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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dissident Republican Groups

1. What steps the Government are taking to prevent the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. (269403)

Dissident republican groups have nothing to offer but violence and suffering and are funded by criminal activity. Resources for the prevention of recruitment are shared between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office.

Is the Secretary of State aware of reports that dissident groups are using social networking sites, websites and blogs to recruit young people, some of whom may be as young as 13? Will he say what he is doing to tackle that and, in particular, whether he will consider taking down any offensive material promoting terrorism or violence that appears on social networking sites, or blocking access to any such websites?

I have been made aware of this, and the police are indeed investigating it. The site itself has vowed to remove materials that it considers illegal, defamatory or fraudulent or that infringe or violate any individual’s rights. There are clearly some legitimate concerns, and obviously the police will act if there is any evidence of activity of a criminal nature going on. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Whether this activity is done on social networking sites or in any other way, these organisations are criminal organisations and we need to ensure that young people realise that they are just that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one good way of helping to disarm the dissidents of some of their twisted logic would be for us to achieve completion on the political institutions and policing through the devolution of justice and policing? Does he also agree that a bad way of trying to convince young people to stay out of dissident violence is for some people to pretend that violence in the past was somehow morally justified or circumstantially different from the awful, brutal and futile violence now? It was always counter-productive—then and now—and young people see through hypocrisy and dishonesty when it comes from an older generation.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. I simply say that it is incumbent on all of us to ensure in whatever way we can that we reach young people and make them realise that these criminal groups have nothing to offer them now and will have nothing to offer them in the future. I also agree with him that we should now complete devolution, because that will clearly be the strongest signal of all that politicians in Northern Ireland have the confidence to say to young people, “Leave the future to the legitimate, elected people of Northern Ireland.”

Would this be a fitting moment to pay tribute to Sir Hugh Orde, who has constantly warned us about dissident republicans and the threats that they pose? Has he not been an exemplary leader of the PSNI and given incalculably good service to the people of the United Kingdom throughout his period in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for this opportunity to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the contribution of Sir Hugh Orde as Chief Constable. For seven years he has provided outstanding leadership and helped to change the face of policing in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely not in any way to diminish the extraordinary work that was done by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but it is to recognise that, in the face of the Patten report and the changes that came about, and by building confidence across the entire community in Northern Ireland, he has led that change and been a great leader. We owe him a very great debt indeed.

May I agree with my right hon. Friend about Hugh Orde? As Secretary of State, I could not have had a better or more astute Chief Constable with whom to deal.

On the dissident threat, does my right hon. Friend agree that it was aimed not least at trying to torpedo the agreement between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, on the programme and principle of the devolution of policing and justice? Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that none of the parties is deflected by dissident attacks and tragic murders from pursuing their course and completing the process of devolution that is so essential to entrenching stability and peace in Northern Ireland?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is very clear that the criminals behind the so-called dissident attacks set out to destabilise and damage the confidence of the people in Northern Ireland in the peace process and the political process. Of course what they also did, regrettably, although I continue to pay tribute to those who were murdered, was reveal the strength, depth and width of the political process and the peace process. It is stronger today than at any point before, and people in Northern Ireland can have great confidence in their political institutions.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the security forces informed two of their former members in recent days that they were to be murdered by the so-called dissident republican terrorists? Failure to take resolute action to eliminate terrorism will consign the people of Northern Ireland to more years of terrorism. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the light of the severe threat to former members of the security forces, they will be granted the right to hold personal protection weapons?

I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment in the House on individual circumstances and whether individuals might be subject to threats. However, I am prepared to say that we take threats extremely seriously, and the Chief Constable will take all necessary and proportionate measures to protect individuals who may be the subject of those threats. That is why, for example, he is reviewing measures on the retention and use of personal protection weapons.

I am sure that the House is looking forward to the announcements later today from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has had the opportunity to examine our proposals to the Treasury for additional help to ensure that we have a police service in Northern Ireland that can deal with all criminal elements, including threats from so-called paramilitaries.

First, I would like to be associated with earlier speakers’ compliments to Sir Hugh Orde on his great work in Northern Ireland. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Apropos the question, does the Secretary of State know that a consequence of the horrific murders of the soldiers and the police officer is a tendency for police officers to withdraw from the communities that they serve, resulting in an increase in crime and antisocial behaviour? If that continues, there is a danger of recreating no-go areas, which we will not tolerate or accept. Such withdrawal is understandable for personal protection purposes, but it has to be addressed. I ask the Secretary of State to use his best endeavours to ensure that that tendency and drift is stopped and reversed because it assists the recruitment of dissident republicans, including very young people, in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pays tribute to the work of Sir Hugh Orde—I imagine that many hon. Members wish to endorse his comments. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. It is incredibly important that we all do all we can to reach those young people and make them realise that they have no future in engaging in criminal activity. On policing areas that may be especially affected, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that one of the distinctions of Hugh Orde’s policing leadership has been to ensure that the officers of the PSNI carry out community, normal policing. We are doubly resolved to ensure that it remains good community and neighbourly policing, and that there will be no no-go areas in Northern Ireland.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and the Secretary of State about Sir Hugh Orde, who is moving to another job. He did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances, and we should all be grateful for his work. We wish him the very best in his new endeavours.

The most effective way in which to prevent young people from joining dissident groups is a strong legal deterrent, with a very real prospect of arrest and conviction. Under existing legislation, some individuals who are linked to terrorism and convicted of firearms offences have received only suspended sentences. Is the Secretary of State considering reviewing that legislation?

I am always happy to review legislation, with a mind to improving it and making it more effective. However, let us be clear: between the signing of the Good Friday agreement and today, there has not been a significant increase in the numbers of people joining so-called dissident organisations, which we know to be criminal. That does not mean to say that—as with any regrettable gang culture—young, impressionable, alienated, albeit completely wrong-headed, people may feel disposed to be recruited to those gangs. We will take any measures that we can to discourage them—whether legislation, working with the Executive or other steps. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that one of those arrested for the murder of one person in the attacks in early March will be charged with being a member of a proscribed organisation.

Let me look at the issue from a slightly different angle. Following the Omagh bombings, the former Prime Minister passed legislation changing the rules on admissible evidence. However, it was so unworkable that it was repealed weeks after he left office. Is the Secretary of State considering legislating for new and usable powers to curb terrorist activity effectively?

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have a strong record of working closely with the Chief Constable and the PSNI to ensure that he has all the tools available, whether in legislation or resources, as the hon. Gentleman will discover later today, to achieve public order and public safety. I am prepared to look at any appropriate, proportionate measure. However, for the benefit of the House, I would just say to him that, in relation to the attacks that happened at the beginning of March, the PSNI has made some spectacular progress, which has led to the arrest of individuals and charges of murder in the case of both attacks. I am confident that the police service has what it needs, but I am always prepared to enter into more negotiations.

May I associate those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches with the comments made earlier about the ending of Sir Hugh Orde’s tenure? He was always vigorous in making the case for the proper resourcing of the PSNI. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Treasury will not see his moving on as an opportunity to diminish the resources given to policing and, in particular, to community safety partnerships in tackling the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. Does the Secretary of State agree that community safety partnerships have a particularly important role, as do all parties in all communities in Northern Ireland?

Of course community safety partnerships have an extremely important role to play, both in the context of the resources in the original comprehensive spending review settlement for the PSNI and crucially, as the hon. Gentleman will see from what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor may have to say later today, in relation to the police service and the resources required in Northern Ireland to meet the current criminal threats that are operating there. The hon. Gentleman will see that the Government are indeed a staunch friend of law and order in Northern Ireland.

Cross-Border Traffic

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on levels of cross-border traffic between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to take advantage of different duty levels. (269404)

I have had no such recent discussions. Policy relating to rates of duty is the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, while responsibility for the promotion of business in Northern Ireland is largely devolved to Northern Ireland Ministers.

The Minister will be aware of the huge increase in volumes at the border, with people trying to take advantage of both different duty rates and the collapse of sterling, thanks to his Government. What specific involvement has he seen of organised crime and paramilitary groups in that increased trade?

The price of particular items on either side of the border will reflect a range of factors, including the value of the currency, VAT rates and duty rates. People will act rationally and make choices accordingly. However, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important issue, which is the need to deal with those who would manipulate the border as a way of conducting illegal activity. We have established an illegal fuel enforcement group under the Organised Crime Task Force. Yesterday it had its most extensive operation yet, when 19 premises north and south of the border were raided. Huge volumes of illegal fuel were seized, as well as vehicles and cash. We take the issue extremely seriously and there will be more action to follow.

What discussions, if any, has the Minister had with the Irish Government and, in particular, with the Irish Finance Minister on cross-border activity and mutual matters?

Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to have discussions with the Finance Minister of the Irish Government, because such matters go beyond my responsibilities. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I have certainly had many discussions with the Justice Minister of the Irish Government about how we can co-operate to ensure that those who deal in illegal fuel are dealt with and brought to justice.

I acknowledge the good work that was done yesterday on apprehending fuel launderers along the border, but would the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to hon. Members who are here for Northern Ireland Questions that there should be so much noise.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in the communities in Northern Ireland about the lack of further action against fuel launderers? Does he acknowledge that more work needs to be done between the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure that a real focus is brought to this issue?

That is what the Organised Crime Task Force does: it brings all those agencies together in a focused way. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that people are impatient for action when they see illegal activity being carried out. We will seize assets that have been criminally acquired, and ensure that people are prosecuted when that is appropriate. When people commit serious offences, they should go to prison.

I welcome what my hon. Friend says about trying to stop the smuggling of fuel across the border. What evidence is there that fuel is being smuggled not only into Northern Ireland but into the north of England and the rest of the mainland? What effect is that having, and what is he doing to prevent the fuel from reaching the mainland?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important issue. Criminal networks in Northern Ireland might seek to bring their illegal fuel over to England and Wales and beyond. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs leads on all this work, and operates right across the United Kingdom. We take this matter very seriously.

The Minister has already referred to the seizure of large amounts of fuel. As he said, 175,000 litres were seized yesterday, along with €22,000, four mobile laundering plants and 12 vehicles. I would like to congratulate the police and customs authorities on both sides of the border who have done extremely well in making these seizures, but it is worrying that as many as 15 to 20 organised crime gangs are involved in smuggling fuels including red and green diesel. What assessment has the Minister made of the full extent of this problem?

The assessment that I have made leads me to believe that the only way to deal with this issue is on a cross-border basis. That is why the fuel fraud enforcement group involves Revenue commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland as well as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the PSNI; it is a collaborative effort. The hon. Gentleman could add to the list that he just read out the 25,000 litres of toxic waste, which would otherwise have been poured into the environment, that was rescued yesterday. Those who conduct this kind of activity have no regard for human life or for the wider environment.

Supervision of Offenders

3. What recent steps he has taken to strengthen mechanisms for the supervision of offenders following their release from prison in Northern Ireland. (269406)

This month, I have introduced electronic monitoring and extended post-custody supervision so that more offenders will be managed by the probation service on release from prison. Both these measures will strengthen the management of offenders in the community.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and the policy. Can he reassure me that the extra burdens that the policy will place on the Northern Ireland probation service will be matched by extra resources in order to implement it? Otherwise, its impact could be severely reduced.

Until very recently, the only offenders coming out of prison who received supervision in the community were the most serious offenders who had been serving life sentences. We have now extended the provision so that anyone who receives a sentence of 12 months or more will receive supervision after their release. We have been able to increase the budget of the probation service by 20 per cent. to ensure that it can fulfil its obligations and provide the necessary support. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend that we are putting the necessary resources in place.

Does the Minister have any information about the number of offenders being released from prison who might be tempted to associate with, and become members of, dissident groups in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are constantly vigilant of people coming out of prison as well as of those in the community to ensure that we have the necessary intelligence to find out who is associating with those organisations, and to bring them to justice when they commit criminal offences.

Preparing prisoners for their release from prison can be achieved more easily when we have state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities in which to house them in the first place. When will the Minister be able to announce the beginning of the construction of the new prison at Magilligan? He and I, and others, worked hard to achieve the announcement of that new, state-of-the-art facility. When will we see the beginning of its construction?

The hon. Gentleman is a great advocate for the rebuilding of Magilligan prison. I cannot give a precise date when the building work will begin, but I can say that the detailed design work and the preparations are happening right now. I would be happy to meet him and update him on the plans at a suitable time.

Community Halls (Criminal Attacks)

4. What steps the Government are taking to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland in preventing criminal attacks on community halls. (269407)

Community halls play an important role in every local area across Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland works closely with local community safety partnerships and those who run the halls to do everything possible to prevent such attacks.

The Minister will be aware of the considerable concern arising from the attacks on community halls. There has been some suggestion that the number of such attacks is increasing. Can he confirm whether that is the case and, if so, what impact it will have on his estimate of the sums payable under the applicable statutory compensation schemes?

We are constantly vigilant on the issue of attacks on community halls. The number of attacks in 2008 was a significant reduction on the number in 2007, but there is no room for complacency. The PSNI works with those who run the halls in order to protect them. We have extended the compensation scheme in Northern Ireland so that any community hall conducting charitable activities is given further protection.

The Minister will be aware of the very important role of community halls, including Orange halls, in rural and urban communities across Northern Ireland. We welcome the—[Interruption.]

Order. This noise is unfair to hon. Members who are in the Chamber for Northern Ireland questions.

We welcome the recent changes to the compensation legislation, which mean that halls will be properly compensated when they are the subject of an attack. Will the Minister continue to work with us to drive down the cost of insurance for community halls so that those who run them for the benefit of the community will not suffer the penalties that they suffered in the past?

I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those who run these halls. Whatever the organisation that runs them across Northern Ireland, they are a huge additional bonus to any community in providing very important resources. Of course, the recent extension of the compensation scheme—the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that it has taken place—has been a significant factor in helping to keep the insurance premiums down. I am happy to continue to work with him and with all organisations in order to make continued and steady progress.

Dissident Political Organisations

5. What recent estimate he has made of the size of membership of dissident political organisations in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (269408)

We believe that there are three so-called dissident political organisations, but it is difficult to estimate the number of members of them, except to say that they have extremely limited appeal because they reject both the peace process and the political process.

The Secretary of State will recall that, last month, the Minister of State told the House about the activities of dissident paramilitaries who were, as he put it, using extreme violence to extort money from drug dealers while at the same time pretending to protect the communities in which they were operating. He quite rightly said that it was necessary to bring such individuals to justice. Can the Secretary of State say what success the PSNI has had so far in that regard?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The PSNI continues to be extremely successful in bearing down on all kinds of criminal activity, including that from so-called dissident paramilitary groups. It is essential for the House to remember that the funding of those so-called dissident groups—they are also, of course, criminal—comes from criminal activity. We will pursue them rigorously.

The Secretary of State has admitted that the security forces do not even know the primary people involved in dissident organisations, let alone what attacks they are planning. Does he accept that that is partly due to the fact that the special branch of the RUC, now the PSNI, was disbanded, so those intelligence sources have been lost and we are now in the dark about what dissidents are likely to do and what attacks they are likely to plan?

I really do disagree with the hon. Gentleman. First, I pay tribute not only to the RUC, but to the PSNI and the security services throughout the period. We should recognise the number of attacks that they have stopped and the number of people who have not died because of their work, which was important not only 10 or 20 years ago, but continues to be important today.

Later today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have things to say about ensuring that the police have the resources that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised they would have. We are determined to bear down on those people and the hon. Gentleman will see actions and words together this afternoon.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

As we prepare to hear the Chancellor’s Budget today, will the Prime Minister detail for us what sort of an impact scrapping the Barnett formula would have on the least well-off regions of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland? Will he resolve that those areas such as Northern Ireland will not be penalised in the allocation of funding for essential services in the Budget?

It has been common ground between all the parties over the last 30 and more years that the allocation of public spending resources in the United Kingdom is based on need. I believe that that is the right formula and the right way to proceed.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, over the last few months, as a result particularly of the pre-Budget report, an injection of resources into Northern Ireland has amounted to £600 million, so that the Northern Ireland economy can do better. He has made his representations about the need for extra policing costs as a result of recent terrorist incidents. I hope he can look forward to the statement that will be made later today by the Chancellor.

The Home Secretary said on Sunday that she is committed to releasing any relevant information into the public domain as soon as possible that would shed light on the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have seen the distress and anger that still exist in Liverpool and elsewhere, and among families and supporters, by watching last week’s memorial service, which more than 30,000 people attended. Will he ensure that all information is got out as soon as possible? That should include not only police files, but health files, local government files and Government papers that relate to the disaster, because the way it was handled originally was a disgrace. The police tried to cover it up and present it as being caused by Liverpool fans. Of course, there was also the disgraceful 3.15 cut-off point for time of death.

I am sure the whole House, on its return, will wish to repeat the sympathies that have been sent to all those families who lost loved ones as a result of the tragedy at Hillsborough: 96 people lost their lives on that day and the inquiry found that actions had to be taken so that something like that would never happen again. I well understand that, even after all these years, the feelings of the families are such that they want to be sure that everything possible was done. So, yes, we will look at how we can release whatever information is available to the families.

I have to say that the Taylor report was a very full inquiry. There was then a further inquiry after 1997 to look into what it may be necessary to do in addition, but if this is a means by which we can help the families in difficult times, even after these years, we will look carefully at what we can do.

Today’s unemployment figures are a reminder of the human tragedy of this recession: young people leaving school and university unable to get a job, and families facing tight budgets as people go on to part-time work or lose their jobs altogether. Before we hear the Budget from the Chancellor, I want to use this opportunity to get the Prime Minister to confirm some simple facts about the state of our economy. First, will he confirm that today’s unemployment figures show that what we have seen so far this calendar year is the fastest increase in unemployment in our history?

That is exactly why we are taking all the action that we are taking. Unemployment is rising—[Interruption.]

There are still 29 million people in work, nearly 3 million more than there were 10 years ago. We will continue to do everything we can to help people into work and help people to stay in their jobs. That is why we have extended tax credits so that they can help people on short time to have a living income. That is why we have taken action to ensure that there are 35,000 more apprentices in our country. That is why this week we introduced a scheme to help people who have been unemployed for six months to get back into work. That is why we are prepared to spend the money and invest it where it is necessary to do so. There is not much point in the Conservatives coming and telling us that they want to do something about unemployment if they oppose every measure that we are taking to deal with it.

The fact is that the Prime Minister’s schemes are not working. The forecast that the Chancellor made in the pre-Budget report of the level of unemployment at the end of the year was reached this morning, in April. That is the truth about these figures.

In terms of the figures, will the Prime Minister confirm that there are now more young people not in employment, not in education and not in training than ever before? Can he give us the figures for that?

I have looked at this very carefully, actually, and there are nearly a million more young people in education, training or work than there were in 1997. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the figures for those aged 18 to 24 or 16 to 24, he will see that nearly a million more young people are in work or training.

Talk about massaging the figures! I asked the Prime Minister for a very simple fact: how many young people are out of employment, education and training? The answer is 857,000. That is the highest number on record. Even before the recession began, it was higher than when Labour came to power. If the Prime Minister will not even acknowledge these facts, how on earth are we going to make any progress?

Let me turn to the public finances. Will the Prime Minister confirm that next year Britain will borrow more than at any moment in our peacetime history—yes or no?

First, on unemployment and young people, let me just give the right hon. Gentleman the figures so that he is absolutely clear. In 1997, 3.9 million 18 to 24-year-olds were working or engaged in full-time education. The figure is now 4.7 million. In 1997, 5.2 million 16 to-24-year-olds were in full-time education or employment. The figure is now 6.1 million. I am giving the right hon. Gentleman the facts, and these are the facts. There are more people in work, training or education than there were in 1997, and I challenge him to deny that fact.

The second issue is public borrowing. In every country, borrowing is rising. The right hon. Gentleman will find that borrowing is actually higher in America than it is in Britain. The reason is that having lost substantial revenues as a result of the economic crisis, we are still prepared to take the action necessary to help home owners, to help people into jobs, and to help businesses. Once again, the question is this: will the Opposition stop deciding to cut public expenditure at a time when it is most needed, and will they support us when we give real help to people now?

What we have heard is a complete failure to address the facts. When the Prime Minister was in opposition, he talked about youth unemployment, not the number of people in jobs. The fact is that since Labour came to power, unemployment is up and youth unemployment is up.

The Prime Minister talks about the deficit. The Chancellor is about to stand up and, I believe, say that we are going to borrow around 11 per cent. of our GDP. There is no other country in the G20 with figures as bad as that. If we do not have a Prime Minister who can accept the facts, we are never going to make any progress.

Let me try another fact. In terms of the recession, will the Prime Minister confirm that, far from this being “not as bad as the 1980s” or “not as bad as the 1990s”, we are now, in Britain, in the deepest recession since the second world war?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has asked that question. In the early 1990s, interest rates went up to 15 per cent. In the early 1990s, inflation went up to 10 per cent. In the early 1990s, the Conservatives did nothing when people were worried about their mortgages. In the 1990s, they did nothing when people became unemployed. And who was the chief economic adviser to the Chancellor at the time? None other than the Leader of the Opposition.

Perhaps on another occasion we can talk about some of the Prime Minister’s chief advisers and what they have been up to. It is about time he realised that as well as bringing the country to the brink of financial bankruptcy, he has brought his party to moral bankruptcy. The truth is—we are going to look at the facts—that this is the deepest and most painful recession since the war. On this day—a day when the Chancellor is going to have to explain that unemployment is rising faster than ever before, that the number of young people not in education, employment and training is higher than ever before, that Britain is borrowing more than ever before, and that the recession is as deep as I said—will the Prime Minister finally admit that he did not abolish boom and bust?

Every crisis that has happened since the second world war has been the result of high inflation pushing interest rates up, causing businesses to go bust and forcing people to get unemployed. That has been the traditional economic crisis we have faced, but this current crisis is happening even when inflation is low and interest rates are low. [Interruption.] If the Conservatives do not want to understand the solution, they will not even understand the problem. This is a global banking crisis, which we are dealing with through measures that in every case the Conservatives have opposed. If they want to do something about the economic crisis, they should support the measures we have been taking.

On this day of all days—on this day of judgment—let me have just one more go. When the whole country can see that we had a boom and we are now in such a deep bust, what is it about the Prime Minister that he cannot admit what everybody knows: he did not end boom and bust?

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we are dealing with a banking crisis that has infected the rest of the economy, and if the Conservative party does not face up to that, it will never be able to solve the problem. [Interruption.] I am not going to go back to the days of the 1990s—[Interruption.]

Order. It is getting to the stage when every day I have to tell you, Mr. Gray, to be quiet when a Minister is replying to this House. You have got to pack it in.

We are not going to go back to the days of the 1990s of 15 per cent. interest rates, when we did little to help people with mortgages. This week we have announced a mortgage rescue scheme that will help—as will our other measures—thousands of families in the country. This week we have announced measures to help young people who are unemployed. The Chancellor will be announcing measures that will not only help jobs, but build for the future. But to do that we have to invest in the future; we cannot cut our way out of this recession. That is the difference between the two parties.

Q11. Contrary to what may have been suggested at the weekend, the Labour Government have done much for the people of Halifax over the last 12 years, and the Prime Minister is responsible for many of those successes. Therefore, may I ask him to reassure me that he will continue to do all he can to protect jobs in the finance industry, in which thousands of my constituents are employed? (269370)

There are better schools, there are more hospitals, there are more Sure Start centres for young people, and there is better provision for the elderly. That is only possible as a result of—in Halifax and elsewhere—the doubling of public investment in our future. I have to remind people that that could not have happened if we had not made the decision to invest, rather than to cut our way through the economy.

Over the last few months the Prime Minister has come up with a shopping list of announcements about creating new jobs, and he was up to it again this morning: 100,000 new jobs from big capital projects; 500,000 people in work by paying employers; 400,000 new green jobs. That is 1 million new jobs he is now promising—jobs that people desperately need when unemployment is now soaring way beyond the worst predictions. Will he tell the 2.1 million people who are now jobless exactly how many of his new jobs have been created so far?

We believe that as a result of the action that we have taken, hundreds of thousands of jobs that could have been lost are not being lost. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to wait to hear from the Chancellor, who will give him a very precise figure when he gives his Budget in a few minutes from now. As for action on employment, when the right hon. Gentleman lists the various things that we have done he is making our point. This does not happen by accident—it does not happen by chance; it is because we have taken action to create jobs that more people have not lost their jobs, as has happened in other countries.

The answer shows exactly what the problem is. What is the point of the Prime Minister’s mortgage support scheme for the jobless, to which he referred, when he cannot even get the banks to join in? How many jobs is he going to create from a subsidy for cars that have not even been invented yet? These are meaningless headlines that serve as a health warning for the Budget, because this is a Prime Minister who makes promises but does not deliver and who raises hopes without giving real help. He should just come clean—he promised 1 million new jobs, so do they exist today, yes or no?

On the home owners protection scheme, I just have to correct the right hon. Gentleman. Many companies have joined that scheme and many companies are now agreeing to have similar schemes to the Government’s, so the idea that we have not acted on this is wrong. First, there is protection for people who have become unemployed and it is at a far higher level than ever before. Secondly, we have agreed with the building societies and banks a moratorium on mortgage repossessions. Thirdly, we have changed the rules that govern court action so that it is a last resort. Fourthly, we have underpinned some of the major building societies so that they can keep people in their homes and people will not suffer the fate of what happened in the previous recession.

As far as jobs are concerned, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to await the Chancellor’s remarks, both on green technologies and cars and on employment generally. I believe that the Chancellor will answer many of the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has put.

Following the success at the G20 in recapitalising the International Monetary Fund, will my right hon. Friend tell me what plans our Government have for the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank in respect of protecting poor people in poor countries from the global recession?

We did agree at the meetings of the IMF and World Bank that more action would be taken to help the poorest of the world. The president of the World Bank has proposed a vulnerability fund, and we have said at the G20 meeting that £50 billion more will be available, in order to help restructure the banks in some of the developing countries and to help people with food, education and health. I have said before that this is not the time to walk away from our responsibilities to the poor of the world.

Q2. The Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in Sri Lanka. Yesterday, the Red Cross described the position there as “catastrophic”, and tens of thousands of Tamils have died there in the past 25 years. Can he give the House an assurance that in the days ahead he will put on the agenda of the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the European Union Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday proposals that might bring a ceasefire immediately and allow not just relief, but independent monitoring of what is going on, so that the bereavement, the death, the injury and the homelessness of those poor people can end before there are any more victims? (269361)

Many Members of this House are very concerned and dismayed by events in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary and I are doing what we can to impress on the Sri Lankan Government not only the need for humanitarian aid now, but the need to press forward with a political settlement, which is the only way forward to deal with the problems that we have faced. I spoke to the President of Sri Lanka earlier this week and I have followed up meetings that we have had previously. I asked him to extend the pause in respect of the ceasefire. I also asked him for humanitarian access to those refugees who have come out, are in difficulty and need help—I have said that the UN should have full access. I also asked whether he would receive a delegation from the United Kingdom, so that we could assess what humanitarian help was available and should be made available. We have had further discussions over the past few days, and I believe that the President will now be prepared to accept a humanitarian delegation, on a cross-party basis, from the United Kingdom. To prepare the way, a Department for International Development Minister will go to Sri Lanka later this week. We will impress on its Government the need not only for humanitarian help, but for a ceasefire and a political solution to these problems.

Q3. The Government have persistently called for an investigation into allegations of war crimes by all combatants in the Gaza conflict. As Israel has now announced that it will not co-operate with an inquiry by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, and as no one will be satisfied with an inquiry by the Israeli defence force alone, will the Prime Minister support calls for an independent inquiry, backed by the full authority of the UN Security Council, so that we can learn the truth of what happened in Gaza? (269362)

We did press the Israeli Government to investigate fully the allegations made against Israeli forces. The previous Prime Minister, Olmert, agreed that that would be done. I have offered the UN Secretary-General full support in his call for an inquiry into the shelling of UN premises in Gaza. All allegations of war crimes must be properly investigated. In addition, I think it important to say that some £50 million in humanitarian aid is now going to Gaza as a result of decisions by the Secretary of State for International Development. People will also be heartened by the fact that the President of the US has asked the President of the Palestinian organisation and the Prime Minister of Israel to visit him in Washington to discuss matters of peace over the next few weeks.

Yes, and I have said sorry that this has happened. I have also written to the hon. Lady personally. We should all say that what happened has no part to play in the politics of this country. It is wholly inappropriate and unacceptable, and that is why there will be new rules and procedures to govern the behaviour of political advisers.

What comfort can the Prime Minister give to my constituents who work for the Ford appendage called Visteon and who have been made redundant in a contrived administration? People have been thrown out of jobs and pensions have been lost. The same has happened to constituents who worked for Nortel.

The car industry, including component suppliers, is important to this country. There are meetings taking place with the companies concerned and we are doing everything we can to help the car industry through this difficult period. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those particular problems.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate Luton Town football club on its magnificent victory at Wembley recently? [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. It was one in the eye for the football authorities and a great boost for Luton. Is my right hon. Friend aware of another boost for Luton and for hard-pressed families in mortgage difficulties, far fewer of whom are losing their homes as a result of our comprehensive support package? That is in sharp contrast to the Tory days when Luton became the repossession and mortgage misery capital of the country. (269363)

I applaud my hon. Friend for her representation of Luton. It is true that Luton won the final and I am pleased that that has happened. The team will be back in the league soon as a result of the efforts made by good local people.

On housing, we will invest in helping people to avoid repossessions. That is what this Government are about—helping people in times of need. But we need to make the decision to invest to be able to do so, and that is what we will do—invest, not cut.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to explain why on earth he is proposing a system of daily allowances instead of an allowance system that is based on actual receipts and need? Apart from sidelining this House again, the proposal is frankly another example of what the public would regard as snouts in the trough, with people claiming money for absolutely nothing. Is not the real reason for bringing forward these rushed and ill thought through proposals the fact that he does not have the courage to sack Ministers who have been abusing the system?

This is a decision for the House itself. The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the present system does not work. The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the present system needs to be changed, and the one thing that is clear is that action has got to be taken immediately. If other people have better proposals, let them put them forward. We are putting forward proposals that deal with the problem, and deal with it now.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that the Information Commissioner recently found concrete evidence that blacklisting was widespread in the construction industry. Given that there was a consultation exercise in 2003, does he agree that it is now time to bring in the regulations to prohibit blacklisting, rather than—and before—going to a further consultation? (269364)

I am, as are the whole Government, very concerned by the evidence uncovered by the Information Commissioner about the re-emergence of blacklisting in the construction industry. In 1999, we established a power to introduce regulations to outlaw blacklisting, and we also consulted on draft regulations in 2003. Evidence at that time suggested that blacklisting had been eradicated but, given that there is new evidence that that is not the case, we are looking urgently at what we can do. We will assess whether the 2003 regulations, amended as necessary, should now be introduced to the House of Commons.

Q6. At their Easter conferences, two teachers’ unions passed motions expressing concern about the presence and safety of asbestos in schools. Would the Prime Minister be prepared to meet me and a delegation from those unions to discuss how those concerns might be allayed? (269365)

Asbestos is a killer disease. It is something that we are trying to eradicate from this country. I would be very happy to meet the delegation that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that the main Barnsley college campus building was demolished recently, ahead of a £50 million redevelopment scheme that has been put on hold? The Learning and Skills Council sanctioned the college borrowing £10 million in advance of the project going ahead. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my two Barnsley colleagues as well as the college principal, Colin Booth, to discuss this issue as a matter of serious urgency? (269366)

Yes, I will, and I hope that we can deal with the legitimate concerns of him and his Barnsley college staff about how we can enhance the investments available to further education colleges. I have said before that further education colleges have got more money this year for new investment. There is a great demand for it. The Chancellor has been looking at the matter and obviously will report in due course about what he can do. However, I fully sympathise with the points that my hon. Friend has made about the position of Barnsley college.

Q8. The Prime Minister has said that we cannot cut our way out of a recession. Why is he foisting billions of pounds’ worth of cuts on Scotland? (269367)

We are not. Scotland has received £2 billion more as a result of the injection of money into the economy, from the rise in pensions and child benefits, and from the cut in VAT and the rise in tax allowances. All that money—£2 billion in total—has gone to Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that that is what is happening, he is living in the dream world of the Scottish National party.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local authority, Greenwich council? It has frozen its council tax for the fifth time in the last 11 years; it has frozen most of its charges; it is providing free swimming for pensioners and under-16s; and it is providing funding so that pensioners and disabled people can use London transport at all times. Is that not an example of fairness and efficiency from Labour during these difficult times? (269368)

Our duty to people in these difficult times is to invest in the future, and not to cut. Our duty is to be fair to other people, and not to be unfair. [Interruption.] It is all very well the Conservatives shouting; half the time in Question Times they are doing nothing—not even standing up to ask questions. I think that they are proving that some of them are part-time Members of this House.