First, let me say that I am of course very sorry, and I extend my sympathy to any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have lost, or are likely to lose, their jobs. I can assure him that the local Jobcentre Plus and the Government will do everything that we can, as we have done in other situations, to put a support mechanism in place to ensure that they get alternative employment. I have to say, however, that Chesterfield’s economy, like that of the rest of the country, is infinitely stronger than it was in 1997: employment is up and unemployment is down. Yes, it is true that there have been a quarter of a per cent. rises in interest rates recently, but the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will remember when interest rates were 10 per cent. for four years, and 15 per cent. for months at a time. One reason why we can confidently expect people to get alternative employment is precisely the strength of the economy.
Following the report of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on state collusion and murder in Northern Ireland, has the Prime Minister been made aware of the statement last Sunday by a former assistant chief constable, who said that MI5 had made, and continued to make, payments out of its own funding to informers who were involved in at least 10 murders? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the ombudsman’s report on that collusion dealt only with part of Belfast city and one unit of the loyalist paramilitary organisation, and that much, much more was happening throughout Northern Ireland? Does he not think that this warrants a statement to the House—
First of all, let me say to my hon. Friend that any form of collusion or improper activity by any part of the police or security services would be completely wrong, and would of course be deeply to be regretted. We are looking carefully at the report that has been published recently and we will take whatever action is appropriate. It is, however, important to emphasise—as I think the report itself did—that this concerns a minority of people, who obviously should not have been engaged in the activities that they were engaged in. But that should not take away from most of the work that officers did, in both the police and the Security Service, which was of enormous benefit to the local community. So it is important, while we deal with the wrongdoing, not to have a completely unbalanced picture of how the police and MI5 operated in Northern Ireland.
First of all, let me explain to the hon. Gentleman that there is no question—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman; my apologies. There is no question of our agreeing to anything behind closed doors with the German presidency, or anyone else. Last year we agreed that we would take stock following the French and Dutch no votes in the referendums. The German presidency is therefore obliged to take forward proposals for the Council later this year. Of course we are in discussions with the German Government as to what those proposals will be; it would be bizarre if we said, “We’re not prepared to talk to you about it.” Let us wait and see what the German presidency comes up with. Our position on the referendum and the constitutional treaty remains unchanged. But I really do believe, particularly in the light of the strong bilateral relationship that we have with the German Government today, and of the importance of Europe to this country, that it would be a wonderful thing for the politics of this country if people such as the right hon. Gentleman could liberate themselves from this absurd and antiquated view of Europe.
I would certainly be happy to do so, in arranging such a meeting. My hon. Friend puts his case in exactly the right way. It is clear that the PCT has to deal with the deficit, because, despite the very large additional investment, that deficit is still there. Of course, as a result of the new system—payment by results, practice-based commissioning and patient choice—hard adjustments will have to be made in some of the PCTs, but I agree that it is important that they be done in such a way that the huge improvements in the NHS’s performance continue to be safeguarded for patients.
Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Gentleman on the possibility of a meeting. I wish to express my condolences—as I am sure does the whole House—to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s family on the loss of their daughter. As he knows, the issue has been raised by Foreign Office Ministers over a long period, and we have been closely involved with the authorities in Bangkok in trying to make progress on that case. I know that Foreign Office officials continue to meet the family—weekly, I think—and we will try to do everything we can to bring it to a proper conclusion. I am happy to try to arrange some form of meeting, but I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman about whether it is appropriate that it should be with me.
I was with my hon. Friend until the last bit of his question. I do not think that anyone has suggested that we withdraw from the social chapter. It is worth pointing out three things that have happened as a result of the changes that we have made. First, we have a minimum wage that helps millions of workers in this country get a decent living wage. Secondly, issues to do with parental leave, and maternity pay and leave, have seen huge advances, including a doubling of maternity leave and maternity pay. Thirdly, as a result of signing the social chapter, which was so bitterly opposed by the Conservatives, we have paid holiday leave for the first time, which is fantastically important for hundreds of thousands of some of the lowest paid workers in the country. I cannot believe that any party, other than one looking at the past rather than the future, could possibly agree to withdraw from the European social chapter.
The Prime Minister is known for his close association with President George W. Bush—but given all that has befallen the Prime Minister’s men and women in recent days, is not now the more relevant association one with President Richard Millhouse Nixon? Is there a cover-up in Downing street?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise that question when we are just about to have a Scottish election campaign. Why does he not put to me his case for independence and separation in Scotland? I will tell him why. It is because he knows that that policy would be a disaster for the Scottish economy and for living standards in Scotland. The reason why he cannot raise a Scottish question with me is because he does not dare.
Yes, I think that I can. I do congratulate the RSPB, and I want to point out that some of the £2.5 million being devoted to the project comes from the Environment Agency. The project will be a major advance for the local environment and habitat, and it underlines the importance of having an environment policy that is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our natural environment in the proper way.
It could be ahead of that schedule, of course, because crime has fallen—[Interruption.] The chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest for 25 years. We have record numbers of police, more offences are being brought to justice, and there has been an enormous reduction in ineffective trials. For all those reasons, I think that the assessment is correct.
I thank my hon. Friend for that invitation. The £30 million Boston house centre will bring services closer to patients, but the same thing is happening all over the country. For all the challenges arising from financial deficits, it is worth pointing out that waiting lists are coming down, more people are getting treatment closer to home, and they are getting it more quickly. Indeed, the GP services report showed that people are getting better access to the system than ever before. The fact that renal dialysis is being delivered closer to people means that they have far more control over their circumstances. It also reduces the pressure on hospitals; that is why investment and reform have to go together.
Of course I believe that it is important to ensure that prisoners are in the appropriate setting—but it is odd for a Liberal Democrat to accuse us of not building enough prison places. The hon. Gentleman says that 3,000 new offences have been introduced, but they have one thing in common: his party has voted against them all, even the most serious and violent ones. We know that Liberal Democrat prison policy would mean that no one would go to prison, because there would be no tough laws to make sure that they did. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the more that his party raises the issues of prison and law and order, the happier I am.
I do not always do this, but in this instance I will stick up for the GPs. In fact, they are doing a lot more work as a result of the national service programmes—[Interruption.] The report published on Monday showed that 90 per cent. of people now gain access to a GP within 48 hours, as opposed to just 50 per cent. when we came to office, and that is due in part to the enhanced provisions in the GP contract. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is committed to renegotiating that contract, but there is nothing wrong with our GPs being the best paid in Europe, provided that they deliver a better service. I believe that they are doing that.
In 1998, the Prime Minister was warned by President Clinton’s Secretary of State not to agree at St. Malo an autonomous defence capability for the EU that would duplicate and compete with NATO. Is he aware that the NATO Secretary-General warned yesterday that the EU and NATO would be unable to work together in a global crisis and that the distance between them is “astounding”, or does the Secretary-General—a Dutchman, incidentally—just believe in an antiquated and absurd view of Europe?
As I recall, in his previous incarnation he supported European defence—but let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I disagree so much with him over European defence. Of course it is important for Britain to maintain its strong relationship in NATO and many operations, as in Afghanistan, will be conducted with NATO; but in circumstances where, for example, the Americans do not want to be engaged, it makes sense—
I wish the hon. Gentleman would not shake his head before I have given him the answer—he might at least have something of an open mind.
The fact is that there are operations that we need to carry out with other European countries where the US is not engaged, so it makes perfect sense to do that as part of a European mission. There are somewhere in the region of 10 or 11 such missions around the world. They operate perfectly well, and are not in conflict with NATO.