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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Livestock Movements

1.

What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales on the effects of the six-day rule on agriculture, with particular reference to effects upon agricultural shows and festivals; and if she will make a statement. [109785]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular bilateral meetings with ministerial colleagues and, of course, with the First Minister. They cover a number of issues, including agriculture. The six-day rule has freed up the movement of livestock while ensuring that risks to animal health are kept to an absolute minimum.

I see from today's Order Paper that the Secretary of State is referred to as female. Perhaps I can understand the Table Office misunderstanding which party he stands for. He is new Labour here and very old Labour in Neath. However, to question his gender is another thing.

The people of Wales have been waiting for months and months for the six-day rule to be adapted. Agricultural fairs will be ruined in the coming months, and many will be cancelled. That is ruinous for agriculture, bad for the rural economy and terrible for morale. Is it no wonder that the people of rural Wales will reject Labour tomorrow?

Saying that Labour will be rejected in Wales tomorrow is about as convincing as recruiting Attila the Hun to the peace corps. However, I have sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says about the six-day rule. The veterinary advice that we have is strongly against providing additional exemptions to the rule. It is felt that adding further options would make it more complex. The six-day standstill strikes a balance between allowing industry to operate efficiently and preventing further outbreaks of the disease, and that is what we all want. However, I recognise the impact that the rule is having on small agricultural shows.

Should not the Minister disregard the manic hyperbole from Plaid Cymru and consider the reasons why foot and mouth spread in this country in a way that it did not spread in Holland, France, Ireland or Scotland? It spread because of excessive and unnecessary movements in which more than 1 million animals were in contact with foot and mouth before the disease was detected. Is it not right that non-essential movements of animals should be restricted not only to ensure that any future outbreak of foot and mouth is confined to a small area, but to guard against other animal diseases such as blue tongue virus and swine vesicular disease?

I take note of my hon. Friend's point, but I reiterate the advice that we have been given by veterinary officials. The six-day rule is appropriate and strikes a proper balance between the risks. We certainly do not want to return to the problems that we had a few months ago.

Answers to my parliamentary questions show that the ban on on-farm burial of fallen stock, which is to come in tonight, is not based on solid evidence. Given that the Government have not researched the risk assessment regarding that method, are they and the Minister willing to respond to representations from representatives of Welsh farming about the fallen stock regime that it would like to see? Can he assure us that the Government will show flexibility in the months ahead in their proposed new scheme, given the uncertainties that we all know exist?

As the hon. Gentleman says, the European Union legislation comes into force tonight and tomorrow. It will ban routine on-farm burial and the burning of animal carcases. My colleagues in the Assembly continue to work on a national fallen stock scheme, but I will certainly accept the representations to which he refers and make sure that they are passed on to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and at the National Assembly.

Excluded Pupils

2.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly about the numbers of permanently excluded pupils from secondary schools in Wales. [109786]

My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Minister and I regularly meet the Assembly Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning to discuss a range of educational issues.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he share my concern that the largest percentage of excluded pupils in any area in Wales is in the Caerphilly county borough where the local authority is nationalist controlled? Does he also share my concern that many of those excluded pupils are on the streets of the borough engaging in antisocial behaviour because the local authority does not provide adequate alternative educational provision?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's point, and I deeply regret the fact that the borough that he and I share, which is run by the Welsh nationalist party, has one of the highest figures for exclusion in Wales. The average figure for Wales is 1.7 per cent.

However, I want to make it clear that my colleagues in the Assembly are putting together a package of £500,000 for the next three years in which they are looking to pilot projects to establish the causes of pupil disengagement. My hon. Friend is right to say that youngsters who are excluded from school cause antisocial nuisance problems right throughout our borough. I made that point when I spoke at the NUT Cymru dinner at Harrogate recently. I believe that we have to work hard, as the Government are doing, in partnership with the Labour-led Assembly in Cardiff to ensure that we put in the resources to tackle the problem. I also believe that it starts in the home. Parents have a responsibility to see that their children go to school.

Youth Offending

3.

What recent representations he has received on measures to address youth offending in Wales. [109787]

I have received representations from a number of sources.

I thank the Secretary of State for his usual enlightening reply. Will he comment on the statement made by Edwina Hart that has come to light during the recent campaign in Wales? She said:

"The public sector in Wales does not provide any drug and alcohol rehabilitation places".
In light of the fact that drug-related crime has increased by 13 per cent. in Wales during the past year and given that youth offending is unfortunately part of that culture, what will he do to ensure that drug rehabilitation places that are funded by the public sector will be available in every part of Wales?

I was with the Home Secretary in Cynon Valley a few months ago to take forward an extra investment of several hundreds of thousands of pounds precisely to deal with the drug programme: not only clamping down on drug traffickers but dealing with rehabilitation. There is record investment throughout Wales as a result of the extra investment and spending that the Labour Government are putting into Wales.

While I strongly endorse what the Government are doing to prioritise the tackling of antisocial behaviour, may I ask them through my right hon. Friend to ensure that resources are available to enable the police to provide more uniformed foot patrols in areas that are especially afflicted by antisocial behaviour and that antisocial behaviour orders may be speedily made and, once made, upheld?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Wales has one of the first pilots on antisocial behaviour, which is taking the agenda forward. The Government are determined to clamp down on antisocial behaviour. It is a real plague in many of our communities in Wales: on estates and elsewhere in many of our valley communities and throughout the nation. That is why our anti-crime and antisocial behaviour strategies are being implemented, and we should receive more support from Opposition parties for our work to clamp down on the problem.

The Secretary of State for Wales knows that persistent youth offending has shot up by 58 per cent. and that more young people are the victims of crime themselves. Only proper funding will sort out the problem. The chief of Dyfed-Powys police force has complained about the switching of funds from rural parts of Wales to large urban areas in England. Was he not right to say that the inane, reassuring Home Office press releases stating that funding is sufficient should be entered for the Booker prize for fiction? If the Government ever capture the Iraqi information Minister, perhaps they can employ him to read out some of those press releases. When will they ensure that proper funding for our rural areas of Wales is achieved?

That was very well rehearsed, was it not? The charge comes from a Conservative party that would cut spending by 20 per cent. right across the board.

The hon. Gentleman says rubbish, but let me quote the Leader of the Opposition from 30 December 2002:

"20 per cent. savings across the board in Government spending …That's what we're looking at".
What would that mean for crime in Wales? Nearly 1,400 police officers would be sacked. There would be 20 per cent. cuts to the police force at a time when our Labour Government have been responsible for the recruitment of 600 extra police officers. The Leader of the Opposition visited Cardiff and south Wales last week to campaign for the Conservative party. A passer-by—

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that one of the most effective ways in which to deal with youth offending is to empower young people in their communities? Will he join me in congratulating the community first programme in my constituency which has several young people-led projects that are reaping dividends and giving ownership to young people in their communities? Does he agree that only the return of a Labour Government in Wales on Thursday will ensure that we have the sustainable financing for such programmes?

Yes. I was in Holyhead in my hon. Friend's constituency on Monday morning, and there are many excellent projects to tackle antisocial behaviour. I was also in the constituency of my Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), yesterday where an important project involving community safety wardens is taking place as a result of record investment from the Labour Government in partnership with the Labour-led Welsh Assembly. After 1 May, majority Labour control of the Assembly will allow us to take that programme forward.

Financial Support (Business)

5.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly on financial assistance for Welsh companies. [109789]

I thank the Secretary of State for such an insightful and helpful response.

Although I wish the First Secretary of the National Assembly every success in creating jobs for workers in Wales, will the right hon. Gentleman raise the concerns of my constituents who work for Aircraft Materials Ltd. who face redundancy because the company is relocating to Wales with the help of regional selective assistance from the Welsh Assembly? When he meets the First Secretary will he tell him that it is a waste of taxpayers' money to move jobs from one part of the UK to another—and to stop poaching English jobs?

The answer to that is an emphatic no. The alternative plan for Aircraft Materials Ltd., which is a US-owned company, was to locate the jobs in the United States. Under the rules applied rigorously and scrupulously for regional selective assistance, we were able to safeguard those jobs and increase them in the rest of the UK instead of allowing them to be exported to the US. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, although I understand his concern as a constituency Member of Parliament.

Although Corus is not a Welsh company, it has a substantial presence in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend assure not only the First Secretary but all of us that should Corus ask the Government for financial assistance, it will not be ruled out, given that it would be unthinkable for Britain, and Wales in particular, to be without a steel industry?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and we will consider what we can do, both through the National Assembly and elsewhere, to ensure that we have the most competitive and excellent steel-making company in Britain, including, of course, Wales.

The Corus announcement yesterday was excellent news for Port Talbot. There are to be an extra 35-plus jobs and a huge investment to increase production from 3.7 million to 4.7 million extra tonnage. At least the reduction in jobs at Llanwern was relatively small. Obviously it was unwelcome given that the Llanwern workers have been battered and bruised over so many years by Corus. It was good at least to see a secure and sustainable future for both Llanwern and Port Talbot. That will have the full support of the Labour Assembly and a Labour Government.

On a number of occasions over the past nine months, I have written to Assembly Government officials drawing attention to the alleged financial irregularities at Elev8, a call centre based in my constituency that the Secretary of State recently visited. The company went into receivership yesterday, with a loss of more than 60 jobs. Is not that yet more evidence of the failure of the Labour-Liberal Administration to bring jobs to all parts of Wales? What does the future hold for the Amman valley, which he and I represent?

The hon. Gentleman really should stick to the facts and stop relying on smears. The truth is that unemployment in his constituency has been cut significantly. Employment across Wales increased by nearly 60,000 last year. He should be attacking the unemployment in the Tory years rather than Labour's efforts to increase jobs because we have cut unemployment substantially.

I did visit the call centre and what has happened is regrettable, but the fact is that new jobs are being created all the time in our valley constituencies and right across Wales. The hon. Gentleman should stop talking down Wales and support the investment and efforts that are being made to start-up businesses all over the country.

If financial assistance is given by the Welsh Assembly to companies such as Corus, what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that that money will be used to secure Welsh jobs, and that it will not go into the pockets of fat cat directors to further enrich themselves and sacrifice workers throughout Britain?

As far as I am aware, Corus has not asked for any support in terms of extra grant aid or any other facility that could be approved by the Welsh Assembly or by the Department of Trade and Industry, but no doubt we would consider such a request if it came. My hon. Friend is right. There is a revolt by shareholders and pension fund representatives at the way that representatives and directors who have failed in their jobs often walk away with huge bonanzas. That is not acceptable, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is examining the matter. With reference to the workers who are to lose their jobs at Corus, that is a particular attack on their rights, and it must not be allowed to continue.

With regard to Welsh business's lack of growth, is it not the case that the Government are the problem, not the solution? We have had the national insurance tax increases that have just clobbered Welsh businesses, the climate change levy, the landfill tax, fuel tax increases, business tax increases and red tape that means, on average, 15 new regulations on business every working day. It is no wonder that we have seen some huge job losses in Wales since the Government came to power. When will the Government get off the back of business and give it a chance?

When will the hon. Gentleman rely on facts instead of rhetoric? That is the question. Let us look at the facts. Three thousand more businesses were created in Wales last year. There has been a higher startup rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to Labour's support policies for Welsh businesses. There is a lower failure rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to the support that the Labour Government are putting into the Welsh economy. That is a record to be proud of, compared with the Tory record of record bankruptcies, record high unemployment and record collapse in manufacturing across Wales.

The Secretary of State says, "Let us look at the facts", so let us do so. We have had Welsh agriculture on its knees under the present Government, and Welsh manufacturing has been decimated. It is incredibly difficult to get objective 1 money because it is so difficult for small businesses to work through all the red tape. The Federation of Small Businesses chairman, Gwyn Evans, has stated that public liability insurance premiums are crippling small businesses because they have shot up in price. One beneficiary of the insurance increases that are crippling business is the Government, who take a percentage of the premiums in tax. While the Chancellor is laughing all the way to the bank, do the Government feel no embarrassment about their windfall tax gain, or do they just consider it a nice little earner, like all their other stealth taxes?

What would happen to Welsh businesses that are in receipt of a great deal of grant aid and support from the National Assembly and the Government when the Tories cut spending on Welsh businesses by 20 per cent.? There would be massive, savage cuts in support for businesses right across Wales. What have we done for small businesses? We have abolished stamp duty to cut the cost of property purchases in areas of Wales, we have enhanced appreciation allowances to cut the cost of land clearance and tackling dereliction, and there is the prospect of enhanced capital allowances to cut the cost of initial investment, and community investment tax relief to cut the cost of risk capital. The Government are friends of business, creating more businesses and more jobs in Wales than ever before. A record level of employment was created last year, with a 60,000 rise in employment in Wales as a result of the Government's excellent policies.

Tourism

6.

If he will make a statement on the tourism policy for Wales. [109790]

Tourism is a major contributor to the Welsh economy. It contributes some £2 billion per annum and provides employment for around 100,000 people in Wales.

What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that the Welsh tourist industry is protected from the SARS virus, which is spreading across the world? That needs to be taken into consideration, especially after the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis.

Advice has been issued to schools and colleges in Wales on pupils returning from infected areas, and we are following the policy recommended by the World Health Organisation to the letter, making sure that the issue is treated responsibly, but without raising unnecessary alarm, and that has resulted in a situation where just six cases have been reported—none in Wales—and all of those are on the road to recovery.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the hugely successful eurozone experiment at Llangollen's musical eisteddfod last year, and does he agree that early entry into the European monetary system would help and enhance tourism throughout Wales?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his experiment at the international musical eisteddfod in Llangollen last year. I shall be visiting the festival this July and I look forward to a similar experience. Obviously, the United Kingdom will benefit from joining the euro when the economic circumstances are right, and that is why we shall not rush into this recklessly, but will do so carefully, after the Chancellor has made his economic assessment, and only if that economic assessment is positive.

Winter Fuel Payments

7.

What discussions he has had with colleagues in the National Assembly Government on the impact of the winter fuel payments on pensioners in Wales. [109791]

At a meeting before the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed that 117,600 households in Wales with someone aged over 80 would benefit from an additional £100 winter fuel allowance on top of the existing £200.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the additional £100 for the over-80s on top of the £200 original winter fuel payment, the pension credit and free local transport in Wales for pensioners will ensure that every pensioner in Wales will turn out and re-elect a Labour-led Administration in tomorrow's ballot?

I am sure that that will be the case. We know that the Tories would scrap the winter fuel allowance and cut all the extra support that we have provided for pensioners, including free television licences for the over-75s. In respect of—

Dee Estuary

8.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary about the Dee estuary. [109792]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister to discuss a variety of issues.

The Dee estuary is a place where significant industrial activity sits alongside extremely important environmental sites, and the cockle fishing industry is a significant commercial activity, with equally significant ecological implications. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging that for the next cockle fishing season we have a more strictly controlled issue of licences, and that in the longer term we have a regulatory order that balances the interests of all sides of the argument?

I support my hon. Friend in encouraging sustainable development of this activity, but control and management of the Dee cockle fishery is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, which has proposed putting in place a regulatory order to manage the cockle beds, including licensing a much smaller number of gatherers. That is now being considered by Ministers at DEFRA and at the Assembly, and at the appropriate time they will submit a formal application.

Agriculture

9.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales regarding agriculture in Wales. [109793]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister and I meet the Assembly Agriculture Minister and DEFRA Ministers to discuss a variety of issues, including the future of agriculture in Wales.

The Minister will appreciate the importance of agricultural shows in helping to restore the fortunes of livestock farming in Wales, many of which take place within a few days of one another, and the six-day rule for the movement of animals will cause a serious problem with a reduction in the number of exhibits, rendering some of them unviable. Will the Minister consider making an exception to the movement of animals to agricultural shows in Wales this year?

I understand the hon. Lady's point, which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made earlier, but the veterinary advice that I have is strongly against providing any exemptions to the six-day rule. The view is that the rule provides the best balance between ensuring a limited amount of animal movement and protecting the industry from future problems of the sort that have beset it in the past year or so, so I cannot really offer any hope that that can change.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [109740]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister read this week's report, "Sustainable Communities in the South East" from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government, and note this remark in the summary:

"The impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, has not been fully assessed"?
Why are these houses being imposed on the south-east by central Government and why are the councillors who are being elected tomorrow so unfit to make those decisions for themselves?

Of course I shall study the report, but the hon. Gentleman will know that it is important that we increase the number of houses to supply houses for people to live in. He will also know that we have tried to ensure that those developments happen in particular areas. I do not think that it is either right or responsible to suggest that, whatever Government were in power, we would not still want to proceed with a housebuilding programme. What we are doing, however, is proceeding in a much more controlled way with a much higher percentage of development on brownfield sites than on greenfield sites. We have increased the amount of area in the green belt.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the report of the Select Committee on Treasury on Europe and the UK, which was published this week and provides for the first time a comprehensive and balanced study of the issue. It says that, whatever decision is taken, there will be risks, opportunities, costs and benefits, but inaction in itself will be a powerful decision. Given that the UK is at the bottom of the league in terms of public knowledge and understanding, can he assist by indicating where the euro features in his political agenda?

First, I welcome the report of my hon. Friend's Committee, which I think was an excellent contribution to the debate. He will have to wait for the outcome of the tests, which will be published by the Government in due course, within the time limit that we have set. I have no doubt at all that that will then stimulate a very lively debate in the country.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the primary school governor who said:

"our most needy children … stand to lose most"
from the way in which the Government have fixed school funding?

I do agree that there are obviously schools in London and elsewhere that are facing particular problems at the moment. We are looking urgently into whether the money that has been allocated to local education authorities has been passed on properly to schools, but I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, in cash terms, there is an almost 12 per cent. increase for our education system in this country. Of course, it is better that we increase the investment going to our schools rather than have a 20 per cent. cut in schools investment across the board.

Those are the words of Fiona Millar, one of the Prime Minister's closest Downing street advisers. She did not do what he has just done and blame councils; she blamed the Government. Just like thousands of teachers, parents and governors, they know that he has been in power for six years and that he is to blame. But if he does not agree with her, does he agree with the deputy head who said:

"There are major budget problems right here in schools in Mr. Miliband's constituency. He should come to schools here if he doesn't believe it"?
Well, does the Prime Minister believe her?

I just said to the right hon. Gentleman that I accept that there are problems for particular schools and in particular local education authority areas. On Friday, we will publish an analysis of exactly what money has gone to local education authorities and how it has been used. The one thing that is undeniable, since he raised the issue of the six years of this Government, is that we have put more money and investment into our schools than ever before. Indeed, since we are quoting individual constituencies, let me quote his for a moment. In the past few years, it has received an extra £770 per pupil in Waltham Forest. It now has a £200 million project to deliver improvements to all 92 schools in Waltham Forest. The number of infants in class sizes of more than 30 has fallen from 1,000 to nothing in Waltham Forest, and it has the best primary school results and GCSE results that it has ever had. That is all as a result of six years of Labour Government, with every penny piece of that investment opposed by the Conservatives.

May I just say to the Prime Minister that in my area, the authorities are proposing to cut three special needs schools that have run out of money because of the Government? Before he starts making claims, he should find out the facts. He should listen to somebody else—Dame Jean Else, who is not just any head teacher, but the head of one of his flagship schools, whom he personally honoured. She says that she would rather resign than sack any teachers and see her school suffer. As heads like her up and down the country have to make decisions about sacking teachers, will the Prime Minister tell the House how many extra bureaucrats he has employed at the Department for Education and Skills since he became Prime Minister?

I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the number of bureaucrats. I can tell him, however, the number of extra full-time equivalent teachers that we have had since this Government came to power—it is 25,000. If it is correct, as he says, that schools have problems—I have accepted that there are obviously schools with certain problems—the answer to those problems is not to cut back on the investment that they have received. The fact of the matter is that none of the investment that is now going into schools up and down the country would be happening if we adopted the policy that he advocates and made a 20 per cent. cut in services across the board. That is the Conservative policy, which would be a disaster for our schools. It may well be that some schools want more money, but his policies would mean less money.

The answer to the question is that the number of bureaucrats in the Department for Education and Skills has grown by 25 per cent. since 1997. It is the usual story: under this Government—under Labour Governments—bureaucrats do well. The extra money that the Government have given to schools, as he says, is money that he has taken away through extra taxation and changes to pension requirements—money that is taken away with the other hand. With council taxes up 60 per cent. and school services being cut across the country, is it not the real case that Labour tax more, waste more and deliver less?

Just take our school system—it is indisputable that over the past few years we have had the best primary school results that the country has ever seen; we have had the best GCSE results that the country has ever seen; we have had extra investment going into school buildings and schools in every constituency; and we have had 25,000 extra teachers. So the real distinction is this: yes, of course, people will always want even more money, but we are putting record investment into our schools, and if people vote for the Conservatives they are voting for a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut in services. That is the simple truth that he cannot deny.

Yesterday, Corus announced that Redcar steelworks is to be disaggregated from the rest of the firm and will have to sell its raw steel in a steeply competitive world market. I can tell the House that that will be very hard indeed. We reacted positively by setting up a group of stakeholders—the regional development agency, the local council and other local enterprises—to work with Corus to look for a solution. The Prime Minister needs no reminder that if we fail and the plant closes, the number of jobs lost will probably be 12,000 or more. Teesside workers are very staunch in adversity. May I ask the Prime Minister, firstly—

Order. The hon. and learned Lady is not in the law courts. She should ask just one question.

I am grateful for the advice, Mr. Speaker, but this is obviously a big issue. I must ask the Prime Minister first, secondly, and altogether: can we have all the help that the Government can give in our fight for survival, and will he take a personal interest in these excellent workers who are threatened on the doorstep of his constituency?

I would like to express my sympathy to any of my hon. and learned Friend's constituents and those of other hon. Members who may lose their jobs as a result of the closure that has been announced. The Department of Trade and Industry is in touch with the company, the work force and Dutch counterparts. We will do everything to minimise the impact. I know from my constituency experience that when jobs are lost, the Government have the ability through Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions to put in place a programme of rapid response to try to ensure that people are helped into other jobs. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that that full service will be available in her constituency.

Will the Prime Minister give an absolute guarantee that the hundreds of thousands of families who have not received the benefits to which they are entitled because of the Government's bungled reform of the child tax credit system will all be compensated by the end of next week?

Those applications are being processed as quickly as possible. Millions of people have already received the benefits to which they are entitled and we will make sure that those who are eligible for the entitlement receive it as quickly as possible. I point out that hundreds of thousands of families will gain enormously as a result of the changes.

That is less categorical than the assurances that the Paymaster General gave in the House only on Monday. Thousands of families with children are suffering now because the money is not coming through. When people are late paying their tax, the Revenue is quick to impose penalties. Is the Prime Minister considering recompensing people in the same way?

I stand entirely by what the Paymaster General said on Monday. Some 2 million claims have been processed this week and we are making every effort to deal with the new system as quickly as possible. The right hon. Gentleman should understand that, in the end, it will enormously benefit millions of families throughout the country. There have been difficulties with processing some of the claims and we shall resolve them as quickly as possible.

May I remind the Prime Minister of his written parliamentary reply on 19 December 2001 to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), in which he reaffirmed the doctrine of his predecessor, Lord Wilson, that no Members of Parliament would have their telephones tapped? Will he comment on the fact that the telephone conversations of Jonathan Powell with the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and the then right hon. Member for Redcar were tapped? The Prime Minister said that he would make an exceptional statement to the House if and when any Member of Parliament's telephone was tapped. It is not a question of personality but of principle: Members of Parliament's telephones should not be tapped. The Prime Minister is in charge of the security and intelligence services; they have been insubordinate and are not subject to proper control and scrutiny by this place.

I understand why my hon. Friend raises the issue. I simply say that I reconfirm the Wilson doctrine but I do not and will not comment on security matters.

Q2. [109741]

I have given notice of my question to the Prime Minister's office. More than 1,000 jobs in my constituency depend on Appledore Shipbuilders. It is the last commercial shipyard in the country. Worldwide commercial shipbuilding is in deep recession and Appledore is fast running out of work. The shipyard has nearly secured a contract to build a large offshore construction vessel. There is considerable equity in the project, but the banks have demanded a Government loan guarantee. Such guarantees are available to our European Union and other competitors. The company has been in negotiations for a guarantee with the Department of Trade and Industry for a long time. Will the Prime Minister give us his support so that we get the loan guarantee and the contract as soon as possible? We shall use plenty of British steel in the process.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for prior notice of his question. The Government are well aware of the long-standing importance of Appledore Shipbuilders to the local economy and recognise the difficulties that the company experiences. I know that the hon. Gentleman has made representations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions. The hon. Gentleman knows that discussions about the orders that are being sought are commercially sensitive. They are currently taking place and it would not be right for me to disclose the details of the outcome of the deliberations. However, I assure him that those making the decisions will listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and that the company will be weighed in the balance with others that are bidding for the work. We understand the importance of the home credit scheme; approximately £120 million has been made available to the sector as a result of it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are doing everything possible to help his company.

I would like to place on record an appreciation of the Herculean efforts that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are making to establish peace in all Ireland and to re-establish the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister give the House a brief assessment of the current situation, and a confirmation that the elections will take place on 29 May? Further, in his assessment of the assurances of non-violence, will he take it on board that violence is occurring on a day-to-day basis? In my small home town last week, two people were shot, and three families were evicted by republican paramilitaries. The same is being done by loyalist paramilitaries. Words will not be adequate in these circumstances; action, and proof of action, is what is required to underpin our democracy.

My hon. Friend asks for an assessment of the situation: it is fraught and difficult for the very reason that he has just given. There can be no question of reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland, as everyone wants to see, unless not only are the undertakings clearly given but the actions follow those undertakings. That is why we have proposed a system in which we ensure that people cannot engage in paramilitary violence or activity if they wish to be associated with any party that is in government in Northern Ireland, and in which we have a proper system of verification and sanctions in respect of people who breach that undertaking. I very much hope that we can still make progress, but time is obviously running out for this. The whole basic principle of the Good Friday agreement is that we implement what is in it on the basis that everyone is committed to exclusively peaceful means. Until we can be clear on that, there is not a basis for reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland.

Q3. [109742]

Does the Prime Minister really believe that the council tax system that he inherited from the Conservatives is the fairest way of raising money for local government services, and that the bills that people have just received are fair costs for the services delivered at local level?

There is no doubt that there is an extensive debate about the best way to conduct local authority taxation. Whatever system we have has its flaws, and this is obviously a system that we inherited. I have to say, however, that even if we look at the alternative systems, those who advocate them are not always willing to be very open about their implications. Indeed, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given me this opportunity; I was hoping that I might get it from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). It has to be said that the briefing note from the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the council elections raises the issue—in addition to the fact that the average council tax is lower in Labour areas, let me say—of the local income tax, which is part of the Liberal programme. It states that

"we are happy to say we would expect an average of around 3 per cent.",
in terms of the increase in income tax as a result of that policy. The briefing then goes on to say:
"however, we don't want to be drawn extensively into this".
[Laughter.] So, I think that it is now time for the Liberal Democrats, having started the debate, to lead it on this issue.

Q4. [109743]

Does the Prime Minister accept that, when crime is falling but the fear of crime is rising, it is important that policing should provide reassurance to the public? Will he therefore congratulate the police community action team based at Risley in my constituency, whose commitment to community policing has brought about a significant reduction in nuisance and antisocial behaviour in that area? Will he also assure the rest of my constituents, who do not yet have the benefit of such teams, that his Government will encourage the spread of this form of community policing and will ensure that it is properly funded?

We will encourage the spread of that community policing. It is extremely important and I congratulate those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have made such a difference on antisocial behaviour. Of course, the new legislation that is coming up, both on the criminal justice system and in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, will give us an opportunity across the House to take action on an issue that is of enormous importance to our constituents. That is why I hope that the Bill, when it is introduced, will receive support from every quarter of the House. It will allow the police to impose the penalties that they want, and allow us to bring people who transgress and commit antisocial behaviour to court quickly and to have the right range of penalties so that those people are dealt with properly.

On the issue of European defence, the Prime Minister said to the House that

"it would be a tragic mistake … if Britain opted out of the debate on European defence and left the field to others."—[Official Report, 13 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 22]
Yesterday, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg met to discuss European defence. Why was not Britain involved?

For a very simple reason: four countries were involved yesterday and 11 were not. We are part of the 11.

The reality of not being involved with the others, as the Prime Minister rightly says, is the fact that he started this whole process at St. Malo years ago. He now has seen and will witness the fact that he has become a spectator while others shape the Euro army to break NATO, so he has no one to blame but himself. It is clear from yesterday that the Germans want a separate budget, that the Belgians want a separate headquarters—[Interruption.]

The French want nothing to do with the Americans at all, so if that is the case, does the Prime Minister not agree that he started this and that it was his big idea? He kick-started it and now they are driving off without him.

No. The very reason why the meeting was held yesterday is that those countries were not satisfied with our initiative, which tied European defence to NATO. That is precisely why they felt the need to do what they did yesterday. That is why it was not a good idea for us to be there. [Interruption.] Actually, the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that we should not have been there. [Interruption.] Yes. So we are in agreement, and that is a very good thing. [Laughter.] I have been a bit short of that recently.

Q5. [109744]

The Prime Minister will no doubt have read the early-day motion standing in my name, which has been signed by a couple of Liberal Democrat colleagues, supporting the excellent work by the Electoral Commission in the "Who Cares?" campaign, which is trying to encourage turnout in the Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections. Does he share my disappointment that no nationalist or Conservative Member has seen fit to support it? One might suspect that they have an interest in keeping the turnout down.

I simply say that, obviously, in the Welsh Assembly elections there is, as my hon. Friend indicates, a fundamental choice between either continuing with the Welsh Executive as constituted at present—they are looking after the interests of people in Wales—or waking up on Friday to the potential of a nationalist Executive who would do enormous damage and wreck Wales. They would end up with people being on a path towards separation of Wales from the United Kingdom. That is the one policy that the nationalists stand for, and therefore the one policy that they do not want to talk about.

Q6. [109745]

In my constituency, our schools are short of money, the tax credits are a shambles and remain unpaid, we have a failing hospital and we are short of 200 police officers. What my constituents want to know, Prime Minister, is this: given that we are paying more taxes, why, under your Government, does nothing work?

The hon. Gentleman says that there have been no results from the extra investment, but I have to say to him that, according to the figures that I have, in Hertfordshire local education authority, which is his education authority, there are 500 more teachers. The number of infants in classes of over 30 is down from 11,500 in 1997 to under 400 today. The best results that his LEA has ever achieved in primary schools and in GCSEs were achieved under this Government.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are starving them of money. I totally understand why people will always want more money going into health and education, but we have put a substantial amount in, and might I remind him that that investment—every penny of it—has been opposed by him? So when he is talking to his constituents, he may well make his criticisms of the Government, but perhaps he will then go on to explain why a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut would help.

Q7. [109746]

I welcome the Government's commitment to improving access to higher education, but the problem for many of my constituents is that the nearest university is nearly a hundred miles away. A report that is due to be published soon deals with the provision of degree-level university courses in Cumbria. May I ask the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the report, which is vital to the people of west Cumbria?

I will take an interest. I believe that Sir Brian Fender's report will be published shortly. Obviously decisions on funding must be made by the Higher Education Funding Council, but I know that my hon. Friend has made a very powerful case.

If it eventually transpires that at the time of our invasion Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening this country, and that the Prime Minister led this country into war on the basis of a false assumption, will he resign?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, having refused to engage in all sorts of speculations, I refuse to engage in them now. Let me tell him, however, that I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case on weapons of mass destruction. I simply suggest this to him, and to others who believe that somehow this was all a myth invented by us: I refer them first of all to the 12 years of United Nations reports detailing exactly what weapons of mass destruction were held by the then Iraqi regime. We are now, in a deliberative and considered way, investigating the various sites, and we will produce the analysis and the results of that investigation in due course. I think that when we do so, the hon. Gentleman and others will be eating some of their words.

Q8. [109747]

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the four Labour-controlled councils in Northamptonshire have set the lowest tax increases this year, and that the three Conservative councils have set the highest? With local elections taking place tomorrow, has he any advice for voters in Northamptonshire?

Vote Labour: that is the advice.

It is true that the average council tax is higher in Conservative than in Labour areas. That is one very important part of this. But it is also important, obviously, that we continue the additional investment in our local communities. That investment is supported by the Government—the extra help given to pensioners and other people in our local communities who need it. We can either keep that investment and that help for people, or we can take it out with the Conservatives' 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts.

If and when the Northern Ireland Assembly election takes place on 29 May, and if the Provisional IRA has not totally stood down its full terrorist and criminal organisation and all its activities that make it impossible for my party, the Ulster Unionist party, to join a power-sharing Executive with it, will the Prime Minister encourage and support the formation of a cross-community Executive so that we in Northern Ireland can benefit from the advantages of devolution?

At the moment we are trying to ensure that everyone moves forward, and I hope that everyone does. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not think it very helpful or sensible to speculate on the circumstances in which people refuse to move forward with others.

I made the speech that I made last October to indicate that people understood that there might be a period of transition: that political parties associated with paramilitary groups might make the transition from being parties prepared to have violence in one hand and political activity in the other to being parties committed to exclusively peaceful means. That period of transition is over. What must happen now, if the Government are to be reconstituted and to have any of the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, is a complete cessation of all paramilitary activity of whatever nature, followed by a process enabling us to put all the arms in Northern Ireland beyond use. Every single party must be committed to that. If the parties are not committed to that, it will be very difficult to reconstitute the Northern Ireland Government in the way that we want.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will accept—they have been very brave in the decisions that they have taken—that the Northern Ireland peace process has delivered an immense amount to the people of Northern Ireland. But we have reached the point of decision, where we need, as I have said before, acts of completion, and those acts have to be absolutely definitive for us to make progress now.