The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government believe that significant reforms are needed to ensure that every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to make a positive contribution to society and the economy in the 21st century. The vital changes required are included in the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which will be debated in Committee later today.
As my hon. Friend knows, the order will put an end to the transfer test—the 11-plus—and introduce new admission arrangements that will preserve academic excellence, but also give an opportunity that is currently denied to others to raise their skills and improve their opportunities. The article on academic selection in the order will come into effect after midnight on 24 November if restoration of the Assembly and devolved Government has not occurred. If it has occurred, it will be for the Assembly to decide what policy will follow the end of the transfer test that the order will otherwise bring into effect.
I note that the Minister says that the changes that will be debated today are significant. They will change forever the face of education in Northern Ireland, and for the worse. They are opposed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland, they have been voted against in this House by the whole Northern Ireland Office ministerial team, and they are now being used as a crude form of political blackmail. Does not he feel in any way embarrassed about that inconsistency, and the crude way in which these provisions are being used to try to blackmail people politically into entering into government with Sinn Fein? Will he—
You are absolutely correct, Mr. Speaker; the hon. Gentleman has often expressed his vehement displeasure to me, as have his colleagues. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman, who has properly taken a close and expert interest in education policy, that this reform comes after a long period of consultation, after independent advice, and after huge support within the education profession and among many communities right across Northern Ireland. Let me also remind him of a survey in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, which shows that many grammar schools in Northern Ireland
“have accepted pupils with C2 and D grades”
for the next academic year. It says that the statistics
“raise serious questions about the need for a long-running campaign to preserve academic selection in Northern Ireland.”
The hon. Gentleman himself is quoted as saying:
“The grammar school lobby needs to sort this out if we want to have a strong case for keeping academic selection.”
In other words, falling school rolls are forcing this change anyway. We want to ensure that everybody gets new skills.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about blackmail, he asked me to put this decision into the Assembly, and that is precisely what I have done. If he wants to restore devolved self-government by 24 November, he and his colleagues can help to shape the new admissions policy.
The Secretary of State will be aware that under the education order to be debated today, academic ability and aptitude testing must not be taken into account for admission to secondary provision. Is he aware of the fear in the rural community that lack of proximity to secondary provision will create a postcode selection process, to the detriment of our excellent rural schools—leading to their decline, and that of the rural community? What action does he intend to take to ensure that that is not a primary criterion for admission to secondary provision, and to safeguard the rural schools and community in that respect?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the overall policy. He makes an important point about rural schools and the argument that there might be a postcode lottery. That is why consultation is now under way. If restoration occurs, it will be for the Assembly and the devolved Executive to carry out the admissions arrangements and the pupil profile configuration after abolition of the 11-plus. That will give schools the protection that he desires. However, I tell him, as I told the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), that falling rolls, with 50,000 empty desks in schools, rising to 80,000, mean that there must be radical reform in education and school provision right across Northern Ireland; otherwise, standards will not be where they should be, and will fall.
The Secretary of State is intent on ramming through the House a policy of prohibiting by law academic selection in Northern Ireland, although just over a month ago, he personally went into the Lobby here to defeat a measure that would have had a comparable effect in terms of selection in England. How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly justify a Government policy that rests on such flagrant double standards?
Because, quite simply, it does not. On double standards, I shall quote what the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), told sixth-formers in Basildon on 9 January 2006:
“I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”
If the hon. Gentleman is consistent with his leader’s policies, and if those policies are being developed and spread consistently across the UK, he should support the order. By the way, grammar school excellence will be preserved under the new policy; grammar schools are becoming increasingly more open in their selection, for the reasons described by the Belfast Telegraph this morning.
I am happy to stand by my leader’s and my party’s policy of defending our grammar schools where they have public support, whether that is in Northern Ireland or in my constituency in Buckinghamshire. The Secretary of State is committed to a Government policy that, in respect of England, gives parents in a particular area the power to determine whether academic selection continues. If the Secretary of State has confidence that his policy is in the interests of children in Northern Ireland, why does he not have the confidence to rely on the judgment and votes of parents, as he does in England?
I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman, and I repeat, that if the Assembly is restored by 24 November, locally elected politicians can take the decision. I would have thought that he welcomed that. As he knows, and as the Belfast Telegraph survey confirms this morning, the truth is that grammar schools will be retained, along with the excellence for which they are known. The real problem that the hon. Gentleman fails to address is that Northern Ireland’s education system has been failing those of average and below-average achievement. We need to address that; this policy will do so.
Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which was established by the British and Irish Governments to provide independent oversight.
Is the Minister aware that a few weeks ago, 10,000 rounds of ammunition were discovered in the Irish Republic? That is despite General de Chastelain telling us last September that the totality of the IRA’s arsenal had been decommissioned, and the Prime Minister himself saying that there had been final and complete decommissioning. Will the Minister join the rest of us in keeping the pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to get rid of all the guns and weapons so that we can have a democratic Executive in Northern Ireland?
I agree that we need to get rid of all the guns and all the weapons. I am aware of the find on 1 June in County Sligo, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Irish Government have indicated to us that their initial assessment is that those munitions have been there for many years. However, the munitions have been sent for forensic examination and there will be a report in due course. I should add that the IICD has made it clear that it could not guarantee that a small number of weapons might not have gone astray or been lost over the years, but that that should not detract from the significant commitment to peace that the Provisional IRA has made.
Does the Minister recall discussions on the recent report by the commission, in which we heard that the southern authorities had said that they knew nothing about any arms in the south, and that the arms were all taken away at the time of so-called decommissioning? That has been proved to be totally and absolutely false: whether they are old guns or new guns does not come in to it; they are guns. We heard that those had all been done away with. Until the IRA does away with its guns, there can be no real democracy in Northern Ireland.
I simply say again to the right hon. Gentleman that initial indications from the Irish Government show that those materials may have been there for many years, but quite correctly, they will make a forensic examination to establish whether that is the case. I say again that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reiterates what it has plainly stated—that a find of that kind, which may occur from time to time, should not detract from the commitment that the Provisional IRA has made.
The latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been steadily improving since the Belfast agreement, with the Provisional IRA delivering on its promise to end not only its paramilitary activities but criminality as well. Regrettably, though, this is not yet the case for dissident IRA groups or for loyalists.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the personnel from MI5, the French intelligence service and the Garda Siochana on their successful operation that foiled the smuggling of a large arms cache to Northern Ireland? Does he share my dismay that many of the weapons involved were lethal systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades—exactly the sort of weaponry and armoury being used day-in, day-out to kill and maim our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we not be very careful before further lowering our guard in Northern Ireland?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of dissident IRA groups. The activity that he mentioned was a major achievement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services, co-operating, as he said, with the Irish authorities. It probably involved Real IRA dissident members. It was a major threat, involving a serious quantity of weapons. That is why we will continue to bear down on and attack the root of the organisation of the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and any other paramilitary groups.
Does the Secretary of State accept that this is not just a case of dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist groups, both of which we would condemn? The Independent Monitoring Commission has also made it plain that elements from the IRA are still involved in criminality and that Sinn Fein is still a long way from signing up to the Policing Board. Until there is an absolute denunciation of criminality and a signing up to the Policing Board, we will not have the true security that the Secretary of State and I both wish for. Does he agree?
I agree that it is important for Sinn Fein to co-operate in policing, and to do so soon. I think that it will join the Policing Board in due course. It is also important to acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has, that there has been a sea change since the IRA made its statement last July to end paramilitary activity and any criminality. The leadership has taken repeated steps to drive out criminality, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still some localised examples, which must end. None the less, I am satisfied—as are the security services and the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are trying to root out and stop criminality.
Given the present security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet Mr. Raymond McCord, whose son was brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force eight years ago and who is still awaiting truth, justice and closure in respect of his son’s murder? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to meet him?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Northern Ireland parties are now faced with a choice? Is the security situation so bad that they hold out against restarting the Assembly, or is it sufficiently good to justify their participation in a functioning Assembly on a cross-party basis? Does he accept that the difficult but necessary choice is whether to hold out on principle against restarting the Assembly, thereby losing out on everything from the changes in education policy that we have just debated right through to the redrawing of local government boundaries and billing for utilities? Does he further accept that that choice is entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland politicians?
I could not have said it better myself. In my view, the conditions are clear. There is no reason for the parties collectively not to negotiate on the restoration of devolved Government and to achieve it before the deadline of 24 November, which is set in concrete and in statute. If that is not achieved, the salaries and allowances will end, as well as the financial assistance to political parties, which totals some £600,000. I do not want to do that. I want self-government to be restored in Northern Ireland, with elected local politicians making decisions, as the hon. Gentleman said.
Following the 2003 security breach at the Northern Ireland Police Fund, charges against Mr. Thomas Hale were later dropped. The reason given was that a member of staff had withdrawn a statement. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the member of staff did not withdraw the statement, and will he call immediately for a public inquiry?
Does the Secretary of State agree that in the light of the improved security situation in Northern Ireland, the vast sums of money spent on close protection units for individuals should perhaps be reconsidered and reviewed for scaling back?
I do agree. That is precisely why we are considering the close protection scheme, which is expensive but necessary for many individuals who may be vulnerable. We are examining whether, in the changed security climate, it is necessary to pursue it to the same extent as it operates now.
The Secretary of State will recall that, at previous Northern Ireland questions, I condemned from the Dispatch Box loyalist paramilitaries for retaining weapons and for their activity. We are now hearing reports about dissident IRA members. In The Sunday Times, Liam Clarke wrote:
“The armoury demonstrates an apparent intention by the dissidents to begin a widespread campaign on the scale of that carried out by the Provisional IRA.”
Given that, and the fact that Sinn Fein-IRA have not signed up to policing in any way, shape or form—the last time I was in south Armagh, the police told me that the Member of Parliament for that area will not even talk to them—is it not time to put pressure on those people rather than on constitutional politicians to get the Assembly up and running?
We are indeed putting pressure on Sinn Fein to co-operate with policing, locally and in every other respect. Once the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which deals with the devolution of policing and justice, is given Royal Assent at the end of next month—as I hope it will be—it will be incumbent on Sinn Fein to deliver progress on policing, to which they have committed themselves. The hon. Gentleman is right: dissident IRA groups still pose a threat. A 250 lb bomb in Lurgan was stopped from being exploded by expert intelligence activity. We must keep at it and bear down on dissident activity, but the dissidents are operating on nothing like the scale that the IRA did. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) will support the Government’s policy on devolved Government, as we supported the efforts of John Major and Margaret Thatcher to get the peace process on the road.
Sesame Street Ltd
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met representatives of Sesame Street Ltd to hear of their plans to develop a series of programmes in Northern Ireland to challenge sectarianism and racism, and he will shortly be raising the issue with the director-general of the BBC.
Does the Under-Secretary appreciate the work of the international parts of the charity Sesame Street with youngsters in Israel and Palestine? It has got youngsters from both sides of a strong religious divide to work together and understand each other. Will my hon. Friend continue his efforts to ensure that people from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland get together? The strongest weapon of those who promote religious bigotry is ignorance. If we can get more knowledge and understanding between the communities through using the charity, it will reduce violence across the community divide.
My hon. Friend is right. Sesame Street is a highly respected international broadcaster with a global brand and a global outreach. It has done tremendously good work in the middle east, South Africa and elsewhere, and everyone would welcome its engagement in Northern Ireland as part of building the shared future that we all want.
I welcome the fact that Sesame Street Ltd will operate in Northern Ireland, but will the Minister also address the issue of other scourges of our young people apart from sectarianism, such as drug and alcohol abuse, diet and sexually transmitted illnesses?
I very much agree with everything the hon. Lady has said—and that is very much part of what Sesame Street has done. Another issue that could be added to the list is the upsurge in hate crime and racist violence in Northern Ireland recently. I know that she shares with me an absolute abhorrence of such crimes, and if Sesame Street can play a part in tackling any resurgence of racism and hate crime, it will also be welcome.
All the parties should support the rule of law and policing arrangements in Northern Ireland, especially those holding ministerial office in a restored Northern Ireland Executive, who should also abide by the terms of the pledge of office, which commits them to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
Many people believe that former terrorists should not be Ministers. However, if they are to serve in the Northern Ireland Executive, the very least they could do is to take an oath to uphold the rule of law so that their despicable pasts can be just that—their past. Would the Secretary of State agree?
I agree absolutely, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the pledge of office, which commits all serving members to commit themselves to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, is effectively a commitment to the rule of law. It was agreed by all the parties and is in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as a result of the Good Friday agreement. I am at one with him in insisting that all elected politicians, especially Ministers, comply with the rule of law and support the police.
Could we have an unequivocal answer from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Does he believe that all people who hold public appointments in Northern Ireland not only should support the policing arrangements but must support them, because the police uphold the rule of law? Will he say that they must support policing arrangements, and go rather further than he has to date?
Of course I think that the police must be, and should be, supported by all holding ministerial office. I want to be clear, however, that there has been a sea change on the part of republicans, Sinn Fein and the IRA in the past year or so, as a result of all the painstaking work done by our Governments and our predecessor Governments, and we should welcome that. I do not want to see another obstacle erected late in the day to stop the restoration of devolved government. If we disagree about that, that will have to be that.
The Secretary of State is correct to warn us of the dangers of turning objectives, no matter how good, into preconditions, but does he recognise that we are caught in a vicious circle of vetoes on policing? Sinn Fein says that it will not sign on for policing until the Democratic Unionist party agrees a date for the devolution of justice and policing, and the DUP says that it will not agree a date until Sinn Fein commits to supporting policing. Does the Secretary of State share my suspicion that those two parties are trading vetoes so that they can blame each other for failure?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in his own way. It is essential that all the parties, including the two that he mentioned, work together to get the restoration of devolved government and to make progress on policing. Both of those objectives are crucial to the future stability and success of Northern Ireland.
The message is that Sinn Fein is already a partner fit for Government, but there are still issues outstanding in terms of criminality and the acceptance of the rule of law. Instead of sending out his officials to leak to the BBC about the finances and position of DUP Members should the Assembly close, will he go out and tell Sinn Fein that there is work for it to do? May I also assure him that whatever issues my party considers in the run-up to 24 November, party finances will not be one of them?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made what I expect to happen clear to Sinn Fein. He and his party have been considerably responsible for putting pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to make sure that they continue to change in the way that they have done in the past year. He and the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) deserve credit for that.
On the question of finance, we have made it clear that party funding for Assembly groups will have to stop if politicians do not do their jobs in the Assembly. Moreover, advice centres will have to close down and salaries will stop being paid. That is what the people of Northern Ireland have demanded, and that is what will happen at midnight on 24 November if there is no agreement.
Before I list my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences and sympathy to the families of the two British soldiers killed in Afghanistan yesterday. They were fighting the Taliban, and they were brave and committed soldiers. This country can be very proud of the work that they were doing.
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.
I am sure that the whole House will associate itself with those sentiments.
I thank the Prime Minister for endorsing efforts to find a cure for motor neurone disease, which kills one UK resident every eight hours. His support is welcome and hugely valued, but is he aware that, in the past five years, for every £337,000 that the Government spent in research per diagnosed case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, they invested a mere £108 in research per diagnosed case of MND? Will he therefore ask Health Ministers to meet the Motor Neurone Disease Association and give equal priority to curing that disease? Will he also back our efforts to raise £15 million for a research fund to rid the world of this terrible disease?
First, I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on behalf of the MNDA, and I thank him for arranging my recent meeting with him and the association. We fully support the efforts to raise the money required, and I shall pass his remarks on to the relevant Ministers. Much of the funding comes through the Medical Research Council, but he is right that there is a clear gap between the amount of money spent on research into CJD and what is spent on MND. We shall therefore look to see what more we can do.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, 30 years on from the introduction of the Equal Pay Act by a Labour Government, the winner of the Wimbledon women’s singles competition will receive £30,000 less in prize money than the winner of the men’s singles? Wimbledon is the only grand slam competition in which that happens. Will he support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in her efforts to persuade the Lawn Tennis Association to put that inequality right?
I was somewhat coy about that yesterday, as I did not realise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport had pronounced on the matter already. Therefore, I am happy to be bolder today, to welcome what she said, and to endorse it fully.
May I echo what the Prime Minister said about the two young soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan? Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.
When asked about the need to replace Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the Prime Minister said at that Dispatch Box last week that he wanted the fullest possible debate, and that a decision would be taken later in this Parliament. That afternoon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer went around saying that he had made a decision and that it would be announced later this year. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Chancellor was up to?
It was made clear in the Labour manifesto that we are committed to maintaining the independent nuclear deterrent, and I have also said that we think that it is right to do so. A decision will be taken in this Parliament, and that will happen later this year. It is important that Britain makes sure that it can defend itself properly. I believe that an independent nuclear deterrent is an essential part of that.
In his speech, the Chancellor repeated what was in Labour’s manifesto, but he went around briefing something completely different. The BBC’s political editor said that he wished the Chancellor
“would use code and spin less and speak in plain English a little more. Then we could focus on the real debate.”
One of the things that the Chancellor said was that there should be a vote. So will the Prime Minister tell us, in plain English, will the House of Commons have a vote on whether Trident is replaced?
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House dealt with that during business questions last week. He said, rightly, that we will of course consult the House fully. The method of doing so will be announced at the time when we publish the White Paper. I can assure the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that there will of course be the fullest possible debate, as there would have to be.
I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to debate today the policy he announced yesterday on the Bill of Rights. Since we are having a debate, at long last, on policy, I thought he might want to debate one of his.
I have already explained that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made the position clear last Thursday. That is the position, and we will announce the means of consultation when we publish the White Paper. Of course, we believe it is extremely important to have the fullest possible debate on the subject.
The Prime Minister is saying one thing and the Chancellor briefing another. Is not this part of a wider problem? Is not there a danger that the Prime Minister is becoming the David Brent of Downing street—utterly redundant, he is just hanging round the office?
What we are doing is setting out policies for the long-term future of the country, on, for example, a stable economy, on the new deal to help cut unemployment further, on child care and on pensions. The energy review will be published shortly, and there is the NHS reform programme. All those are substantial policies for the future of the country.
What happens to the right hon. Gentleman when he makes a policy decision? He has one on foreign policy—to withdraw from the European People’s party. He finally announced a domestic policy—his own Bill of Rights—which was denounced by the chairman of his own democracy commission as xenophobic legal nonsense. I am surprised, when he has just announced a major change to the British constitution, that he does not want to get up and debate it. Come on.
Direction is about policy. [Interruption.] I am happy to debate our policies, I am happy to debate the right hon. Gentleman’s policies, and I am happy to have a policy debate. He has two questions left; let us debate policy.
Everyone accepts the need to deal with surplus school places in a rational manner. What has the Prime Minister to say, however, about Conservative-controlled Kent county council and its crude action to close or merge nine schools in Dover, nearly a quarter of the primary schools in my constituency? Does he think that represents lack of planning, lack of imagination or just lack of care?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it does not involve lack of money, because we have put vast sums into education in Kent and elsewhere in the country, all of which, of course, the Conservative party voted against. He is also absolutely right to say that primary schools have made enormous progress in the past few years, and I should deeply regret anything that put that at risk.
I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we have just heard from the Prime Minister.
Given the urgency of the hostage crisis and the significance of the role of the United States in the middle east, has the Prime Minister discussed the present situation with the President of the United States?
We discuss issues to do with the middle east, Israel and Palestine every time I speak to the President. I have not spoken to him in the past 24 hours or so, but those things are a major part of any conversation we have. We both believe it extremely important to make sure that we restart a peace process that is the only way to stop events such as the terrible events of the past 24 hours. In the end, what is necessary, obviously, will be to make sure that peace and calm are restored so that there is some possibility of getting negotiation going.
I think the Prime Minister will agree that this is a particularly crucial moment, so what joint actions will he and the President take to capitalise on the apparent willingness of Hamas to accept a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution? It would be a tragedy if that possibility of progress were derailed by the hostage crisis.
I think I understand what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. If Hamas is prepared to commit itself to a two-state solution and to negotiate a settlement, that necessarily must mean that it is committed to the existence of Israel, to the renunciation of violence, and to negotiation as a way of achieving that settlement. If Hamas were clear on those issues and if it was prepared to return to the road map, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends used to ask me to endorse and carry forward—as I still want to do—I can assure him, not just on my own behalf but on behalf of the President as well, that America—the Quartet—would be willing to take the process forward as swiftly as possible. But if we are negotiating a two-state solution, we need to know that both sides to the negotiation are committed to the existence of the other state.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the decision of the Conservative councillors in Hounslow to share power with a group led by Phil Andrews, a former parliamentary candidate for the National Front? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that decision is not consistent with statements from leaders of all parties condemning all racist organisations?
I am sure that all party leaders most sincerely condemn racism of any sort. I do not know about the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but it would of course be deeply regrettable if anyone was in alliance with people who do not conform to the principles to which I hope we all conform.
I would like an update, to send to the hon. Lady, about exactly what we are doing in the area of therapeutic treatment for the victims of sexual abuse. I can tell her that we have significantly increased funding for Victim Support and for the whole range of NHS therapeutic services, but I would like to acquaint myself with the actual details of what we are doing in that area and send them to her.
I am sure that the Prime Minister would accept that the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty commits this country and all other declared nuclear powers to long-term disarmament. In light of that, will he explain why the Government are even considering an extension to, or a replacement for, Trident? Should not we seize this historic opportunity to start a process of nuclear disarmament around the world?
Ministers are meeting tomorrow in Geneva to try to resolve the vital world trade talks. When I last asked the Prime Minister about the talks, he said that failure in the Doha development round would be a disaster, and I agree. Given that Oxfam says that there are still 760 areas of disagreement, how confident is the Prime Minister that we will make progress this weekend?
It is obviously immensely difficult. However, we are working very closely, in particular with the German Government of Chancellor Merkel and with the Brazilians, to try to find a way forward. In addition, I spoke recently to Pascal Lamy, the head of the World Trade Organisation, and we talked through the various outstanding issues, but, yes, a lot of movement will be needed from all areas—from Europe on agriculture, from America on subsidies, from Brazil and the G20 countries on non-agricultural market access—and we will do everything we can to make sure that progress is maintained.
Clearly, a reduction in agricultural protection is absolutely key to those talks. Although our headline offer appears to be a 39 per cent. cut in tariffs, there are concerns that when it is applied in practice it will mean a lot less; in fact, one estimate, based on figures from economists at the World Bank, is that it would, in effect, mean an average cut of only 1 per cent. Does the Prime Minister agree that that would be completely inadequate?
Yes, I do, which is why I think that it is important that we all go further. But I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that exactly the same calculations could be made in relation to some of the other offers that are made by the G20 on non-agricultural market access and in relation to the American offer in terms of agricultural subsidy. I am afraid that, in every single part of this, there are still outstanding issues that have to be resolved. That is why—certainly prior to the G8 and possibly at the G8—I will be arguing very strongly that the leaders need to put pressure on all the different systems to go far further.
In my view, it would be a disaster not just for world trade and for the development package that we want to see, but for the whole multilateral system, if the WTO went down. That is precisely why, as I say, that has been a constant part of my dialogue not just with America, but most particularly with the German Government, who share our view that failure in this area would be deeply regrettable for the whole of the international system.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact on community relations of the alliance between the former British National party organiser Steve Edwards and the Conservative candidate in Tipton in the last local elections—
Health Service IT
The national programme for IT will help us to deliver an NHS fit for the 21st century. In 10 years, it will connect more than 30,000 GPs in England to more than 300 hospitals, giving patients access to their personal health and care information. By the end of March 2006, expenditure on the contracts let at the outset of the programme was £654 million. As the National Audit Office report said:
“The notable progress and tight control of the central aspects of the programme are to be commended”.
Does the Prime Minister agree with Sir John Bourn that value for money on this programme is safeguarded because suppliers will not receive public money for IT projects and services until they are delivered and shown to be working effectively? Can he give the House his personal assurance that that has not happened—for example in relation to iSOFT, whose directors trousered £76 million in share sales prior to their recent share crash?
I do not know about the particular example that the hon. Gentleman gave, but let me explain to him why it is important that we have that information technology programme. In the end, one of the huge benefits of having a national health service is that we can have electronic patient records that are transferable right round the system. If that happens, it means not just an end to vast amounts of paperwork in the NHS, but that things such as patient choice, for example, can become a reality. Contrary to the pre-reports of the National Audit Office report, on the whole the NAO was complimentary about the IT programme. It is a huge programme, but it will deliver real benefits. Of course, we have to make sure that people offer value for money, but by and large the NAO said that we did.
I entirely agree with the Prime Minister, but does he accept that no society can be safe if its laws fail to recognise that people forfeit some of their own rights when they pose a threat to, or infringe, the rights of others? Is not that failure precisely why he had to abandon the pledge that he gave the House on 3 May that foreign prisoners—criminals—would be deported automatically on release, and is it not why he is helpless to deport foreign terrorist sympathisers?
No, although there is a particular problem, which I will come to in a moment. We have many people—I think almost 40—who are foreign nationals who are accused of terrorist offences or of plotting or inciting terrorism and their cases are going through the court. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we have got to make sure that those court cases are successful. But under the Human Rights Act 1998, we have the power expressly to override legislation if we wish to do so. What I said last year, and repeat now, is that we are prepared to do so if necessary.
If I may say so, our view is somewhat better than the one expressed by the Leader of the Opposition. He said that we should replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. He also went on to say that that should not be subject to the Parliament Act, and therefore would be entrenched, which, in fact, would make it even harder to do what the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) wants. The Leader of the Opposition also said that the reason why we needed that was something called the Singh case. I can point out that the case was decided in August 2000. The right hon. Gentleman said that it had been decided under the guidance of the Human Rights Act, but that Act came into force in October 2000. So we have—
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely true. Incidentally, I would like to pay tribute to the Lancashire police force, which is a groundbreaking force that does a superb job. She is absolutely right that there have been big falls in both car crime and burglary, and the antisocial behaviour legislation is also of enormous help here. I know that she will realise that we need to do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is examining various issues to do with the Home Office. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill will play a part in this as well. My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep on ensuring not only that the laws are fit for what we need, but that we get the community policing out on the street that her constituents and others want.
In 1997, when the Prime Minister was still the future, he pledged to cut early-years class sizes to below 30. In the same year, and in every year since, he has promised to tackle school truancy. However, parliamentary answers that I have received show that those early-years class sizes have doubled since 2002 and that truancy has risen by 200,000 over the same period. Has the Prime Minister changed his mind about those priorities, or just broken his promises?
As far as I am aware, the infant class pledge has been met. If the hon. Gentleman goes into virtually any primary school in the country, he will see the effect not merely of the investment in bricks and mortar, but of something like 80,000 extra classroom assistants. In so far as we have been able to cut infant class sizes, we have done so, of course, because of the extra investment in our public services that he voted against in the past.
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for the first part of her question, which I regard as progress of a sort. However, she is absolutely right that we need to do more on housing, particularly social housing. That is why we are investing literally hundreds of millions of pounds over the coming years to ensure that we have better social housing and to increase the provision of houses as well—
Not social housing: council housing.
Will the Prime Minister set out a clear timetable for the removal from the statute book of the Act of Settlement, which introduces clear discrimination against millions of our fellow citizens? Would a Government set on a course of repeal not be demonstrating leadership, authority and direction?
No, I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but as we are on the subject of legislation I can tell him what I would not agree to do, and that is to introduce the Bill that he wants—an independence Bill for Scotland. That would be an absolute and total disaster for the people of Scotland.
I can assure my hon. Friend that it is our intention to keep up the investment in children’s centres. Sure Start, too, is an immensely important programme that has not only allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get access to facilities that help their children, but benefited many parents enormously. In addition, we are trying to support people through the work-life balance, the children’s tax credit, and increases in maternity leave and maternity pay. All that adds up to a package that results not in simply talking about helping families but in supporting them in realistic and practical ways throughout the country.
What part of the question “Will there be a vote on Trident?” does the Prime Minister not understand?
I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in congratulating Cheltenham and Tewkesbury primary care trust on never having had a financial deficit and on living within its means. Can he therefore explain to the professionals, patients and people of Cheltenham why we are being rewarded with the closure of our 10-year-old purpose-built maternity ward, the closure of our rehabilitation hospital, cuts in health promotion, cuts in community nursing, cuts in health visiting, cuts in access to acute care and the non-implementation of new NICE-prescribed drugs such as Herceptin?
I do not know the particular circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and what has happened with the primary care trust there, although I am sure that if we were to go into it we would also find that waiting times and waiting lists for patients had fallen substantially and that there were additional numbers of people being treated far faster for cancer and cardiac care. I am afraid that it is a necessary part of the financial management in the health service that no matter how much money is put in, there will have to be proper accountability to make sure that that money is spent well. I am very happy to look into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises.
No, I am not able to do that right now. I met Mr. Nunneley yesterday and he gave me a letter explaining the situation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of the question. It is a complex case because Lieutenant Norbury was a member of the King’s African Rifles, which is a colonial force raised in Kenya, and responsibility for his war pension was taken over by the Kenyan Government when that country gained its independence in the early 1960s. Ministers and officials have met Mrs. Norbury’s representatives on a number of occasions, and the Ministry of Defence is now examining a number of possible schemes to consider whether Mrs. Norbury will be eligible under any of them. So the MOD is looking into it, and I hope that I will be able to get back to Mr. Nunneley or Mrs. Norbury in due course.
Will the Prime Minister congratulate Plymouth city council on returning to Labour control last Thursday after a successful by-election? Will he take an interest, too, in the challenge that we face of providing enough affordable housing to rent and buy, as we need some flexibility to play our part as one of the country’s key growth areas?