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Volume 489: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2009

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I know that the House will want to join me in expressing our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar of 38 Engineer Regiment, who were brutally murdered in Northern Ireland on Saturday evening, and to the family and friends of Constable Stephen Carroll, who was murdered while on police duty on Monday. At times like these, we remember the professional courage and dedication of our armed forces and the police. I believe that, at all times, the whole country will want to—and should—give our full support to the men and women who serve our country. The House will also wish to extend our best wishes for recovery to the soldiers and civilians who were injured in Saturday’s attack.

The peace marches today on the streets of Northern Ireland show what I saw there on Monday, and what we see throughout the country: the unity against violence of the people and their representatives; the defiance and the determination to stand up to the evil of criminal violence, and the unyielding resolution to say with one voice that the peace that the people of Northern Ireland are building no murderers should ever be allowed to destroy.

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 know that I speak for the House when I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about those who were killed and injured serving our country, and with his remarks about Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend knows of my worries about the vehicle industry and its supply chain. I know that a lot is happening, such as discussions with the industry and its trade unions. However, when will the banks get their act together to help stimulate demand, not only for vehicles, but all our manufactured goods?

I thank my hon. Friend for his constant support for the car industry and, of course, Ellesmere Port in his constituency.

At the car summit today, the business Minister is explaining the £2.3 billion of support that is available for the car industry. To ensure that the banks serve companies and the public interest in future in this wholly new world, we are reshaping them. First, they have had to sign lending agreements worth £44 billion of extra investment, which will take place this year. We are also regulating the banks for remuneration and risk, levels of cash flow and cross-border capital flows. We want to achieve an international understanding so that other countries will do exactly what we are doing.

May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the kind words that you said a fortnight ago about the loss of my son, Ivan? I particularly want to thank the Prime Minister for what he said. It came straight from the heart and it meant a great deal to Samantha and to me. We have had letters from right across the House of Commons and from thousands of people in the country. It has been a great comfort to know that others are thinking of us. A lot of letters have come from families who themselves have lost children. If there is a common theme in them, it is that although the loss never goes away, there does come a day when you look back at your child’s life and you think happy thoughts about their life rather than feel sorrow at their death. I hope that that day will come for us, too.

Today, I join the Prime Minister in mourning the dreadful losses of the three British families of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar and Constable Stephen Carroll. On the day when we remember the service of our soldiers, we should remind those who protest against them that they have the right to do so only because British soldiers put their lives on the line.

On Northern Ireland, let us be clear about the nature of these crimes: they were committed by callous killers, capable of shooting men in cold blood and standing over their wounded bodies and murdering them. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the most important thing in Northern Ireland today is that everyone works with the police so that these killers can be found, caught, charged and convicted?

Let me welcome back the Leader of the Opposition. I understand the grief that he and his family have been going through.

In Northern Ireland today we are seeing a degree of unity among the political parties that some people thought they would never see in their lifetimes. We are seeing all parties call for the citizens of Northern Ireland to co-operate with the police; we are seeing all parties condemning the violence; and we are seeing all parties asking those people who have information to help the police track down these killers. As the House will know, two men have been arrested as a result of the police killing and the hunt is on for the people who brutally murdered the soldiers on Saturday evening.

I can say to the House that we will do everything we can to enhance security arrangements in Northern Ireland. I have talked directly to Chief Constable Hugh Orde about that and we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that he has available to him all the arrangements necessary to enhance security there. I believe that out of tragedy we are seeing a unity, which shows the determination that, although a few murderers may try to disrupt the process, the whole of the people of Northern Ireland want not only to see justice done but to send a message that the political process is here to stay and is working.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right about that unity. It is remarkable—and it is remarkably welcome—that every political party in Northern Ireland, including individuals who were once bombers and terrorists, are calling on people to co-operate with the police. Does he agree that that highlights the importance of our reaction, which should be to say that Northern Ireland is not on the brink and is not staring into an abyss, but instead needs effective policing, the co-operation of the public and the measured reaction of politicians? Are not those the things that we need to ensure that these murderers never win?

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman, and I see the assent of all parties sitting in the House to what we are both saying about the importance of people working together to hunt down these criminals. We are dealing with a small minority. The Real IRA and Continuity IRA have claimed credit for the killings in a way that is sickening, and they seem not to be able to distinguish between the needs of the armed services and civilians. Calling civilians “collaborators” was totally despicable. We will do everything in our power to track down these killers, but we will also do everything in our power to support the police and the armed forces.

It is right to raise the support that we give to our armed forces in every part of the country. Homecoming parades should be what people in the communities concerned want them to be, and that is a celebration and a commemoration of the great service and dedication of our armed forces in every part of the country. I believe that the country wishes the homecoming parades that are going on in Watford, Windsor and Bolton to go ahead without interruption. There is a right to freedom of speech, but there is not a right to disruption and to public disorder. It is our duty to ensure that order is kept.

The whole House will have agreed with the Prime Minister about the value of the homecoming parades, but may I turn to another issue?

Serious allegations have been made that Britain may have been complicit in torture. Let us be absolutely clear about Binyam Mohamed. This is someone who claimed he was going to Chechnya to help civilians, but in fact ended up in Afghanistan. Nevertheless his allegations have to be dealt with. It is right for the Attorney-General to see whether a crime has been committed, but is it not also important that the Prime Minister is satisfied that Britain has throughout acted with moral authority—over and above the question of whether a crime has been committed? Will the Prime Minister tell us what he has done to satisfy himself of the true facts in this case?

Let me say right at the outset that this Government unreservedly condemn the use of torture. Under no circumstances will we participate in, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose. Where allegations are made about torture, I have instructed that they must be properly examined—including, if necessary, by the courts. The Attorney-General is looking at the very specific allegations in this case. If there is evidence, it will be referred to the police, who will conduct a criminal inquiry. At the moment, the matter is with the Attorney-General, who is looking at all the evidence. As I say, I have instructed that whenever allegations are made, they are properly investigated.

I grateful for the Prime Minister’s assurances and we agree completely with what he says about torture being unacceptable. We all want to eradicate the potential stain on Britain’s reputation, but the question is whether an investigation by the Attorney-General into criminal conduct is enough. Surely we need to look at what procedures and processes are in place to ensure that Britain cannot knowingly, or unknowingly, be implicated in torture. Is that not why we need a brief, judge-led inquiry into what happened and what lessons need to be learned?

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says and it is absolutely right that we be vigilant at all times because the freedoms and liberties of this country are best served by making absolutely sure that we unreservedly condemn and do not allow the use of torture. The Intelligence and Security Committee has investigated some aspects of these matters and reports were done in 2005 and 2007. The Committee will continue to look at these matters because that is the statutory role given to it. At the same time, the Attorney-General will look at all the details, and I have made it clear that there is a next stage. If any evidence is found that should lead to a police investigation, it will be referred to the police, and if they decide to proceed a criminal investigation will be carried out. This is the best way to deal with these specific instances—the Intelligence and Security Committee looks at the general cases.

But it is not clear that the Attorney-General’s inquiry will answer the question that the Prime Minister himself rightly poses, which is whether we have acted properly at all times during these procedures. The Attorney-General will look at the one case, rather than at the procedures in all cases. The Attorney-General is, quite rightly, looking at whether a crime has been committed, but is not really looking at our moral authority and whether it has been maintained. Does not the Prime Minister see that an inquiry is likely to become necessary: either the Attorney-General will find that a crime has been committed, in which case there will be a clamour for an inquiry to answer how on earth it was allowed to happen; or, on the other hand, if the Attorney-General decides not to go ahead with a prosecution, we will still not really have the answers to what happened in this important case? On either ground, would it not be better to order that judge-led inquiry, instead of having it dragged out in the weeks ahead?

The Intelligence and Security Committee has inquired, and continues to inquire, into these matters, and we have had a debate about the full status of the ISC for the future. It looked at the issue of rendition in great detail in its previous inquiry. The Home Secretary, in her role as an adviser to Government, referred the question of possible criminal wrongdoing to the Attorney-General. She is consulting others, as is necessary, about what needs to be done. It is obviously for her to decide how she is likely to proceed. The court that heard Binyam Mohamed’s judicial review case has made it clear that it thinks this is the right way to proceed. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow the inquiries taking place to proceed. On the general issues he raised, Britain, because of our defence of freedom and liberty, of course wishes to be seen to be doing everything in our power to deal with questions that arise about the use of torture or rendition. I believe that, at this stage, the best way to proceed is with the Intelligence and Security Committee, but let us hear the report of the Attorney-General.

The Prime Minister made some welcome observations about the terrible tragedies in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that what is especially encouraging is the fact that the leaders of republicanism have spoken out so clearly and unequivocally in condemning those terrible criminal atrocities, and have been united in doing so? Even a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the Deputy First Minister, with all his history, would stand alongside the First Minister and the Chief Constable and say that we would not tolerate this criminality, while still retaining his republican objectives. That gives us encouragement, or should, in the current circumstances.

I spoke to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on Sunday, and met them both on Monday. Both revealed their determination to make it absolutely clear that violence cannot be tolerated, that terrorists must be rooted out, and that the community should co-operate with the police in doing that. They condemned absolutely the killings of a police officer and the killings of Army officers who were, sadly, on their way to Afghanistan, and who would have left that night but for the terrible incident.

I say to my right hon. Friend that out of this tragedy something is emerging which shows that the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the politicians, want the political process to be both maintained and strengthened. I think that that gives reassurance and encouragement even in this most difficult of times.

Following the brutal murders of Sappers Quinsey and Azimkar and Constable Carroll, and the serious injuries suffered by four others, may I say on behalf of all Liberal Democrat Members that our hearts go out to the families of the victims, though they harden against their murderers? Their violence must not and will not divide the people of Northern Ireland; instead, it will strengthen their resolve to live their lives in peace. That is the unwavering message of the dignified demonstrations taking place in Northern Ireland today.

May I also extend my personal welcome to the leader of the Conservative party on his return to Parliament, and say on behalf of all on these Benches that we sincerely hope that he and his family will be given the time and the space to cope with the terrible loss they have suffered?

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that today’s announcement from President Sarkozy that he will reverse General de Gaulle’s legacy and rejoin NATO is hugely significant, but does he also agree that it offers an enormous opportunity for Britain, along with France, to lead European defence co-operation, which has been held back by tensions surrounding the Atlantic alliance?

I do welcome France’s announcement that at the NATO summit on 3 and 4 April, with the President of America and other people present, it will announce its return to the inner core of NATO. I believe that that is good for the defence of the world. I also believe that there are opportunities for co-operation not just between France and Britain, but between the countries of the rest of the world, in relation to nuclear disarmament.

We are at a critical point in the nuclear proliferation discussions, and we are at a particularly difficult point in relation to Iran. We have made it clear to Iran that it cannot join the international community unless it renounces nuclear weapons. However, I believe that a wider deal on nuclear arms is possible in the next few years, and I think the right hon. Gentleman will see that France, America and other members of NATO are keen to see that happen.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s response, but my main concern is that he may still miss the full opportunity available to him. If he could commit Britain to working fully with France and others on European defence—which, frankly, we have not done before now—he would be in a stronger position to ask them to commit more money and troops to Afghanistan. Does he recognise that there is a good bargain to be had, which would be of enormous help to our overstretched service men and women for many years to come?

European defence co-operation is important. I think the hon. Gentleman will know that it exists in many areas, and particularly between Britain and France. I have talked directly to President Sarkozy about what more we can do together in Afghanistan and other places. We must also remember that we are talking about the British armed forces: the British Army, the British Navy and the British Air Force. We will defend our right to make our own decisions as well.

The case for the partial sale of Royal Mail is crumbling and opposition is growing across the country and in this House. Is it not about time that the Government dropped that unwanted and unnecessary measure from its postal services reforms?

I know that my hon. Friend has never been a supporter of the course of action that the Government have proposed, but I ask the House to look at this issue. The Royal Mail has a pension fund deficit that is going to approach £8 billion. It has investment needs that it needs to meet for the future. It also wants to continue, as we want it to continue, the universal service obligation. It makes sense to try to find additional investors in the Royal Mail to enable us to meet our commitment to the pensioners, to maintain the universal service obligation, to keep the post office network, with the additional investment that we are making in it, and of course to give maximum support to the postal workers in our country, whom I support as well.

Q2. Savers have been hammered by falling interest rates, clobbered by falling share prices and shortly will suffer from the inflationary consequences of what we describe as quantitative easing. Does the Prime Minister not believe—I say this sincerely—that he owes it to savers, many of whom are pensioners, to have a full debate in Government time in this House on Government economic policies, so that he can honour his commitment to this country at the beginning of his premiership to put the House of Commons at the centre of government? (262193)

We are happy to debate the economy at any time in this House and to be able to show people that we are taking the right decisions to get us through this downturn. I appreciate the difficulties that savers face at this time. The greatest danger to savers has always been high inflation. We have kept inflation low in this country for the past 11 years, and we are looking at what we can do to help savers at this point. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members want to shout about that, perhaps they should look at their policies for cutting public spending. No country in the world is choosing to cut public spending at a time when people are in need of the help that Government can provide.

Q3. The north-east is aware of the importance of regional airports. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the campaign being run by the Northern Echo, “Keep the Region Flying”, which promotes the economic benefits of airports such as Durham Tees Valley in my constituency? Is he aware that the deputy chair of the Conservative party has recently talked down the future of Durham Tees Valley airport, threatening future prosperity and jobs? (262194)

Regional airports are incredibly important to the economies of all parts of this country. I recognise the importance of domestic air services to London airports for the regional economy of the north-east and for every other regional economy in the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Northern Echo on their campaign. I understand that the aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), has agreed to meet him to discuss these issues. In the longer term, increasing capacity at Heathrow should help to maintain and grow domestic air services.

May I, first, thank the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all other Members who have paid tribute to those who have died in the tragedies that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the past few days? Constable Carroll lived in my constituency in the town of Banbridge. He had served some 20 years, I believe, in the security forces and was due to take early retirement next year. I had the sad task of visiting his home yesterday. While his wife and family are heartbroken, they are resolute that Northern Ireland must move forward.

Will the Prime Minister agree with me that the vermin, for that is what they are, who took out Constable Carroll will be brought to book for what they did; that it is important that, whatever resources the Chief Constable needs, all parties in the Northern Ireland Executive support that; and that these individuals will never be allowed to put Northern Ireland back into the 35 years of hell on earth that we have come through?

I know that the whole House will want to pass, through the hon. Gentleman, our condolences to the family of Constable Stephen Carroll. He was part of a tactical support group that was supporting a mobile patrol unit responding to reports of a broken window in a house. On arrival at the scene, he was hit by a number of shots that killed him. He was the first Police Service of Northern Ireland officer to be killed by terrorists. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can pass on our condolences to his family. I can assure him that I have talked to the Chief Constable twice and have met him subsequently. I have agreed with him, as has the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that he will have the resources that are necessary. We need the co-operation of all communities to bring people to justice. Two arrests have been made, and it is for the police, and then the prosecuting authorities, to make further decisions on that. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a determination to do everything in our power to bring what are criminal murderers to justice and to show that they have no place in the political process of Northern Ireland.

Q4. Why do the Government think that banks are best run in private hands? Why do they favour a return to private investment banks rather than a state investment bank? If banks are too big to go bankrupt, surely it is in the public interest that they are run properly, rather than have public ownership of their private bad debt. (262195)

I know that my hon. Friend has not come to these views just in the last few months, but has held them for some time. For the first time, we have insisted that banks give us a quantitative figure for the amount of lending that they will do. This is essentially a lending agreement between Government and the banks that requires the banks to do a particular amount of lending. The Royal Bank of Scotland, in which we have more than 80 per cent. of shares, has agreed to £25 billion of extra lending this year and next year; Halifax Bank of Scotland Lloyds TSB has agreed to £14 billion of extra lending on top of its previous commitment; Northern Rock has agreed to £9 billion. This is an example of how, having learned the lessons of the last few years, we are determined to insist that the banks do their duty by the public.

Q5. Forty-five council staff in Chesterfield are about to lose their jobs to pay for the Government’s mistakes in introducing the national concessionary bus fare scheme last year. Thirty councils have been badly underfunded, Chesterfield by £1.5 million. Yet some councils have been given too much; next-door Bolsover has been given £400,000 more than it needs. There is still time for the Prime Minister to intervene with the Department for Transport to sort out the mess and save those 45 jobs. Will he do so? (262196)

I hope that the whole House will agree that concessionary travel—the new free bus pass for the over-60s that allows them to travel around the country—is a good invention and a good thing to do. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that we have given support to local authorities. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the Minister concerned, and with Chesterfield borough council and Derbyshire county council. The issue is how much money they receive for the operation of the scheme. Chesterfield is receiving an extra £416,000 as a borough council, in addition to existing formula grant funding for the pre-existing other elements of the statutory bus concession. We will look at any points that he raises, but the important thing is that the concessionary bus scheme for the over-60s is working and will continue to work.

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in Bolsover, they vote Labour and have not put in a tinpot Liberal council like Chesterfield? Is he also aware that this so-called Liberal council, which has been there for a few years, lost control of its finances generally long before the bus scheme was introduced? So whatever he does—I am sure he will look at the figures—the Prime Minister must make sure that Bolsover retains the money that it properly gets from this Labour Government and make sure that we are able to carry out the bus travel scheme as in the past.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—and he has also held these views for many years. The free bus pass for pensioners, and what we have done in raising the winter allowance and the basic pension, as well as the pension credit and free eye tests for pensioners, show that we are the party and the Government who are trying to serve the needs of the elderly of this country, and we will continue to do so.

It may not matter to Conservative Members, but people have at least £20 more in their pockets every month; people have more money in their pockets, which they can decide to spend or save. The European Union agreed yesterday that in certain other cases VAT would fall. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, the effects of this are giving people more discretionary spending power, and that is the right thing to do. Only the Conservative party could scorn an attempt to give £20 a month to every family in this country.

I thank the Prime Minister for his meaningful and measured presence in Northern Ireland on Monday morning. I previously recorded condolences in this House to the two soldiers who were murdered in Antrim, and I visited Constable Carroll’s family last night. Does the Prime Minister agree that those young people whom the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA are seeking to recruit need to know that the lesson of Monday night is that the real patriots serving the peace of the new Ireland were Constable Carroll and his colleagues, who went to answer the call of a woman in stress, not those who brutally murdered him? While the Prime Minister has affirmed the determination of all parties to make sure these groups are not able to set us back politically, will he also assure us of his determination that they will not succeed in their other immediate aim of setting back the policing environment?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. He was at the meeting of all the political party leaders on Monday that was convened in Belfast. All leaders attended: all leaders said they were determined to root out violence; all leaders said that it was important to help the police in their task; and there was a unity of purpose, which is now reflected, I believe, in the peaceful and dignified marches in Northern Ireland today, to show that the whole of the public want to see an end to violence. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those who gave their lives are true patriots, and we will never forget them; they are in our memories for ever.