PMQs Weds. 24 June 2009
Today Speaker Bercow did very well; it was his first opportunity to restore some clarity and a sense of less noise during prime minister’s questions, he clearly has a goal for more brevity by ministers and members, though not as yet for the prime minister. I think today Gordon Brown scored something of an own goal and David Cameron had a good point in showing capital expenditure will fall in the coming years – hence cuts. The prime minister outlined the figures: £44bn this year, £36bn next year, £29bn in 2011 and £26bn in 2012: he claimed some expenditure had been brought forward. despite Cameron challenging the prime minister he was implementing cuts, the prime minister, of course, would not rise to the bait and hammered the Tories in regard to their proposed 10% cuts.
It is clear any government, in the light of the effects of the recession, will promote cuts in capital investment but it’s an issue of who will cut the most. So it looks as if David Cameron had the edge in this session of PMQs. Nick Clegg however seemed to focus on reverse gear, in that the prime minister had reversed several major decisions recently and if he would admit he would cut public expenditure. Nick Clegg’s supplementary question was more sensible
The problem with PMQs is that opposition leaders merely make long statements before asking their questions; in David Cameron’s case in tends to promote a flippancy which is not acceptable. Nick Clegg also now seems to make statements before asking his question. The prime minister keeps to the old habit of not giving straight answers so perhaps the new Speaker will get round to applying his concern on the opposition leaders and the prime minister in these matters.
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2: HANSARD RECORD OF PMQs:
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1.  Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 June. May I also welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to your first Prime Minister’s questions as Speaker of this House?
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He died serving our country and the people of Afghanistan. His death reminds us how difficult it is for men serving in Afghanistan at the moment. He, and others who have lost their lives, will never be forgotten.
I am sure that the House will wish to send our sincerest condolences also to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell following the tragic news of their death in captivity in Iraq. The taking of hostages is a cruel and barbaric act and can never be justified. I can assure the House that the Government are doing all that we can, and our thoughts and those of everyone in this House will be with the families and friends who wait for news.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Patrick Hall: I wish to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend regarding our troops, the hostages and their families.
One of the key issues raised with me by my constituents is that of housing, and specifically access to affordable housing and the need for mortgage finance. My constituents are aware that despite the urgent need for more house building, Conservatives generally campaign against it, as well as oppose the measures needed to fix the financial system—[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: I think that the Prime Minister has got the gist.
The Prime Minister: We are investing billions of pounds more in new affordable housing. We are helping more households into home ownership through shared ownership. We have secured commitments from the major banks that they will invest a large amount of the £70 billion extra that they are investing over the course of the next year in housing. Of course, that would not be possible if we were to implement a programme of 10 per cent. cuts in our spending.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): The Prime Minister had a bit more than the gist of the question: he had a prepared answer to it as well.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Major Sean Birchall from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan, and I very much agree with the Prime Minister about expressing our heartfelt sympathy to the families of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell at their loss. The Prime Minister knows that he has our full support in all the efforts being made to free the remaining hostages in Iraq.
Last week, the Prime Minister told the House:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”
The Government’s own figures show that that is just not the case. Will he take this opportunity to correct what he told the House last week?
The Prime Minister: Well obviously yes, in the building of the Olympics capital investment will rise very substantially. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that capital investment is rising from £29 billion to £37.7 billion, and then to £44 billion in 2009–10, and that is to help complete the building of the Olympics. Thereafter it will fall as a result of decisions that we have made, but the comparison is between £44 billion of investment now and—even in real terms—the figure for 1999–2002, when he was in charge of advising at the Treasury. We are investing £44 billion: he was investing only £16 billion.
Mr. Cameron: I am afraid that that is just not good enough. Last week the Prime Minister made a very clear statement to the House of Commons. He said:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]
Here are the figures: capital expenditure this year, 2009, is £44 billion; next year, 2010, it is £36 billion; in 2011 it is £29 billion; and in the year of the Olympics, 2012, it is £26 billion. That is a cut of almost half from £44 billion to £26 billion. Will the Prime Minister now apologise, correct his statement and admit that he is cutting capital expenditure?
The Prime Minister: I was just explaining how we had brought forward capital investment to last year and this year. The figure for capital investment in 2006–07 was £36 billion. That has risen to £38 billion in 2008–09 and to £44 billion in 2009–10. That is so that we can advance capital expenditure to deal with the downturn. The problem for the right hon. Gentleman is that he wants to cut capital investment now. He wants to cut it whereas we are increasing it. We are increasing it to complete the building of the Olympics and other projects, whereas his party would be cutting capital investment now. He has got to face up to the fact that he is going to spend less than us in every year.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister has been caught absolutely red-handed. He made a statement to the House about capital expenditure growing every year and the fact is that it is being cut. If he believed in transparency, honesty and truth in public life, he would get up at that Dispatch Box and say, “I’m sorry, I got it wrong. I gave the wrong figures; here are the right ones.” Now do it.
The Prime Minister: I have explained to the House that money has been brought forward to 2008–09 and 2009–10. Instead of having expenditure of just £30 billion in 2008–09, it is £38 billion. Instead of expenditure of less in 2009–10, it will be £44 billion. We took the decision to advance public expenditure to deal with the recession. Let him come clean: he would cut public expenditure this year, next year and every year after. He is trying to evade his responsibility for wanting 10 per cent. cuts.
Mr. Cameron: In the answer before last, the Prime Minister talked about the year 2007–08. In the last answer, he talked about the year 2008–09. Those years have already happened. He said at the Dispatch Box last week that capital expenditure would grow between now and the Olympics. The figures are in the Red Book, on page 226. Capital expenditure will be £44 billion in 2009, falling to £36 billion, then to £29 billion and then, in the year of the Olympics, to £26 billion. There is no other way to cut it. There is nowhere else he can hide. He must stand up, explain that he got it wrong and say that what he told the House last week was wrong. Why not do it for once?
The Prime Minister: We brought forward spending to deal with the recession. I know that he is against our bringing forward the spending, but we brought forward current and capital spending to deal with the recession. Let me tell him that spending is £44 billion in the year 2009–10. That is the highest capital expenditure ever in our country. It compares with the recession years under the Tories, when capital spending was only £12 billion or £16 billion. We are taking the action to invest in our public services—they would cut our public services now. Why does he not admit that there would be 10 per cent. cuts in public services under the Conservatives?
Mr. Cameron: Let us first of all be clear about the Prime Minister’s claims about Conservative policy. Even his own colleagues do not believe him. This is the report that we had from last week’s Cabinet:
“Darling pointed out that Brown’s Tory cut figures did not represent the”—
Conservative— “party’s policy but were merely extrapolations”—
[HON. MEMBERS: “Ah!”] It gets more interesting:
“Cooper, previously the Treasury minister responsible for public spending, echoed his concerns”,
“According to one source who was present, Brown was visibly irritated at the way he had been undermined, and brought the meeting to an early close”.
He says that he wants to be a teacher, but it sounds like he has lost control of the classroom. Last week, at that Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister did not talk about bringing forward capital expenditure. He said, very clearly:
“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”— [Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]
Let me give him one more chance to show that the talk of transparency, truth and honesty means something. He should find that moral compass, stand up there and tell us that he got it wrong.
The Prime Minister: I read out the figures to the House. We are spending £38 billion in that year 2008–09—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending £44 billion in the coming year—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending more money on capital investment than at any time in our history—[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but there is simply far too much noise. The public do not like it, and neither do I.
The Prime Minister: We have to face up to the fact that a sensible debate in this country means that the Conservatives are going to cut spending on housing, education, policing and all the vital public services. The right hon. Gentleman cannot evade the fact that his figures are lower than any of ours in any year. That is the truth about public spending in our country.
Mr. Cameron: The entire country will have heard one very important thing—that this Prime Minister cannot give a straight answer, and that he is not a big enough man to say that he got it wrong.
The Prime Minister: His is the party of 10 per cent. cuts in public expenditure, and the party that would cut the vital public services at a time of recession. We have brought forward public expenditure to help people stay in their homes and get into jobs and to help build schools and hospitals. Those are exactly the public services that the Conservatives would cut savagely, by 10 per cent. That is not going to be allowed to happen. [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Fabricant, you must calm yourself. It is not good for your health. I call Paul Farrelly.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I also welcome you to your new role? Many of us here will welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has rowed back from holding an inquiry into Iraq in private. It would have been a misjudgment to do so. That said, the Opposition motion and the amendment before us this afternoon contain two points of difference—whether the terms of reference are discussed and published, and whether the committee should have a wider composition. What can the Prime Minister say to the House to address those two points of difference?
The Prime Minister: I can say that Sir John Chilcot, the chair of the inquiry—and it is an independent inquiry—has written to me to make it absolutely clear that the inquiry will need expert assessors at the highest level including in military, legal, international development and reconstruction matters. He has already begun to identify people who may be willing to serve in that capacity. As for the terms of reference, I cannot think of an inquiry with wider terms of reference. It covers nearly eight years, from 2001 to 2009. It covers all issues that refer to the conflict itself, the causes of the conflict, and the reconstruction after the conflict. The inquiry will be set up on the basis that it will be allowed to have all the evidence and materials, whether classified or not, that it needs to look into the matter. The terms of reference of this inquiry are very wide indeed.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, who tragically lost his life in Helmand this week. I of course also join in the expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell. We all hope that the remaining hostages will be released safely as soon as possible.
On the Gurkhas, the Prime Minister was wrong and was forced to back down. On MPs’ expenses, he was wrong and forced to back down. On the Iraq inquiry, he was wrong and is now being forced to back down. The only gear left for this Government seems to be reverse, so when will hear from him that he is wrong too on public spending?
The Prime Minister: I am not wrong on public spending. We want to increase public spending. I am not wrong on wanting to help people in difficulty in the recession by helping the unemployed and home owners. It is the Liberal party that wants to cut public expenditure, not the Cons—not the Labour party. [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I know it is the third time, but perhaps third time will be lucky. We must have some order in this House.
Mr. Clegg: The Prime Minister cannot keep avoiding the questions. Today, new figures from the EU have been published that show that we have the largest underlying deficit anywhere in Europe. Why does he not admit that balancing the nation’s books will take big, difficult, long-term decisions? Nobody is fooled by his trick of dressing up cuts as investment. We are setting out what needs to happen—unlike him, and unlike the Leader of the Opposition—on Trident, on baby bonds, and on tax credits for high-income families. There are some ideas, now where are his?
The Prime Minister: Given that there is no problem of inflation at the moment in our country, and given that interest rates are low, it is right for us to take action to help people get into work. It is right for us to take action to help 150,000 businesses, as we are doing. It is right for us to move forward the housing programme and our programme of capital investment. These are the right things to do. I do not think that the Liberals, with their proposals to cut public spending, are doing the right thing at the moment at all.
Q2.  Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, and congratulations on your election. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spell out the implications for the public services, pensioners and the less well off of the 10 per cent. cut proposed by the Opposition?
The Prime Minister: Increasingly, the choice within our country will become one between us wanting to preserve our public services and wanting to expand them and a Conservative party that is determined to cut them by 10 per cent. Once the public knows that that is the choice, Conservative Members will have to explain in every constituency how many police, nurses and teachers are going to be cut as a result of their restrictions on spending.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Can the Prime Minister confirm whether he has had any correspondence, e-mail, telephone calls or texts from Damian McBride since the day he resigned, and just to clear up the confusion that there seems to be around this issue, will he write to the Parliamentary Standards Authority confirming the answer to this question?
The Prime Minister: The answer is no, but is it not amazing when we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other major issues that a Back Bencher can reduce himself to re-asking a question that was asked last week?
Q3.  Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1552 regarding steel making on Teesside? What help and support is he willing to give so that we can keep the Redcar steel complex open and protect 22,000 direct and indirect jobs as well as a strong manufacturing base?
The Prime Minister: I have talked to the company and also met the trades unions, as has the Business Secretary. The future of steel making in this region is absolutely crucial, so we are trying to do everything we can to make that happen. Clearly, there is a dispute between Tata and the partners involved in the consortium that has now withdrawn its order for steel making in the area. We want to support a reconciliation between the two groups, which is what we are trying to do. In the meantime, One North East is trying to help people in search of jobs.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Prime Minister’s insult to the Law and Justice party of Poland in his European statement yesterday is a great insult to the President of Poland, who is a member of that party and to the Polish people who elected that party into office. No matter what he may think of the Law and Justice party, he must understand that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he has a duty to implement basic diplomatic procedures.
The Prime Minister: I have very good relationships with the person the hon. Gentleman is talking about. As for the Polish Law and Justice party, the Conservatives should look at the policies of the parties they are having dealings with.
Q4.  Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister tell the House of his reaction to recent events in Burma? Does he agree that the imprisonment, illegal as it is, of pro-democracy campaigners and the shameful, farcical and sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi does nothing for Burma’s standing in the international community?
The Prime Minister: First, let me congratulate my right hon. Friend on the 27th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons; he has given great service, particularly in terms of our relations with other countries. In Burma a sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is taking place, and it is completely unacceptable not just to us, but to all members of the international community. At the last meeting of the European Council, we sent out a powerful message that unless action is taken in Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi, we will be prepared to take further sanctions against the regime. I have also talked to the UN Secretary-General and encouraged him to visit Burma—Mr. Gambari, his representative, is there at the moment. I hope that the Secretary-General will visit Burma to send a message to the regime as soon as possible.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In May 1997, there were 1,826 people unemployed in Wellingborough; at the end of last month, that figure had risen to 3,366—an increase of 84 per cent. Whose fault is that: is it (a) the last Conservative Government; (b) the previous US President; or (c) the Prime Minister who claimed he had ended boom and bust?
The Prime Minister: The figures are all the more reason to support our policies to get people back to work. Were it not for the policies we are adopting, 500,000 more people would be out of work—that is what official estimates say. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the public expenditure we are engaged in to help people get back into work.
Q5.  Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, it gives me particular pleasure to welcome you to the Chair as our new reforming Speaker. May I say how much I endorse the wise words of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who called for the whole House now to get behind you? That should be the whole House.
The Prime Minister deserves great credit for bringing forward proposals to establish the Parliamentary Standards Bill and to set up a Select Committee on reform of the House of Commons, but may I draw his attention to the unnecessarily tight terms of reference on today’s Order Paper, and to the cross-party amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? Surely, it cannot be right for the Committee to be constrained to discuss only non-governmental business.
The Prime Minister: We have proposed measures to modernise the House of Commons, in particular the election of Select Committee Chairs, the scheduling of non-Government business and the raising of public issues for debate. All those other matters can be considered in due course, and the Leader of the House will lead a debate on them.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Mr. Speaker, the university of Essex is proud of you.
Earlier this month, the Conservatives were humiliated in the local elections in Colchester. Will the Prime Minister discuss with his Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families why Essex county council is ignoring what the Secretary of State promised in the House in May last year, and is proceeding to close two secondary schools, against the democratic wish of the people of my constituency?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, investment in schools is rising, as is investment in new school buildings generally. The hon. Gentleman has specific questions he wishes to address to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I hope that he will be able to meet my right hon. Friend soon.
Q6.  Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): This morning, Superintendent Simon Corkill from Wembley police station telephoned me—[Interruption.] —to say that there had been a drop in gun crime of 45 per cent., a drop in knife crime of 19 per cent. and a drop in youth offending of 19 per cent. in the past year. I know the Prime Minister will want to congratulate Wembley police force on those statistics, but will he join me in asking for a 10 per cent. cut next year? I mean, of course, a further cut in the statistics.
The Prime Minister: Since 1997, the investment we have made in neighbourhood policing and in policing generally has led to a reduction in crime. As a result of that investment, people can feel safer in their homes, but it is equally important that we maintain investment in policing—a 10 per cent. cut in policing budgets would be totally disastrous for police forces and communities.
Q7.  Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): One in four people will suffer at some point in their life from a mental health problem, and there is a great deal of stigma about that. Will the Prime Minister take some advice from Alastair Campbell, whose advice seemed to work very well for his predecessor? When giving evidence to the Speaker’s Conference on improving diversity, Mr. Campbell suggested that we get rid of the provision in the Mental Health Act 1983 that Members of Parliament who are sectioned for a mental health problem lose their seat. Will the Prime Minister take steps on that measure and end stigma against people with mental health problems?
The Prime Minister: Mental health is a serious problem and we should look at it with great care before we make any decisions, but of course I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says. I think he will understand that it needs the greatest of care.
Q8.  Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Hopwood Hall college in my constituency delivers vocational programmes to learners throughout Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale—all areas of high deprivation. The college capital programme has had to be put on the back burner because of the funding crisis at the Learning and Skills Council. Will the Prime Minister have a look at the specific problem for me, and perhaps designate the appropriate Minister to meet the college principal, the local authority and me to see if we can get ourselves out of this mess?
The Prime Minister: The Learning and Skills Council has written to the principals of all colleges about capital investment for the future. It hopes to announce projects to go through to the next stage of the process as soon as possible. As my hon. Friend will know, we made available an extra £300 million in the Budget for further education colleges. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to meet him.
Q9.  Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): May I say to the Prime Minister that this year’s 10 per cent. increase in applications to higher education is a massive cause for celebration? The fact that the major increases are particularly among young black males, students over 40 and people in lower socio-economic groups is a double cause for celebration. Will the Prime Minister therefore say why the planned 15,000 extra higher education places were cut to 10,000 last year and are now being cut to 3,000? Is it not better to invest in people in higher education than to invest in them on the dole queues?
The Prime Minister: We want more people to be able to go to university. If there are more applications this year, we must look at that very carefully. I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman says about the numbers, and I know that the Business Secretary is looking at what can be done. We want to give this year’s school leavers a guarantee that they will also have opportunities, and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is taking action to ensure that opportunities are available to every school leaver this summer.
Q10.  Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister will be aware of the pain caused by very high water bills to my constituents in the far south-west, especially those on low and modest incomes. We eagerly look forward to the publication of the interim findings of the Walker review on water metering and charging. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a group of colleagues who have been working on finding solutions for many years to see how far the review will be able to help to address the problems?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has campaigned on water charges in her region for many years. I believe that the interim report is scheduled for publication next week, with a final report expected in the autumn. We will provide a full response following the publication of the final report and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about it.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): A considerable number of my constituents are Equitable Life victims and the quality of the retirement that they paid for has been crippled. The Government’s response to the two ombudsman’s reports added insult to that injury. Will the Prime Minister look again at the delays in paying compensation and the partiality of the Government’s compensation scheme?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the ombudsman made certain recommendations, which we are looking at. We have set up a separate inquiry to look at the implication of what was said and we will report in due course.
Q11.  Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Despite all the point scoring on cuts in public expenditure, will my right hon. Friend assure me that no money will be cut from protecting our armed forces on active service? Will he say that, in any circumstances, the priority will be to spend whatever money is available on the front line, unlike the situation under the Tories, who made redundancies while—
Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister does not have to concern himself with Opposition policy.
The Prime Minister: We have shown our commitment to our armed forces by increasing expenditure on them every year. We have made extra money available for all the additional responsibilities that they have had to discharge in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want a spending path for the armed forces that is completely consistent with their responsibilities. It would not make sense—regardless of need and what has happened to the economy—to announce 10 per cent. cuts in the defence budget now.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he has received advice from the Chief of the Defence Staff calling for sustained and substantial reinforcement for our hard-pressed armed forces in Afghanistan?
The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman was here yesterday, he would know that I answered exactly that question. I said that we had raised the number of forces in Afghanistan for the period of the election campaign from 8,100 to 9,000. For that period, which takes us right through to the autumn, we are meeting additional responsibilities to ensure that the democracy of Afghanistan is maintained and that elections can happen with greater security and safety. Of course, we maintain our ongoing campaign against the Afghanistan Taliban.
Q12.  Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend believe that it is the role of mainstream UK political parties to associate with Latvia’s For Fatherland and Freedom party, which honours veterans of the Waffen-SS, or does he believe that that should be left to the British National party?
The Prime Minister: Is it not remarkable that the Conservatives have formed an alliance in Europe that excludes the German Christian Democrats, excludes the French party of President Sarkozy, excludes the Italian party of Prime Minister Berlusconi—[Interruption.] —excludes all reputable political parties in Europe—[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order.
The Prime Minister: The Conservatives are now isolated on the fringes of Europe.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Would the Prime Minister agree with me that both the Tamil and Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka deserve an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka? Given the cowardly decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council to resist any such inquiry, what steps can he take to make sure that the issue is not abandoned and forgotten?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady may know, I have spoken to the President of Sri Lanka, and I have urged him to ensure reconciliation with the Tamil community. It is very important, after the events that we have seen happen, that those people who have been displaced are given urgent humanitarian help, that the regime itself recognises that it has to make peace with the Tamil members of the community, and that action is taken as quickly as possible for that purpose. What we need is not violence in Sri Lanka but reconciliation.