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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Decommissioning

1. What recent acts of decommissioning of illegally held weapons and explosives have taken place in Northern Ireland. (113210)

Before I answer question 1, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you, and all Members, will want to join me in expressing sadness at the untimely death on Monday of David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist party. David’s story and character were unique and he will be greatly missed by the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will attend his funeral on Friday, and I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to his family.

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has reported that it has witnessed full and final decommissioning by the IRA. It is vital that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD and make the full transition from conflict to peace.

Obviously, I join the Minister in the sentiments that he expressed about the death of David Ervine, and I am sure that all Opposition Members would do so.

Will there be an ongoing assessment process to ensure that Sinn Fein-IRA do not rearm? How can we trust Sinn Fein-IRA when at a recent commemoration ceremony to mark the death of two Sinn Fein-IRA terrorists who had been raiding a police station, a collection of weapons was on display—albeit that Sinn Fein-IRA claimed that the weapons were from an historic collection? Can we trust that they have genuinely decommissioned, or do they yet again have an occasion for deception, which is typical of Sinn Fein-IRA?

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there is an ongoing monitoring process, and there is. The IICD continues its work and the Independent Monitoring Commission reports regularly. In successive reports, the IMC has reported that the Provisional IRA no longer possesses either the capacity or the will to wage violent conflict in Northern Ireland. That is an essential step in creating a sustainable long-term peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

What the hon. Gentleman says would be right if he were to point to dissident republican groups, which still pose a threat to peace in Northern Ireland. One of the strongest reasons why we need to have devolution in Northern Ireland is so that we can get all the political parties and communities in Northern Ireland united against dissident republicans who would undermine the peace process.

May I, from the Labour Benches, add support for the words of my hon. Friend the Minister in memory of David Ervine? When I was security Minister I was privileged to work with David, and I was always struck by the courage that he displayed, very often in facing dangerous challenges from his own side. I am confident that we would not have made the progress that we have made in decommissioning, and in other areas to do with security in Northern Ireland, without the voice of David Ervine having been raised.

It is always well to have a previous security Minister watching carefully over my left shoulder on occasions such as this. I join my right hon. Friend in the sentiments that she has expressed. Indeed, it would be a fitting tribute to the memory of David Ervine if loyalist paramilitary groups were to decommission and play their full part in the future of Northern Ireland.

May I, on behalf my party, add to the tributes paid to the late David Ervine? Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family at this time.

Can the Minister confirm that a major security operation was carried out on 11 or 12 December 2006 at the home of a leading Sinn Fein member, Declan Murphy—the brother of Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein Member of this House—in Camlough, Newry, and that important documents relating to security force members and leading politicians were removed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

I cannot comment on particular police operations. [Interruption.] No arrests arose out of those investigations.

No charges were made. I do not know what the motivation of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) is in raising that matter this morning, but he should be—[Interruption.] What he should be doing—[Interruption.]

In my view, what the hon. Member for Upper Bann and his party—and, indeed, all Members— should be doing is uniting in a call for loyalist paramilitary groups to decommission and fully to join the peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as forming part of the united community against dissident republicans, who would still pose a threat to the peace and future prosperity of Northern Ireland.

May I associate myself and the Conservative party with the Minister’s remarks on the sad passing away of David Ervine? We agree that it would be a most fitting legacy if the paramilitary groups on the so-called loyalist side were completely disarmed and an end were put to all paramilitary activity. But would it not also be good if there could be an end to all criminality on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland? As a recent report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs highlighted, that remains a big problem in the Province, so should not that take place now?

I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about David Ervine—and he is right to raise organised criminal activity, which underpins the remaining paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and occupies my mind very much. We have the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, which is doing a good job of bearing down on the problem. I am sure that the whole House will unite in the quest to ensure that organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland is eradicated.

Agriculture

The Minister will be as relieved as farmers in Northern Ireland that recent tests on pigs found with foot lesions at an abattoir in Antrim have proved that foot and mouth disease is not present. Will he congratulate the chief veterinary officer on acting efficiently and expeditiously, and will he ensure that he has sufficient staff to monitor live imports properly, in a situation that remains volatile as far as animal health is concerned?

I am happy to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Bert Houston and his staff. As soon as he was aware of the possibility of the disease, he brought the matter to my attention. I had a long discussion with him about the steps that we needed to take, and they were taken. That shows that the processes put in place following the unfortunate foot and mouth outbreak a few years ago are now working. I am happy to confirm that no such disease exists in Northern Ireland, and consumers should have absolute confidence in the industry there. I hope that everyone will buy its high-quality produce.

One of the changes to the common agricultural policy has been a move away from production subsidies to schemes designed to benefit the environment more. What is the rate of take-up of those schemes? What has been the environmental benefit to Northern Ireland and its farmers?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The Government have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform of the common agricultural policy, which in its old incarnation was distorting internal markets and wreaking havoc on producers in the third world. We have now broken that link with subsidy production and moved towards the agri-environmental schemes that my hon. Friend mentioned. About 12,000 farmers are participating in those schemes, which help to make up some of the income that they would otherwise have forgone. In addition, the schemes are benefiting the environment of Northern Ireland, and, therefore, all those who enjoy the beautiful Northern Ireland countryside.

The Minister is aware that the Ulster Farmers Union recently published a document, “Five Steps to a Better Future”, which the Assembly unanimously adopted in a debate last week. One of the proposals is the removal of red tape. Will the Government actively support that campaign?

I have met the leaders of the Ulster Farmers Union on many occasions to discuss bureaucracy and red tape. Recently, my officials worked with the UFU to reduce to three pages a form which, in its first draft, was 11 pages long, so that was a very productive engagement. My door is open to the UFU and I will certainly listen if it wants to discuss any forms or processes that it believes can be simplified and made clearer.

I must add that we have to balance that against the fact that we are talking about £300 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is right that we have proper accountability for that. It is also right that where some practices are impacting on the environment, we take our responsibilities to the environment and future generations very seriously. We need to balance the need to make processes as simple and clear for farmers as possible with our responsibilities for taxpayers’ money and the environment.

Apprenticeships

The Government are committed to increasing the number of apprentices to 10,000 by 2010. A new flexible menu of professional and technical training provision entitled “Training for Success” will be available from September this year. There will be two levels of apprenticeship training to suit different abilities and to meet the requirements of employers and industry.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply—but to complete an apprenticeship a person needs work-based training. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that those who win public sector contracts offer young people the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We recently ran a pilot scheme with Victoria Square, a construction company under contract from the Social Development Department, under which we put in place some 11 or 12 apprenticeships as part of the work let by the Department. That is a good model to consider in the future. We are increasing the number of apprenticeships by 4,000 up to 2010, in parallel to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is doing in Great Britain. The Labour Government, in stark contrast to the Conservative party, are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships.

The Minister will know that if we are to achieve a world-class economy in Northern Ireland, we will need to enhance our skills base and improve the skills of our young people so that we can attract inward investment and help indigenous companies to grow. Will the Minister advise me what part the essential skills platform being developed by the Department in Northern Ireland will play in expanding the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 by 2010?

The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that we need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are skilled for the jobs of the future. We have put in place three levels of apprenticeship. Both apprenticeships for 16 to 24-year-olds are key levels of training, and I hope that the whole House supports the fact that we have also put in place pre-apprenticeship training in schools for 14 to 16-year-olds, so that they can begin to examine the menu of options available to them and enter full apprenticeships after leaving school at 16. Only by ensuring that we have the top level of skills for people in Northern Ireland will we be able to compete with India, China and the rest of the world in due course.

Northern Ireland Executive

4. What requirement exists for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. (113213)

All Ministers are required to affirm the pledge of office before taking up office. This includes a commitment to uphold the rule of law, based, as it is, on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts, as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement.

I welcome that reply, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that any commitment made on the police and upholding the rule of law is permanent, rather than transitory? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that Ministers encourage their supporters to give information to bodies such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains?

I think that all party leaders, including Sinn Fein’s leader, have urged that in respect of the disappeared—to whom I think the hon. Gentleman was referring at the end of his question—information should be brought forward. That is welcome, because those who have lost loved ones are in the worst possible circumstances if they do not know what happened, or where those people’s remains might be.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s broader question, all people, especially those holding ministerial office, and all major parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, need to comply with support for policing, which was why the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle—its executive—meeting of 29 December was so important in committing the party to exactly that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the uncertainties at the moment on a number of issues—both political and in relation to MI5—should be an excuse for any party to hold back from offering clear and absolute support for the rule of law and those charged with upholding and enforcing it? Will he also address the Government’s statement of today indicating that there will be no diminution in police accountability under the new formula agreed between Sinn Fein and the British Government? Will he tell us how there will be no diminution in the accountability of intelligence policing if primacy for intelligence policing goes to MI5, yet if MI5 is not subject to the access or powers that the police ombudsman has at present regarding its information and activities?

On the first point, yes. Irrespective of anything else, all parties, including Sinn Fein, should sign up to policing and support for the rule of law. I take heart, as does everyone in the House, from the executive decision made by Sinn Fein on 29 December. The executive is meeting again, hopefully with a view to calling an Ard Fheis, which is necessary to complete the process of preparing for the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, and power sharing in Northern Ireland.

I agree absolutely about there being no diminution in the accountability of the police service. The existing accountability arrangements will stay regarding the ombudsman and also in every other way, including for intelligence work carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and any necessary liaison that PSNI officers have with MI5. There will of course be no diminution in that accountability. The five principles that the chief constable has put forward are embedded in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement of today.

Finally, on the other point, I can tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is currently engaged in a discussion with the security service about how she can have access to sensitive information. She certainly has such access in certain circumstances, and I believe that she will have more access in the future.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that the triple lock will remain securely in place when there is devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland? The triple lock means that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must agree to that devolution, and that there must be cross-community support in the Assembly and an order in this House. Will he confirm that that devolution will not be imposed in Northern Ireland without cross-community support?

Of course, and I said as much to an Assembly sub-committee yesterday. I want the appointment of a justice Minister and a deputy justice Minister to be achieved by a cross-community vote in the Assembly, with the so-called triple lock, to which the hon. Lady referred, in place. The Act passed by Parliament last year made no attempt to change that, but we need to get on with the process. All the Unionist parties, including hers, and all the other parties support the principle of devolving policing and justice. The Government are committed to that, and if there is delivery on policing, we want to meet the St. Andrews time frame of May 2008 for that devolution.

The House will be grateful for what the Secretary of State has just said, but will he give us another unequivocal assurance—that those who accept ministerial office in any Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive will have placed on them the same requirements and obligations as are placed on those who serve in the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales?

I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point, but in some respects the obligations in Northern Ireland are greater. The ministerial pledge of office, as amended in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which this House passed last November, makes it clear that Ministers must support the police, the rule of law and the courts. The Ard Chomhairle motion passed by the Sinn Fein executive on 29 December specifically authorised its members to take the ministerial pledge of office, and that is encouraging for the future.

Does the Secretary of State accept that words alone are not enough when it comes to policing and support for the courts and the rule of law? Sinn Fein’s support for the police, the courts and the rule of law must be tested against its actions over a credible period. In the past, we have learned to our cost that Sinn Fein’s words are meaningless when it comes to translating them into action. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that people in Northern Ireland believe that Sinn Fein should sign up for policing and the rule of law without conditions or concessions? That means that the May 2008 date for the devolution of policing and justice cannot apply, as there can be no commitment to any date when we do not know whether Sinn Fein will deliver.

I of course agree that Sinn Fein should sign up to policing and the rule of law, and to the justice system in every other respect. I also agree that there has to be sustainable delivery. There is no question about that, but the May 2008 timetable agreed in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act is a Government objective, to which all parties should work. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the date set out in that Act, which was passed by Parliament, is very clear. On March 26, there will either be the restoration of devolution or there will be dissolution. That date cannot be moved. We are proceeding towards devolution and I think that we can achieve it, but there will be dissolution if we do not.

May I ask the Secretary of State to be a bit more specific and state the criteria that he and the Government will use to judge whether Sinn Fein’s hoped-for support for policing is delivered in actions as well as in words? Such actions are needed to make the devolution of policing and criminal justice possible.

We will want Sinn Fein representatives to display full co-operation with policing in every respect, and I know that the hon. Gentleman wants the same thing. For example, that will mean that they will report any crime carried out in their communities, and that they will assist the police in every respect. We also expect them to join the Policing Board for Northern Ireland and the district policing partnerships. As I said earlier, the executive motion passed by Sinn Fein on 29 December commits that organisation’s representatives to all those things, and it is therefore important that we get on with the process.

Does the Secretary of State envisage that the Independent Monitoring Commission, or some other body apart from the Government, will play a role in monitoring Sinn Fein’s performance at living up to its words in practice, so that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have some objective evidence and assessment available to them, as well as the views of Ministers, to guide their opinion on whether delivery has been achieved?

An IMC report is due at the end of the month, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there will be continual IMC reports over the coming months and years in order to ensure full compliance with what is needed. May I also say to the hon. Gentleman that what is at stake is an historic prize, of devolution and support for the rule of law and policing? We have never been in this position before, where all parties want power sharing and all parties are ready to stand up and support policing and the rule of law. Let us grab that prize and go for it, because the clock is ticking and we need to achieve by 26 March—with full restoration and delivery on policing in place. [Interruption.]

Bain Review

5. If he will make a statement on the outcome of the strategic review of education led by Professor Sir George Bain. (113215)

We welcome the landmark report published last month by Professor Sir George Bain, which recommended improving the quality of education in Northern Ireland through better use of resources, better planning of schools and improved sharing and collaboration. It is a blueprint for excellence in all our schools and will enable all Northern Ireland children to get full value from the efficient use of the massive 60 per cent. real-terms increase in resources committed to education by the Government at a time of falling rolls.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she briefly explain the relationship between the Bain review and the policy documents issued by the Department with specific reference to the planning of new schools and the rationalisation of schools? Paragraph 9.3 of Bain states that any planning of new schools must reflect the make-up of society in Northern Ireland, but that does not appear in the Government document for consultation. It further states that each sector must be supported in its plans, but only one sector seems to be relevant—the Department, which will dictate exactly what happens. Will the Minister please rationalise that?

One of the main recommendations of the Bain review—one that will enable us to achieve maximum efficiency in the spending of increased resources—is the concept of area-based planning. It will no longer be sensible or possible for individual sectors to plan only within their sectors, which would be a recipe for pouring our extra resourcing down the drain. It will be important for all sectors to involve themselves, in conjunction with the Department, in planning for schools, and to spend increased resources on an area and geographical basis, not just within sectors.

Does the Minister accept that, in the light of the findings of the Bain review, there is absolutely no justification—[Interruption.]

There is absolutely no justification for continuing with the unfair and wasteful policy introduced by Martin McGuinness, which requires the Education Department to fund integrated and Irish-medium schools with an intake as low as 12 pupils—at a time when there is massive overcapacity and the Minister is closing down schools with far higher intakes in the maintained and controlled sector. That is unfair, divisive and wasteful, so will the Minister end that policy?

I certainly do not agree that integrated or Irish-medium schools are divisive, as they are meeting a need that parents in Northern Ireland want to see met. That is legitimate. However, I accept that we will not get full value from the extra resources going in if we keep supporting extremely small schools, as we have in the past. Bain set out some minima below which it will be important to review the continued educational sustainability of schools, and it is important to take those recommendations forward speedily and in all seriousness. I hope that all education stakeholders in Northern Ireland will join me, and the Department, in taking them forward in a positive and constructive manner.

Regarding the—[Interruption.] I think that hon. Members should leave any cheeky business to me.

Regarding the death of David Ervine, I knew him for more than a decade, and in my book he was a true statesman of Northern Ireland politics. He was also a friend. I shall miss him, and I am sure that everyone who worked with him feels the same way about his passing.

In his report, Sir George Bain underlines the need for more religious mixing in schools, so how can the Minister refuse new integrated schools in Antrim, Ballymoney and Strabane, and deny existing schools in Armagh and Belfast integrated status, especially as that would have no impact on existing schools? Will she reconsider that that is a bad decision?

Under the present Government, we have seen the biggest push ever towards increasing integrated education. As I have already said, the integrated sector is a vital part of creating the shared future that is crucial to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Whenever I consider proposals, I do so with a view to being positive and constructive. I have accepted proposals that had previously been turned down, and I have just accepted four proposals to create, transform or expand integrated schools. I shall consider further proposals constructively, but each proposal must be considered on its merits and on the basis of the legal framework pertaining; unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to turn one down.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the two servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the Christmas recess. They were Lance Bombardier James Dwyer of 29 Commando Regiment and Sergeant Graham Hesketh from 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. We also send our profound sympathy to the family and friends of Sergeant Wayne Rees, of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died at the weekend while on patrol in Iraq. They were performing vital roles in working for the security of our country and the wider world, and we send our sympathy and our prayers to their families.

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.

Traditionally when a Government Back Bencher refuses to toe the line, they are invited to a little interview without coffee with the Government Chief Whip, but what does the Prime Minister do when collective responsibility has effectively collapsed and his Chief Whip, aided and abetted by the Home Secretary and his party chairman, has become a rebel on national health service cuts, in defiance of his health policy?

Unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. MPs who are Ministers are perfectly entitled to take part in local consultations—it is not even a local decision that has been made in my right hon. Friends’ constituencies. What is utterly absurd is to be in the Conservative party’s position: having opposed all the additional investment in the national health service, the Conservatives now oppose each and every change in principle.

Q2. There was much speculation last week about the future size of the Royal Navy surface fleet. That has caused concern in my constituency—Portsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navy—coming as it does on the back of the naval base review. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending our national security, and that it should have the resources necessary to perform the vital tasks that we ask it to do? (113124)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why, in terms of investment in new ships, we have the largest warship building programme that we have had for many years in this country, and why, as opposed to the position under the Conservative Government, we are increasing defence spending in real terms year on year. Let me say to my hon. Friend that I understand that 17,000 people are employed in the Portsmouth naval base, including 8,800 civilians, and that there are a further 26,000 jobs in the wider defence industries in the region. It therefore performs a vital task, not only for Portsmouth and the region, but for our country’s security.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Bombardier James Dwyer, Sergeant Graham Hesketh and Sergeant Wayne Rees. They died serving their country and we honour their memory.

Yesterday, the police revealed that details of British criminals, including rapists and murderers, who have committed offences abroad were sitting in boxes in the Home Office and that nothing had been done. Can the Prime Minister at least reassure us that all their details have now been entered on the police national computer and, where appropriate, the sex offenders register?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary will make a statement immediately after I sit down, but I can tell him that the Home Secretary has been informed this morning by the Association of Chief Police Officers that every one of the most serious offenders that it has identified—on whom there is sufficient detail to be put on the police national computer—have now been entered on the system. Let me make one thing clear: until May of last year, there was no proper system, not merely in this country but elsewhere in Europe, for the details of people who have committed offences in other countries to be given to Britain, or indeed to other Europe countries, as may be. The situation changed as a result of the decision taken by the November 2005 Justice and Home Affairs Council. Since May 2006, ACPO has been working through all the cases to make sure that there is proper protection for the public.

Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister has just said: the names of those people have been sitting in box files and he is admitting today that not all their details have been put on the police national computer. The Prime Minister has confirmed that yet again the Government have failed in their central duty to protect the public. Let us also be clear: of the 525 serious criminals, there are 25 rapists, 29 paedophiles and five murderers. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that none of those very dangerous people has been working with children since their conviction?

The Home Secretary will make a statement in a moment that covers precisely that point. However, let me just make one thing clear. Before May 2006, there were no proper details; indeed, before 1999, no details of any sort whatever were kept. Between 1999 and May 2006, details were sent under the old voluntary system that used to apply in Europe. Very often, however, those details were not sufficient to allow us to identify people properly. That is why I said that those on whom proper information was sent to us by other European countries have been entered on the police national computer. In so far as insufficient details have not been sent to us, that is not, with respect, the fault of the Home Office but of those people who have been sending the details from other countries. All the way through there was, of course, an attempt to improve the system; however, it was only when Europe took a decision to make compulsory what had previously been voluntary that we were able to deal with the backlog satisfactorily.

Let us be clear: I asked the Prime Minister for a guarantee and he simply cannot give one. His answer underlines just how serious this is. There are rapists, murderers and paedophiles at large in Britain who could have got through the net and could have been working with children in the NHS, in social services or in our schools. The Prime Minister says that the Home Secretary will give a statement, but is not it the fact that the Home Office is part of the problem? Last night, the Home Office said that details of the serious offenders had all been entered into the computer—that is what it said. This morning, a Home Office Minister said that they had not all been entered. Why does the Home Office keep giving such misleading information about such an important matter?

It is not giving misleading information—[Interruption.] As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman beforehand, while the system was voluntary in the rest of Europe, when details were provided on a voluntary basis, there were often not sufficient details to allow people to be put on the police national computer. Now that we have a compulsory requirement, all those for whom there is sufficient detail are, as I understand it, now on the police national computer. It is correct that it is important that we make sure that from now on—now there is a compulsory system in place—all the information is entered properly; but before that decision was taken in Europe, some countries, despite the fact that obviously we wanted greater amounts of information, did not provide it. As a result of the decision taken in December 2005, as I explained to the right hon. Gentleman, that information is now given on a compulsory basis.

The Prime Minister has completely failed to answer the question. Why is it that last night the Home Office said one thing, but this morning the junior Minister said something completely different? On taking office, the Home Secretary said that he would have a fundamental review of his Department. A hundred days later, he said, “Job done”, yet we now know that 500 criminals are on the loose and his Department did virtually nothing about it. Is not it the case that if one of those dangerous criminals is found to have been working with vulnerable adults or with children, the Home Secretary will not be able to run away from responsibility for it?

No one is seeking to do that. I thought that I had explained the position to the right hon. Gentleman, but let me explain it again to him. All the people for whom there is sufficient information are on the police national computer, but as for those who are part of the backlog of cases, and where the information was delivered to us when doing so was only voluntary, not compulsory, there may be some of those for whom there is insufficient information. That is not the fault of the Home Office. In respect of those for whom there is sufficient information, they, I am now informed, are all on the police national computer.

Does not this go to a much bigger problem about the Home Office? We have had illegal immigrants working in the Home Office, endless escapes from open prisons, and foreign prisoners released and not deported, and now there is this latest fiasco. Let me make a constructive suggestion to the Prime Minister. The Home Office is a huge Department, covering prisons, probation, immigration, criminal justice and terrorism. Will the Prime Minister take up my suggestion that there should now be a separate Home Office Minister responsible for terrorism, who sits in the Cabinet alongside the Home Secretary? We are on our fourth failing Home Secretary; would not that suggestion at least give him some chance of doing his job properly?

No, I am afraid that I do not think that that is the right way to proceed on security. Let me just make one thing clear in relation to absconds, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. Absconds from open conditions are at their lowest level since we came to office, and absconds from closed conditions are at their lowest level. [Interruption.] Let me give him the facts. The facts are that, prior to 1997, some 1,300 prisoners escaped. For the 10 years since 1997, the figure is 137. There have, of course, been several category A escapes, including when he was at the Home Office as an adviser, but there have been no category A escapes since we came to power.

Last year, I had the good fortune to be operated on by Mr. Aung Oo, who leads an excellent surgical team at the Liverpool Broadgreen cardiothoracic centre. I would like the Prime Minister to offer reassurances to people in centres of excellence such as that centre and the Walton centre for neurology and neurosurgery that the funding and support that has been given hitherto, and that has gained such marvellous results, will be maintained in future.

I am sure that we will continue to make strong investment in the health service in my hon. Friend’s area, as in others, and may I say that I am delighted to see him back and well in the House—[Interruption.]—so that he can continue that vociferous support that he has given over the years. His example shows—and this is worth emphasising, as we get a lot of negative stories about the health service—that there is fantastic work done by the national health service, day in, day out, in this country. The national health service is an improving service; it is improving as a result of investment, but also as the result of the dedicated staff whom he mentioned.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. Given that the Prime Minister and President Bush are in agreement about strategy in Iraq, and that later today President Bush will announce the deployment of 22,000 additional American troops to Iraq, how many British troops is the Prime Minister considering sending?

President Bush, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman just indicated, will set out the policy for the United States forces, in particular in respect of Baghdad, later today. Let me just make one thing very clear, however: in relation to Basra, the situation is different in some very critical respects.

First of all, in respect of Basra, we do not have the same Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence, we do not have al-Qaeda operating in the same way, and we do not have the Sunni insurgency operating in the same way. As he knows, there has been an operation that the British have been conducting in Basra over the past few months, which will be completed in the next few weeks. That operation, I am pleased to say, has been successful up to now. That will allow the Iraqis to take over more and more control of their own policing and security in Basra. The purpose of the American plan—and it is for President Bush to announce it—will be precisely the same: it is in order to allow the Iraqi capability to take over security progressively, over time. The situation in Baghdad is different from the situation in Basra.

The assumption behind that answer is that there will be no displacement of terrorist activity from Baghdad to Basra, but it is difficult to make such an assumption at this stage. At the weekend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that he favours an independent foreign policy. Do we have to wait for the resignation of the Prime Minister before we get one?

In my view, the alliance of Britain with the United States of America—I assume that that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is attacking—is in the British national interest, and it is an important part of our foreign policy. Britain has two great relationships in the world—one with America and the other with Europe—and we should maintain both and keep them strong.

2007 heralds a new year—[Interruption.] It does to us. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement to the House about whether we will see a new, improved policy in Iraq?

In respect of British policy in Iraq, it remains as we set it out in the weeks leading up to today. However, once the operation in Basra is properly concluded, yes, it would be appropriate to report to the House. I am very happy to do so, but it is right that that takes place when the operation in Basra has concluded.

Q3. Many welcome the introduction of police community support officers. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, 539 CSOs were planned and funding promised, but only 333 will be in place as a result of recent Government cutbacks. Why are the Government rowing back on the Prime Minister’s promise to tackle antisocial behaviour, and is not this just another broken promise? (113126)

Just occasionally, the Liberal Democrats’ nerve takes even me by surprise. I would point out to the hon. Lady that they opposed all our antisocial behaviour measures. I cannot recall offhand, but I think that they even opposed community support officers at the time. At the request of local police chiefs, we have said that it is for them to decide the best way to deliver neighbourhood policing, but we are going to deliver neighbourhood policing in every part of the country. In the hon. Lady’s area, like others, there has been a massive increase in the amount of investment that we put into the police.

As we have embarked on the German presidency of the European Union, will the Prime Minister tell the House what discussions he has had or proposes to have with the German Chancellor about relaunching the Quartet discussions on the middle east peace process, building on his own recent visit to the area?

I have discussed that at length with the German Chancellor, and I hope that there will be a meeting of the Quartet in the next few weeks. It is now very important to create a situation in which we build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority; we ensure that the suffering of the Palestinian people is alleviated and that proper money gets through to the Palestinians for the basic services that they need; if at all possible we get the release not just of Corporal Shalit but of the Palestinian prisoners likewise; and we set out a framework for political negotiation leading to a negotiated solution between Israel and Palestine.

I hope very much that in the next few weeks we will be able to announce some progress on that issue which, of course, is an important part of the wider picture in the middle east, affecting discussions in relation to Iraq as well. I said that I would report back on the situation in respect of British forces in Iraq, and I hope that I will also be able to say something about the middle east at that time.

Q4. In the past 40 years, housing stock in Cornwall has more than doubled—in fact, it has grown faster than almost anywhere else in the country—yet local people’s housing problems have worsened dramatically. Last year in my constituency, five times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. When will the Government give areas such as Cornwall planning and other powers to make sure that families stand a chance of securing even a modest affordable home of their own? (113127)

That is a serious problem in Cornwall and elsewhere. We have significantly increased the amount of funding that we have given for social rented accommodation and social housing. We have increased the funding dramatically and also the number of homes, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly implies, the need is increasing. That is why we are looking, for example, at shared equity schemes. I had a meeting yesterday with those engaged in providing social housing about how we can increase the ability of the arm’s length management organisations and the tenant management associations to take on more of the burden of providing new social housing. We must keep up the investment—by 2010 we will have put in about £20 billion. We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways in which we can increase social rented accommodation, but we must do that within the budgetary constraints within which we operate.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware of Age Concern’s Fight the Freeze campaign, which includes a call for the Government’s excellent winter fuel payments to be protected and extended to help tackle excess winter debts among the elderly. The campaign was taken up by the Leicester Mercury, with an amazing response of over 1,000 readers backing it within the first week. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the campaign, and will he discuss with his colleagues ways of safeguarding the future of winter fuel payments and making sure that they match rising fuel prices? (113128)

I understand the importance of the Leicester Mercury campaign. As my hon. Friend indicated, we have provided an immense amount of additional help to pensioners—the £200 winter fuel allowance, with a further £100 for those over 80, the free TV licence for the over-75s, and the additional money through the pension credit, which has lifted some 2 million pensioners out of acute hardship over the past 10 years—but we constantly look to see what more we can do. I know that the campaign to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention will form an important part of our considerations.

If budget deficits, ward closures, redundancies and cuts in patient care constitute the best ever year for the NHS in 2006, will 2007 be just as successful?

First, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that last Friday we had the lowest figures for waiting lists since we have had waiting lists—400,000 down from what we inherited. We had a report on heart disease which shows that we are saving tens of thousands of lives a year. We have the best cancer provision that we have had for years. In relation to the work force, we have 300,000 extra people, including 85,000 extra nurses, in the national health service. Finally, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that his policy is to oppose the investment in the national health service. Having opposed the investment, the Conservative party opposes any change that will deliver better services for patients.

Q6. Conservative Barnet council has obtained only a tiny number of antisocial behaviour orders—a very poor record compared with other authorities. Residents are frustrated by the council’s timid approach, and the police are concerned about delays and adjournments at the magistrates court. What can my right hon. Friend do to achieve greater consistency in ASBO applications and results, to ensure that everyone has the same protection from the yobs who make their lives a misery? (113129)

It is a shame if local authorities such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency are not using the powers that are available. Those powers in relation to antisocial behaviour orders have made a dramatic difference in various parts of the country where those orders are being used. Recent publicity was given to the fact that 50 per cent. of them are breached, but that means that 50 per cent. are working. That is a massive achievement in respect of this type of punishment. Of the orders that are breached, more than half of those people go to prison, so there is a tremendous amount that can now be done in local areas through the new antisocial behaviour legislation and through the new powers that have been given to the police. My hon. Friend is right. Those powers should be used in future by local authorities, and if they are not being used by local authorities, local people know what to do, which is to vote Labour.

Q7. The Prime Minister is making a statement today about national security in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House that the measures that he is announcing will not in any way compromise national security or undermine the capacity of our security services to combat terrorism, whether domestic or international? (113130)

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is in the interests of our security services and in the interests of local civic policing that we make it clear that MI5 is not going to have anything to do with local civic policing—that is a matter for the local policing authorities—but we will of course do nothing that compromises the security of this country.

Does the Prime Minister share the widespread concern around the world at the unilateral action of the United States in bombing Somalia a couple of days ago and again yesterday? Does not he think that that bombardment will merely intensify the already desperate situation for the people of Somalia, when what is required is not foreign intervention but a peace process in Somalia?

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent: of course what is in the interests of everyone in Somalia is to have a peace process that works properly. He will be aware, however, that some of the extremists who have been using methods of violence to get their way in Somalia pose a threat not just to the outside world but to people in Somalia as well. When we look around different parts of the world today, we can see this global terrorism. It is a clear ideology and a clear strategy, and it is right that wherever it is attempting to warp local decision making and to prevent people from getting the type of life they want, we should be there standing up and supporting those who are combating that terrorism and giving people the chance to live in better circumstances.

Q8. Last month, the Government made two announcements affecting Hertfordshire: first, that we should build houses to accommodate another 190,000 people; and secondly, that we should cut our health services and close hospital wards. Could the Prime Minister tell me whether that brilliant combination was deliberate or just the usual ministerial incompetence? (113131)

Let me again point out the facts to the hon. Gentleman. In fact, as he knows, there has been an immense amount of additional funding into his local health service—[Interruption.] The funding increase has been somewhere in the region of 30 per cent., and the new primary care trust will have increases of more than £100 million. In any health service, there will be changes that are necessary to give us the best type of services for the future; that applies in his constituency as elsewhere. Whatever short-term campaign the Conservatives may mount, they are losing all credibility by ending up opposing in principle any changes in the health service at all—[Interruption.]

As for housing, whereas the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members oppose any extension of housing, the shadow Chancellor made the position absolutely clear when he said, in effect, that we need a supply of new housing, but not in his area. I do not think that that is very practical.

In Wakefield, we have seen the number of students getting five good GCSE passes increase from 37 per cent. in 1997 to 57 per cent. recently. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating students on that great achievement, as well as their teachers and parents and, of course, the schools in Wakefield, which were among the first in the country all to achieve specialist status?

I am delighted to give my congratulations to the schools in Wakefield and to all those who have worked so hard to raise standards. Whereas in 1997 fewer than half—45 per cent.—of pupils got five good GCSEs, the figure is almost 60 per cent. today. If we include English and maths, the figure used to be 35 per cent., whereas it is now over 45 per cent. The most remarkable fact is this: when we came to power in 1997, there were more than 600 schools where fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils got five good GCSEs and just 80 schools in the whole country—[Hon. Members: “What about the next question?”] I am going to finish in plenty of time. Today, there are 47 schools with fewer than 25 per cent. getting five good GCSEs and more than 600 schools with a rate of over 70 per cent.—a dramatic reversal under this Labour Government.

Q9. Not wishing to be cheeky, I thank the House for being so happy that I am so lucky. I should point out that the other sister is still single. On the more serious matter of motor neurone disease, the Prime Minister has received hundreds of letters praising his vision and that of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) to cure MND. Does the Prime Minister know that Britain spends more than £241 million a year on treating those with MND? A cure is therefore also a prudent financial investment, saving literally billions of pounds as well as thousands of lives. When will the Government decide whether to match fund the £7.5 million that the Motor Neurone Disease Association is raising to help cure the deadly disease and create a world free of MND? (113132)

The Minister is considering the proposal that the Motor Neurone Disease Association submitted on funding, and I hope that we can respond as soon as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his extraordinary work for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and I hope that he continues with it.

This Sunday, Mr. Putin shut off all the oil supplies to several countries in Europe, thus seriously threatening their energy and fuel supplies. Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to tell me what we will do in this country to ensure that we are not dependent on individuals who would try to blackmail us on energy and that we become energy proficient and productive?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am delighted that the European Commission, following on from the discussions at the Hampton Court informal summit in October 2005, has today put forward important proposals on climate change and protecting the environment, and on energy security and supply. It is important that we as a country ensure that our energy supply is secure for the long term. In my view, that requires a diverse supply of energy and the decisions that we will have to make when the energy White Paper is published in March are, therefore, very important. I say again that we need to ensure that replacing our nuclear power stations is one important part of the deal. In the past few months, we have signed contracts with, for example, Norway to guarantee 30 per cent. of our gas from it in the next few years. We are in the process of replacing our nuclear power stations, but energy security for this country will be as important in the next decade as many of the crucial security issues of past years. If we do not get the decisions right quickly, we will pay a heavy price in future.