afghan Government and the Pakistan Government showed a similar degree of co-operation? Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the major problems is that since 1948 the Afghan Government have consistently refused to recognise the frontier between their two countries as permanent? Will the Prime Minister speak to President Karzai and encourage him to recognise that frontier? Without that, many in Pakistan will continue to be ambivalent, to put it mildly, about working closely with the Afghan Government?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about some of the existing problems, and I respect his knowledge. I spoke to President Karzai on Monday about those issues, and I also spoke to President Zardari about them. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to come together to consider what issues they can address in common, including agreements about the border areas. It will be difficult to get an agreement on the border line over a short period of time, but such cross-border co-operation, which has not occurred before, is possible. Six co-ordination centres exist at the moment, and we need to do more to expand co-operation between the Afghan army and the Pakistan army—police numbers are limited, but we must ensure that they co-operate in future as well. Next week, President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan will go together to Washington for a meeting with President Bush—[Hon. Members: “Obama.”] Yes, I apologise—with President
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Obama. They will have that meeting to discuss their common issues in terms of dealing with terrorist and security problems. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we wish to have the same level of co-operation, with them both working together with us.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I welcome the list of initiatives that the Prime Minister mentioned in relation to development, democracy and diplomacy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does he accept, however, that the line that cannot be crossed would be one that saw any involvement of UK troops, either conventional or special forces, in Pakistan? Does he agree that that would inevitably lead to a civil war in Pakistan, and to wider hostility to the presence of western forces in the region as a whole? Will he assure the House that under no circumstances will UK forces be given a remit to cross that frontier?

The Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend is finding difficulties where they do not exist. The issue is not that but how we can support and back up both the Afghan and Pakistan army and police forces, and we will continue to do that. If we are to fight terrorism, co-operation will be necessary. As the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned, Afghanistan and Pakistan must learn to work together to deal with their common problems. We can assist in that, but I believe that there is a will from Presidents Karzai and Zardari for that co-operation to happen.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): At the end of this very good statement, and in view of the close connection between Pakistan and the United Kingdom, the instant communication between our two countries, the general instability in that region and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, does the Prime Minister agree that these issues are of supreme importance to this country and that they affect us very deeply and closely? Will he make it one of the highest priorities of his Government to renew the effort to persuade the people of this country that this is our battle and that we must continue to fight alongside the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan until we win it?

The Prime Minister: I shall do so. I think it is very important for the country to be informed about the dangers that come from both the Pakistan border and the Afghan border. If we have been able to show something today, it is that the greater co-operation between the terrorist groups that operate across these borders must be dealt with by a more sophisticated and more effective strategy for the future. That is why we want to increase Afghan and Pakistan army and police work in those areas, where it has been limited in the past, and why we are also prepared to work with the Americans and others to increase the counter-terrorism capability, and its financing, of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the threat of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom comes mainly from those areas of the world that we have been talking about today, and people should know that the chain of terror that goes from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Britain can be broken only by co-operation between all Governments over the next few years.

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Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The security that ISAF provides is essential to Afghanistan’s future, but ultimately democracy and human rights will not be won on the battlefield; they will be won through winning the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the border. A new World Bank trust fund for development in the border areas will help the Government of Pakistan to win hearts and minds. The United States is the biggest donor to the region by a long margin, but, unlike the United Kingdom, it has not, in the past, put much money through the Afghan trust funds. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with President Obama about US funding for the new trust fund and for the Afghanistan trust funds? Will the United States be putting more money through the trust funds and spending less on bilateral projects?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know the interest that he has taken in this matter as a member of the Select Committee on International Development. The Secretary of State for International Development has just been explaining to me how the United States Agency for International Development—USAID—and the Department for International Development are working well together on those very issues. It is absolutely right that in so far as there is a co-ordination of military activity, there should also be a co-ordination of development activity—that is what we intend to see happen over the next few months.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): May I add my condolences to the family and friends of the Welsh Guardsman who was killed?

I thank the Prime Minister for an early copy of his statement. Given the pivotal role that the UK police played in the Balkans and have played in Iraq, will the Prime Minister ensure that as soon as the security situation permits it, UK police forces will play a pivotal role in training a good Afghan police service?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that British police have helped around the world in establishing the civil order that is necessary in countries that are reconstructing themselves. I believe that over the long term we will have to have some form of organisation comprising civil people from the police, the fire brigades and the legal professions that can help rebuild countries in difficulty. In Afghanistan, the British police could work with the European and NATO force squad that is trying to strengthen police training in Afghanistan. He is right to say that we have a big role to play in helping to develop the police in that country.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): In his welcome discussions on counter-terrorism with the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, did the Prime Minister
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discuss Operation Pathway? Did he take the opportunity to visit our entry clearance operation in Islamabad, where Pakistanis seeking to come to this country as students are not routinely interviewed in person—they are interviewed on the telephone? Will he pledge to give whatever resources are needed to boost our entry clearance operation?

The Prime Minister: Yes, indeed. Biometric visas now have to be obtained by students coming into this country and interviews can take place where that is judged necessary. The rate at which applications have been refused has increased very substantially, and, of course, as a result of a review, the number of colleges in Britain that are registered to accept students from abroad has been radically reduced from 4,000 to 1,500. We are doing what we can to prevent people who may be falsely claiming to be students from coming into our country. At the same time, as I said to President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif, we welcome Pakistan’s students coming to our country for the purposes of education—more than 10,000 do so. Those links are an important means to build relationships between our two countries in the future, but we must be able to act where there is suspicion of terrorist activity.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Does the Prime Minister accept that the success of this strategy will depend on the co-operation and support of allies? Given that this is a NATO operation in Afghanistan, how far is the strategy that he has announced consistent with NATO’s strategy? Has he discussed this with, and had it endorsed by, our NATO partners? In relation to those same partners, what steps has he taken to persuade those who have imposed caveats on the use of their armed forces in Afghanistan to withdraw those caveats so as to ensure that they make a much stronger and more effective military contribution?

The Prime Minister: This is exactly what we talked about when we had a full discussion of these matters at the NATO summit. We discussed how other countries could play their part in sharing the burden in Afghanistan. As I said earlier, 10 countries announced that they would deploy at least some more troops for the period of the election. I believe that our strategy is very much in line with the new thinking that is developing across NATO, and it is of course in line with President Obama’s statement of the past few weeks. I believe that addressing the terrorist areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan together will form a bigger feature of NATO’s thinking and that of others in the times to come. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we expect other countries to share the burden too.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Points of Order

1.27 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was wondering whether you could help me in defending Back Bencher rights against the office of the Prime Minister in relation to written questions. A few years ago, I tabled a parliamentary written question to the previous Prime Minister asking that he instruct Ministers, Departments and Government agencies to stop responding to MPs’ constituency letters—such letters are written on House of Commons paper and have a House of Commons address, thus suggesting that the office of the MP in question is in the House of Commons—by replying to either the office of the political party of the MP in their constituency or what they assumed was the MP’s office, unless the MP had specified that that was where they wanted responses to constituency casework to be taken up. The previous Prime Minister replied to my written question, saying that it was wrong for Ministers and Departments to take that approach, unless it had been specified by an individual MP.

Unfortunately, as I have found in my experience, the habit is starting again, so I tabled an identical question earlier this week to the current Prime Minister asking him if he, as head of the Government, would instruct Ministers, and their Departments and their agencies, to write to MPs at the House of Commons only, unless they had been told to do otherwise. Given that I assumed that only the Prime Minister, as head of the Government, can instruct his Ministers, I was rather disappointed to receive a letter from No. 10 in the past 40 minutes stating the following:

about this matter—

To my mind, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if he agrees with my hypothesis, does not have the same authority as the Prime Minister to instruct Ministers. Surely the Prime Minister should be replying to this and taking action if he agrees with me, as the previous Prime Minister did. Is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to stop the transfer of the answer to this question, as that will possibly dilute the effectiveness of getting action taken to ensure that replies to MPs’ correspondence are sent here, if that is where the relevant MP’s office is and where they wish the reply to be sent?

Mr. Speaker: It seems that in this point of order the hon. Gentleman is comparing the previous Prime Minister with the present one. The best way of answering that is
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by saying that Prime Ministers are a bit like Speakers: no two work the same way. The Prime Minister is entitled, if he so wishes, to pass the legitimate question that the hon. Gentleman has tabled to one of his Ministers, and that is what he has done, just as the previous Prime Minister decided that he would answer the question himself. They both have a different way of working, and it is up to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Burns: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek guidance on one specific point. As the Head of Government, a Prime Minister has the power to issue a blanket instruction to Ministers to behave in a certain way. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is not the Prime Minister, so would he have the authority to order all Ministers to do this?

Mr. Speaker: The Prime Minister has ordered the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, and that seems reasonable. The Prime Minister has delegated the power to one of his Ministers, as he is entitled to do. We can go no further.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You can imagine my surprise this morning on finding an early-day motion titled with the name of one of my constituents and referring to his ongoing case, with which I am still dealing. It was tabled by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Have you not made it clear that hon. Members should stay out of the cases of other hon. Members? The hon. Gentleman did not even do me the courtesy of telling me that he intended to table this early-day motion today. Swarthick Salins won his immigration case because of the hard work of my office and the constituency campaign of the people of Perth. It had nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy). Can you restate your ruling that hon. Members should stay out of the cases belonging to other hon. Members?

Mr. Speaker: Another little thing is that the Chair should not be drawn into these matters and people should use their common sense. An early-day motion can be tabled by any hon. Member, even if it relates to somewhere else or someone else’s constituent. However, the courtesies suggest that hon. Members should get in touch with the other hon. Member involved. If any hon. Member wants to take on any immigration cases, I probably have more asylum seekers in my constituency than anyone else in Scotland, so I am prepared to farm out some of that work.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 887

Prevention of Excessive Charges

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

1.33 pm

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): I beg to move,

Over the last year, we have seen the effects that the irresponsibility and the excesses of the banking sector have had on families and business both here in the United Kingdom and around the world. Tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent on bailing out our banks in order to deliver help to mortgage holders, businesses and savers. The Bill represents a further measure that must be taken to help those most in need. It is also an opportunity for our banks to show that they have learnt lessons and to act with fairness and responsibility.

In recent years, members of the public have been forced to pay disproportionately high bank charges for modest contractual failures. For example, if a family is late in paying their mortgage they may incur an arrears fee of £60 each month. Over two years those charges can add up to almost £1,500.

In 1998, the average bank charge for customers was £12. By 2006, it had jumped to more than £67—with a £39 charge per declined item, a £28 monthly fee and 30 per cent. unauthorised overdraft interest—which is a 558 per cent. increase in eight years. Bank charges are imposed not just for exceeding an agreed overdraft by a few pounds, but for the act of merely attempting to do so. Typically, they penalise people when they are at their most vulnerable in life and bear no relation to the sums involved.

For example, a constituent’s wages fell because of illness and she was unable to pay four direct debits one week. Her bank imposed default charges of £184, while her creditors imposed individual “failed direct debit” charges of £25, totalling £100. None of her bills has been paid, yet a staggering £284 of charges was imposed—the equivalent of four weeks’ statutory sick pay. The imposition of these excessive charges is forcing hundreds of thousands of individuals into a spiralling cycle of debt and poverty.

We protect individuals against unfair business practices by regulating consumer contracts. The regulations on unfair terms in consumer contracts provide protection for consumers against excessive charges. They allow the court to declare charges as unenforceable if a contractual term requires a consumer to pay a disproportionately high sum in compensation for failing to do something.

There are two major weaknesses with the protection afforded by these regulations.

They are reactive, in that they require individuals to opt in. That means taking a court action, and even then it could take months or years to obtain protection. In the meantime, people continue to suffer from the unfair charges—in addition to which, we know that many people, particularly frail or elderly constituents, will be reluctant to take court proceedings. Why should they have to do so?

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