The Secretary of State was asked—
Presbyterian Mutual Society
The hon. Lady will know that responsibility for the oversight of the Presbyterian Mutual Society is a matter for the devolved Administration, as registration is devolved to Northern Ireland. None the less, she might wish to know that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I are taking a close interest in the forthcoming interim report by the administrator.
Bearing in mind that the Presbyterian Mutual Society is in administration mainly because of panic withdrawals following the Chancellor’s guarantee to the UK banking sector, will the Secretary of State persuade the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that a similar guarantee scheme should be extended to provident and mutual societies? After all, what is good enough for the Dunfermline building society is surely good enough for the Presbyterian Mutual Society.
I absolutely understand the hon. Lady’s concern for the 9,500 investors of the PMS, but it is important for her to recognise that there is a significant difference between the status of the PMS and that of the Dunfermline building society, which she has mentioned. It is critical that she understand that the individuals who invested money in the PMS were investors, not savers. She refers to panic withdrawals, but it is also significant to note that no other industrial and provident society has got into similar difficulties. That will not make life easier for the families involved, but I look forward to seeing the administrator’s interim report.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that those who put their money into the Presbyterian Mutual Society did so believing that they were savers, rather than investors? That is how they understood the situation. Young families and old people with lifetime investments are now caught up in grievance and distress because of a situation that is not of their making. Will the Secretary of State explain why a variant of the model used to relieve the situation of the Dunfermline building society is not being used by the Treasury in response to the situation of the Presbyterian Mutual Society?
Part of the answer to that is that the PMS is not a building society. Having said that, I believe that it is significant that when the Financial Services Authority looked into the matter, it noted that the PMS was conducting
“regulated activities without the necessary authorisation or exemption”.
The FSA also states that
“we remain in touch with the administrator and, if further information comes to light relating to the issues we have investigated, we will look into it.”
This is an important matter, and I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping a close eye on it. We look forward to seeing the report from the FSA and from the administrator as soon as possible.
In October, the Treasury guaranteed that no British customers of Icesave would lose their savings after that Icelandic online bank collapsed. The Prime Minister went on to issue a blanket guarantee that its 300,000 UK customers would get all their money back. Why can he not give the same guarantee to those who have savings with the Presbyterian Mutual Society? Does the Secretary of State not realise the gravity of the situation for many ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland?
We do recognise the gravity of the situation, which is why the Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I are keeping a close eye on it, and why the Prime Minister has been in correspondence and discussion with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and looks forward to having further discussions with the First Minister later this month. We appreciate the gravity of the situation, but we equally have to recognise that, under the law, those people who put money into the PMS did so not as savers, but as investors, and that the regulation of this body in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of devolved government in Northern Ireland, not of Whitehall. Nevertheless, we do not intend to say simply that because the matter is the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, we have no interest in seeing what we might be able to do to help. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister continues to take an active interest in the matter and will engage with the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and his colleagues about it.
Since the Treasury Committee took evidence in Belfast a number of months ago on the banking crisis, I have continually been in contact with many of the distressed savers, as well as with the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Dr. Donald Patton. I have also had meetings with Lord Myners and I have written to the administrator, Arthur Boyd. There is an issue here about the Financial Services Authority getting in touch. If the Northern Ireland Executive, the Presbyterian Church itself and Her Majesty’s Treasury got together, I think that we could get a solution. There is a need for added urgency, and I ask the Secretary of State to take that message back to ensure that we get justice for many of these distressed people.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s intervention, and it is a mark of his interest in these matters that he came and took hearings in Northern Ireland. I know that all hon. Members would want to welcome his work and contribution. As I said, the Prime Minister continues to take an active interest the matter, as does my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, and we will continue to follow it up. There are issues about the regulation of bodies such as the PMS in Northern Ireland and they will need to be addressed. There will be lessons to be learned for the future. For the 9,500 investors, I appreciate that there are real and pressing questions—particularly for those who invested less than £20,000. We all have a duty to do what we can to help them—and that also goes for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is very grateful to the Treasury Committee for the initiative that it has taken? We would have liked to look into the matter, but as the Secretary of State says, it is devolved. Every member of the Committee has received representations that underline the severity of the situation, so will he please take up the suggestion just made by the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, and convene a meeting of all the interested parties to try to reach a solution?
As always, I welcome the advice of the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, who always has a considered approach to these matters. I am prepared to work to bring people together. Equally, however—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my view—I am very conscious of the fact that if government is devolved, that must be recognised, and we cannot suddenly be seen to be trying to take control of an issue through the back door simply because we are not quite sure whether it is being handled in the way we might have wanted. This is an issue on which I do not think the 9,500 investors will thank Members of this House or of the Assembly for simply saying, “Bureaucracy means that we cannot help.” I am prepared to break the bureaucracy, and if that is taken in which it is meant, I am prepared to work with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues to help those investors.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said, and he now seems to be warming up and willing to take this on. It does not matter how often he says that the Prime Minister takes an active interest in the matter; the test is whether he is going to do anything with some dispatch. That is what the House wants. It is not a question of devolved administration; the issue has arisen against the backdrop of the economic and banking crisis, which is a matter for the First Lord of the Treasury, the Prime Minister. This House wants him to proceed as if this were happening in Greater London, where 900,000 investors would be kicking up, and everyone would be demanding debates and action this day.
As always, the Churchillian recognition of my hon. Friend is helpful in allowing me to enjoy this a little more; I am tempted to say I am enjoying this, but perhaps I should resist that.
We have to recognise again that these are not savers; they were investors. As such, they made an investment as risk capital in the form of withdrawable shares and loans. There is an issue about whether or not this should have been regulated; it was registered; it should have been regulated. There is an issue that I continue to want the FSA to look at, but I am not trying to evade our responsibility. If we can find a way to help these people, we should do so. I am prepared to break the bureaucracy to do it, if it is at all possible.
It was the Government’s guarantee to other banks and the failure of regulation that brought about the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual. I met the former moderator and the general secretary on Monday, and I was shocked to learn that they had written to the Prime Minister three times since November, but he had sent only one holding reply. I was also surprised to find out that the Secretary of State had not met them. The Prime Minister is the architect of the current financial regulatory system. If his Presbyterian conscience extended to Dunfermline, why will he not apply it to the Presbyterian Mutual?
First, I want to acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman is the most assiduous visitor to Northern Ireland who has ever held the Opposition spokesman’s job. He cannot help but be there at least half of every week, and we should acknowledge that. I just wish that he would sometimes learn a bit more while he was there. As I have said to him, the Presbyterian Mutual Society is made up not of savers but of investors. The issue is devolved, and I know he has a problem with that—of course, his party has formed an alliance with the Ulster Unionists in the hope of making some progress nationally—but the fact is that devolution has happened. He must respect, rather than undermine, devolution. The Prime Minister has taken an interest in the matter and met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on it. We have held discussions, and further meetings will take place. But the hon. Gentleman must respect the fact that devolution does not mean bringing the matter back to Westminster through the back door.
Contrast that with the clarity of the right hon. Gentleman’s successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said at a public meeting in Ballymena two weeks ago:
“I am not here to make spending promises. But what I can tell you is that if I was Prime Minister I would take a very good look at whether people are being treated fairly. So I think this is a real case for the Prime Minister to think again”.
So, will the Secretary of State answer directly the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)? Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to take a delegation representing the Presbyterian Mutual and the savers to see the Prime Minister in the next couple of weeks, to find a solution to protect many innocent people who fear the loss of their life savings?
Once again, we recognise the problem of the 9,500 savers. The hon. Gentleman refers to the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—and I must admit that I know a thing or two about Witney. He did travel to Northern Ireland, and he said to people that he was not there to make spending promises. As my hon. Friends know, that is probably because everywhere he goes he is promising to make 10 per cent. cuts, should we ever see him in government. The people of Northern Ireland should pay careful attention to the words of the hon. Gentleman’s leader, because he would be very bad news for them. He does not understand the problems of Northern Ireland or of the Presbyterian Mutual, or that the Presbyterian Mutual is made up of investors not savers. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will meet the First Minister and Deputy First Minister again to see what can be done to help such people, not with empty slogans and hollow promises but with real action—and not by doing nothing.
I would like to take this opportunity to express the condolences of the whole House to the family of Kevin McDaid, who was murdered last Sunday week, and also to Damian Fleming, who was badly attacked and suffered serious injuries. The Government totally condemn those responsible for those serious crimes. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning continues to make progress with those paramilitary organisations that have engaged with the decommissioning process.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the Independent Monitoring Commission’s assessment of the likelihood of decommissioning by the Ulster Defence Association is that it is difficult to judge what turn events might take and when. Given the qualified position of the Independent Monitoring Commission on judging such matters, what makes the Secretary of State think that any progress will be made within the next 12 weeks?
I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends take in this matter. We have to rely on the IICD for advice on such matters. Its independence means that we do not know what it is doing and where. I have meetings with it, and it has informed me that it continues to make meaningful progress in dialogue with the organisations concerned, but as I have said, if we can find another route for decommissioning, we should take it, which is why we have. Such a system is not adopted instead of law and order, and it does not allow people to retain their guns indefinitely, but it might be the only way to get them in. The House should be in no doubt: if the IICD tells me in August that it has not made meaningful progress, I am committed to ending the decommissioning process immediately.
I wish to associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the horrendous murder of Kevin McDaid and about Damien Fleming. That really was an horrendous setback for our society in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State informed us in October 2007 that meaningful engagement and negotiation had already taken place with the independent decommissioning body. On 1 April this year, he said that if
“there has been no meaningful progress”
in negotiation by the middle of August, he would terminate the decommissioning legislation. Can he tell us what he means by “meaningful progress”? Is it to be interpreted as the handing in of all weaponry by the UDA and associated loyalists by mid-August, and does it mean that there will be no more provocation in regard to the abandonment of the decommissioning legislation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the role that he continues to play in helping to deal with the legacy of the past in relation to sectarianism. I acknowledge that in his opening remarks.
I do not think it is helpful for me to give the House a running commentary on how the IICD is progressing. It has an outstanding track record in achieving decommissioning on the part of paramilitary organisations since its establishment. If the IICD tells me, as Secretary of State, that it is making meaningful progress in dialogue with those organisations, I think that we have a duty for the next 12 weeks to stick with it in good faith.
I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that while decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries is important, it is equally important for the weapons used last night in west Belfast to shoot a young man to be decommissioned, and for organisations such as the Irish National Liberation Army and other republican splinter groups to be brought into the decommissioning loop. It is important for their weapons to be taken out of society as well.
It is important for all weapons to be taken out of society. It is my view that none of these instruments, whether they be guns or whether they be knives, has any place in a normal, decent, civilised society. We have a duty in the House to ensure that we do everything we can to find every means possible to remove these weapons from the streets and from people’s homes. There is no doubt that they contribute to sectarian violence.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has done in this regard. As Father Keaney, the priest who presided over the funeral of Kevin McDaid, said earlier this week, we must all see what we can do to remove
“the prejudices of the past”.
That is the action that we must take together, and I have no doubt that if we take it and maintain the political momentum in Northern Ireland, right will win and evil will lose.
I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I associate myself with what my right hon. Friend said about the death of Kevin McDaid, but is my right hon. Friend aware that press reports are suggesting that members of the police force texted loyalist groups to tell them that tricolours were being raised in the community, and is the matter being investigated?
I am aware of those press reports. Indeed, on Saturday evening this week I spoke to the Chief Constable, who had been made aware of the stories. He has investigated the matter, and I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the Chief Constable can find no evidence whatsoever to support the allegations that were made in the newspaper.
Let me say again that the best way in which we can deal with sectarian violence is by confronting these issues, which are the legacy of the past. We must uphold law and order, we must be firm in our justice, and we must ensure that we do everything we can to send a clear signal to young and old people that guns have no place in Northern Ireland today.
Let me associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s comments about the murder of Kevin McDaid. It was a truly brutal and, indeed, evil act. Does the Secretary of State not accept, however, that its true significance lies in its demonstration that in the minds of those would style themselves loyalist paramilitaries, there has been no movement away from—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Does the Secretary of State agree that when de Chastelain reports in August, we do not want to hear about talks and progress? What we want is confirmation that the weapons have been decommissioned and that there will be no more chances after August.
I have made it very clear to the House that there will be no chances after August unless we are told by the IICD that there has been meaningful progress, so there is no question of the period being extended in the absence of that progress, but again I say that decommissioning in relation to sectarianism in Northern Ireland is only a part of the issue. In the words of the chief executive of the Community Relations Council, we must all talk now about the need for a shared, united society, stop the talk of us and them and unite to turn the hatred of the past into a society of cohesion and normality with no guns at all.
I entirely endorse what the Secretary of State said and condemn the cowardly and murderous attacks on Kevin McDaid and Damian Fleming recently. We hear what the Secretary of State has said about the decommissioning of the arms held by the so-called loyalist groups, but I remind him that, on Thursday 5 February, on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, I reluctantly agreed to support the Government in extending the arms decommissioning amnesty for the 12th year on the specific promise that there were moves to start decommissioning within weeks. That has not happened. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if arms decommissioning has not taken place by the August deadline, he will make a statement in the House immediately?
I again say to the hon. Gentleman that we should remember that the work of the IICD has achieved a transformation of weapons held by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, not least those weapons held by PIRA. In a succession of instances with regard to decommissioning, that has led to the current state of play. I am grateful for his support this year on that matter, but it will not help the work of the IICD if I make a running commentary on information, including Security Service information. I simply say to him that I believe that it was the right thing to do and I believe that in August he will see the fruits of that labour.
Community Projects (Funding)
I have had no such discussions as national lottery matters and the listed places of worship scheme are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I understand that, in addition, the Northern Ireland Departments operate several funding programmes which are open to Northern Ireland churches and other faith-based organisations.
Is the Minister aware that churches and faith-based groups have made a valuable contribution to local communities and to wider society in Northern Ireland—a cost-effective contribution, mostly volunteer led? A recent study has shown that 70 or 75 per cent. of volunteer activity around youth groups is led by faith-based groups. Many of those groups have ethical difficulties availing themselves of lottery money. Has he done anything, or can he offer any suggestions? Will he meet those people in an effort to find alternative sources of funding?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the churches in Northern Ireland and faith-based organisations that provide so much by way of community activity, particularly aimed at young people and excluded people. There is a range of funding opportunities for church groups that have a problem with the national lottery. They can apply to different Departments in Northern Ireland. I hope that, with the transfer of money from dormant bank and building society accounts, there will be future opportunities and that faith-based groups will have less of a problem in applying under those schemes.
I knew this question was important, but I did not know that it deserved the acclaim it got from the House earlier.
Does the Minister recognise that in many communities churches provide the main source of community activity for the elderly, the young and others, and that because of some deeply held beliefs the infrastructure that would normally be funded through the lottery fund cannot be funded? Will he look at ways of ensuring that those areas that require and rely on church facilities are not disadvantaged?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. It is true not only in Northern Ireland, but in all our constituencies, that churches and faith-based organisations make a real difference. I acknowledge the problems some churches have in making applications to the national lottery. I say again that the new dormant bank and building society accounts proposal might be a way of getting money to those organisations. They play an important part, but I am sure, too, that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the £773 million invested in communities in Northern Ireland through the national lottery has also made a huge difference to local communities.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of the seven servicemen who have lost their lives since we last met: Corporal Stephen Bolger of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment; Lance Corporal Robert Richards of the Armoured Support Group, the Royal Marines; Lance Corporal Kieron Hill of 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment; Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett of the Light Dragoons; Fusilier Petero Suesue of 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Sapper Jordan Rossi of 38 Engineer Regiment, the Royal Engineers; and the soldier from the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, who was killed yesterday. These are exceptionally brave men, whose service should not, and will not, ever be forgotten. Recent operations have shown that we will not allow the Taliban to jeopardise the future of a free and democratic Afghanistan, and the whole country should be rightly proud of the sacrifice these men have made.
I have also to report that we have strong reason to believe that a British citizen, Edwin Dyer, has been murdered by an al-Qaeda cell in Mali. I, as will the whole House, utterly condemn this appalling and barbaric act of terrorism. Our thoughts and condolences are with the family. I have talked to the President of Mali. He knows he will have every support in rooting out al-Qaeda from his country. I want those who use terror against this country and against British citizens to know beyond doubt that they will be hunted down and brought to justice. There will be no hiding place for them, and there will be no safe haven for terrorists who attack our country.
This morning, I had ministerial meetings with colleagues, and in addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.
I represent 45 Commando, which has recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan where, unfortunately, it lost nine men. My colleagues and I would like to associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister for these brave men who lost their lives in Afghanistan recently, and also for the family of Mr. Dyer.
Just now, we are seeing the pathetic sight of the Cabinet attempting to reshuffle itself. When will the Prime Minister accept that he has lost all authority and call an election?
There is work to be done every day to deal with the recession. If we had taken the advice of the other parties, we would not have taken action to nationalise the banks, and we would not have taken action to deal with the problems that small businesses face and that people face with unemployment. These are the actions that are needed, and this Government are taking such action every day.
This is a serious issue that needs European co-operation for it to happen. Our target is for 15 per cent. of energy consumption to come from renewable sources. We have spent more than £11 million over the last few years to support solar installations, and we will publish the renewable energy strategy, setting out our strategy to meet these renewable targets. We will work with all countries in Europe to develop a renewables strategy.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from 2nd Battalion The Rifles who was killed in Helmand province yesterday. We will also remember Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett, Corporal Stephen Bolger, Lance Corporal Kieron Hill, Lance Corporal Robert Richards, Sapper Jordan Rossi and Fusilier Suesue. All of them have been killed in the past fortnight serving their country—we will not forget their sacrifice and we must care for their families.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending condolences to the family and friends of Edwin Dyer, who, it is believed, has been brutally murdered by terrorists in Mali. This must be a simply horrific time for his family, and I am sure that everyone in the country is thinking about them. In spite of all the difficulties though, the Prime Minister is right to say that we must never give in to terrorists.
This morning, the Communities Secretary resigned from the Cabinet. That follows yesterday’s announcement that the Children’s Minister is standing down, the Minister from the Cabinet Office is leaving and the Home Secretary is resigning. Why does not the Prime Minister accept that his ability to command his Cabinet has simply disappeared?
I think the first thing that the whole House would want to do is acknowledge the great work that has been done by both the Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary in the Cabinet. At a time like this, the House should come together to acknowledge contributions that have been made in the public interest. May I also say that under the Home Secretary what we have seen is crime come down, neighbourhood policing introduced, the fight on terrorism stepped up and better relationships between the police and the community? I have to remind the Conservative party that crime doubled under a Conservative Government and policing numbers were cut.
The Prime Minister is in denial. If these people have done such good work, why are they walking away from their jobs? The Communities Secretary’s statement does not pay tribute to him or a single one of his policies. Let us be clear about what is happening: the Minister in charge of local government is resigning the day before the local elections. Is not the fact that she has chosen today of all days to go a direct challenge to his authority?
I think some people should take a step back and understand what has been happening. The past few weeks have been difficult for every Member in every part of this House. People have to recognise, in the politicking that goes on, that there have been enormous pressures on people and that while the public are angry, there have also been family pressures on Members of this House. That is true of those in all parts of the House, and I think that we have a responsibility to all Members of the House in this. Yes, there are elements of party politics that the right hon. Gentleman would want to raise, but he has to acknowledge that in all parts of the House there are issues that people want to sort out.
The Prime Minister talks about pressures. I have to say that those pressures on the Communities Secretary and on others in his Cabinet include No. 10 directly briefing against them. The fact is that what we see is a dysfunctional Cabinet and a dysfunctional Government led by a Prime Minister who cannot give a lead. Can he perhaps at least guarantee that there will be no further resignations ahead of his reshuffle?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that for those on both sides of the House the events of the past few weeks have been difficult. It would be unfair for us to pass this Question Time without acknowledging that in each part of the House people have found it difficult with the pressures upon them. I want also to pay tribute to the Communities Secretary for the work that she has done, because she has brought new relationships between local government and central Government with the local government concordat, she has sponsored urban regeneration in shopping centres in our country and she has been active in building better relationships with the Muslim communities. At a time like this, it is the duty of all of us, in all parts of the House, to recognise the contributions that people have made.
As for what he says about the Government, we have two jobs of work to do. One is to clean up the expenses system. I think that everybody else in the House except him agrees that we have to take action now to clean up that system. The second thing is that we have got to take this country through the recession. The remarkable thing about the Leader of the Opposition is that this is yet another week when there has been not one question on policy.
The Prime Minister must understand that the issue here is his leadership. The failure of the Government on appearance is not as bad as their failure on substance. Let me turn to the issue of the economy and let us take just one key individual, the person responsible for steering us through this recession: the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Prime Minister refuses to talk about him in anything other than the past tense. We know that the Home Secretary is going, we know that the Communities Secretary is going, so can the Prime Minister tell us whether the Chancellor, sitting there in front of us, will still be in his post in a week’s time?
Once again, that is nothing to do with policy. The right hon. Gentleman is incapable of dealing with the big issues that face this country. Let me say what this Chancellor is achieving. This Chancellor is leading the rest of the world in taking us out of recession. This Chancellor has taken action that the Conservative party has refused to support. What happened when we had to deal with the banks? What would the Conservatives have done? Nothing. What would they have done when we were helping mortgage holders? [Hon. Members: “Nothing.”] Nothing. What would they have done when we were helping the unemployed? [Hon. Members: “Nothing.”] Nothing. What is their policy? To do nothing. That is not the basis on which to ask for an election.
I have said that the Chancellor is doing a very good job, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would agree with me. The Conservatives are the only party to want an election when they have no policy to deal with the recession. They want an election, but they have no policy to help home owners. They want an election, but they have no policy to help the unemployed. That is a party that talks, talks and talks but has nothing to do with action.
If the Prime Minister is not happy with our policies, why does he not call an election and test them out? The Prime Minister needs to realise how important this is. Why should the British public believe the Chancellor if the Prime Minister does not have confidence in him? Why should international markets have confidence in the Chancellor if the Prime Minister does not have confidence in him? That is why this is so serious. The Prime Minister told us that he had the right team to take the country forward. That team is now deserting him. The Government are collapsing before our eyes. Why does he not take the one act of authority left to him—get down to the palace, ask for a dissolution and call that election?
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman proves to the whole country that there is absolutely no substance in anything that he says. We have to clean up the electoral system, and we are doing that. We are cleaning up the expenses system. The second thing that we are doing is cleaning up the economy and ensuring that it comes out of recession. The party opposite has no policies to deal with that. It is words, words and words. We will get on with the action.
My right hon. Friend has worked hard, along with the Business Secretary, to bring about a positive solution to the future of Vauxhall. Many of my constituents, of course, are not aware of what has happened behind the scenes. Will my right hon. Friend give them the assurance that the Government will continue with the high level of support that is being offered and will the Government distance themselves from the statements that it is not desirable to rescue the motor industry that have been made by the Liberal Democrats?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a great supporter of Ellesmere Port and the car industry there. This is what people in the country are concerned about: the jobs of workers in car factories and in the car supply industry. That is why we have been working with General Motors and the two potential buyers. We are now working with the preferred buyer for General Motors and our determination is to save Vauxhall jobs in this country and to make sure that people have a secure future. We have also, as hon. Members know, introduced a scheme that allows people to sell cars that are more than 10 years old, and now 35,000 people have bought cars as a result of that, so we are doing whatever we can to move the car industry forward. I just have to say to this House that that would not be possible unless we were prepared to put public funds into making that happen; I am afraid that that is rejected by the Opposition.
I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families of Fusilier Petero Suesue, Sapper Jordan Rossi, Lance Corporal Robert Richards, Lance Corporal Kieron Hill, Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett, Corporal Stephen Bolger, and the soldier from 2nd Battalion the Rifles who died yesterday. As has been said, they all served with great distinction and courage in Afghanistan. Of course, I would like to support the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence extended to the family and friends of Edwin Dyer.
We can now see that the Government are in total meltdown. The Prime Minister is thrashing around, fighting for his own political survival, but does he not understand the extreme danger to our democracy when people start feeling that there is simply no one in charge?
The dangers are when one does not deal with the problems that are before us. One of the problems is to deal with the expenses system in the House of Commons, and the second is to deal with the problems and challenges of the economy. I thought that the Liberal party would support us in the action that we are taking to help the unemployed, to help home owners, and to help small businesses, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not join the other party in talking only about things other than policy. The country wants us to talk about what we are doing to help it.
The Prime Minister just does not get it. His Government are paralysed by indecision, crippled by in-fighting, and exhausted after 12 long years. It is a tragedy that exactly at a time when people need help and action, the country does not have a Government; it has a void. Labour is finished. Is it not obvious that the only choice now is between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats?
I seem to remember the Liberals saying that at every election that I have ever fought. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the country needs action, and the action is coming from this Government. If he will listen to what we are doing, I think that he will find it very difficult to oppose the measures that we are taking to help the car industry, to help the banks, to help the unemployed, and to help those people who are home owners. We are the party with the ideas about how to take this country out of recession; neither of the main Opposition parties has anything to offer us.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When a Conservative council has cut the decent homes programme, and cut back on the investment in it, one does not need to look into a crystal ball to see what the Conservatives will do; one can see it in the action that they are taking to cut decent homes in a constituency. I support my hon. Friend in taking up the case of the many people in his constituency who are looking for decent homes, and who look to their council to provide them.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that the problem of Members’ allowances falls within the remit of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, and should be left there until it reports? The right hon. Gentleman has hinted that he wishes to gain a reputation as a constitutionalist over the issue, so may I suggest to him that as he is almost uniquely unsuited to play the role of a latter-day Thomas Jefferson, he should in fact look to the existing constitution and do as almost everyone in the country would ask him to do—use that traditional constitution to ask Her Majesty to dissolve this Parliament, so that the country can elect a new one?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s 300-year perspective on these issues. It is right that Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee report. It is also right that we take further action to end the system of self-regulation in the House. It is not right that there emerges a conflict of interest between the public interest and MPs’ interest. That is in none of our interests. Everybody wants it to stop. That is why an external regulator is of greater benefit to us, as well as being supported, I believe, in the whole country.
The whole House will want to honour today the sacrifice and service of all those people who were involved in the D-day landings, and all those who were involved in the sacrifice and service that made possible victory in the second world war and the peace that we now enjoy as a result. I want to pay tribute to the individual veterans who are still part of the Royal British Legion. I talked to the treasurer of my branch of the Royal British Legion only a few days ago. We have a delegation of the Royal British Legion coming in to see the Pensions Minister this afternoon. She is proposing that pension credit could be put in a new form, where it could be seen as a rebate. That will be discussed this afternoon. We want it to be as automatic as possible for pensioners to get their right, so we are prepared to discuss how we can move matters forward. I hope all sides of the House will support such a move.
That is not correct. Thousands of people are being helped with the various schemes. The first is the mortgage income support scheme for people who are unemployed, which is now available for those with houses worth under £200,000, and large numbers of people are claiming that. The second is the moratorium that is available on people’s building society and bank payments, which we negotiated with building societies. The third is the shared equity scheme, where we are prepared to buy a share of the house to help people move forward. Discussions on that are moving forward for large numbers of people. The fourth is the measures that we are taking to deal with the way in which the banks approach mortgages in the first place.
The recent report of the Council of Mortgage Lenders said that it expected repossessions to be far less than it had predicted, as a result of the action that we are taking. Any repossession is to be regretted. There are many circumstances in which repossessions happen—for example, if there is a family break-up which is nothing to do with the financial situation of an employee—but there are other situations where repossessions are caused by the lack of money. We are trying to help those people to maintain their mortgages and renegotiate them. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that no Government have done more to help mortgage payers to prevent repossessions. That is what a Labour Government are about. We will not walk by on the other side.
Mr. Shields, as everybody knows, has applied for a free pardon within the terms of the High Court judgment that was handed down on 17 December. I understand the Shields family’s concerns about delay. They have waited a long time. He has a large number of supporters. The Justice Secretary is determined to make the best and fairest decision he can, but he can do so only after, in the public interest, assessing all the material that is available. He expects to write to Mr. Shields’ lawyers later this month.
We have taken millions of people out of poverty. We have taken children out of poverty and we have taken pensioners out of poverty, and we have set new targets for child poverty and for pensioner poverty. As a result of this Labour Government, child benefit has been raised, working families tax credit has been introduced, and child tax credit has also been introduced, taking 1.5 million people out of poverty in itself. If we had followed the policies of the Scottish National party, we would be in a far worse position.
All Members want to show that they are undertaking public service, and that they are in it not for what they can get but for what they can give. But one of the issues that repeatedly comes up is Members’ second jobs, and it is right that Sir Christopher Kelly looks at the matter. [Interruption.] I hear some murmuring on the Opposition Benches. Methinks that they protest too much.
We have already had a long debate in the House, some time ago, when I showed that the funds of pension funds doubled in the 10-year period that I was Chancellor. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, all our changes made it possible for the pension funds to have large sums of money. The issue, however, as he knows perfectly well, is that pension funds’ income depends on what happens on the stock exchange as much as on anything else, and he must know that that is what has affected most pension funds recently.
We will lead the way at the G8 summit in proposing how we can solve the two problems that prevent a Copenhagen agreement. First, we need agreement on intermediate targets for carbon emissions reduction, and that requires us to persuade China and India, as well as America and Japan, to join the group of people who are prepared to commit to those targets. Secondly, finance must be provided to enable developing countries and emerging markets to make the investments that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions in those areas. We will come up with financing proposals, which we hope other countries will be prepared to support, but I must repeat today—I think it is relevant, because tomorrow people are voting on issues of Europe—that that cannot happen without co-operation across the European Union. Those parties that want to break from the European Union will have neither an economic policy that works for Britain nor an environmental policy. That is what we need, and we are going to push forward.
Once again, my hon. Friend is proving that the problem that we have to deal with is a global financial recession. Britain is coming through that by taking the right policies. The Opposition party is the first party to go into an election tomorrow with no policy to deal with the economy.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be fair and acknowledge that the Home Secretary has also led the way on tougher sentences on domestic violence, including in domestic violence courts. This Government, led by the Leader of the House as well as the Home Secretary, have a record in taking on domestic violence by also funding centres for women throughout the rest of the country. That is vital public expenditure, and we believe that it is important for the health of this country. We will continue to support that measure to help women in our country.
The Prime Minister talked about policies as we go into the European elections tomorrow. Can he confirm that, under the Labour Government, 700,000 companies work with the European Union, that 3 million jobs relate to the European Union and that 60 per cent. of our trade is with the European Union? Which party goes into the elections tomorrow with the better record?
My hon. Friend will also know that EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, has said that the Conservative European policy
“is bound to reduce our influence in Europe”.
When the Conservative leader cannot talk to the German Chancellor, the French President or people in Spain and Portugal—[Interruption.] The German Chancellor said that she would not offer the hand of friendship to those who opposed the Lisbon treaty. When the right hon. Gentleman can talk politics about his European group only with a Czech forum, which also supports the Lisbon treaty, he is in real trouble.
Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly?
Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr. David Drew, supported by Julia Goldsworthy and Mr. Nick Hurd, presented a Bill to amend the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 to make further provision regarding the consideration of proposals and the representation of parish councils; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 104).