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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Provisional IRA Army Council

1. What progress has been made with the dismantling of the command structure of the IRA, with particular reference to the Provisional IRA army council. (137955)

If I may, I should like to congratulate the right hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on being nominated to be Privy Councillors; those nominations are well deserved.

Successive Independent Monitoring Commission reports have demonstrated that the Provisional IRA is committed to a political path. The IMC’s latest report reiterates that the organisation has eschewed violence and disbanded its paramilitary structures.

Having announced membership of the Provisional IRA army council in the past, can the Secretary of State tell the House who is in membership of that terrorist body now? Does he understand that the Unionist community will have no confidence in the words of Adams and McGuinness while the so-called army terrorist council of the IRA remains in existence as a threat to the stability of Northern Ireland? There can be no riding of two horses, and all terrorist structures must therefore be dismantled now.

I agree that there can be no riding of two horses. I am encouraged by the fact that successive reports by the IMC have confirmed that the engineering, intelligence gathering and other paramilitary apparatus of the IRA has been disbanded. That is not me speaking as Secretary of State; it is the IMC. That is the big picture, and the complete transformation that we have seen in Northern Ireland in recent weeks underpins the commitment that the IMC has reported.

Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the paramilitary organisations—republican dissident or loyalist—now has a mandate or authority in Northern Ireland? Will he ensure, however, that they cease activities such as exercising control over communities under the guise of community groups or restorative justice groups? Will he give direction and guidance to ensure that such activities do not go on, and that no Government funding is paid to groups that contain erstwhile paramilitaries?

I agree completely that there is no role for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, if there ever was. There is certainly no justification for any of the trappings of paramilitary activity, let alone the activity itself. We continue to work as a Government to ensure that loyalist groups, in particular, come out of their past of violence, paramilitary activity and criminality—which is even more of a problem and has been for many years—and move towards accepting the rule of law without any qualification.

The Secretary of State has alluded to the progress being made towards normality, and that is indeed welcome. A number of issues remain outstanding, however, the most glaring of which is the existence of the IRA army council. What pressure is he applying to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) to dismantle and get rid of that anachronism in Northern Ireland in 2007?

I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), that the important thing is that the IRA has now turned its back irrevocably on its past. The apparatus that once existed for terror and paramilitary violence has all disappeared, not least due to the pressure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have maintained so steadfastly over these past few years. That is the important thing.

Obviously, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment, but I should like to refer to the earlier comment by the hon. Member for south Armagh—[Interruption.] I am so sorry, I meant the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). The Secretary of State will be aware that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs produced a report on community restorative justice that drew attention to the very points that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is crucial that there should be no back door into these schemes for people who have not utterly and totally repudiated their paramilitary past.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, which has just gone through Parliament, has quite properly strengthened the oversight of community restorative justice schemes. His own Select Committee commented on that, and we have taken careful note of those comments and implemented the points that were made. It is now absolutely clear that anyone involved in community restorative justice has to obey the rule of law—there is no qualification on that—and has to work with the police; there is no qualification on that either.

Like the Secretary of State, I welcome the profound change that has taken place in the republican movement during recent years. Does he agree, however, that that very process of change means that the existence of something calling itself an army council—and that council’s continuing assertion of a claim to legitimate authority within the island of Ireland—is at odds with the transformation that the Sinn Fein leadership says that it has brought about, and with the pledge of office that Sinn Fein Ministers have taken? Surely the best way for Sinn Fein to demonstrate to the most sceptical Unionists that its commitment to democracy is really serious would be to get rid of that anachronistic institution.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s objective. Obviously we all look forward to a time when—as the situation continues to stabilise and the transformation deepens—there are no remnants of, and no legacy from, any of the paramilitary past that has bedevilled the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the whole island of Ireland, and that goes for every paramilitary organisation.

Members on both sides of the House hope to see conditions make the devolution of criminal justice and policing possible, in perhaps as little as 12 months from now. Does the Secretary of State believe that for such devolution to take place we need first to reach a stage at which the British and Irish Governments feel that the Provisional IRA is no longer a terrorist threat and that, as a consequence, proscription should cease?

Let us take one step at a time. The Assembly has a duty, under legislation that the hon. Gentleman supported, to report to the Secretary of State by 27 March next year on the prospects for devolution of policing and justice being completed by May next year, as the Government intend and as was set out on the Anglo-Irish agreement. We shall have to see what assessment is made and how matters progress, but as I said earlier, the IMC has stated repeatedly—I know the hon. Gentleman accepts this, and he is nodding—that the Provisional IRA poses no terrorist threat, and indeed is not capable of doing so.

Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations

2. What recent discussions he has had with the representatives of loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland on the decommissioning of their weapons. (137956)

Ministers continue their engagement with the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party in support of their efforts to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to leave conflict behind and adhere to democratic principles.

While I welcome the news that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos are saying that they will now decommission their arms, is it not still of great concern that the Ulster Defence Association has not done the same? All three organisations are involved in criminality, drug dealing, extortion and loan sharking. Will the Minister give an undertaking that action will continue to be taken against them when they have committed crimes?

The UVF’s announcement was a welcome step forward. Of course we want to see full and verifiable decommissioning, and last week’s discussions with General de Chastelain and representatives of the UVF were another welcome step. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we cannot tolerate either paramilitary activity or criminality by either of those organisations, and I assure him, and the House, that law enforcement in Northern Ireland will continue to bear down on them.

I join the Minister in welcoming the UVF’s statement of the first steps towards a complete winding down of its organisation. However, he and the House will recognise that it fell short in decommissioning terms by only putting weapons “beyond reach”—beyond whose reach is not clear. Can the Minister inject some urgency into the issue, and indeed into the issue of the disbanding of the army council of the IRA? It is essential that all paramilitary organisations go completely out of business, and are seen to be doing so.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there must be a sense of urgency in relation to any organisation or individual still involved in paramilitary activity. I hope that those on either the dissident republican or the loyalist side who are still engaged in paramilitary activity will recognise what a fruitless waste the violence and conflict of the past 40 years has been, will see the hope that democracy is bringing to Northern Ireland, and will desist from their activities and join the peace process in a meaningful way.

May I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and say how important it is for all loyalist paramilitary organisations to decommission? Indeed, as was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the weapons must be destroyed and verification must take place. The Minister slightly pre-empted my question by referring to de Chastelain, but could he give a little more detail about the engagement that has taken place between the so-called loyalist paramilitary forces and the general?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that Ministers are not privy to the detailed discussions that take place with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which is headed by General de Chastelain. The general has had that meeting, however, and I hope that it will lead to a new phase in which the UVF engages meaningfully with the IICD, decommissioning becomes verifiable, and we have not only the promise that weapons are beyond use but confirmation that they are.

Wildlife Protection

3. What recent discussions he has had at a European level on the protection of winter quarters of whooper swans potentially affected by road proposals. (137957)

Following the restoration of devolution on 8 May, I can now tell the hon. Gentleman that roads are now devolved, and whooper swans are devolved too. The hon. Gentleman asks about recent discussions at European level; as a Liverpool MP, the only discussions that I am really interested in having at European level today are about Liver birds rather than whooper swans—and specifically about how well the Reds will do in Athens tonight.

I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, and also for a written answer from one of her colleagues on 20 March revealing that in the Seamus Heaney area of special protection, where a large proportion of the 4,000 over-wintering whooper swans are to be found, by Lough Beg, there is a proposal for a dual carriageway from Toome to Castledawson.

Am I right in saying that both national and international laws require the Roads Service to make a far better assessment of the risk to whooper swans—and may I invite the Minister to come with me next winter to see them and to make sure that they are protected?

I can confirm that whooper swans are protected. They are listed in annexe 2 to the birds directive and schedule 1 to the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. However, such matters are the concern of the devolved Administration. The Minister in the Northern Ireland Administration with responsibility for them is Arlene Foster MLA. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s previous correspondence, and he might wish to write further to her on this matter.

Prisoners (Drugs Rehabilitation)

4. If he will make a statement on the drugs rehabilitation strategy for prisoners in Northern Ireland. (137958)

The Northern Ireland Prison Service recently concluded a wide-ranging consultation on its substance misuse policy. Voluntary organisations currently provide counselling and rehabilitation courses in each of its establishments. A full-time addiction services manager takes up post on 1 June.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, will he kindly explain what is so exceptional about the drugs rehabilitation of prisoners that responsibility for it alone was not transferred properly and on time in April to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Department?

Discussions continue between the Department and the Prison Service about the detail of the new arrangements. It is important that the health service in prisons is run by health experts; I am committed to that. The hon. Lady points to the fact that three voluntary organisations provide community addiction services in the three prisons in Northern Ireland. They do so effectively, and I know that she has a particular interest in the Northlands project, which provides an excellent service. I am looking at possible ways to expand such services, to the benefit of prisoners who as a result can come out of prison free of their addiction.

I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier words of congratulation. Many prisoners who enter prisons in Northern Ireland—some 10 per cent.—have amphetamine- based addictions, so rehabilitation work is clearly necessary, and we should enhance that. However, is it not the case that many drug prevention groups that work outside prisons trying to prevent young people from becoming addicted to drugs in the first place are operating on a shoestring budget? Ascert, in my constituency, is doing good work, but it cannot get funding. Do we not need to address the root cause of this problem by supporting groups that are trying to prevent it from happening in the first place?

I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that prevention is always better than cure. A range of organisations throughout Northern Ireland are trying to prevent people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol in the first place. It is essential that when prisoners leave prison and go back into the community they receive the effective support that such groups offer.

Dissident Republican Organisations

5. What his assessment is of the terrorist threat posed by dissident Irish republican organisations. (137959)

While dissident republicans remain determined to cause harm and destruction, excellent policing continues to thwart them. Dissidents will not deter us, or the new Executive, from achieving a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although we are glad that power sharing has returned to Northern Ireland—and many of the terrorist organisations are now disarming—there are still dissident forces, such as Continuity IRA. What measures are the Government taking to prevent, dissuade and capture those vile and murderous criminals?

The Police Service of Northern Ireland takes the lead in detecting and preventing terrorist activities by organisations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. So far this calendar year there have been 31 incidents involving dissident republican organisations. As recently as April, a serious incident was prevented in Lurgan by the PSNI, by a timely interception of what would have been a serious mortar attack. We should all compliment the PSNI on the work that it is doing and make it clear to those involved in dissident republican organisations, and loyalist paramilitary groups, that law enforcement will continue to hunt them and bear down on them.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a number of recent arrests in the Province—those of Brian Arthurs and two of his comrades, and of Roisin McAliskey, commonly known throughout the Province as members of the Provisional IRA. Can the Minister give us some background to the situation and assure us that if a request is made by the German authorities for the extradition of Roisin McAliskey, it will be accommodated?

The last question is entirely a matter for the German authorities under the European arrest warrant system. There will be arrests from time to time. The whole thrust of my argument is that the PSNI will continue to bear down on those involved in criminality or paramilitary activity. We should all be encouraged by the fact that Sinn Fein has made it clear that people should co-operate with the police whenever such arrests take place.

Security Situation

6. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (137961)

The security situation continues to improve beyond recognition, as last month’s report from the Independent Monitoring Commission made clear. But the report also shows that more is still needed from loyalist paramilitary groups to demonstrate their commitment to peace, and that dissident republicans continue to present a security threat.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), does the Minister agree that with the Provisional IRA army council in place, the IRA has a ready-made infrastructure to rebuild a terrorist capability rapidly at any time? Now that Sinn Fein is in government, surely the time has come for it finally to sever any links with its sister organisation the IRA? Otherwise, how can the Ulster public have real confidence in Sinn Fein Ministers?

With the normalisation of the security situation—and, we hope, the eventual delegation of full powers to the Welsh Assembly—is it not time to think about merging the Northern Ireland Office into an office for the nations and regions, providing a logical structure for administering the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England?

The House will note the hon. Gentleman’s representations, but there has been all sorts of speculation about that and I do not intend to pursue it.

Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations

7. What progress has been made on loyalist decommissioning in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (137962)

The recent meeting between the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning is a step in the right direction. It is vital that all loyalist paramilitary groups make a complete transition to peace and engage in full decommissioning.

Is the Minister aware that people want an end to all paramilitary activity—all the guns, intimidation, drug dealing, protection rackets and other threats to emerging normality—and is he also aware that while some elements within loyalism are making progress, people feel that he is only playing footsie with some hardliners who have no intention of ending their grip of fear on their local communities?

Of course my hon. Friend is right to say that we must continue to bear down on criminality and paramilitary activity. As I said in answer to an earlier question, my hope is that those involved in dissident republican groups and loyalist paramilitary organisations will see the wastefulness of the death and destruction of the last 40 years, and the positive hope that comes with democracy. Of course there will still be some hardliners, and they need to hear the message that we will not give up pursuing them and ensuring that if they do commit criminal acts, they are dealt with by the justice system.

Political Situation

We are all very encouraged by the positive start to devolution, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and the other parties for the strong leadership that everyone has shown.

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. However, does he accept that to bed in political progress and stability in Northern Ireland, it is absolutely essential that the right economic and financial package, which was promised to the people of Northern Ireland, is put in place?

I welcome the presence of the Chancellor during these questions and his input into the work of progressing the economic package. I also welcome the fact that Sir David Varney is starting work on the corporation tax review this week. Can the Secretary of State assure us that progress will be made towards ensuring that a step change in the Northern Ireland economy can be made, moving forward, so that we can make real political and economic progress for Northern Ireland?

Order. The House needs to come to order. This noise is unfair to those who want to hear Northern Ireland questions.

The Chancellor has been equally concerned to make sure that the incoming Executive, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, have the best possible start and the best possible financial platform to succeed. That will be the case; any final details will be settled, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied.

Historic Inquiries

10. How much has been allocated to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2007-08 for historical inquiries. (137965)

The historic inquiries team project has been allocated £34 million to re-examine all the unresolved deaths in Northern Ireland that were related to the security situation during the period from 1968 until the signing of the Belfast agreement.

Is the Minister aware that up to 40 per cent. of police resources available for investigating serious crime can be diverted into historic inquiries, many of which originate from the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which many believe is engaged in a witch hunt against former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Does the Minister agree with the Superintendents Association of Northern Ireland, which says that perhaps now is the time to draw a line under the past and concentrate police resources on current policing needs, rather than on those politically motivated inquiries?

It is very important that the historic inquiries team should be able to fulfil the purpose for which it was first established: to look back at records and see whether explanations for unresolved deaths can be offered to families. However, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to find other ways of drawing a line under the past—not to pretend that the past did not happen or that the hurt is not still there, but to focus our resources on the present and the future so that, going forward, Northern Ireland can enjoy peace and prosperity.

Organised Crime

11. What plans he has to improve the effectiveness of policies to deal with organised crime in Northern Ireland. (137966)

The multi-agency Organised Crime Task Force enables Government, law enforcement agencies and business to tackle organised crime in a co-ordinated, effective and strategic way. Next month, I shall publish the latest OCTF annual report and threat assessment.

I am grateful to the Minister for that considered and rational reply, but is there not a danger that acts of terrorism, which have dominated Northern Ireland in recent decades, could well be replaced by crimes committed by organisations? That would undermine the peace and stability that have recently come to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right; we know of the connection between organised criminality and those who in the past may have been involved in paramilitary activity. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Organised Crime Task Force brings all those agencies together to defeat those involved in organised crime. Indeed, yesterday I chaired a meeting of the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group, which brings business and law enforcement groups together. We will deal with organised crime, in order to eradicate it from Northern Ireland.

Provisional IRA Army Council

12. What further progress is being made in the dismantling of paramilitary structures in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the Provisional IRA army council. (137967)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea)—and to him, too, I think.

I thank the Secretary of State for the improving security situation, to which he has now referred twice. Can he ensure not only that the improvement continues, but that we systematically try to purge Northern Ireland society of all aspects of paramilitary activity?

Yes, indeed. I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are determined that all remnants of paramilitary activity, especially by dissident republicans and loyalists, must be put aside and that everybody must turn their back on that activity, so that Northern Ireland can move forward to a confident, peaceful and democratic future under a devolved Government.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Millennium Development Goals

Q1. What progress he will report to the forthcoming EU and G8 summits in respect of commitments to the millennium development goals. (138661)

We are making progress on the commitments to the millennium development goals, particularly in respect of the commitment to halve the world’s population living in poverty, on which we are making significant progress. In respect of HIV/AIDS, we believe that we will have near universal access by 2010. In respect of primary education, there is a big increase in the numbers going into it in Africa, but we need to do much more. The G8 summit in a couple of weeks will be immensely important. Both in Washington last week and in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I urged the American and German Governments to do more in respect of Africa and poverty, and I hope very much that those efforts will come to fruition at the G8 conference.

We are halfway through the 15 years set by the rich world to deliver the millennium promise of making poverty history in the poorest countries around the globe, yet despite the fanfare at Gleneagles two years ago, there are stalled trade talks, the obstacle of an increasingly polarised and dangerous world and a failure to deliver the promised aid. As campaigners say, the world cannot wait, so does the Prime Minister believe that G8 leaders will ever live up to the hopes of their people and, if so, what does he believe is now necessary to deliver—[Interruption.]

First, I think that it is important that the G8 leaders live up to the commitments given at Gleneagles, and the next couple of weeks will be absolutely vital in that regard. As a result of Gleneagles, we have wiped out billions of dollars-worth of debt for some of the poorest countries and radically increased the number of children going into primary education—often precisely because of that debt relief. This country should be proud of the fact that it has trebled its aid to Africa and doubled its overall aid budget. As a result of what we are able to do now on HIV/AIDS, a real difference is being made: hundreds of thousands of lives are being saved in Africa. We have to do more and we will do more—the next couple of weeks will be vital in that—but we should be particularly proud of what this country has achieved in relation to the millennium development goals.

Early Intervention

Q2. What research he has evaluated on early intervention measures to tackle the causes of inequality, deprivation and under-attainment. (138662)

Helping every child to reach their full potential and closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers is a priority for our education policy. In that respect, the roll-out of children’s centres across the country—there will be 3,500 by 2010—the additional support for families with children, particularly the poorest, and early years intervention, when children are at both pre-nursery and nursery stage, are making a real difference, but I agree that much more needs to be done.

The Prime Minister will be aware that for every pound spent on intensive health visiting for the under-twos, £6 is saved on the costs of criminality, disrupted classes, antisocial behaviour and a lifetime on welfare benefits, so will he welcome the initiative being taken not only by Departments but by partners in Nottingham, to bring forward a package of early intervention measures so that we not only break the inter-generational cycle of deprivation, but save the taxpayer billions of pounds?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to his work and the work that has been done by the city of Nottingham particularly in respect of early intervention for families who are disadvantaged or in difficulty. He is right to say that the more we invest in the early stage, the better the return for the whole country later in life. As a result of the new measures we introduced and announced a couple of weeks ago, we will have the ability, especially through the focused work of health visitors and others, to make sure that children who really need help early in life, and the families who need help, receive it. As a result, as my hon. Friend rightly says, when we are also encouraging families to get off benefit and into work, we will make a real difference to child poverty in this country.

Will the Prime Minister consider commissioning reports and investigations into early interventions and the potential link between suffering from dyslexia and criminality later in life? Is he aware that there is a unique pilot scheme in Chelmsford prison that has identified that more than 50 per cent. of prisoners suffer from dyslexia? Help is being provided in the prison to allow them to overcome or minimise their problems, but there is no help once they leave prison, which could lead to ongoing problems and a return to criminality.

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is good and valid. The Government are now looking at the links with some learning disabilities—dyslexia is an obvious one. He is absolutely right to say that many of those people in the prison population have not had the educational opportunities—often because they are dyslexic, have not been diagnosed properly and have not got the extra help that they need. We are looking specifically at how the early intervention programmes help those people. He is absolutely right in what he says, and when we have the results of the investigation that we are carrying out at the moment we will of course share them with the House.

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will once again wish to join me in sending our profound sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jeremy Brookes of 4th Battalion the Rifles, who was killed in Iraq this week by a terrorist bomb. He and others before him died working towards a safer, more secure world and we pay tribute to him.

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

I am sure that the whole House wants to be associated with the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and indeed with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, that lobbying firms such as Bell Pottinger and DLA Piper that do not sign up to the industry’s voluntary ethical code of standards, which requires transparency in regard to all clients, should seriously consider doing so?

As I understand it, this is an area that the Public Administration Committee is going to look at. We will of course pay careful attention to the study that it undertakes and to the conclusions that it comes to.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Jeremy Brookes and I also pay tribute to Lance Corporal George Davey, who died after a tragic accident at a British base in Afghanistan.

With more than 40 maternity units under threat in the NHS, including five in Greater Manchester, would the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop the closure programme and think again?

I certainly would not advise stopping a change programme that is absolutely necessary in order to provide the best care for patients. Part of that will of course involve more specialist services, whereby those who need specialist help get it and those who do not need it get a more routine service. That is entirely sensible. It is being clinically driven. We are actually putting more money into maternity services in Manchester and elsewhere.

Let me just point out to the right hon. Gentleman two reports that came out within the last week. First, the Healthcare Commission reported that 90 per cent. of patients said that the health care that they received inside the NHS was “excellent” or “good”. Secondly, there is the international survey that ranks the UK’s NHS top, ahead of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the United States of America. One of the reasons for that is the investment that we put in, which he opposed, and the other reason is the necessary changes, which he is now also opposing.

So let us be absolutely clear: the closure programme is continuing—that is what we have learned—even though deputy leadership candidates are appearing on picket lines and objecting and even though the former chairman of the British Medical Association says that morale in the NHS is at a 30-year low. Across the country, accident and emergency departments are under threat, including five in London. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop that closure programme?

I will give exactly the same response that I gave to the last question, because we are being advised—with the greatest respect, by those who know better than the right hon. Gentleman how to deliver health care in this country—that these changes are necessary. Let us be absolutely clear. At the same time that these changes are happening, waiting lists and times are falling and cancer and cardiac treatments are improving, as is the standard of care in the NHS. It was extraordinary that he made a speech earlier this week in which he said that if the Conservatives were returned to power, he would abolish all NHS targets. Let us be quite clear: that would mean that there would be no minimum waiting times, no fall in the waiting lists, no ability for people to see cancer specialists within two weeks and no maximum waits in accident and emergency. That might get him a round of applause from certain parts of the medical profession, but it is not in the interest of patients.

The Prime Minister asks who he should listen to. I will tell him who he should listen to: the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who says:

“I have never seen so much money wasted…It must be a personal tragedy for Tony Blair. In the recesses of his mind, he must be saying: ‘What the hell has gone wrong?’”

Hospitals are closing, 27,000 jobs were lost in the last year, thousands of junior doctors are being lost by the NHS and public confidence in Labour is at an all-time low, so would the Prime Minister advise his successor—he can ask him now; it is a bit like proximity talks today—to keep the Health Secretary in post?

These are decisions for my right hon. Friend. However, let me point out that, while the right hon. Gentleman says that we have lost thousands of jobs in the NHS, there are now 250,000 more people employed by the NHS. He says that hospitals are closing, but the biggest hospital building programme is now under way. When we came to power, more than half the NHS stock had been built before the NHS came into existence, but the figure is now less than 25 per cent. We have more doctors, lower waiting times and smaller waiting lists. All that the right hon. Gentleman is doing is simply supporting groups that are opposed to change, which I understand. However, the changes are delivering better outcomes for patients. When we get, as we will, at the end of next year to a maximum in-patient and out-patient wait of 18 weeks, including diagnostics—when we effectively abolish waiting in the national health service—it will be because of the decisions taken by this Government and in spite of the positions taken by him.

Everyone in the NHS and the country will have noticed that the Prime Minister has hanged his Health Secretary out to dry. Does he not realise the damage that it does to have a lame duck Health Secretary in post for another month?

Let us look at another Minister who is not up to the job. Last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told us that the court case against home information packs was “completely groundless” and had no impact on policy. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told us that the court case was the very reason why they had to be all but abandoned. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to keep the Housing Minister in post?

I most certainly will not advise—[Interruption.] I will not advise abandoning the programme or the home information packs at all. It is extraordinary that the Conservative party is opposing energy performance certificates—[Interruption.] Yes, it is absolutely typical. The right hon. Gentleman says that he cares about the environment, but when there is a specific measure to help the environment, he opposes it. He opposed the climate change levy and he now opposes energy performance certificates. He cannot say where he stands on nuclear power or any of the issues in today’s White Paper. The fact of the matter, as ever, is that when it comes to serious politics, we take the decisions, he makes the gestures.

Everybody knows that energy performance certificates could be introduced anyway—that fig leaf is not even green. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, the Housing Minister—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister should listen—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Well, he is not going to be here much longer.

The Prime Minister’s Housing Minister led us to believe that there were 1,100 registered home inspectors ready to go. Yesterday, it was admitted that there were fewer than half that number. Never mind what the next Prime Minister is going to do; what on earth is the Minister still doing in her job?

First, let me say that more than 3,000 people have passed their exams and can now get accreditation. Now that the court case has been dealt with, those people can come forward and be accredited. I thought that it was amazing that the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the energy performance certificate. As he supports its introduction, is it not sensible to make the introduction at the point of sale of a house so that buyers can see what measures they can take to protect the environment? After all, as all the environmental groups point out, 25 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions come from households. Why is the right hon. Gentleman opposed to this measure if he supports the energy performance certificate?

I know the walls of the bunker are pretty thick, but has the Prime Minister not noticed that this policy has completely collapsed? He told us that he had so much to do in his dying weeks, yet home information packs are in chaos, he set up a Ministry of Justice without even telling his Lord Chancellor, and he is doing nothing to stop the cuts, the closures and the plummeting morale in the health service. The chairman of the British Medical Association resigned on Sunday and he will leave office on Friday. Is not that an example that the Prime Minister should follow?

I think that it is instructive to look at what both parties have been doing this week. Today, we have the energy White Paper—a major task to ensure that we have energy security for the future. Yesterday, we had the draft Local Transport Bill, which allows us to reregulate the buses and introduce local road pricing. On Monday, we had the planning proposals, which are supported by industry and, incidentally, opposed by the Conservative party. And we have digital X-ray imaging for the national health service. That is what we have been doing. What has the right hon. Gentleman been doing?—trying to persuade his party that grammar schools are not the answer to education. I happen to agree with him, but frankly that is an argument from the stone age. Therefore while the Labour party has been getting on with the serious business of politics, he cannot even take his party with him on that issue.

Will the Prime Minister invite the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accompany him to the European Union summit? Does he realise that not to do so would appear churlish and discourteous and that the British people require that the Prime Minister-elect be there, accompanying him and sharing in decisions that cannot be reversed?

I assure my hon. Friend that the position that is taken in the European summit will be the position of the Government. We have already set out that position: we do not want a constitutional treaty; we want a simplifying amending treaty, and I am sure that we will manage to get it.

I join the Prime Minister, once again, in his expressions of sympathy and condolence.

Can the Prime Minister explain why, in his manifestos of 1997, 2001 and 2005, he did not seek a mandate for renewed generation by nuclear power stations? Why is he so hellbent on nuclear power now? [Interruption.]

Sorry, I missed that one. [Interruption.] No, I do not think that that is reasonable.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will explain today, we are 80 to 90 per cent. self-sufficient in oil and gas at the moment, but that will decline—completely in relation to gas and largely in relation to oil. In addition, a lot of our fleet of power stations will become obsolete and our nuclear power stations will become obsolete. If we want to have secure energy supplies and reduce CO2 emissions, we have to put nuclear power on the agenda. If people are not prepared to do that, I would like them to explain how we will manage to reduce the dramatic decline in our self-sufficiency that I have described, and how we will be able, through wind power or renewables, to make up the huge deficit that nuclear power will leave. If we are about serious policy making, we have to confront and take decisions on those issues.

It came out very clearly in the Cabinet Office review of 2003. Why is the Prime Minister so committed to nuclear power, in a way that suggests that he disregards the issues of risk, cost and toxic waste? Where is the investment in wave, wind and tidal power and clean-coal technology, which would give us a secure, non-nuclear future?

First, we are boosting renewable energy significantly, but let us be absolutely clear: we will not be able to make up through wind farms all of the deficit from nuclear power—we just will not be able to do it. In addition, we have had nuclear power in this country for more than half a century without the problems to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention. I also urge him to look round the world. He will see that at the present time—I think that I am right in saying this—there are something like 70 to 80 new proposals for nuclear power stations, and that is for a perfectly sensible reason. Every country round the world is looking at two problems: securing energy supply with sufficient diversity, and reducing CO2 emissions. The reason why we should look at nuclear power as an option is that if we do not, we are—in my view, for reasons of ideology—simply putting it to one side when plainly many others around the world are coming to the opposite conclusion.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to extend its sympathies to my constituents, Bill and Julia Hawker, whose 22-year-old daughter Lindsay was murdered in Japan some two months ago. Although the police over there have been doing their best to apprehend the killer, they have not been successful, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue yesterday in a visit to Japan. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to talk to the Prime Minister of Japan, to put his authority behind the effort to ensure that the killer is caught, and to ensure that the Japanese state police are involved? Finally, I ask him to get the Prime Minister of Japan to invite someone from the UK police on to the case as an observer, so that they can provide a good link back to Mr. and Mrs. Hawker, who need some essential support.

First, may I join with my hon. Friend in extending my sympathy and condolences to the Hawker family? As he knows, the Foreign Office has been closely in touch with the family throughout, and it is important that we continue to provide all possible assistance. I also understand that the Japanese authorities are treating it as a major case; there are something like 100 police officers or more working on it. However, I will reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend is saying, both in relation to the Japanese Prime Minister and in respect of any help that the British police can give, and I will come back to him on those points. In the mean time, I assure him that we will keep in the closest possible contact with the family.

Q4. Considering the massive health deficits and high council taxes in the east of England, may I tell the Prime Minister how interested my constituents would be to know that in Scotland public spending per head is higher by 40 per cent.? In retrospect, does the Prime Minister consider that to have been a worthwhile investment? (138665)

I do support the Barnett formula, as a matter of fact. It is there for very specific reasons, and it has been there for almost 30 years. Let us be absolutely clear: as well as the extra investment that has gone into Scotland, with the Barnett formula applying there, there has been extra investment in education and health, not least in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He need only look around to see the massive amount of investment in, for example, new health care facilities in his constituency, schools in his constituency, and programmes such as Sure Start and the new deal. Of course, the Barnett formula will no doubt continue to be an issue of dispute, for the Conservative party at least, but I think that we have put a major amount of investment into our public services, and that investment is paying off.

Q5. Our mutual friend the Chancellor has spoken about rebuilding trust in public life. Does my friend agree with me that the best way forward would be to transfer responsibility for the appointment, terms of reference and terms of office of constitutional watchdogs such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life from No. 10, where prerogative powers are used, to Parliament, where they can be set up by statute? (138666)

I am sure that that will be an interesting debate for the future, but for the present I can say that I have no plans to change the situation.

May I ask the Prime Minister to intervene personally in the debate, or rather the litigation, between the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—the miners’ union—and the Government relating to knee injuries suffered by ex-miners? Will he please request Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry to engage constructively, so that we can try to avoid long drawn-out litigation? If he were so to intervene, I would be the first to congratulate him on his term of office, and to wish him a long and happy retirement.

In respect of that particular court case, I would have to see what it would be proper for me to do by way of intervention. I think that I am right in saying that over £3 billion has now been put in as compensation for people, particularly miners, over the past few years. We are aware of the NACODS dispute, and we are aware of the sensitivity of it. I will see what it is possible for me properly to do, but he cannot take it as a firm commitment until I have looked at the degree to which I am able to help.

Q6. In the 1980s, my predecessor brought Minister after Minister to view Burnley’s derelict housing problems, but it took the election of a Labour Government before we finally got the housing market renewal programme that was so desperately needed. However, the Liberal Democrat-Tory administration on Burnley council is moving too slowly in administering that scheme. Last year, it did not even spend the money that we allocated it under that programme. Before my right hon. Friend leaves office, will he stick a rocket under the local authority and local agencies so that my constituents get the regenerated communities that they need and deserve? (138667)

I obviously agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the regeneration money that has been put into our inner cities, particularly the housing programmes and pathfinder project, has produced tremendous benefits. Some 35,000 homes around the country, including 1,800 in east Lancashire, have benefited. Of course, that is absolutely typical of the way in which the Lib Dems and the Tories get together, as they do not have the proper facility to make sure that those things count, or that the money is properly used and invested in some of the poorest communities in the country, which is one very good reason, without reverting to the previous question, why Lib Dems and Tories do not make a very good coalition.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that as the NHS in south-east London struggles with a £65 million-plus accumulated deficit, largely as the result of flawed private finance initiative projects, the one hospital earmarked for closure—St. Mary’s, which serves the Chislehurst part of my constituency—does not have a PFI contract? Will he assure my constituents that they will not lose their local hospital and A and E to bail out the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pet botch-up? (138668)

First, in respect of Queen Mary’s, I understand that no decisions on its future or, indeed, of any hospital in the area have been made, so the hon. Gentleman is somewhat premature in his condemnation. Secondly, in respect of his attack on PFI, there have been 26 PFI and hospital schemes in his strategic health authority, with a value of £1.7 billion. Twenty-eight LIFT schemes have opened and 13 are under construction in his strategic health authority. I do not know whether he speaks for his party on this issue, but if he is signalling Conservative opposition to PFI, he should know that we would never have achieved the renewal of our hospital stock without it. It is absolutely essential, as it ties companies down to delivering budgets on time and on cost. The reason for the budget deficit is the same in many parts of the country: hospitals and NHS trusts must live within their means, and it is right that a system of financial accountability should be introduced. If he is trying to say that PFI has not delivered for his constituency, I suggest that he take a look around it.

Q8. Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the former head of his delivery unit, Sir Michael Barber, has said that the power of a Prime Minister is too weak, rather than too strong? He said that it needs to be strengthened and that there should be a Prime Minister’s Department. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that, and would he recommend it to his successor? (138669)

I always thought that Michael Barber was a very sound man, and I think that that is an even sounder suggestion. However, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) to decide.

Q9. Given that next year is the national year of reading, will the Prime Minister give his support to the campaign by the right to read alliance to improve access to text for visually impaired children? In particular, does he support a pilot project that is being discussed with his officials? (138671)

We do support the aims of the right to read campaign—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”] —and the Royal National Institute of the Blind is quite right in saying that it is a very important issue. I understand that a feasibility project is being conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry and the RNIB. We are obviously not in a position to publish the conclusions yet, but I know that when we can do so we will want to do everything we can to encourage the project. The question is obviously one of cost and working out how that can be properly done. However, we support the general aims, and the feasibility project will be concluded shortly.

At 10.42 on Sunday morning, my office answerphone picked up a message from the congregation of Gilgal Baptist church during their morning service. They asked me to bring a message to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that they should continue to force through the standards and changes in the millennium development goals. What answer can I take to them?

Warships

Q10. For what reason the numbers of frigates and destroyers to be deployed by the Royal Navy have been reduced from the total set out in the 1998 strategic defence review. (138673)

As we said in the White Paper that we published in July 2004, we judged at that time that we needed fewer destroyers and frigates because of the reduced conventional threat and because of the improved technology of the new warships that are now coming into service. We are therefore putting more resources into programmes such as the future aircraft carriers and the Bay class landing ships, which will be vastly more capable and versatile than the ships that they are replacing.

That is indeed what was said in 2004, but what was said in 1998 was that we needed 32 frigates and destroyers. The warships then were just as technologically advanced as the ones referred to several years later. When it comes to believing the Prime Minister or believing successive First Sea Lords who have said, in and out of office, that we need 30 frigates and destroyers, I know which I would believe. The Prime Minister has cut them from 35 to 25. Will he now guarantee that he is not going to cut them further by mothballing another six frigates and destroyers?

The hon. Gentleman asks why the situation is different as between July 2004 and 1998. It is true that in 1998 we said that there should be 32 such frigates and destroyers, and in 2004 we reduced that number to 25, but we then increased the number or the capability of the alternative vessels.

The hon. Gentleman should wait for the answer before he shakes his head; he may shake it afterwards. As a matter of fact, we are the party that has increased defence spending, whereas his party cut it by 30 per cent. The amount of money that we are putting into the new warship programme, which is huge and amounts to £14 billion over the next few years, is exactly the same as was predicated back in 1998, but we are spending it differently. That is change, and very sensible too.