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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ministerial Duties

1. What proportion of his working time in the last six months has been spent on matters relating to Wales. (114700)

I give the job all the time it needs to deliver for Wales and have achieved a phenomenal amount in the past six months, including Royal Assent for the landmark Government of Wales Act 2006, which the hon. Gentleman and his party fought against tooth and nail.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but despite his best efforts, is he aware of the growing concern in Wales that given his responsibilities for Northern Ireland and his interest in becoming the next Deputy Prime Minister, Wales might not be getting the attention that it deserves from its Secretary of State?

Indeed, how would he know? I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on his audacity, given that he moonlights as a local councillor in Kettering. In the future, if his Front-Bench colleagues got their way and we saw second-class status for Welsh MPs, with English MPs restricted to dealing with English legislation, he would not be able even to ask such a question, and we would see the Balkanisation of Parliament, which would be a disaster for the United Kingdom that would lead to constitutional chaos.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently told the people there that they should be green with envy at the financial settlement that he had got for them? Should not the people of Wales be red with anger at the fact that their representative in Parliament and the Cabinet is not doing the same for them?

The hon. Gentleman has another job as well because he is an Assembly Member. I am amazed that he has the time to come to Welsh questions. I would have thought that he would be on the backs of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State for their disgraceful policy of wishing to break up the United Kingdom by joining an alliance with Plaid Cymru to create second-class status for Welsh MPs. He should be ashamed of himself.

That is last week’s joke.

What proportion of the Secretary of State’s time was spent on Welsh environmental issues? Does he agree that Wales could benefit hugely from the new Energy Technologies Institute’s £1 billion budget? Will he spend time over the next six months lobbying his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to attend a key event at the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is near Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire, that will showcase the potential of Wales to work with and benefit from the new ETI and its funding?

My hon. Friends—rather unfairly, I thought—shouted, “Hello,” at the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he scrubbed up rather nicely, or rather cheekily, in Hello! magazine. I will indeed urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explore how organisations in Wales, especially the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, which my right hon. Friend visited last August, can contribute to this vital agenda, in which I share an interest with the hon. Gentleman.

RAF St. Athan

2. What recent discussions he has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on the future of RAF St. Athan. (114701)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Defence Ministers on a range of issues, including the current and future use of RAF St. Athan.

I understand that the defence training contract will be announced shortly. If it is awarded to St. Athan, will the Minister tell us what impact that will have on jobs in Wales?

As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement on the defence training review at 12.30 pm. It would not be appropriate for me to speculate on the outcome. However, it is well known that if the St. Athan bid is successful, it will have a substantial impact on Wales. We are talking about more than 5,000 jobs coming to Wales and an investment of £14 billion. If the bid is successful for the Metrix consortium, it will be evidence of the private and public sectors in Wales working together and coming forward with a world-beating bid to provide excellent training facilities for our defence forces.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the new military academy comes to RAF St. Athan, which is in my constituency, it will have an economy-transforming impact on south Wales because we will see the biggest single public investment ever in our country?

Yes, if that is the outcome. Again, I do not want to prejudge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence’s statement at 12.30 pm, but if that is the outcome, it will undoubtedly be the largest public-sector investment in Wales, and possibly in the United Kingdom, as my hon. Friend says. It would put up to £58 million a year into the Welsh economy over the next 25 years. As he says, it would have a transforming influence on the economy of not just his constituency, but the valleys and the Cardiff-to-Newport corridor.

If that announcement is made at 12.30 pm, it will have a devastating impact on my constituency. Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Assembly Government, through the Welsh Development Agency, have made available £100 million for infrastructure to support the Metrix bid? Does he agree that if the contract, worth up to £16 billion, is awarded to south Wales, it will enhance Labour Assembly Members’ prospects of being re-elected to the Assembly, and therefore of retaining control of the Welsh Assembly?

I had a certain amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman until he made that last comment. The fact is that the Ministry of Defence ensured that the awarding of the contract was subject to a rigorous impartial evaluation process, which means that whatever the outcome announced in less than an hour’s time, it will be based straightforwardly on the quality of the winning bid. To claim that there is some sort of dirty, backstairs deal being done, as the hon. Gentleman implies, demeans him and the party that he represents.

As Wales represents 6 per cent. of the population, but 9 per cent. of the armed forces, is not the most important point about the two contracts, if they are awarded to St. Athan, the fact that we will be providing our troops with what they really need and deserve, namely the very best training, which they need for modern warfare and modern peacekeeping?

Absolutely. Obviously, there are huge economic benefits to the awarding of the contract, but the most important issue, and the reason why the Ministry of Defence went down the road of looking into establishing a defence training academy, is to improve and expand the training for our armed forces. That is the driver behind the decision. The issue is not just the benefits that the decision will bring to Wales but, as my hon. Friend says—and I congratulate him on all his work in dealing with and supporting the Metrix bid—the fact that our forces will have a state-of-the-art defence academy to provide them with the best training possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, I offer an unreserved apology.

We know that we do not always need to disagree in politics, and I know that the Minister and I—I speak for my party’s Front-Benchers—are equally keen that the contract for the training of our forces should be awarded to St. Athan later today. Indeed, I am on record as having supported the bid right from the start, along with colleagues on the other Benches. However, we understand that each Member will fight for their own constituency interests, and should be allowed to do so. Does he agree that such a decision would underline the enormous benefit to Wales of being a full participant in the United Kingdom, and would not have been made at all if the separatists, some of whom sit in the House, who even oppose recruitment to the armed forces in Wales, had their way by tearing Wales out of the Union?

Well, may I tell the hon. Lady that the road that her party seems to be taking in pursuing an English Parliament is actually contributing to the separation of the United Kingdom? Only a few weeks ago, her party in Wales was clearly in discussions about forming a coalition with the nationalists, so perhaps—

Railway Companies

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the performance of railway companies in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (114702)

My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss issues affecting Wales, including the performance of railway companies.

As a south Wales MP, I receive many complaints from constituents about Arriva trains, objecting to long delays, cancellations, services that skip stations when they are running late, and overcrowded trains. Given that Arriva ticket prices have increased by 5.5 per cent. this year—well above the national average for a service that is well below average—what action has the Minister taken, and what does he plan to do, to improve that service?

The hon. Lady criticises Arriva trains, and in the past her comments would have been fair. However, improvements have been made to the Welsh services awarded to Arriva under the franchise. There has been a welcome improvement in the punctuality of Arriva trains, which rose by 6 per cent from the second quarter in 2005-06 to 85.6 per cent. in the second quarter of 2006-07. There is still a long way to go, but substantial investment has been made in the Arriva franchise by the Welsh Assembly Government, including the provision of longer trains and investment in stations so that they can be served by such trains. We will keep a close eye on Arriva’s performance, as we will with First Great Western.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has read reports in The Western Mail about an impending price war between two train companies, which could lead to people with a valid ticket being left on the station, unable to board a particular train. What talks has he had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport to put pressure on those companies to avert such a price war, which would affect people in Llanelli and west Wales, who regularly have to use both companies, as only one of them serves areas west of Swansea?

I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), to discuss those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) makes an important point, particularly about the position of Arriva customers who travel beyond Swansea and want to connect to a First Great Western service. We must ensure that we provide joined-up rail services, and further discussions need to take place between Arriva and First Great Western. I will urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to address the problem and encourage the companies to work together more constructively.

I recently made a journey from Swansea to Bangor that took just over 10 hours on Arriva trains that were uniformly dirty and covered in graffiti—an improvement, according to the Under-Secretary. That service receives a public subsidy from the Welsh Assembly Government, but those conditions demonstrate contempt for the paying public. Is he confident that his colleagues in Cardiff understand the meaning of value for money, given the subsidy that they provide?

I am glad that he is not doing so, because it would result in a reduction in the services provided under the franchise. Because of the previous Government’s failure to make any significant investment in our railway infrastructure it will take a long time to achieve the quality of service that passengers expect and deserve. Improvements, however, are on the way. The Government are investing £110 million a week in the rail infrastructure, which will lead to significant benefits in performance. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that those investments have been made in Wales only because the UK Government are prepared to invest in infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. His policies would cause the break-up of the United Kingdom and end that investment.

Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the decision made by First Great Western to cancel the important 17.18 peak time service between Cardiff and Swansea? Unlike its fellow Welsh operators, Arriva and Virgin Cross Country, which are among the best performers in the country, First Great Western is among the poorest.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless campaign to try and retain the 3.15 service from Paddington through to Swansea. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a number of discussions with Andrew Davies, the Minister in the Assembly, and I have had a meeting about the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). We will continue to press First Great Western for a review of its decision and for a significant improvement in its overall performance. Customers of First Great Western are not getting the service that they deserve and expect. On Sunday I had a four and a half hour journey on First Great Western with no catering available at all. That is unfair not just on me, but on all the other passengers. First Great Western needs to work with the Department for Transport to improve its performance.

Free Bus Travel

4. What discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on implementation of free bus travel across the England-Wales border. (114703)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues on transport matters, including the Welsh free bus travel scheme for over-60s and disabled people.

One of the issues in my constituency is the impact of the national border when bus journeys go across it. I know that the Secretary of State for Transport is making sure that the new framework legislation will enable a seamless transition. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State for Wales could press his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government to take up that framework legislation to ensure that we can have seamless journeys across the English-Welsh border.

Indeed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Welsh Assembly Government Ministers will do that. I congratulate him on supporting bus services, as Mrs. Thatcher once said:

“Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 26 can count himself a failure”,

and Steven Norris, when Transport Minister, said that bus passengers are “dreadful human beings”. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is contradicting that record.

Over 20,000 elderly and disabled people in Flintshire have benefited from the scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it and similar schemes could be endangered if we ever saw a ragbag coalition of separatist Tories and nationalists running the Assembly?

Indeed. Not only would that policy be under threat, but the entire future of the United Kingdom would be under threat from the Tories’ policy of creating an English Parliament, relegating Scots and Welsh MPs, and presumably Northern Ireland MPs in the future, to second-class status. That is a recipe for the break-up of the United Kingdom and for such policies to be destroyed.

Gershon Review

5. Whether he has met Treasury Ministers and the First Minister in Wales to discuss the effect of the Gershon review job reductions on west Wales and the valleys objective 1 area. (114704)

I met the Paymaster General on Monday to discuss the effect of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ change programme on west Wales and the valleys and Wales as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the issue with the First Minister.

I thank the Minister for that useful reply. He will know that nearly 50 jobs have been lost in the Department for Work and Pensions office in Porthmadog and that there are further threats to about 50 in the Revenue office. The loss of 100 jobs in a small town in the objective 1 area is a devastating blow. May I ask him sincerely to redouble his efforts—I know he will—to have the policy changed so that it does not devastate that area of north-west Wales?

HMRC has not announced any office closures. The programme of regional reviews announced in November is a consultation exercise. Published future staff numbers are initial proposals only. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that before withdrawing any office, a full impact assessment will be undertaken, including an assessment of the impact on the local economy. I agreed with the Paymaster General that we would meet again with the First Minister to discuss these matters, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), that if we did not have a United Kingdom Government, these issues would not be discussed. His policy on separation of the United Kingdom would deny his—

My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent service that the Bangor Revenue office provides to the whole of north-west Wales. It employs many of my constituents, but those jobs are under threat. Will he press the Treasury, as I and many other Members have pressed the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we provide a full bilingual service to people in north-west Wales? The DWP accepted that and moved Revenue jobs from south Wales; now is the time to keep them in north-west Wales.

I can tell my hon. Friend that HMRC recognises the needs of its Welsh-speaking customers, especially during this period of change, and is seeking a better understanding of their requirements across the range of HMRC services. I will discuss that with the Paymaster General and the First Minister when we meet again.

May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff—[Interruption.]

The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff at the Revenue office in Porthmadog, 24 are Welsh speakers. There are another 44 Welsh speakers in the Bangor, Rhyl and Colwyn Bay cluster. Can he confirm that he recognises the importance to people in north Wales of receiving a Welsh language service from the Revenue office? Has he impressed that on his colleague, the Paymaster General?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Porthmadog office deals with telephone and written correspondence in Welsh. The formal consultation on the future of that office will not begin until after April 2008, so there is plenty of time for representations to be made by Members, trade unions and stakeholders, not only in north Wales but throughout Wales. I assure him that the Paymaster General and I will take up the matter with the First Minister when we meet again.

Police Funding

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly Government on police funding in Wales. (114705)

The Government continue to provide huge increases in resources for the police service. The recent announcement of more than £450 million in total funding for 2007-08 represents another good deal for Wales.

In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety stated:

“We are committed to ensuring that Neighbourhood Policing will be introduced to every community in England and Wales by April 2007, and that every community will have a Neighbourhood Policing team by April 2008.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1679W.]

Given that the police in Wales have said that that will not be possible under the current funding settlement, can the Minister still guarantee that it will be fully funded and fully implemented in Wales?

Of course we want to see neighbourhood policing rolled out right across Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, under this Labour Government we have had 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers in Wales, compared with the consistent cuts in police officers and police budgets under the Tory Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

There are more police officers in north Wales than ever before, and the introduction of community support officers has brought neighbourhood policing to streets in Wrexham and other parts of north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend have a quiet word with some of those who are bleating in north Wales to get them to enjoy the benefits of a rising budget rather than the contraction that would be brought about if we ever had a ragtag coalition of nationalists and Tories running Wales?

I could not have put it better myself. Neighbourhood policing in north Wales is indeed of a high standard. It would be put at risk, not only for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave, but if the Leader of the Opposition’s policy of £21 billion of cuts in Labour’s spending plans were implemented.

Does not the Secretary of State realise how hollow his words ring and how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground? What does he say to people in places such as Abergele and Old Colwyn, who are losing dedicated community beat officers, or our chief constables in Wales, who have to take officers off the beat to fill civilian desk jobs? Where has all the money gone and why does Labour continue to fail to deliver proper policing for the people of Wales?

The truth is that there are 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers under Labour, crime has decreased and people see neighbourhood policing that they never saw under the Tories. The clear choice for everybody in Wales at the Welsh Assembly elections in May is voting Labour and against the ragtag, Tory-led, Plaid Cymru coalition that opposes us.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Sadly, before listing my engagements, I must once again ask the House to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the three servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past few days. They were: Royal Marine Thomas Curry of 42 Commando; Lance Corporal Mathew Ford of 45 Commando, and Kingsman Alex Green from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. They were all performing vital roles in working towards a safer and more secure world for this country and the whole global community, and we should be very proud of them.

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.

May I be associated with the Prime Minister’s opening remarks?

On 30 November 2005 at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister guaranteed that nobody would wait more than six months for a national health service operation. Every month since then, that guarantee has proved worthless and bogus. Today, official Government figures show that 15,832 patients are waiting more than six months. Why?

They do not, as a matter of fact; literally a handful of people on the in-patient list wait more than six months. That contrasts with the position in 1997, when 300,000 people waited more than six months. There has been a dramatic improvement, with the waiting list—the lowest since records began—400,000 down since we came to office and waiting times now an average of seven weeks. I thank the hon. Gentleman for letting me point that out.

Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning racism and xenophobia in any form, including on the so-called reality television show “Big Brother”, which has prompted 13,000 individual complaints? Does not he agree that it is important that broadcasters take great care before broadcasting any such prejudices to millions of people throughout the country?

First, let me tell my right hon. Friend that I have not seen the programme in question and I cannot therefore comment on it. Of course, I agree entirely with the principle that he outlined: we should oppose racism in all its forms.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Royal Marine Thomas Curry, Kingsman Alexander Green and Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. I also congratulate the Royal Marines on the bravery of their operation to recover Lance Corporal Ford’s body. It was a reminder of the incredible professionalism of our armed forces.

Last week, the junior Home Office Minister responsible told us that she knew nothing about the fiasco of the foreign criminal records. Now we know that she was receiving and signing letters about the issue as long ago as October. Why is she still in her job?

As the permanent secretary indicated in his evidence yesterday, the backlog was not drawn to the Minister’s attention. There is an internal inquiry about exactly what took place. Let me emphasise that, as I explained last week and shall explain again this week, since the Association of Chief Police Officers and those people at the Home Office have gone through the matter, no significant public protection issues have arisen so far in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau checks. It is correct that—since May 2006, when ACPO was given responsibility for the matter—a new system is in place. It is working well but, of course, we have had to work through the backlog of cases. Let me emphasise that we are in no different a position on the matter from any other European country.

The Prime Minister tries to say this is not serious, but someone went on to kill and a people trafficker was cleared to work with children. The Prime Minister’s defence seems to be that the Minister knew about the problem, but not about the backlog—but the problem was the backlog. Do we not want Ministers who are going to ask some questions and show some judgment, rather than just operating like giant franking machines signing letters? The Prime Minister could clear up a lot of this if he published the letter that the Association of Chief Police Officers sent to the Home Office. Why does he not publish that letter? It is probably in his file right there. Go on and publish it.

First, let me point out that if the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the case that was in the newspapers at the weekend, my understanding is that this particular individual in fact was on the police national computer. Secondly, let me point out that it is simply not correct to say that the problem was the backlog alone. The problem was that there was no proper system and had not ever been a proper system—[Interruption.]—for the exchange of information between European countries. That has now changed. Indeed, I can tell the House that, in addition, there is a proposal from Germany, France, Spain and other countries now to connect databases across Europe. We will look very carefully at that, but it is simply not right to say that this was a problem that we had and no other country had. Every country had it. We have now introduced a new system. If I may say, yet again with this issue, as with many others, prior to 1999 there were absolutely no records kept at all.

The Prime Minister likes to tell us that he believes in freedom of information, so I ask him again: publishing the letter would not harm national security or confidentiality, so publish the letter—why not?

There is an inquiry under way and when it completes its investigation, everything will be published fully so that people can see it. Let me however once again repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue where prior to May 2006 there should have been a proper system in place in Britain, because there was no proper system in place across Europe. We have now introduced a proper system for the very first time, and that means, as with many of the other issues, for the first time data are being properly collected and acted upon.

So much for freedom of information. Let me ask the Prime Minister about the inquiry. Will he confirm that it will look at the role played by Ministers, including the Home Secretary?

Of course it will look at the role played by Ministers; it will look at the role played by everybody. I simply point out to the right hon. Gentleman the evidence that was given yesterday by the permanent secretary.

Let us be clear. This inquiry is being carried out by the head of personnel at the Home Office. If this scandal had happened in a care home, in a hospital or in any business in this country, do you think you would ask the head of personnel to conduct the inquiry? This comes at the end of the week in which two more murderers have walked out of open prison, the immigration staff at Heathrow say they cannot cope and potential terrorists walk free from house arrest and nothing is done. The Government’s response when things go wrong is to put junior officials in charge of an inquiry. Does that not show that this Government and these Ministers are interested in protecting themselves, not in protecting the public?

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman, since he mentioned control orders and terrorism, that it was the desire of this side of the House to detain people. We were the Government who introduced legislation toughening up the laws on terrorism which he and his colleagues voted against. The one group of people we will not take lessons from on control orders or action on terrorism is him and his colleagues.

I have a constituent whose life expectancy is no more than four months. He has asked me to pass on his experience that, first, people in that situation, especially those under chemotherapy, do not get the full support from the benefits system that they need; and, secondly, that he fully supports the Government’s effort to merge databases within the Government so that others do not have to go through the multiple form-filling that he has had to go through. Will the Prime Minister ask the Department for Work and Pensions to take account of both points?

I know that there has been a meeting with the relevant Minister. It is very important that we look at the support that we give to people in this situation, and obviously I am grateful for the support in relation to the sharing of information, but it is important that we ensure that the appropriate help is given, and that can sometimes be through the benefit system rather than through specific allowances which, in this case, are really directed towards pensioners.

Once again, I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence for those who have lost their lives in the service of their country.

Yesterday, the Government appeared before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in order to explain their decision to drop the investigations into allegations of corruption in relation to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. When will the Prime Minister publish and make public the Government’s submissions to the OECD so that the British public can judge for themselves?

They can already judge for themselves because we have made it clear the reasons why my advice—certainly—was that the investigation would do enormous damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I said that because I believed then, and believe now, that it would do enormous damage to our co-operation on terrorism, and to issues to do with security and the broader middle east—quite apart from the thousands of jobs that would have been lost as a result of the loss of that contract, although that was not the reason why the decision was taken. I believe that that was right then, and I believe that it is right now. Sometimes, in government, I have to give such advice and take responsibility for acting in the interests of the country as a whole. The Government have to put those views forward. I put them forward then; I believed them to be right then and I believe them to be right now.

As a result of that answer, can we now expect the other current investigations into allegations of corruption in arms sales—in relation to Tanzania, for example—to be dropped in the same way? How can the Government’s handling of this squalid affair be in any way squared with the Prime Minister’s promise that his Government would be “whiter than white”?

To be frank, I would have greater respect for the opinion put forward by the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he were prepared to accept that, irrespective of the damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, the investigation should none the less proceed. But when he attempts, somehow, to have it both ways by saying that there would not really be any damage, and that the investigation should none the less proceed, he simply indicates once again what the problem with the Liberal Democrats is: they are an object lesson in the absence of leadership.

Last Thursday, following months of refusing to discuss future plans with trade unions, local politicians or—most importantly—the work force, NCR in Dundee announced 650 job losses. It did so in the most callous fashion imaginable, assembling the 800 manufacturing staff in a room with a large-screen television, from which the chief executive announced via video link from America that 650 of them had been made redundant. Will the Prime Minister join me in reassuring the people of Dundee that we will do everything that we can to help them? Will he meet me to discuss how we can reassure the people of Dundee of the Government’s commitment to full employment and high-quality jobs, including the 700 NCR jobs that remain in Dundee?

I sympathise fully with those who will lose their jobs as a result of the decision by the company. I know that the Scottish Executive’s Partnership Action for Continuing Employment has stepped in to try to ensure that other work is made available for those who are, sadly, going to be made redundant. It is also important that we safeguard the company’s position in other parts of Scotland. I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what we can do. As a result of different measures taken over the past few years by the Government on a UK-wide basis and by the Scottish Executive, we now have very good schemes that go into effect immediately when redundancies are announced and that often help people to get alternative employment. It is important that we try to ensure that this operates in the particular circumstances to which my hon. Friend has drawn my attention.

Q2. Will the Prime Minister concede that an unintended consequence of the Government’s policy in the middle east has been to advance the interests of the Shi’ites at the expense of the Sunnis? (116018)

No; unsurprisingly, I do not accept that. The most important thing that we have done is to set the principle—which the Iraqi people demonstrated by voting in the election for a non-sectarian Government—that the vast majority of people would prefer to live in peace, whatever their religious or ethnic background.

I raised this issue particularly when I was visiting British troops in Basra before Christmas. I am pleased to say that the operation that they are conducting in Basra is going well and is successful, and their clear view is that those who are creating the trouble are a minority, and that the vast majority, whether Shi’a or Sunni, want to live in peace together. I had a conversation the other day with the Vice-President of Iraq, who is one of the main leaders of the Sunni community, and he made the same point. We should never fall for the extremists’ propaganda that says that the majority want what they offer. Actually, the majority of people, in whatever part of the world, prefer to live and raise their families in peace and prosperity, and to treat their neighbours, of whatever race or whatever background, with some semblance of decency.

Mohammad Daud, the provincial governor of Helmand province, was principally responsible for the ceasefire in Musa Qala, which brought peace to that area and has saved lives. He was singled out by the Defence Secretary as, unlike other provincial governors, a man of integrity who certainly was not corrupt. Last month he was sacked. Will the Prime Minister make representations for his reinstatement?

I must say to my hon. Friend that Mohammad Daud’s successor shares exactly the same strategy for Helmand province. I want to pick up on one implication of my hon. Friend’s comments. What British troops are doing down in Helmand province is remarkable; tragically, we have again had to remember those who have fallen in the service of their country. They fell fighting the Taliban, however, and that fight is having huge success in the south of that country. Every time that they are able to inflict such losses on the Taliban, reconstruction and redevelopment can proceed. The new governor of the province is helping very much with that. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, there are real reasons for optimism about what we are doing in Afghanistan. The alternative was seen clearly a few months back, when the Taliban executed a teacher in front of a class for teaching girls in school. Those are the two alternative futures for the country, and I know which side we should be on.

Yesterday, it emerged that the Department for Education and Skills had issued guidance that will make it more difficult for head teachers to enforce school uniform policies. I know that the Prime Minister and I agree about the importance of school freedom and professional responsibility. I have one simple question, which requires a simple answer: will he scrap this unnecessary and wrong piece of central guidance?

The right hon. Gentleman probably has not seen the letter already issued by the Minister for Schools at the Department for Education and Skills making it absolutely clear that we support fully the right of schools to enforce their school uniform rules. [Interruption.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in spite of only having entered their second term since opening, the two new city academies in my constituency, St. Mark’s and Harris Merton, will be oversubscribed next year, such is the support of local parents and the community? Will he join me in congratulating the parents, teachers and staff at that school, and their enlightened sponsors, the Church of England and Lord Harris of Peckham?

I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating both the schools and sponsors who have put so much hard work into the city academy programme. In light of some of the publicity about the new school building programme, building schools for the future, let me say that, since 1997, 800 new schools have been built around the country. Those new or completely refurbished schools have made an enormous difference to what is happening in our country. In addition, more than 1,600 new science labs, better classrooms for more than 4,000 schools, hundreds of new sports halls and thousands of new computers and electronic whiteboards have been provided. As the results show, a revolution is going on in our schools at the moment, of which the city academy programme is an important part, and it is delivering quality education to some of the poorest kids in our country.

Q3. I echo the tribute that the Prime Minister has been paying today to British troops. I was delighted to hear on Friday of his support for a substantial increase in defence spending. Has he ensured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer agrees with him? (116019)

It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement of the extra defence spending a few years ago in the comprehensive spending review that meant that defence spending has been rising for the first time in years. In the 10 years before we came to office, there was a cut of something like a third. Moreover—I am grateful for the opportunity to point this out—if the additional sums for Iraq and Afghanistan are included, we have been holding defence spending constant as a proportion of our national income in what is, of course, a vastly growing economy. That compares with, again, a cut of about a third in the years before we came to power. I agree that we have far more to do, but, thank goodness, our record is a lot better than that of the last Government.

Earlier this week the leader of the Scottish National party suggested that the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections would constitute a vote for a referendum on independence. Given that not a single constituent has ever contacted me to request such a referendum, does my right hon. Friend agree that people of Scotland have much more serious issues with which they wish this Government to deal?

My hon. Friend is right. Of course issues such as crime, health, education and the state of the economy are immensely important to the people in Scotland who will vote in the forthcoming elections. As she says, however, the point is that the Scottish National party has now put on the agenda its desire for independence for Scotland and a referendum to achieve it. That would not only have a disastrous effect on the Scottish economy, but waste the enormous benefit that the Union has brought to England and Scotland over the past few years.

Surely the modern way forward for a country such as ours is devolution, with a Scottish Parliament to deal with issues that should be dealt with solely in Scotland, and a UK-wide arrangement enabling us to deal with issues such as the economy, security and defence with which we need to deal together. That is why it is so important for us to reject the option of independence.

Q4. Following yesterday’s television interview with the Prime Minister’s former spin doctor Lance Price, will the Prime Minister confirm that he has not called the Chancellor of the Exchequer psychologically flawed? (116020)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating police in Burnley on their recent success in reducing crime, which last year alone was down by 6 per cent. in Lancashire as a whole? Does he think that that is due in any way to the increase in police numbers, which have risen by 336 in Lancashire since 1997? Will he personally guarantee not to jeopardise that investment through unfunded and irresponsible tax cuts in the future?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest in our police services. The work that has been done in Lancashire is remarkable: it has had an excellent record over the past few years. Given all the criticism of the Home Office, it is worth pointing out that crime has fallen, not risen, over the past 10 years. That contrasts with the record of the Conservatives, who doubled crime and, in the last few years before we came to office, cut the number of police. We have record numbers of police officers, we have police and community support officers, and we have falling crime.

Q5. If the Prime Minister were lucky enough to come to Hemel Hempstead, he would see a community rebuilding itself after the terrible Buncefield explosions that took place a year ago. He would also have an opportunity to visit Hemel Hempstead general hospital and the acute facilities that treated all the injured people. There was huge investment in the hospital before the Government came to power, and, to be fair, there has been investment since. However, that investment is being thrown down the drain. The award-winning birth unit has been closed, the cardiac unit is being closed, the accident and emergency unit is being closed and the intensive care unit is being closed. I could go on. In fact, the whole hospital is being closed, although— (116021)

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be the first to accept, as a result of the desire to centralise specialist services at Watford there will be far better specialist care for patients. The plan that he has described has been presented by child care clinicians precisely because they believe that it will help to provide better specialist services for people. He is, however, right to say that there has been massive additional investment in his area. That is why there are more nurses, more doctors and shortening waiting times.

I feel sure that my right hon. Friend would like to join me in congratulating Phoenix high school in my constituency, which last week was named as the most improved secondary school in England. However, is he aware that Tory councillors in Hammersmith and Fulham, who continually call for Phoenix to close, are now seeking to close the much improving Hurlingham and Chelsea school? Can he do anything to stop that?

Of course, such decisions are taken locally but I am sure that the strong campaign launched by my hon. Friend will have an impact, because where schools are improving dramatically we want to keep them improving.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware that the new primary care trust for Norfolk and Norwich started operations with a £50 million deficit, resulting in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency having actively to delay routine operations for 200 patients? What does he say to those constituents of mine who are waiting in pain, and in particular to Mr. Ben Mullarkey of Dersingham, who had to pay to have his hip replacement done in France? Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he said that we had 24 hours to save the NHS? (116022)

I understand the difficulties that have been caused in the hon. Gentleman’s area as that particular trust comes back into financial balance. However, it is worth pointing out that, at the same time as the trust is facing those financial difficulties, over the past few years in his local area the number of people waiting for more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment has fallen from 31,000 to 16. Only one patient in the whole of his strategic health authority is waiting for more than 13 weeks for a first out-patient appointment, and there has been dramatic improvement in both cancer and cardiac care. I understand the problems being faced as the trust comes back into financial balance, but let us be clear that once that happens we will be able to use the additional capacity that we have provided and bring those waiting times down further. Our desire is to get to the end of 2008 with an 18-week combined in-patient and out-patient waiting period. That would be a dramatic improvement.

Q7. The educational improvements that the Prime Minister has referred to have led Britain to improve its position in the international education league tables, but we still languish at No. 18 in the OECD league tables for skills. What does the Prime Minister plan to do to improve the skill levels of youngsters in this country? (116023)

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right, and the two things that will be important are, first, the additional investment in schools which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds in the next few years, and also that we are moving to the new system of vocational education which will allow a far better choice for youngsters at the age of 14 to opt for a high-quality stream of vocational education. That is what we need to do. We have very much focused on lifting academic standards and there has been considerable success on that, although there is lots more to do. We now need to have the same focus on vocational education, and the combination of the money and the reform over the next few years should deliver results.

Q8. The Prime Minister will be aware of the hugely successful launch of Highland 2007 in Inverness on Friday, which demonstrated the renewed confidence and optimism in the region. In the year that we celebrate the culture, heritage and future of the highlands, will the Prime Minister ensure that his Government pursue policies that not only help to tackle the particular disadvantages faced by Britain’s most dispersed and remote region, but promote awareness of the contribution that the highlands has made to the UK over the years? (116024)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. The highlands has made an enormous contribution to the whole of the United Kingdom, and one of the reasons why we have special help and provision and we organise that in a way that allows the whole of the UK to support the highlands is that we recognise that it is far more sparsely populated than other areas and therefore particular help is needed for local services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue the investment to make sure that the highlands carries on playing the vital role that it does in terms of the future of Scotland and also the whole of the UK.

Q9. Is the Prime Minister as appalled as I am by the decision of Conservative councillors in Wandsworth to close Battersea arts centre and to try to blame Government grants even though Wandsworth is in no danger of being capped and has the lowest council tax in the country? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It also has huge reserves—[Interruption.] (116025)

It also gets excellent value from its £100,000 grant to Battersea arts centre, having just given—[Interruption.]

I agree with my hon. Friend that Battersea arts centre does a fantastic job. They should do everything that they can to keep it open, and they should keep it open.

The Prime Minister and his Government are about to abolish the right to elect jury trial in serious fraud cases. Will he retain the right to jury trial for political corruption, such as the selling of honours?

The proposals that we have simply relate to fraud trials in the way that we have described. I doubt whether the Scottish National party will support those proposals, but it should, because they will free up—[Hon. Members: “He is Plaid Cymru.”] Let me explain exactly why. They will free up money that we desperately need to make sure that we have both the police and the criminal justice system that allows criminals to be caught and punished.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to support a viable network of post offices, and that the Post Office card account on which so many pensioners depend has a successor? (116026)

Yes, that is precisely the reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that the Government have decided that we will continue with the new account after 2010. That, incidentally, is in addition to the £2 billion of extra support for post offices, particularly rural post offices. We all know the reasons why post offices face a great deal of challenge and difficulty at the moment—because of the changing way that people are handling their accounts—but I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything that we can to make sure we preserve as many of them as possible, that we make the investment and that we keep the account going.

A few minutes ago, in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about criminal records exchange, the Prime Minister said that before 2006 there was no system across Europe for the exchange of criminal records. Can he explain why, in 2001, the Government negotiated a protocol to the 1959 Council of Europe convention on the exchange of records, but have neither ratified nor implemented that protocol? So before 2006, it would have been possible to exchange those records.

The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken about that. The fact is that there was no proper system prior to 2005 and the decision of the European Council. If I may, I will point this out to him: it was only because we were able to work with other European partners that we managed to get agreement to implement a new system. That new system is in place, and for the first time we have proper records that we can implement properly and make sure that we monitor properly. That is the change that has been brought about in the last year.