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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fine Payment Defaults

1. How many people were in custody in Northern Ireland for defaulting on fine payments at the latest date for which figures are available. (204415)

Today 30 people are in prison in Northern Ireland for fine default. Although the numbers can fluctuate and at any time be quite low, fine defaulters represent about 2,000 prison receptions per year. Next month, I shall begin consultation on a range of proposals for dealing more effectively with fine defaulters.

Before putting my question to the Minister, may I ask the whole House to condemn unanimously the attack on a PSNI officer earlier this week? We send our support to all parties that have condemned the attack and we send our best wishes to the police officer and his family.

Will anything be done to disincentivise the sending of fine defaulters to prison? At the moment, that seems an easy option. Nine in 10 people in prison for defaulting on fines are there for fines of less than £600. Other methods must be found to make sure that people do not use it as an easy option.

First, the whole House will join my hon. Friend in condemning the cowardly people who perpetrated the dreadful attack on Police Officer Ryan Crozier on Monday. The heartfelt, warm wishes of the House go out to Police Officer Crozier and his family. He was seriously hurt, but is beginning to recover in hospital. The Chief Constable aptly described the attack as having been carried out by those who are “lashing out” because they “are in their endgame”. He is right, and we all condemn their actions.

I turn to my hon. Friend’s question. Of course we need a substantial, sustainable alternative to imprisonment for fine defaulters. We have begun that by bringing in the supervised activity order through the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. However, people should pay the fines given to them in court, and next month I shall bring forward proposals to make sure that if people will not pay, the fines will be deducted from their earnings or benefits and that there will be much stricter enforcement by the courts.

May I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the Minister about that cowardly and brutal attack on Police Officer Crozier? It was good to see that Mr. McGuinness was among the first visitors to the hospital.

I also associate myself with the other remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to understand—let alone explain and justify—the fact that people with a few hundred pounds owing are put in jail, while people who have defrauded the Exchequer of millions through fuel smuggling appear to get suspended sentences?

In individual cases, it will always be for the judges to decide the appropriate penalty. My role as Minister with responsibility for criminal justice and policing is to make sure that courts have sufficient powers and a range of powers. I want on the one hand to be tougher, but on the other to make sure that when fines and other non-custodial sentences are handed out, they are properly adhered to.

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the issue of sentencing. I am pleased to confirm that following Royal Assent for the criminal justice order last Wednesday, I shall tomorrow sign the order to commence the new indeterminate and extended prison sentences, so that anybody who tomorrow or any day afterwards commits a serious sexual or violent offence and is deemed to be dangerous can be sent to prison on an indeterminate sentence.

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the remarks made in respect of Police Officer Crozier, whom we wish a speedy recovery.

On the remarks that the Minister has just made, I welcome the implementation this week of the new law in relation to indeterminate sentencing and the abolition of the automatic 50 per cent. remission for serious sexual offences. My party fought for that for a long time; it was also demanded by the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say what sort of impact the changes are likely to have on custodial sentences and prison places?

There is, of course, universal condemnation of the attack on the police officer, just as there is universal support for the criminal justice order and the new provisions. There will be a net increase in the number of prisoners in the system over the next few years as a result of the longer sentences and of people who do not keep their licence conditions being brought back to prison, where they will face a further period of incarceration. There will also be more people on community sentences, and that is entirely right. I say to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and colleagues on both sides of the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will begin carefully to prepare the path towards the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

May I join all others, including the Minister, in condemning the callous and cowardly attack on the police officer on Monday night and wish him a speedy recovery? I wish equally that we will have a speedy return to justice for those who perpetrated this deed. It is appropriate that we pay tribute once again to the courage and bravery of all those who serve in the PSNI and other services.

On some estimates, the prison population in Northern Ireland will double by 2020. Given the issue of fine defaulters and the other issues raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), can the Minister be a bit more specific about how he and his Secretary of State are going to address the growing pressures that this will undoubtedly place on the Northern Ireland Prison Service?

My right hon. Friend and I have set aside some £14 million in the current spending period to commit to the Prison Service to ensure that more places, and the relevant programmes, are available. We have also invested in an unprecedented way in the delivery of the probation service. There will be more than 50 additional probation officers as a result of the investment that we are making because we need provision in the community and extra provision in prison. I can further tell the hon. Gentleman that we are investing £70 million in building 400 new prison places that will be available over the next three-year period. We are building capacity, we are building the programmes, and the message that goes out is: “If you are committing offences in Northern Ireland you will be brought to justice and dealt with appropriately.”

Cross-Border Fishing

2. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the Government of the Republic of Ireland on cross-border fishing issues. (204416)

Irrespective of that, can the Minister confirm whether there will be a cod swap next year to provide restitution to the Northern Ireland fishing industry of the Irish sea cod that was lost to it owing to the unfair application of the Hague preference?

I know that the hon. Lady is very well informed about these matters, perhaps far better informed than I am. I will certainly be happy to convey her comments and concerns to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, who I am sure will be interested to know about them. I can assure the hon. Lady that, particularly in relation to north-south co-operation on these issues, which is very important, there is regular contact between the Minister and her counterpart in the Republic, not least in terms of the preparations for the annual European Fisheries Council in December in Brussels, which is also very important. I am sure that that co-operation will continue, and I will happily ensure that the hon. Lady’s remarks are given to the Minister.

Does the Minister know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reports to the European Union in the context of fishing? Along with the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I ask the Minister to agree that the fishing industry in Northern Ireland has experienced unparalleled decline in recent years, that all measures within the power of this Government must be taken to ensure that the industry remains viable, and that the UK Government should follow the lead of the French and Spanish Governments and take advantage of measures such as those provided for through de minimis arrangements to assist UK fishing fleets as a whole, but particularly in Northern Ireland, where the industry is on its knees.

Again, the hon. Lady is very well informed on these issues and cares passionately about them. One of the things that I have discovered in recent days is the complexity of the responsibilities in relation to marine matters. I know, for example, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is responsible for the sea bed, but what swims around in the sea above it is a devolved matter. We are absolutely at one—this was evident in the very successful investment conference that took place last week—as to the need to have a thriving and vibrant economy in Northern Ireland. That includes the fishing industry, and we will continue to lend what support we can.

Gang Violence

Gang violence in Northern Ireland has traditionally manifested itself through paramilitary activity and organised crime. While the latest Independent Monitoring Commission report indicates a general downward trend in incidents of paramilitary violence, Monday’s cowardly attack on the young police officer, Ryan Crozier, reminds us of the continued threat posed by a small number of dissidents who today have no support whatsoever throughout the community.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Can he tell the House when paramilitary groups such as the Irish republican liberation army will no longer have the umbrella of decommissioning to hide under and instead be charged as criminals for holding weapons?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the long term, the kind of structures that we have introduced to ensure that we could get to the peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland of today will be phased out. When that moment comes, I am more than prepared to work with all hon. Members and political parties. I hope that we are beginning to approach the moment when we can signal that we will do so, but I still regret that, unfortunately, a small number of people continue to operate in such a way. Although we are nearly in a normalised society, regrettably we are not quite there.

I also would like to be associated with the earlier speakers in their sympathy for Constable Crozier, who to me was an expression of the new dimension in Northern Ireland. That young man joined the police force only three years ago, and he is the expression of our hope for the future. I hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice as soon as possible.

On the Government’s intention to address the root cause of gang violence, particularly the knife-wielding culture, does the Minister agree that there must be a combined approach between Government and community? If so, how does he reconcile that intention with the recent decision to withdraw extended schools funding in Northern Ireland, which was used by schools to put in place innovative and inclusive programmes for disadvantaged areas? A cross-cutting policy simply does not exist in that area.

Like all hon. Members, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Police Officer Crozier. Although we no longer have specific responsibility for schools in Northern Ireland, it none the less falls on us to have responsibility for criminal justice and policing until hon. Members and political parties are ready to assume devolution of those matters. That is why in the new Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order we will be introducing specific powers to deal with knife crime in relation to gang culture, raising the age at which knives can be purchased and, critically, dealing more severely with those who abuse that. Regardless of when the devolution of policing and criminal justice takes place, it will fall on the community itself, as well as those elected from the community, to deal with the issue. It is one that we should all feel responsibility for.

Is it not the case that in several locations major gangs that were formerly associated with paramilitary organisations are operating major criminal enterprises? Could the Secretary of State indicate what plans the Chief Constable has to ensure that those gangs are broken up and the perpetrators, who are well known not only in the local community, but to the police, are put behind bars?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, since I think that this is the first time I have had the chance to do so in this House, on having been made leader elect of his party. I am sure that we all look forward to working with him when he assumes that office at the end of the month, and we will again give our very best wishes to his predecessor—when that moment comes; he is, of course, still very much a presence.

I am conscious of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course the Chief Constable has operational independence on these matters, but we do consult him. I am confident that he is more than aware of the need to break up the gangs. He and his officers have achieved some spectacular results, but we have to remain ever vigilant and deal with the issue, which as the hon. Gentleman said is regrettably still a vestige of the paramilitary past of Northern Ireland.

We on the Conservative Benches also condemn the attack on Officer Crozier. I am afraid that the Independent Monitoring Commission report, which shows how far Northern Ireland has come with regard to violence, is still littered with examples of offences. We are told that the ONH—Óglaigh na hÉireann—is

“more seriously active in the six months under the review”

of the report, and carried out its first murder on 12 February. The breakaway south-east Antrim faction’s dispute with the Ulster Defence Association led to the shooting of a police officer. Those are very worrying trends, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares our concerns about them. What extra measures can he take to stamp out that criminal and deadly violence?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the 18th IMC report, which deals with matters relating to organised crime, too. I am sure that he will have noted that significant progress has been made on a number of fronts. However, it is perfectly clear that in one specific area—that is, in relation to Óglaigh na hÉireann—as well as others, we now need to take steps. That is why I am laying before the House today a new order that will take into account specified organisations. The order will result in the de-specification of the UVF Red Hand Commandos, but it will now specify Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Parades (Drumcree/Garvaghy Road)

4. What steps he is taking to contribute to the resolution of the Drumcree/Garvaghy road parading dispute. (204419)

We remain committed to finding a successful resolution and we support the position of the Parades Commission that local dialogue is the best way to achieve this.

Further to that point, does the Secretary of State agree that no one who refuses to engage in that dialogue ought to be rewarded for their refusal?

Let me begin by paying tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in trying to achieve dialogue between communities on matters relating to parading, and particularly the work that he has done with the Portadown District Orange to encourage it to enter into dialogue—he was referring specifically, I think, to the Garvaghy road residents. He has helped to move the order to engage without preconditions or a predetermined outcome. I praise him fully for his work with the community. I hope that others in the community will now recognise that they should match that transformation and engage in the dialogue. I encourage all members of the community, regardless of the history, to enter into that dialogue.

Bloody Sunday Inquiry

So far, the cost of the inquiry has reached in excess of £182 million, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. However concerned all hon. Members will be about such costs, we should be careful not to confuse the cost with the value and the huge importance of the inquiry.

Let me put it to the Secretary of State that there is no question of our confusing cost and value. We can spot the fact that the process is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that if we had known at the beginning how much it would cost, particularly with legal fees, we would not have proceeded? The process has done a great deal of harm in Northern Ireland, not the good that we hoped.

Far be it from me to wish to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that in this case I must. The inquiry has been essential in enabling us to reach the point in Northern Ireland where we can enjoy the peace, prosperity and devolution that we have witnessed and the remaining stages that I am confident will take place. As he rightly says, the inquiry has taken a lot longer and cost a huge amount more than we thought. However, that is why the Government introduced the Inquiries Act 2005—to control the cost of inquiries. Although I regret the spiralling legal costs, which we have tried to control, I in no way wish to confuse that with the value of the inquiry, which has been essential to the peace process.

The families of the Bloody Sunday victims share that frustration at the length and cost of the Saville inquiry, but understand better than others the reason for them. When the Secretary of State receives the report of the Saville inquiry, will he allow lawyers acting on behalf of the Government and military days and weeks to go through it before publication, and if so, what equal consideration will be extended to the families of the Bloody Sunday victims?

The hon. Gentleman has long made a sincere and deeply felt argument on behalf of the families who are affected by the inquiry. All hon. Members recognise that the issue is sensitive, especially for those families. My hon. Friend the Minister of State met the families only last month. We have committed ourselves to involving them in the arrangements for the publication of the report, which must be presented to the House first, and I will hold them uppermost in my mind.

One of the consequences of inquiries such as Saville is that they put enormous pressure on the resources of the police service. The Secretary of State has reduced the budget for the police service in the current year, and the Chief Constable has indicated that he is close to the tipping point in regard to his ability to deliver the necessary police input for these inquiries. Will the Secretary of State look again at increasing the budget in order to offset the cost of the PSNI’s role in these inquiries?

I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I must of course disagree with the idea that we have reduced the budget. The fact is that the PSNI will have a budget of nearly £1 billion for this year. That is an extremely large budget, and I am confident that every penny of it will be well spent. The PSNI has to spend a great deal of time dealing with the past, and it matters that it should do so. I believe that it is appropriately funded to do that work, despite the pressures that it faces. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with the Eames consultative group on the past, to see whether we can find other, more effective ways of dealing with some of the issues that are undoubtedly a legacy of the past.

I should like to associate Her Majesty’s official Opposition with the comments made by the Secretary of State on the disgraceful attack on Police Officer Crozier. We wish him a speedy recovery, and we pay tribute to the bravery of all PSNI officers. We also congratulate the passer-by who showed great courage in rescuing him.

The Saville inquiry was set up 10 years ago. It last took evidence in 2004, its costs are heading towards £200 million, of which nearly half has been paid to lawyers, and there is no sign of the report appearing. Does the Secretary of State really think that that is acceptable?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, because the Saville inquiry was set up before the Inquiries Act 2005, the Government are ultimately unable to control the legal costs involved, despite the constant pressure that we are bringing to bear on the inquiry to be cost-effective. However, for the families involved, and for the nationalist community, which was so unsettled by the way in which the matter had been dealt with historically, it was absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister committed the Government to conducting the inquiry. It has taken longer and cost more than we wanted it to, but at the end of the day we have to separate cost and value, and the value of this inquiry is incalculable.

That was an unsatisfactory reply, because it showed that the delay has been caused by the manner in which the Government set up the inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give the House a guarantee that no future historical inquiry will be as open-ended and extravagant as Saville, given his new remit under the Inquiries Act 2005?

It is perfectly clear that the Inquiries Act has set out precisely how any future inquiry should be conducted. The hon. Gentleman will also know that, in all the conversations that I have had about inquiries, I have insisted that any future inquiry would have to be held under the terms of the Act.

Criminal Damage (Compensation)

6. What the timetable is for the implementation of the proposed compensation schemes relating to criminal damage in Northern Ireland. (204421)

I intend to issue a consultation document in June on proposed changes to the criminal damage legislation as it applies to community halls. Subject to that consultation, I intend to lay a draft order in the autumn.

I thank the Minister for the series of meetings that have taken place between my DUP colleagues and the Orange Institution on this serious matter, and also for the positive outcomes that have been achieved thus far. Can he confirm that he would expedite the process, should there be a continuation of this despicable campaign to destroy Orange halls?

I welcome the constructive engagement of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and of the leadership of the Orange Order. The most important thing was to ensure that we minimised the attacks on Orange halls, and I am pleased to say that, to date this year, there have been only eight attacks, compared with 58 last year. That is an improvement. We will bring forward the proposals for proper consultation and bring them into effect in due course.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is long past time for meaningful change to be made to facilitate the claims of victims, who up to now have had to prove often impossible parameters in regard to their claims? Does he agree that, where there is clear evidence of a co-ordinated attack on an Orange hall or on Gaelic Athletic Association premises, for example, a statement from a senior policeman to the effect that there has been a co-ordinated, syndicated conspiracy should be enough to prove entitlement?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of my prime objectives over recent months has been to ensure that the existing compensation scheme works more effectively so that where there is evidence of an illegal organisation’s involvement, a Chief Constable’s certificate should be issued, and where three or more people are conspiring to create damage, compensation should be paid. I am trying to make the present system work more effectively, as well as to extend the provisions as I have outlined.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Will my right hon. Friend join me and the House in wishing every success to Rangers football team, which is proud to be Scottish and British, in bringing the UEFA cup to Glasgow?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 1.5 million survivors of the cyclone in Burma are facing starvation, disease and, ultimately, death. Will he tell the House what the Government are doing to get aid through to those people who are in desperate need?

I think the whole House will, of course, want to send best wishes to Rangers football club, which is playing against St. Petersburg in Manchester this evening.

My hon. Friend raises a point that is touching the conscience of the whole world: a natural disaster in Burma has been turned, by the actions of a despicable regime, into a human catastrophe—a man-made catastrophe as a result of its actions. While there is a huge debate about some of the issues surrounding it, the key thing for all of us is to get aid to the people of Burma as quickly as possible by the means available to us. That is why, over the last few hours, a British plane has arrived in Rangoon and three others will arrive very soon. More planes will be sent over the next few days. The first will provide shelter for 45,000 people. That is also why, over the next day or two, about 60 flights in total will have arrived in Rangoon. There has been an improvement, but it is not good enough.

It is not good enough because of the needs of the Burmese people—the one and a half million who face famine and other distress—and it is not good enough because the regime is still preventing aid from getting to the rest of the country. That is why I asked Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to convene an emergency summit and why I asked him—I believe he is considering it now—to go to the country and also why Lord Malloch-Brown has gone to Asia to talk to Asian Ministers about how they can co-ordinate action. While it is right to debate the responsibility to protect as well as air drops, the key thing at the moment is to pressure the regime by getting all countries in Asia uniting with all of us to make sure that aid gets as quickly as possible to the people of Burma. We are ready to do everything in our power—HMS Westminster is in the area and we are working with French and American ships—to do so. At the same time, we have a humanitarian team in Rangoon ready to do everything it can in the future. I hope that the whole House will unite in saying that the Burmese regime must let into the country all aid workers and all aid immediately.

I join the Prime Minister in wishing Rangers well. I am sure he is right to say that the whole House will support that, but I wonder whether the Prime Minister’s former ministerial colleague who was the chairman of Celtic football club would take the same view. We will see.

More importantly, the whole House will want to express our sympathy for the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. Everyone will have seen the very swift response of the Chinese Government, which is in stark contrast to the reaction of the regime in Burma, where the neglect of the military junta is turning a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his update. He rightly says that the Burmese Government must let aid through, but may I push him a little further on that? If that does not happen, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to take further steps, including raising the issue of the responsibility to protect at the UN and supporting international efforts to deliver aid directly?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the action that we have already taken. Of course we will raise the issue of responsibility to protect at the United Nations, and of course we will leave ourselves open to considering the issue of air drops. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that everyone on the ground and every aid agency that is advising us says that the best way of getting aid to the Burmese people quickly is to continue the pressure on the Burmese Government—which has yielded some results, but not sufficient results, in the last few days—so that Asian countries are in a position to help us to convey the aid that is available to those people.

I must also tell the right hon. Gentleman that when we have tried to arrange a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the issue, we have been blocked by other countries. That is why I have asked Ban Ki-moon to hold an emergency summit of the kind that Kofi Annan held at the time of the 2004 tsunami. I believe that progress is being made in regard to the summit, and I hope it will be a means of bringing additional pressure to bear on the Burmese Government through Asia. I do not rule out anything, and no one should rule out anything, but let us be honest. All the aid agencies and others are telling us exactly the same: we must intensify the pressure to get more aid in through the Burmese Government as quickly as possible.

Of course the Prime Minister is right to say that the best way of providing direct aid is to persuade the Burmese Government to open up the country to allow the aid agencies in, but I think it is worth setting a deadline for when we must say that not enough has got through and more should be done. It is true that the experts say that only a fifth of direct aid will get through, but a fifth of something is better than 0 per cent. of nothing.

Can the Prime Minister clarify an aspect of the responsibility to protect? The British ambassador to the UN has said that the UK’s responsibility to protect does not apply to natural disasters, but yesterday the Foreign Secretary said that it certainly could. Will the Prime Minister make it absolutely clear that, in our view, the responsibility to protect should be extended to Burma and to Burmese people at this time?

There are two ways of proceeding. There is the responsibility to protect and there is the right to humanitarian intervention, which was invoked in 1999. We are leaving all the options open.

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman: we must not fall for the impression that there is some easy answer in air drops. Like others, I am prepared to consider them, but Save the Children said this morning:

“Right now, talk of air drops is a distraction. Air drops are an ineffective way of delivering aid. We must continue to push for access. We are exploring other creative ways”

to get rid of the blockages

“such as boats.”

Oxfam too has said that air drops are a distraction, and the World Food Programme, which is co-ordinating aid in Rangoon, has said that they would be “counter-productive”. Water supplies cannot be dropped from the air without putting people in the country at risk.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I rule out nothing, but we must not give the public of Britain or other countries the impression that the best course is not the one that we are proposing: to intensify pressure on the Burmese Government, and to ensure that aid reaches the people of Burma.

Every year thousands of little angels are supported by children’s hospice services, but funding levels are often far lower than those for comparative services for adults. In my constituency, the Grace House appeal is selling crystal angels to raise funds to build a hospice. Will the Prime Minister give his support to the campaign, and also take steps to improve funding levels for children’s hospices?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Last week I met a delegation to discuss how we could improve funding for hospices in the future. We have set aside additional money to support all hospices and “hospice at home” services for children for up to five years, with funding of £10 million a year until 2011, and we are publishing “Better Care: Better Lives”, which was launched in February and which is our strategy for children’s palliative care.

This is a vexed issue for many parents. I recognise that, and I know that Governments must do more. We will continue to look at what more we can actually do.

Yesterday’s announcement was a complete charade. The Government pretend to have solved the 10p problem when they have not, and the Conservatives seem only to be concerned about the effect on their chances in a by-election. How can they all ignore the fact that even after yesterday’s announcement, more than 1 million of the poorest people in the country are still worse off? Do they not matter?

I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman. His party’s former acting leader and current shadow Chancellor welcomed our announcement yesterday. He welcomed it because 22 million people will be better off. No Government have a better record of tackling poverty than this Government. We have taken 600,000 children out of poverty, another 300,000 children are to be taken out of poverty, and 1 million pensioners are being taken out of poverty. No Liberal policy would ever have achieved that.

The fact remains that under a Labour Government the worst paid are worse off. Why do they have to pay for the Prime Minister’s incompetence? They cannot wait any longer, so when will he come back to the House with specific proposals to compensate in full the 1 million people he has betrayed?

We have said that we will come back in the pre-Budget report, but the right hon. Gentleman must not forget the fact that every person in the country who is an income tax payer at the basic rate will receive £120. Twenty-two million people will receive that money, and households in which there are two such people will receive £240. We have done what we said we would do to offset the average losses, and we are the only Government who are taking people out of poverty—poverty trebled under the Conservative Government.

Q2. Thanks to Government investment, Hastings will soon have a new state-of-the-art health centre where GPs will be working together to provide and extend access to people in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the proposals made by some to limit the contract already made with GPs for weekend and evening access would undermine— (205272)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the advances that have been made in GP services in this country. There is now weekend opening in places where there was not weekend opening before. There is now access to GP after-hours services where there was not such access in the evenings before. The party that would put this at risk is the Conservative party, which says it would backtrack on the promise that has been made and voted on by GPs.

Yesterday, it was revealed that in private the Housing Minister told the Cabinet that house prices would fall by up to 10 per cent. this year, house building was stalling and further falls were predicted. Yet in public the same Minister said the housing market was strong. Does the Prime Minister agree that she was not being straight with people?

It is because of the condition of the housing market that I will be announcing new measures in my statement after Question Time. The housing situation has deteriorated in the last few weeks, and we will be taking measures to protect first-time buyers and give them new opportunities, to take out stock that is not being bought so that housing associations and other authorities can buy it, and to help people who are facing repossession. I thought the Opposition would support that, but perhaps they do not remember that 15 years ago they caused the most repossessions we have ever seen in our history.

People want to hear about the future, and people want some answers from the Prime Minister. Yesterday, we all paid £2.7 billion to keep the Prime Minister in his job; the least he can do is earn it by answering some questions. Does he not understand that he is never going to get out of the hole he has dug for himself unless he starts being straight with people? In all other walks of life, if someone said something like that, the boss would say they should not have done and they got it wrong. So let me try another question: did the timing of the tax announcement yesterday have anything to do with the by-election?

As the Chancellor said yesterday, he had to bring forward his proposals if they were to go into the Finance Bill to be legislated now. I thought that the Conservatives would welcome our announcement that 22 million people will benefit, but they have not even told us yet whether they support our plan. The reason for that is that their tax priorities are further cuts in inheritance tax and stamp duty on shares—giving money to those people who are already rich. They have never at any time said that their priority is the low paid and the poorest members of our society. That is the Conservative party that caused 15 per cent. interest rates and 3 million unemployed, and we will never forget the record repossessions that happened when the right hon. Gentleman was adviser to the Chancellor.

There we have it—the cancelled election had nothing to do with the polls, and yesterday’s announcement had nothing to do with the by-election; another day, another complete failure to be straight with people.

Let us try another one. Last week, the Prime Minister claimed that Wendy Alexander was not calling for an early referendum on Scottish independence. Will he now admit that she was calling for an early referendum and that on this issue they simply do not agree? Can he take this one chance to be straight with people?

I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman last week immediately after Question Time to point out, when he challenged me, that there is no plan for legislation for a referendum in Scotland; there is no plan at Westminster, otherwise we would have heard it; and there is no plan to put legislation through the Scottish Parliament, now or in the immediate future.

I thought that the Conservative party would want to join the Labour party in supporting the Union. I thought that it would want to support the integrity of the United Kingdom against the nationalist parties, but all we have is petty point scoring when what we actually want is a defence of the Union. It is about time the leader of the Conservative party made one.

The party that is putting the Union at risk is the Labour party, by playing games for an early referendum at a time when Wendy Alexander and the Prime Minister are the two most unpopular politicians on the planet. What could do more to put the Union at risk? Is not a big part of the disastrous premiership his failure to be straight with people? He will not be straight about the election; he will not be straight about the European treaty; he will not be straight about the 10p tax losers; and even on the one thing that people thought he would care about—the Union—he will not be straight. Is that not what we are seeing: a Prime Minister putting short-term decisions before the national interest?

It is the right hon. Gentleman who is playing politics. He never told us whether he supported our tax package and he does not tell us now whether he is supporting us on the Union. It is about time that instead of being the salesman, he started showing some substance about policy. We are the party helping 22 million people; we are the party with record employment figures in this country; we are the party taking more people out of poverty; and we are the party expanding the national health service. His policies would put all that at risk.

May I tell the Prime Minister that foreign investment in Yorkshire and Humber has increased by a staggering 80 per cent. in the past 12 months? That is mainly thanks to the sound economic policies of this Labour Government and the good offices of Yorkshire Forward. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Barnsley-based company Lubrizol on winning Yorkshire Forward’s best exporter of the year award?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a champion of new industry for Yorkshire, and I want to congratulate Yorkshire Forward on the work that it does. The fact is that even in a difficult world situation, when unemployment has been rising in other countries, the level of employment in Britain is rising today to 29.5 million people, and half a million more people are in employment than there were a year ago. That is partly because of the new deal and the regional intervention that we are taking. We do not shirk from the necessity of intervening to protect, safeguard and advance jobs in the economy. I hope that other parties will join us in supporting the new deal in the future.

Q3. As the Leader of the Opposition has “fessed up” to breaking his promise to end Punch and Judy politics, does the Prime Minister still think that this weekly knockabout is the best way for MPs to hold his Government to account? (205273)

Yes, and I hope that there will be a vigorous debate on our legislative programme when we put it forward in the next few minutes. I hope that there will be a debate in this House, and in all regions and nations of the country, about what we are proposing. That is the proper way to make decisions about the future of the country.

Q4. Temporary workers have been exploited for years and years, through low wages, long days and atrocious conditions. Will the Prime Minister think about introducing legislation to give those workers some real rights? (205274)

There is a general worry in all parts of the country about vulnerable workers and temporary workers who are not given proper protection. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will look forward to the draft legislative statement, when I will have something to say about the future of the agency workers directive.

Listening to the Prime Minister, one could be forgiven for thinking that we are living in some sort of utopia. Without giving us another boring history lesson, will he tell us whether he has made any mistakes recently?

I did say about the 10p that we should have done things better. I made that clear at the time, but what I am not going to do is make the mistakes that the Conservative party made: 15 per cent. interest rates, inflation at 10 per cent., 3 million unemployed and record repossessions. We will not go back to that.

Q5. The east midlands regional spatial strategy, which will be published next month, will contain proposals for more that 60,000 houses in Greater Nottinghamshire. Will the Prime Minister ensure that development takes place on brownfield sites before greenfield sites and that a high proportion of the new homes go to hard-working families through social housing? (205275)

The vast majority of housing built in the past few years has been built on brownfield land, and that is how we intend to continue. At the same time, we want to see affordable housing—that is, housing that will help people to reach the first rung of the housing ladder. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that the proposals that we have put forward in the public spending review are to build substantial numbers of affordable houses in his area and elsewhere, including housing to rent, over the next few years. I hope that he will welcome the announcements that will be made later today about more funds for housing.

Q6. The UK motorist is the most highly taxed in the world. Will the Prime Minister listen to the motorists of this country? In many areas, particularly rural areas —including those in my constituency, Macclesfield —there is little, if any, public transport and a motor vehicle is essential. Will he review the proposals contained in the Budget dramatically to increase vehicle excise duty, which is unfair and penalises rural areas? (205276)

I take seriously the needs of motorists in this country. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the Budget proposals, he will see that the majority of motorists benefit or pay no more in vehicle excise duty as a result. He should look at what the chairman of the Conservative transport group, Steve Norris, said. He said that under the Tories

“you will pay more in green taxes. You will, for example, see the reintroduction of a fuel duty escalator”.

The hon. Gentleman should be talking to his Conservative colleagues about the mistakes that they are making.

Q7. First, may I welcome the Government’s announcement this week of a review of the services for social care for the elderly and disabled? The all-party local government group is conducting its own inquiry into services for the elderly. Two things are emerging from that. First, there should be a basic citizens’ entitlement for the elderly to receive social care. Secondly, when the elderly receive social care they should be treated as individuals with their own personal budgets so that they can make their own choices about their lives. Will my right hon. Friend take account of those two principles when coming to the conclusions on his own review? (205277)

That is precisely what the debate is about. When I launched the debate on social care on Monday, I was able to say that we will face rising demands from a rising population of elderly and rising aspirations, too, on the part of elderly people who want better choices and better opportunities in old age to make the right choices for themselves. We expect more than 1.7 million more people to have a need for care and support over the next 20 years and that is why the review should take place. I hope that it will be possible to get consensus on future funding and my hon. Friend should also note that we will publish a programme for carers in the next few weeks to back up everything that we are doing on social care.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he will not take any lessons from the people who created two recessions, with 3 million people unemployed, and who gave us 15 per cent. mortgage rates, slashed public services, doubled national debt and trebled the number of children in poverty? Stick to prudence, not empty promises. (205278)

That is what the debate in this country is now about. When we debated Northern Rock, we were prepared to intervene; the Conservatives backed away from it. When we debate how we can help people who are hard-pressed with their fuel bills, we are prepared to give more money to people, with 22 million people benefiting yesterday; we still do not have an answer from the Conservative party. That is what people will remember about the Conservatives: they are the 3 million unemployed party, they are the 15 per cent. interest rate party, and they are the party of record mortgage repossessions. The country is not going to forget.

When the Prime Minister’s predecessor, Tony Blair, met the Dalai Lama, he met him in Downing street. When his predecessor, John Major, met the Dalai Lama, he met him in Downing street. Will the Prime Minister confirm that when he meets the Dalai Lama, he will do so in Downing street?

What matters is not in what part of Westminster we meet, but what issues to do with the future of Tibet are discussed. I am meeting the Dalai Lama with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am also attending, at Lambeth palace, a conference of faith groups involving the Dalai Lama, and I can tell the House that all issues of substance relating to our views on what is happening in Tibet will be discussed and on the table. We will be pressing the Dalai Lama to join us in facilitating negotiations between the Chinese Government and the Tibetans. That is the important way forward, and it is issues of substance that matter in this.

Q9. What message does the Prime Minister have for the thousands of young people who are sitting GCSEs this week? Will he join me in congratulating teachers in my constituency, where the percentage of students achieving five A* to C grades has risen from 44 to 74 per cent. under this Government? (205279)

This is another example—I applaud my hon. Friend for pushing the issue—of the progress that is being made in education in this country. Let me just say that the proposals that take us forward for the next year are: education until 18, opposed by the Conservatives; educational maintenance allowances expanded, opposed by the Conservative party; and expansion of the school building programme, from which the Conservatives want to take money. If we want investment in education, it can happen only under a Labour Government.

Q10. Our new London Mayor is off to a courageous start. After only nine days in office, he is already taking on the scourge of youth crime, he is scrapping The Londoner newspaper and planting 10,000 trees, and getting alcohol off our buses and tubes. The Prime Minister talks about courage—he has even written a book about it—but when will he pluck up the courage to call Boris in person and congratulate him on taking office? (205280)

When the Mayor of London came to the House of Commons last week, I did congratulate him, but I also said that he would be judged by his record. He has got to show that he can expand transport, expand the service of policing, and do something about affordable housing in London. That is what he will be judged on.

Q11. Free national bus travel for older people was greatly appreciated by my constituents. However, they were less delighted when they were told by West Lancashire district council that if they used that free bus service, they would no longer be able to have free local rail travel, unlike people in the nearby local authorities of Merseyside and Manchester. What can the Prime Minister do to ensure that when the Government give, Tory local authorities do not take away? (205281)

I applaud my hon. Friend’s campaign on behalf of the elderly people of her constituency, on that issue and in so many other areas. I can confirm that West Lancashire was allocated a grant of almost £250,000 to pay for the new all-England concession for transport. That represents an increase of more than 20 per cent. on what was previously available and spent on concessionary travel. I am confident that that is sufficient to meet its needs, and that is why the local authority should give pensioners the travel that they want.

Which country or countries blocked a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Burma, and what diplomatic pressure are we applying on them?

We are applying a great deal of pressure, and I think it would be in our interest to apply that pressure rather than to name names at present. If I may say so, the pressure on those countries continues. That is why I have called on the Secretary-General of the UN to hold an emergency summit. The way forward is an emergency summit, hopefully held almost immediately. That will get the international community organised so that we can get supplies to Burma. We will not rest in our determination to get a concerted international response, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support that.

Q12. My constituency, Brent, South, has been described as many things, but one of the most offensive is being described as broken. My community and families in Brent are not broken. In 2003 the Government introduced double maternity pay and pioneering paternity leave. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now time to review these measures? (205283)

I hope that over the course of the Parliament we can move forward with our plans on maternity pay and maternity rights, and I hope that all parties in the House will come to the view that paternity leave was also a good thing. It is unfortunate that although the Conservatives present themselves as a family-friendly party, they voted against the extension of maternity leave, they opposed paternity leave, and they even opposed the right to flexible working. That is not a family-friendly party.