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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Paramilitary Organisations

1. What recent assessment he has made of the activities of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. (186568)

Independent Monitoring Commission reports provide assessments of paramilitary organisations. The most recent report indicated that dissident republicans continue to pose a real threat, while the Provisional IRA is not involved in terrorist activity. Loyalist organisations clearly need to underpin their encouraging statements with actions.

It is clear that there is still a serious paramilitary problem, as the Secretary of State acknowledges. Would he care to comment on the sad case last week of Andrew Burns, a 27-year-old, who was dragged from Strabane over the border and murdered? Does the Secretary of State have any information that he can give to the House?

I understand the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman makes his point in relation to the murder of Andrew Burns last week. He was a 27-year-old single man from Strabane who was shot twice in a church car park on 12 February. The murder was of course roundly condemned by all politicians, including the Deputy First Minister, who very clearly said that he gave his wholehearted support to the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their investigation. To date, no arrests have been made, but a police investigation is under way. As soon as I can give the right hon. Gentleman details of the investigation, I will be happy to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that loyalist paramilitary activity is still a serious threat to our society and that the refusal of the people involved to call a ceasefire, to disarm and to disband requires immediate and full security and policing attention? What additional actions and pressures does he intend to employ, rather than the continuation of what appears to be the current laissez-faire attitude towards such organisations?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about his concern in relation to the threat from dissident loyalists. The most recent IMC report spoke about the pace of change remaining far too slow. I believe none the less that there is a genuine desire to make progress among the communities involved. It is important that, while we are not for one moment complacent about the threat posed by some loyalist individuals, huge advances are none the less being made. It is essential to recognise that the communities that are being held in the grip of paramilitary activity need every encouragement and help that we can find to ensure that they roundly turn on those who refuse to give up the ways of the past.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of the IRA’s so-called army council is unacceptable and that it poses a threat to the devolved institutions? Will he join me and my colleagues today in calling for its immediate disbandment?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is more than familiar to and shared by many people. I would go as far as to say that all hon. Members and all people want those paramilitary vestiges of the past to be expunged as soon as possible. The critical issue here, though, is cross-community confidence. It is worth reminding him, and indeed all hon. Members, of the IMC’s firm view that PIRA is committed to the political path and of the fact that the IMC has no evidence to believe that PIRA will be diverted from that path. Therefore, the critical issue that has to be addressed is one of confidence.

I believe that there is growing confidence in Northern Ireland that we are now able to move to the second stage of devolution and to devolve policing and criminal justice. The sooner that is done, the sooner we will expunge those vestiges of the past, in every form.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor introduced a scheme for conflict transformation in Northern Ireland to assist loyalist paramilitaries to move away from violence and into peaceful mode. Can he say, on the basis of any security analysis that is available to him, whether he believes that that initiative is working?

I believe that the initiatives, which include the conflict transformation initiative, have been helpful in enabling communities to get themselves out of the grip of paramilitary activity. It is important to distinguish between the individuals who are involved in paramilitary-style behaviour and the communities that are in the grip of that behaviour. The money that was found for the conflict transformation initiative was money to help the latter.

As far as we are able to assess, considerable progress is being made by communities to get out of that grip, but there remains a duty on us all to help in any way we can any community that wants to leave behind the past and those vestiges of the past in relation to paramilitary activity, enabling it to do so and to move into the shared future, and a prosperous, peaceful future too.

In view of the murder last week near Strabane, the attacks on police officers last year and the threats mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his policy to approve all applications by the police to carry out intercepts?

The hon. Gentleman brings together a number of issues. There is an ongoing threat that we need to tackle, but we also need to understand that interception or any other sort of surveillance will always be done in compliance with the law and the oversight of the relevant commissioners.

In the light of that helpful reply, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that intercept evidence will be admissible in Northern Ireland courts, in accordance with the recommendations of the Chilcot review?

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to Chilcot’s work on intercept evidence. In my view, we should try, as far as we can, to include Northern Ireland in the implementation of the Chilcot recommendations for England and Wales. I am ensuring that those involved in the Chilcot follow-up that now takes place will look at Northern Ireland and, wherever possible, include it in the proposals that are made.

The Secretary of State says that he now wants to move on to the next stage of devolution—the devolution of policing and criminal justice—and my party shares that aspiration, but does he not accept that the continuing failure of some who hold elected office in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and accept the paramilitary involvement in the murder of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney, and the subsequent disgraceful treatment of their families, makes the realisation of that aspiration very difficult?

Making progress on the next stage of devolution will be difficult. The St. Andrews agreement lays out a way forward and includes a timetable, but, critically, it is a matter for local politicians in Northern Ireland to agree on moving forward to the next stage. There are those in Northern Ireland, however—I do not include any elected politicians—who do not want progress to be made. They are small in number; they have no support in the community; and they are, by and large, characterised by dissident republican activists and those who would be involved in criminal activity—the sort of activity that led to the brutal murder, condemned by everybody, of Paul Quinn. The choice for politicians in Northern Ireland is this: do we allow those who would be involved in crime or the sort of activity that led to the murder of Paul Quinn to determine the future of everyone in Northern Ireland? I do not think that we should. I think that we should move to the next stage and leave those who commit crime and murder to be dealt with by law and put away in prison, where they belong.

Economic Prospects

The prospects for the economy in Northern Ireland are extremely good as a result of the peace process and stage 1 of the St Andrews agreement. I am sure that the completion of stage 2 will send a strong signal to attract further additional investment to Northern Ireland.

Sir David Varney’s recently published review of tax policy in Northern Ireland highlighted the challenges facing local businesses. What discussions have the Government had with the relevant Northern Ireland Minister on assisting small business to grow and on sustaining that growth, thereby reducing dependency on the public sector for employment?

By and large, those are now matters for the devolved Assembly, the Executive and the Finance Minister and his colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, I say to the hon. Lady that if we look at the economy in Northern Ireland today, we see that unemployment has halved, the growth rate is the second highest in the UK, exports have increased and Belfast today attracts more inward investment than any city in the UK other than London. The Assembly and the Executive are taking enormous strides to attract inward investment, and the Government’s policy is to do all that we can to assist them in future.

My right hon. Friend has outlined the record of the booming economy in Northern Ireland. What specific measures are being taken to ensure that the new-found prosperity in the north is reaching the poorest communities by removing barriers relating to transport and affordable child care, for example, and by upgrading skills?

Many of those issues are now matters for the Assembly and the devolved Departments, and they must make their own decisions about the allocation of money. I commend the budget and the work being done by the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that the settlements that are being produced are fair for every Department and that they recognise the need for the prosperity in Northern Ireland to be shared by everyone in all communities and not just by the few.

I and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive have put growing the economy at the centre of the programme for government, and we are putting investment into that objective. We acknowledge the role that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have played in regard to the forthcoming investment conference in May. In relation to fiscal and other tax changes and reforms, does he agree that the Treasury and others could do more to help Northern Ireland, given its unique position in sharing a land border with the Irish Republic, our strongest competitor for foreign direct investment? Does he accept that more could be done to put Northern Ireland on a level playing field in that regard?

I am sure that there is always more that could be done by any of us, in any field of public life. In relation to investment in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman has spearheaded the preparations for the investment conference that is to be held in May, in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the Government in America, continue to take a close interest. I believe that it will be a very successful conference, and that will be in no small part due to the work of the hon. Gentleman.

In regard to what more we can do, we stand ready to help in every way that we can, but we must recognise that the public sector in Northern Ireland represents more than 70 per cent. of the economy, and bringing those areas into the private sector—as well as the relevant areas remaining in the public sector—will present enormous potential for economic growth.


The regimes available to long-term and life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland include education, skills training and offender behaviour programmes. These prisoners are subject to detailed risk assessments, which inform their resettlement or life sentence plan.

Does the Minister agree that a good quality resettlement programme will not only improve the mental ability of prisoners while they are in prison but cut reoffending? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s first report makes it clear, however, that there are shortages of such provision in prisons such as Maghaberry. Would it not make sense to address such shortages, in order to cut recidivism and to reduce the crime rate overall?

I warmly welcome the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was produced after extensive research and many visits to the prisons in Northern Ireland. We are putting the investment in. I announced before Christmas that an additional 400 prison places would be built over the next two years, and we are also putting more investment into the kind of offender behaviour programmes to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He is right: when a prisoner has his or her liberty taken away, that is the punishment, but our responsibility—and that of the Prison Service—is to ensure that they are rehabilitated and that they have the skills and education necessary to enable them to come out of prison and lead normal, law-abiding lives.

Will my hon. Friend say a little more about how the reintegration of released long-term prisoners can play a part in building a new, more inclusive society, and in finally drawing a line under ancient hostilities?

Indeed. It is important that everyone plays their part in building a more cohesive Northern Ireland, not least those who have been subjected to prison sentences. Every prisoner who has been subjected to a long-term or a life sentence is thoroughly assessed some three years before they are released to determine the appropriate plan for them. For some, release by the tariff date set by the judge will not be possible; for others, it will. In every case, however, we must ensure that people have skills, a job and a home to live in, so that they can build and maintain family relationships. All those things are vital for the individual offender, but also for the wider community.

There is great concern in Northern Ireland not only about long-term prisoners but about the number of people who are held for a short term in jail as a result of the non-payment of fines. Given that only 1 per cent. of those who have been brought to court for fuel smuggling ever finish up in jail, and that fine defaulters are regularly put in jail, will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that organised criminals get hefty jail sentences, and to deal with the issue of the fine defaulters who are taking up space in our prisons?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, reflecting some of the recommendations and findings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a member. Urgent and radical action is being taken to ensure that we rebalance the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to make sure that the dangerous offender spends longer in prison while those who commit less serious offences are dealt with in the community.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of fine defaults. It is outrageous that 30 per cent. of all admissions to prison last year in Northern Ireland were for defaults on fines, the majority of which were small fines of just a few hundred pounds. We have to find alternatives in the community to ensure that those people pay back. As to oil fraud and fuel smuggling, I had a meeting yesterday with the Organised Crime Task Force, and I gave officials one month to come back with an action plan to deal with the problem and make sure that the law is properly enforced.

The Minister mentioned that 30 per cent. of prison receptions are for fine defaulters, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report suggests that the figure is 59 per cent. in comparison with just 2.2 per cent. in England and Wales. Some of these people spend as little as 24 hours in prison, causing a complete disruption of the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. Is it not a complete waste of resources to put people in prison on that basis?

I agree, and I am pleased that we are now giving some real focus to this particular issue. The figure is 30 per cent. of prison admissions last year, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that that this is a terrible waste of resources. It costs £1 million or more each year just to administer the system of sending fine defaulters to prison. We will bring forward further proposals to deal with the problem—for example, attachment of benefit orders and attachment of earning orders—to make sure that people pay the fines without the expensive waste of putting them in prison for just a few days.

Saville Inquiry

5. How much the Saville inquiry has cost to date; and what proportion of that expenditure has been on legal services. (186573)

I am advised that the Bloody Sunday inquiry has so far cost £181 million and that approximately half of that has been spent on legal services.

The Secretary of State should be ashamed to put that grotesque figure before the House. Is it not the case that nothing better demonstrates the Prime Minister’s twisted sense of priorities than the farce of the Saville inquiry, which is now threatening to outrun “The Mousetrap”? Would it not have been better to have spent this nearly £200 million on giving our armed forces the equipment they need, rather than lining the pockets of lawyers?

I understand the excitement that the hon. Gentleman wishes to generate on this issue, but a little less heat and little more light would be appropriate. First of all, it is essential to separate the cost of this inquiry from its value. The decision to hold the inquiry was absolutely critical to engaging Northern Ireland on the peaceful, prosperous and stable path on which it now lies. Costs are, of course, an issue, which is why the Government introduced the Inquiries Act 2005 and why new inquiries are being held under that Act. The Saville inquiry was established under terms before the Inquiry Act, and although we have done what we can to try to control costs, those costs are a matter for the inquiry rather than for the Government, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. He should be careful not to twist the facts and distort the issue, which runs the risk of trampling on the sensitivities of the families who lost their loved ones.

I totally agree with the Secretary of State that it is important to try to get—[Interruption.]

It is important to try to reach an agreed view of the facts, if that is at all possible, but saying that this inquiry has up to now been conducted in a time-consuming, leisurely and unbusinesslike fashion would surely be an understatement. Will the Government introduce some new disciplines—financial disciplines—that those concerned will understand to ensure a greater degree of urgency and focus as the inquiry proceeds?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to distinguish the value of the inquiry from the cost. Members are also right to want to ask questions about the cost of the legal claims behind the inquiry. However, the legislation establishing the Bloody Sunday inquiry gives the Government no statutory powers to control costs. We have done what we can. We introduced rates for counsel and solicitors in 2004, and I have made representations to Lord Saville, but I am afraid that this remains a matter for him and for the inquiry.

The Secretary of State talks about value. He has told the House that more than £181 million has been spent on the inquiry. Has he considered two points? First, the inquiry will not bring closure. Relatives have already said that they want prosecutions to follow the expenditure of that £181 million. Secondly, the inquiry will not bring back to life the loved ones—more than 2,000 people—of relatives who have already not seen closure. That issue remains unresolved.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As he says, this process will not bring closure of the issues raised; it will simply produce a conclusion to an inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday. As for all the families who have lost loved ones, it must be said that it is unrealistic to imagine that there will be an inquiry about the people—up to 4,000—who were murdered during the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The work done by the consultation group on the past, chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, is extremely important in helping us to establish whether we can find a way of dealing with the past that does not involve spending hundreds of millions of pounds on inquiries. Those inquiries have mattered until now, and of course they matter to those who have lost loved ones, but we do not think that they will bring closure to all the families who have suffered such terrible tragedy.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the compound hurt of Bloody Sunday, caused not just by the deaths that day but by the travesty of the Widgery tribunal, which erected lies on stilts and interned the memory of innocent people without truth? The reliance of so many people on Widgery as the true verdict on what happened that day is what necessitated a new inquiry. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much the legal costs were inflated by the chicane of legal challenges to the Saville inquiry from the military and related interests, and will he tell us what consideration he—

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the need to establish the Saville inquiry, and the important role that it has played over the last few years in building confidence in all communities that the justice system will be fair and ensure parity across the board. This is a sensitive issue and I cannot give him answers to his specific legal questions, but he may wish to write to Lord Saville himself.

South Armagh

The security situation in south Armagh is being transformed. Police today operate without military support and enjoy unprecedented co-operation from the local community, especially with Sinn Fein joining both the Policing Board and district policing partnerships.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in spite of those welcome developments and the increasing co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana there are still real worries in south Armagh? Is he not disturbed, as I am, that no one has yet been arrested for the murder of Paul Quinn?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the concern that exists in south Armagh, throughout Northern Ireland and throughout the whole United Kingdom, and indeed in the Republic of Ireland, about the murder of Paul Quinn. We all want to see those responsible for that murder brought to justice. However, let me repeat to him what the district commander of south Armagh told my hon. Friend the Minister of State this morning during a conversation about the issue. The situation in south Armagh is improving. The communities are showing a greater engagement with the police in helping with all inquiries. Let me give just one example: the fact that today we see the police being invited into schools in Crossmaglen is a huge step forward. Notwithstanding the savage, brutal murder of Paul Quinn, we must not lose sight of the progress that is being made.

The Independent Monitoring Commission and the Chief Constable have acknowledged that the dissident republican groups in south Armagh and throughout Northern Ireland pose a major threat. We send troops across the world with a determined goal of crushing terrorism. When will the Government do that in Northern Ireland? Are we consigned to another 30 years of this activity because of a dissident threat from republicanism?

This Government are absolutely determined to bear down on terrorism wherever it happens. We continue to bear down on all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, and we will work closely with the police forces in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to ensure that those who pose a threat—it is a small but none the less significant threat—to the lives of ordinary people will be dealt with. We will bring them to justice as soon as we can.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday evening. We owe him, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

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

I am sure the whole House will wish to add their condolences to those of the Prime Minister.

The fact that Labour Members welcome the decision to bring Northern Rock into public ownership may not come as a surprise. It was the right decision at the right time. However, given that the public purse is now to bear the risk of Northern Rock, can my right hon. Friend give my constituents the guarantee that when Northern Rock goes back into private ownership all the returns will come back to the taxpayer?

Yes, the benefits will return to the taxpayer. I welcome the chance to explain the background to how we will deal with the long-term interests of the taxpayer. Our first decision on Northern Rock was to ensure the stability of the economy, to prevent the problems at Northern Rock from spreading to the rest of the economy in a period of global financial turbulence—that has been achieved. Our second decision was to protect depositors—that has been achieved. Our third decision was to protect the long-term interests of the taxpayer. That is why it was right to invite bids from all quarters, to examine them thoroughly and to make the right decision on the basis of the long-term interests of taxpayers. That is why we will return Northern Rock from temporary public ownership to the private sector only when we can get the best deal for the taxpayer. Stability is our watchword. The interests of taxpayers will come first.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Damian Lawrence, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday? He died serving our country. May I also take the opportunity to wish the Prime Minister a happy 57th birthday? [Interruption.] Enough of that.

In January last year, the Government were sent details of 4,000 dangerous foreign criminals and for an entire year they did absolutely nothing with that information. Can the Prime Minister explain how such a catastrophic failure to protect the public took place?

The Attorney-General has asked the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct an inquiry into this matter. A request was made by the Dutch authorities for us to look through our DNA records. Some 4,000 names were put to us by the Dutch, and 11 cases have been discovered as a result of the investigation. The inquiry will cover all the details of what happened. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that it was possible for the Dutch to ask us to look at our DNA records only because we are keeping full DNA records. The Conservatives opposed that legislation.

The Prime Minister tells us that there is an inquiry, but there always is an inquiry with this Government—frequently it is a police inquiry. The Prime Minister is somehow pretending that the fact that 4,000 details were left on a civil servant’s desk for a year was a triumph of Government policy. I must ask some simple questions. He has told us about 11 criminals who have committed crimes in Britain this year. Can he tell us what crimes they committed?

The crimes, as I understand it, were assault and non-payment of fines. Those are the crimes that have been identified. The full report will reveal the final details, but I must ask the right hon. Gentleman again whether he now supports DNA being kept by the Government. The Conservatives voted against the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Dutch would not have asked us for those details had we not had the DNA, but the right hon. Gentleman was against that measure.

As ever, the Prime Minister is completely wrong. The first DNA legislation was passed when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary and I was working for him. I seem to remember—[Interruption.] Let us be clear: if the Government had acted on the information, crimes could have been prevented. As the Prime Minister said, some of those crimes were serious violent assaults. Why are the Government so incompetent when it comes to processing information about criminals? They failed to deport the foreign criminals; they failed to process the details of 30,000 British citizens who committed crimes overseas; and now we know that information about serious crimes sat on a desk in Whitehall for a year and nothing was done. Should not people conclude that this incompetent Government simply cannot keep them safe?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong about the deportation of foreign criminals. Two years ago, only 1,500 were deported. Last year, as a result of the action that we have taken, 4,200 were deported. We are now signing agreements with Jamaica and Nigeria, and I have raised the matter with China and Vietnam, so that we can deport foreign criminals. No records of the deportation of foreign criminals were kept under the Conservatives; we have deported 4,200.

I come back to the central question. We have tightened up the law on DNA and that is why the Dutch authorities want the information from us. The right hon. Gentleman opposed that legislation. Has he now changed his mind?

Will my right hon. Friend create a badge of honour for the women Spitfire pilots of the second world war and their male colleagues in the Air Transport Auxiliary, who came from 28 countries to ferry more than 300,000 aircraft to front-line airfields during this country’s direst hour of need?

My hon. Friend has mounted a successful campaign to raise the issue of the women Spitfire pilots in particular. We now have medals for those people who are veterans of the war and for those who served in the Land Army. It is right in my view that we have recognition for the women Spitfire pilots who did so much to protect and defend the Royal Air Force and other military services, and we will go ahead with his proposal for a medal for those people.

I wish to add my own expressions of condolence and sympathy to the family and friends of Corporal Damian Lawrence.

This being the Prime Minister’s birthday, I welcome his belated acceptance of the advice from the Liberal Democrats that the temporary nationalisation of Northern Rock was the only workable option available to him, although he now seems to be jeopardising the interests of British taxpayers all over again by hiving off the bank’s best assets elsewhere. Will he now admit that if he had acted sooner he could have saved the taxpayer the tens of millions of pounds frittered away on bidders’ costs and prevented the untold damage done to this country’s reputation as a world financial centre?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition for their best wishes on my birthday.

I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Northern Rock, which the Leader of the Opposition was reticent to raise, given that his party has six policies on the issue and has now decided on the worst possible option. As far as the Liberal Democrats’ policy is concerned, we were right to look at all possible options and we were right to invite private buyers to make offers. Because we will be subject to legal action, we were right to look in detail at every possible bid, and we were right to draw the conclusion, after considering every possible bid, that the temporary public ownership of Northern Rock was the best way forward. As far as Granite is concerned, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it will not affect the sale of Northern Rock to a private buyer.

Well, we might agree about the economically illiterate proposals from the Conservative party, but we disagree on why it took the Prime Minister so long to act on Northern Rock. Will he now agree to act in following our lead more urgently on another issue—namely, the scandalous profiteering by UK energy companies at a time when 25,000 people are predicted to die from the cold this winter alone? Does he realise those companies stand to make a £9 billion windfall profit from the European emissions trading scheme? Does he agree that that excess profit, equivalent to about £360 for every British family in this country, should be handed back to the neediest customers through lower energy prices?

I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that we were right to look at all possible options for Northern Rock before we took the decision that we did. If we had not done that, we would be subject to even greater legal action for not looking rigorously at all options. As far as energy is concerned, let me say that we are looking at the advice of the director general of Ofgem on that very matter. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour Government who introduced the winter allowance, which is helping thousands of elderly people. It was the Labour Government who raised it to £300 for the over- 80s. It was the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party who opposed the winter allowance.

The Prime Minister recently completed a successful tour of China to promote better co-operation between the two countries and their economies. Wigan council will shortly be signing an agreement with a Chinese company to bring in £125 million of investment and create 1,000 jobs in the local economy. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the council? May I ask him to use his best offices to ensure that if there are any problems, central Government will play its part in overcoming them to ensure that the development is completed as rapidly as possible?

I was talking to Premier Wen of China by telephone yesterday. I must confess that I did not specifically raise the question of investment in Wigan; I now regret that. We have excellent commercial and trading links with China. What is happening in Wigan and the new attempts at new investment in this area are to be welcomed. We have set a target of increasing trade between ourselves and China by 50 per cent. over the next two years. I believe that Wigan and the whole of the north-west will benefit from that. I shall ensure that in my next telephone call with the Premier I mention the needs of Wigan.

Q2. On Monday, the Prime Minister enjoyed the very best of British food at the hospitality of the National Farmers Union. He will be aware that the Office of Fair Trading claims that a number of supermarkets have abused their dominant position in the marketplace. Indeed, the Competition Commission has recommended setting up a supermarket ombudsman to ensure fair trade for British producers and continued British products for the British consumer. Will the Prime Minister implement that recommendation? If he is minded to do so, when will that be? (186508)

I think it is true to say that in the recent foot and mouth outbreak the British supermarkets helped the farm industry. They tried their best to ensure that British food was being sold in British supermarkets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that issues have been raised by the Competition Commission. We will look at this matter, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Q3. Climate change will create a challenging world, and all sane people now believe that. More than 600 of my concerned constituents have written to beg me—and all of us—to be brave and bold in setting more ambitious targets. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that our Government will continue to take the lead in tackling climate change by agreeing to more challenging targets lest the sea swell and sweep away Hove and Portslade? (186509)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has taken up the issue of climate change both in her constituency and in this House. I agree that we might need to be far more radical in the targets that we set for cutting carbon emissions. We have set a target of 60 per cent. for 2050. We have now set up the new committee on climate change and will ask it to look at a new target of 80 per cent., which is a far bigger cut in carbon emissions than before. We are the first country in the world to have legislation that legally requires the Government to ensure that carbon emissions are cut every decade. In particular, of course, we will take action in the next few years to get a new world climate change agreement.

Yes, Northern Rock. If the Prime Minister wants a question on Northern Rock, here is one for him. Last night, we learned that Northern Rock will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have the legislation here, and it says that, for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, Northern Rock is

“not…a publicly-owned company.”

What is the Prime Minister trying to hide?

The only reason that the Freedom of Information Act comes into this is that it would be unfair on Northern Rock if other companies knew everything about its business plan. It is surely a matter of commercial confidentiality that Northern Rock should be able to plan its business future. As far as the commercial future of Northern Rock is concerned, we have made it absolutely clear that the bank’s new head, Ron Sandler, will operate in a commercial market. He will be able to decide on repossessions and all other issues, and he will put forward his plan for the restructuring of the company.

However, it may be helpful if the Conservative party would explain its plan—which is now to run down Northern Rock and to have a fire sale of its assets and get less than market value for them. That is the worst possible deal for the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister’s answer is feeble. All other publicly owned companies, such as the Post Office, Scottish Water, the Tote and National Savings and Investments, are subject to the freedom of information legislation. Let me remind the Prime Minister, the supreme leader, of what he said about freedom of information in his lecture about liberty. He said:

“Freedom of information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians”,

but that it

“can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments”.

Is not that why he is covering things up?

Not at all, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will publish the reports from the Midlands Industrial Council, which is a Conservative organisation. Everyone in the country will know that, in a competitive mortgage market, it would be ridiculous to ask Northern Rock to publish every detail of its business plans. Commercial confidentiality has to be respected in the running of the company, and he should be the first to support it.

The Government were happy to show Richard Branson all the facts, but they will not tell the British public. Here are some of the questions about Northern Rock that the Prime Minister will not answer. What is the total liability for the taxpayer, and how much money will the taxpayer pay for the business? He will not tell us. How long are we going to hold the business? He cannot say. Should the business get bigger or smaller? He will not tell us.

Last night, at 10 minutes to midnight, we found out that half of the mortgages—the best half—are owned by somebody else. When it comes to this Government and freedom of information, they would make Fidel Castro proud. Why is the Prime Minister covering all that up?

We have acted on Northern Rock for reasons that the country supports—to secure stability and to protect depositors and the best interests of the taxpayer. We are not going to reduce the Northern Rock issue to the student politics that the Leader of the Opposition is indulging in. We are the party of stability; the Opposition would leave Northern Rock and the economy unstable.

Q4. Northampton is the home of Nationwide and Barclaycard, which yesterday announced record profits, and thousands of people in my constituency rely on the financial services industry for the security of their jobs and homes. What impact will the action taken by the Government on Northern Rock have on the long-term security of my constituents’ and jobs? What would have been the impact had the Government taken the Opposition’s advice? (186510)

The issues that concern the country are mortgages, inflation, our country’s economic growth and jobs. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken action on Northern Rock to preserve the stability of the economy. Over the past six months, when we have seen the worst of global financial turbulence in America and the rest of Europe, we have managed to isolate the problems of Northern Rock so that they have not infected the rest of the economy. The Opposition should at least understand that we are better placed to deal with those problems because of the actions that the Government have taken.

As far the general economy is concerned, we have more people in work than ever before and lower unemployment than at any time since the 1970s. Today, we published the best January figures for the public finances in our history, and inflation and interest rates are half what they were under the Conservatives.

Professor Sir John Tooke, in his inquiry on modernising medical careers, found that the United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union to apply the European working time directive in the way that we do. It is a way that endangers the delivery of consultant-led maternity and children’s services at hospitals such as mine, the Horton general hospital in Banbury. Sir John recommended that the Government look again at how the European working time directive is applied. Will the Government do so?

I believe that we are not the only country in that position, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are going to reply to the Tooke report, and that that will happen in the next few weeks.

Q5. Youth unemployment has fallen by 58 per cent. in my constituency since 1997, but there is still a resilient core of young people who are not in work, education or training and families in which a culture of being out of work and wholly dependent on benefits has been passed from one generation to the next. Do the Government accept the inevitability of the situation, or does the Prime Minister agree that we could and should be doing more to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment? (186511)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I applaud the way that she has taken up the issue of youth employment in her constituency and in the country. Youth unemployment has fallen by more than 60 per cent. over the last 10 years, but there is more to do. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is today putting forward proposals to deal with people who are long-term unemployed. That is also why we are increasing the number of apprenticeships in our economy, and that is also why, for those who are not able to get apprenticeships because they do not have the qualifications, we are going to introduce pre-apprenticeship courses so that young people without qualifications who have left school with nothing can get on apprenticeship courses. Those are the practical ways of making the new deal relevant to the new situation. The worst thing to do would be, as the Opposition want to do, to abolish the new deal.

Q6. Following the Prime Minister’s reply to the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) a few weeks ago, does he now accept that there is an urgent need for reform of the British Board of Film Classification? What possible justification can there be for the board’s decision to release into British high street outlets videos and DVDs such as “SS Experiment Camp”, which shows in voyeuristic detail women being tortured to death by SS camp guards? (186512)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I think it is true to say, as I have looked at it, that the British Board of Film Classification has put a higher category on many films in a different way from that recommended by the distributor, but it is also true to say that he expresses the concerns of many people among the general public. That is why I have agreed to meet him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to talk about the issues, and why we set up the review headed by Dr. Tanya Byron. It will report very soon, and on the basis of that we can make recommendations for the future. As for the Conservatives who say it is wrong to review the issues, I say that the right thing to do is to review them and then make a decision.

Q7. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local primary care trust in Wirral on recently being voted the best primary care organisation in the country? Welcome though that success is, we can and should do more to improve primary care. What more can we do, and what more will my right hon. Friend do, to improve access to GPs, for example? (186513)

I applaud the work of my hon. Friend’s health authority. I visited his constituency and saw at first hand the improvements that have been made. In the north-west, there are 11,000 more nurses than there were when we came to power, but he is absolutely right about access to GPs. Our proposals are for practices to open for three more hours at weekends or in the evenings. That is a sensible proposal to deal with the concerns of millions of families who want access to their GPs at weekends or out of ordinary working hours. I hope that doctors will accept the proposal, which is funded by the Department of Health. That is the right way forward, so that millions of people can have access to their GPs at the time that they want them and need them.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the horrific murder of Paul Quinn casts a serious shadow over the stability of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Serious allegations have been made about the involvement of current members of the Provisional IRA in that murder. Will the Prime Minister reiterate the commitment given that if any party—in this case, Sinn Fein—is found to be in default, he will not punish all the parties in Northern Ireland but ensure that devolution continues and that only the party in default is punished? It is absolutely vital to send a clear message to the people of Northern Ireland, who are growing increasingly concerned about the seriousness of the allegations.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the Quinn murder should be properly investigated. I have reason to believe that that is exactly what is happening, and there is co-operation on both sides of the border for that to happen. There is no evidence that IRA people are involved, but of course that must be investigated in full. Once that is investigated, we will know the full results. I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that no criminals should be allowed to derail a peace process that has the support of millions of people in Northern Ireland, which he and others have played a great part in moving forward, so let us send out a message that no criminals will be allowed to derail the peace process.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that an individual who has openly admitted that he was willing to provide information to facilitate a premeditated assault on another individual should seek to stand to be chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority? What values does that promote to the public, and what does it say other than that the Tories believe that there is one rule for them and another for everybody else? (186514)

According to official Government figures—so it must be true—since 1997 the real cost of travelling by train has gone up 6 per cent. above inflation, the cost of going by bus is up 13 per cent. and the cost of going by car is down 10 per cent. Why does the Prime Minister want to penalise the public transport user? How does that help his climate change objectives and his social exclusion strategy?

We have doubled investment in railways and made it possible for hundreds of millions more people to do rail journeys in a year as a result of those decisions. The railway industry needed modernisation and that is what has been done. With reference to buses, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree with our policy whereby there is now free national concessionary travel for all pensioners.

Q9. What action does the Prime Minister plan to take following this week’s report from the Community Security Trust showing a record rise in violent attacks against Jewish people in this country? Does he agree that all police forces should record such incidents, and not only the police forces in London, Manchester and Hertfordshire, as is the case at present? (186515)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I know that she works closely with the Community Security Trust. Its recent report shows that there has indeed been a rise in the number of anti-Semitic crimes in this country, which is much to be regretted. It needs the strong action of the police and of course the public to root it out. One area where the rise has been most noted is on the campuses of universities. That is completely unacceptable, so we shall work with the Community Security Trust to do everything we can to deal with what are hate crimes that should be condemned by all sensible people in this country.

Baby Jessica Randall was just 54 days old when she was murdered by her now imprisoned father, after having been repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted. In her short life, she spent 21 days in Kettering general hospital and was seen by 30 separate health care workers. Is it right that, in cases like Jessica’s, senior and often extremely well-paid directors in our health care services and social services should collectively slope their shoulders and refuse to accept individual responsibility for their failure to protect such vulnerable children?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very sad and tragic case. I will investigate what he has said about Jessica and what happened to her, and I will write to him.

Q10. In international development, there are set millennium development goals. Unlike the goals for water and education, the goal for maternal health is revealed to be falling further and further behind. As a consistent champion of tackling poverty internationally, will my right hon. Friend ensure that poor women and mothers are no longer neglected in international development? (186516)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has taken up the issues of development across Africa and Asia and has done so in a most eloquent way. It is true to say that one of the greatest tragedies which is avoidable is the number of mothers who die in childbirth. That happens to half a million mothers a year. That means that one mother is dying every minute, and in some countries, like Sierra Leone, one in every seven mothers dies in childbirth, compared with one in over 3,000 in countries like ours. Those are avoidable deaths, which harm the very children that are being born. It is therefore vital that we do more about it. That is why we are spending more on health care systems, why we are determined to help countries to reach development goals on maternal mortality, and why we have formed the International Health Partnership. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that we are pushing forward other countries to do exactly as we are doing—that is, investing in maternal health.

Q12. The shadow price of carbon used in the Heathrow consultation was three times lower than the figure recommended in the Stern report and changed the outcome on the third runway. In future consultations, will the Government stop backtracking on the Stern report and fiddling the cost of climate change? (186518)

I am not sure whether there is universal agreement about the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of those figures, but I will certainly look at what he says. The fact of the matter is that this is a consultation process—people are free to put their views, and then a decision will be made.

Q13. Last Friday, the Prime Minister visited my constituency and met members of 22 Squadron at RAF Valley. He heard the exciting news about the relocation of search and rescue headquarters to RAF Valley. That proves, once again, that Anglesey is the heart of the British isles. Does the Prime Minister agree that any calls to loosen the ties of Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom, as advocated by the nationalists, would undermine real progress and investment, and that we need a strong Anglesey economy in a strong United Kingdom? (186519)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had a most enjoyable visit to his constituency in the best of weather. I met those at the Valley airfield and congratulated them on the great work that they are doing in air and sea rescue, including a major rescue off Blackpool, which saved many lives a few weeks ago.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 100,000 more jobs are being created in Wales, many in his constituency. That depends on having a UK Government who run a successful economic policy. There is no Wales-only, Scotland-only or England-only solution to these issues. It is a United Kingdom economy, and under a Labour Government it will continue to do well.