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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2009

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Inward Investment

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of greater political stability in Northern Ireland on levels of inward investment. (283753)

While inward investment is of course a matter for the devolved Administration, both current and future levels of investment from outside the UK depend on maintaining political momentum and demonstrating the strength of political stability in Northern Ireland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is right that the political situation in Northern Ireland is a lot better, but would it not also help if investment on Government projects was directed into areas such as Northern Ireland, so that people could concentrate more on work than on political unrest?

My hon. Friend is right to point to the effects of Government investment, and I am very pleased that the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland are making extremely good use of it. I congratulate the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who is here today, on the work that he is leading in that regard. It may be worth remarking that, this year alone, nearly 43 inward investment projects—in excess of around £800 million, I believe—are being conducted in Northern Ireland.

While the Secretary of State rightly draws attention to the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive met their own targets for the last financial year, ending on 31 March, the economic downturn will make things much more difficult in the year ahead. Northern Ireland has a first-class package for inward investment, with a young and well-educated work force and a very good record in innovation, research and development. However, does he agree that the bottom line when he or anyone else has visited America or elsewhere in the world is that people want to know that violence has ended and that there is political stability? The twin evils in respect of getting investment back into Northern Ireland and getting our economy going are those who use the bomb and the bullet to kill and cause bloodshed there, and those wreckers who are attempting to bring down the political institutions.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the work that he has been doing to inspire leadership in Northern Ireland, and also on what he has done with the Deputy First Minister in the United States to attract inward investment. They have been extremely successful, especially in the current climate. The right hon. Gentleman is also right to point to the impact of the activities of those criminals who call themselves dissident republicans. Again, I congratulate the First Minister and his colleagues on their achievements, which mean that, despite those criminal activities, Northern Ireland continues to be a place that attracts that investment.

What discussions, if any, have there been between the national Government here and the devolved Government in Stormont about the spectrum of investment in renewable energies and sustainability? Has there been any dialogue across the border with the Government in the Irish Republic on those issues?

The hon. Gentleman will know that that is a matter for the devolved Administration, but I assure him that the British Government will provide every encouragement to the talks taking place. Anything that I can do in a capacity appropriate to the Secretary of State, I of course stand ready to do.

Does the Secretary of State agree with New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, who said that to attract the level of inward development that he thinks is possible a lot of the physical barriers—the peace walls, the murals, the painted kerb stones and the rest of it—will have to be removed? Will the Secretary of State give his support to those politicians in Northern Ireland who are taking a very brave stand on some of those issues?

I absolutely support all those politicians, and again I commend the leadership jointly offered by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on these issues. However, it would be remiss of the House not to record the historic progress that has been made on decommissioning by loyalism in the past few weeks. Again, that achievement is very much the result of a team effort, across the House and outside it. I should like to put on record my thanks to this House for keeping faith with the decommissioning process, which has taken many weapons off the streets for ever.

The Secretary of State and other right hon. and hon. Members, are right to point out that Northern Ireland does stand to benefit from the decommissioning and the peace dividend. However, one problem is that the public sector in Northern Ireland remains disproportionately large, compared with that sector in the rest of the UK. What can the right hon. Gentleman do to change that, bring about greater investment in Northern Ireland and increase the size of the wealth-creating private sector?

This is an interesting moment. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the concern about the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland, and in normal economic circumstances we would wish to press that issue. However, as he will know, a recession is taking place, and this Government believe that it is right to continue with the investment in Northern Ireland; to do its best for the people there; and to not pursue the Opposition policy of 10 per cent. cuts.

Saville Inquiry

The cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry to the end of May is £188 million, including legal costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence.

Is the Secretary of State aware that legal costs are at just over £97 million, that the inquiry has lasted more than nine years, with 920 witnesses and 433 sitting days, and that the report is expected to be more than 4,000 pages long? Does he accept that for the good of the families and the armed forces, the process should be brought to an end swiftly? When will it be?

It is always interesting to hear Opposition Members talk about inquiries, and expressing concern about the cost and the length of this inquiry. That is why the Government wanted the Inquiries Act 2005 to control costs and the number of years an inquiry takes, and why the Government have been very sensitive to the issues of the Saville inquiry in relation to the families. We must never lose sight of the fact that although the cost of the inquiry is rightly a matter for the House, the value of the Saville inquiry has been inestimable in ensuring that the peace process is successful.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the consternation caused to the Bloody Sunday families by some recent words in the House, and can he offer any reassurance in that regard? Can he update us on what further consideration he is giving to the particular needs and rights of families in the context of the publication of the Saville report?

The inquiry is independent, of course, and as such, when it reports is a matter for Lord Saville. He has indicated to me that he still expects that to happen in autumn this year. We should record the fact that everyone in the House shares the hon. Gentleman’s frustration at the amount of time the inquiry has taken, and everyone in the House is very sensitive to the families and to the soldiers who were involved in the inquiry. I am making sure—and I will, of course, conduct these discussions with you as well, Mr. Speaker—that when the time for publication comes, we will be very sensitive to the needs of those families and the soldiers.

The Secretary of State will know that the Select Committee is unanimously concerned about both the length and the cost. Can he give the House an assurance that if there ever has to be another major public inquiry, there will be tighter control over the legal costs?

The hon. Gentleman’s work on inquiries, and that of his Committee, have been a very important contribution. It is a matter for the House to determine other inquiries and when they take place, but if we want independent inquiries, they must be just that. An independent inquiry will, I am afraid, have to be a process whose length we cannot control. In the end we can try and hold the inquiry accountable for costs, but independence must mean independence. If the hon. Gentleman’s wish were to be granted, he would also have to accept some loss of independence, and that may not be what he would want.

On a day when there is renewed concern in Northern Ireland about the amount of money spent by Government on legal costs, does the Secretary of State agree that more needs to be done to cap the costs of legal representation in such cases, because astronomical sums of public money are going into lawyers’ pockets? The public in Northern Ireland and across the country are rightly appalled at this level of expenditure. Can he give an assurance that it will be brought to an end?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that was one of the major purposes of the Inquiries Act 2005 and why we wanted other inquiries that are taking place to do so under the Act or to convert to the terms of the Act. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred earlier to the almost £100 million that has been spent on the legal costs of the Saville inquiry. That is a genuine issue of real concern to the House, but we must recognise that those who advocate open and public inquiries also have to come to terms with the fact that many people who come before such inquiries will want legal representation. Although we will try to bear down on the costs of legal representation, as we have done through the Inquiries Act, we cannot deny people fair representation and justice.

Equality Issues

3. What plans he has for the transfer of responsibility for the equality issues within his portfolio to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. (283756)

The vast majority of equality and anti-discrimination matters are already within the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have no current plans to devolve any of the remaining reserved equality issues, but would be happy to consider doing so if requested by the Assembly.

Would the Minister consider it to be in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and the spirit of equality, for both Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Assembly to continue to ensure that children receive a similar education and are not separated, if not at birth, then at the age of four or five, into religious groups, and learn tribal loyalties, rather than a loyalty to humanity?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in, and commitment to, integrated education in Northern Ireland; he has raised the issue on many occasions. He rightly points out that equality, and a commitment to equality, was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. It paved the way for the great progress made in Northern Ireland in recent years. One of the products of that progress is that many matters are now devolved in Northern Ireland, including responsibility for education, so I hope that he will forgive me if, on this occasion, I pass and leave it to others to comment on those issues.

I suppose that it should be said—I hope that the Minister agrees—that state schools in Northern Ireland do not encourage tribalism.

Leaving aside the as yet undetermined date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, what more rapid progress can the Minister secure to bring about an equitable situation regarding recruitment to the police in Northern Ireland, so that everyone, irrespective of their religious background, has an equal opportunity, and so that merit is the only consideration in such recruitment?

I know that the special provisions in place for recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland are a matter of some controversy, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has very strong views on them. However, he will recognise that when Patten reported, only 8 per cent. of serving police officers in Northern Ireland were from the Catholic community. I can tell him that the figure is now more than 26 per cent. That is a huge change, and it means that the Police Service of Northern Ireland more fairly reflects the community that it serves. We are absolutely committed to disapplying the special provisions that are now necessary when we reach the target of 30 per cent., and recruitment will then proceed in the normal way.

Crime Detection

4. What the rate of detection of crime by the Police Service of Northern Ireland was in the latest period for which figures are available. (283757)

The clearance rate in Northern Ireland for 2008-09 was 23 per cent.—an increase of 2.5 percentage points on the previous year. Importantly, there has been an increase in clearance rates for some of the most serious crimes committed, including murder and attempted murder, as well as serious sexual offences.

I welcome that answer. I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland on its detection rate for serious crime, but the Minister is aware that low-level crime and antisocial behaviour continue to increase. Will he resist any move to disband the full-time reserve, and will he ensure that we get more front-line policing, and a greater high-visibility police presence on the street?

There is absolute commitment from the Policing Board and the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland to making sure that we get as many police officers on to the streets as possible. There is a huge commitment to neighbourhood policing. The hon. Gentleman mentions the full-time reserve; I pay warm tribute to all those who have served in the full-time reserve in Northern Ireland. They have done a heroic job over many years. However, the Chief Constable recently reaffirmed his decision to continue to disband the full-time reserve. There are currently 180 full-time reserve officers on the front line. The Chief Constable has given a clear commitment that all their responsibilities, and all the cover that they provide, will be filled. He has given a categorical assurance on that, and he certainly would not compromise the safety of his officers.

In spite of the Minister’s welcome statistics regarding the detection and resolution of crime, is he aware that the community in Northern Ireland, generally speaking, is frustrated by the failure to prevent and detect antisocial behaviour and low-level crime? Is he also aware that there was a scheme afoot to provide police community support officers? Such a scheme is essential to the resolution of crime, as well as a vital outstanding matter from the Patten review of policing. That scheme was frustrated by the failure in 2007 to provide the funding. Will he now provide that funding?

The Police Service of Northern Ireland received a very good budget for the comprehensive spending review ’07 period—a budget that enables it to retain a police force of 7,500 regular officers. The hon. Gentleman made a point about police community support officers. I can tell him that I see the benefits of PCSOs every day in my constituency, and I look forward to the day when the Policing Board and the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland decide to commit to PCSOs. The hon. Gentleman is right about the need to deal with antisocial behaviour, and yesterday I had the great pleasure of launching the “summer splash” scheme in Northern Ireland, in which young people up and down Northern Ireland will be given positive activities to do during the summer months, so that they do not engage in antisocial activity.

The recent incident at Lisnaskea shows that, to improve crime detection rates, it is essential that republican and loyalist paramilitaries be put out of action for good. The recent loyalist decommissioning is highly significant and vindicates the position that we took on decommissioning legislation. However, a number of loyalist groups are still engaged in serious criminality. How does the Minister intend to reduce their activities?

Again, I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in welcoming support from other parties in this place for the provisions that this Government introduced to extend the decommissioning amnesty period. That has paid off, we have now seen further decommissioning and we should all take heart from that. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: people associated with paramilitary organisations are still engaging in criminal activities. They will be dealt with by the police and by the agencies that form the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, and that work goes on apace.

The misery inflicted on the whole community by loyalist groups is wholly unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that, in order to cut crime and increase detection rates, he needs to maintain unrelenting pressure to force them to end all their illegal activities, disband their command and control structures and give their unconditional support to the PSNI?

I again make the point that the police are at the forefront of the drive against crime, and they can do their job only if they are properly resourced. This Government have provided those resources, and we certainly would not implement 10 per cent. cuts in the funding of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Despite the alleged increase in crime on which the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) is trying to campaign, and despite 40 years of war and conflict, Northern Ireland has the highest points on happiness as against income in the whole British Isles. Will the Minister find out the essence of that happiness in Northern Ireland, bottle it and send it across to the rest of the British Isles?

My right hon. Friend comments from a sedentary position that leadership from the Northern Ireland Office is probably largely responsible.

That is an interesting question, however, and from my own observations over the last three years while serving in Northern Ireland, I should say that what is so important is the sense of community and identity. In the past, those things have played into the hands of conflict, but as we make progress I see them as great strengths that reassert the importance and solidarity of community life in Northern Ireland.

Immigrants (Attacks)

5. What recent reports he has received of attacks on immigrants in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (283758)

These attacks in Northern Ireland are wholly to be condemned. Fortunately, it now seems that they were a relatively isolated set of incidents, and the House will wish to know that three people have now been charged with serious offences.

Why were the police not more aware of the simmering tensions with the Romanians in the local community? Does that not underline the importance of getting effective community policing up and running in Northern Ireland?

With respect, I think that the Police Service of Northern Ireland does an extraordinarily good job in protecting the community in Northern Ireland, and I caution the hon. Gentleman against using the incident to draw a general point. That being said, we should acknowledge that the police said that they did not know enough about the Romanian community at the time. Of course, they are looking at the matter, however, and I am again pleased to report that it looks as though it was an isolated set of incidents.

Margaret Ritchie, the Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for housing, was saddened by the attacks, but not surprised. In light of that, does the right hon. Gentleman anticipate any more attacks, and what provisions have been made against that eventuality?

All of us were extremely disappointed that the attacks took place. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that every political leader, led again by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, condemned the attacks. Regrettably, there can be intimidation in any community, but let us be clear: race attacks should be condemned, wherever they take place.

Does not what happened show that parts of Northern Ireland are still deeply divided and segregated, including the divided communities in Belfast? What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage all Departments across the spectrum to develop the framework of “A Shared Future” and an integrated society in Northern Ireland, so that the process of reconciliation and healing can begin and the community can become genuinely welcoming to people from outside its borders?

As the investment made from the United States indicates, Northern Ireland today is a genuinely welcoming community. My hon. Friend referred to the need to continue to build on “A Shared Future”; the First Minister is here today, and I know that he very much believes in that. But let us be clear. The best way in which we can build a shared future is to complete stage 2 devolution of policing and justice—[Interruption.]

Order. A lot of private conversations are taking place, and frankly the decibel level is too high. That is unfair to the Member asking the question and to the Minister answering it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, whether a person is an immigrant or from the indigenous population in Northern Ireland, all threats, intimidation and murder, whether emanating from a person within the Northern Ireland community or from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, must be condemned and stopped?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Of course such things must be condemned and stopped, and we all have a duty to make that happen. The best example that we can now give the people of Northern Ireland is to ensure that stage 1 devolution continues to work and delivers for people and that we show, sooner rather than later, that the politicians of Northern Ireland can share the responsibility for policing and justice as well.

Bill of Rights (Public Consultation)

6. When his Department plans to begin a public consultation on the proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. (283759)

The Government are currently considering the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s detailed proposals. We aim to publish a consultation paper after the parliamentary summer recess.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given that polls show that three quarters of people in Northern Ireland, from all sides of the community, think that a Bill of Rights is important for the future, will the Minister, after the consultation, commit to allowing sufficient parliamentary time to deliver on that vital part of the Good Friday agreement?

Before we consider the issue of parliamentary time, we need a proper consultation on the proposals made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. As the hon. Lady will know, it provided us with a 200-page document with some 80 recommendations. We are considering all of them very carefully indeed. I look forward to the public consultation that will follow later in the year.

The Minister will be aware that there is widespread concern, particularly in the Unionist community, about the proposals in the draft Bill of Rights. Unionist parties, Unionists on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Protestant Church leaders have made clear those concerns. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not proceed with the Bill of Rights as it is currently drafted and that they will go back to consult the community and take on board the genuine concerns held by many people in Northern Ireland?

I acknowledge that there are many views on the issue, and many views have been expressed. There was, however, one report from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; we have received it, are considering it and will consult on it. However, I offer the right hon. Gentleman the absolute reassurance that he and all people in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to comment on and be part of that consultation.

Equality Commission

8. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on its review of the effectiveness of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. (283761)

The Northern Ireland Office contributed to the Equality Commission’s consultation process during its review of the effectiveness of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Copies of the report were placed in the Libraries of the House on 9 June.

Having recently had discussions with elected politicians in Northern Ireland who find section 75 to be a bureaucratic, institutionalised piece of political correctness, I ask the Minister to consider repealing the provision instead of encouraging such politically correct box-ticking, which does nothing to improve community relations in Northern Ireland.

Why did I think that the hon. Gentleman might use the phrase “political correctness”? I ask him to reflect for a second on the importance of the commitment to equality and fairness in Northern Ireland in the context of the past 10 years. Putting equality and fairness at the heart of the political and public policy-making agenda is absolutely essential to ensure that peace takes the place of violence and sectarian hatred.

While the Secretary of State emphasises the importance of fairness and equality being at the heart of affairs in Northern Ireland, does he accept that the legislation as currently drafted has led to an extensive and unnecessary piece of equality legislation that has led in turn to the build-up of an equality industry that serves few of the purposes that he outlined in his answer, and that therefore any future legislation should be designed to dismantle that industry while ensuring that the principles of fairness and equality remain?

I do not accept or recognise the description that the hon. Gentleman has given. There is a commitment to equality; indeed, there is an absolute responsibility on public authorities to consider all their policies in relation to equality. Where it is felt that there might be an adverse impact, an equalities impact assessment should be provided. The important thing, as the Equality Commission has recognised, is not the process but the practical outcome in terms of the lives that people lead. I hope that in future we will focus on those practical outcomes more than on anything else.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Elderly People (Long-term Care)

I have been asked to reply.

Before I take my right hon. Friend’s question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan in the past week. They were Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commanding officer of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards; Trooper Joshua Hammond of 2nd Battalion the Royal Tank Regiment; Lance-Corporal David Dennis of the Light Dragoons; Private Robert Laws of 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment; Lance-Corporal Dane Elson of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards; Captain Benjamin Babington-Browne of 22nd Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers; and the soldier from the Light Dragoons who was killed in Helmand province yesterday. We owe these men, and all those who have lost their lives in service, our deepest gratitude. They served our country and the people of Afghanistan with distinction in desperately difficult conditions ahead of the very important August presidential elections in that country. They will never be forgotten.

I hope that the House will understand if I take a moment also to offer my condolences to the families and friends of those killed in the fire in Camberwell on Friday.

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), the Government plan to publish a Green Paper on care and support shortly.

I know that all Members offer their condolences to the families who have suffered such terrible losses in Afghanistan—those brave men—and also closer to home in my right hon. and learned Friend’s own constituency.

Given that the cost of care associated with the ageing of our already elderly population is in many respects an unfinished chapter in the history of the modern welfare state, and that it affects many families in Croydon and in all our constituencies, does the Leader of the House agree that we now need quickly to develop a robust social policy that will allow the spreading of risks and costs?

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend who, ever since he was at the Family Policy Studies Centre, has drawn the House’s attention to these issues. With an ageing population, the number of those over 85 is set to double over the next two decades. This is a major challenge for families and for the Government. We will bring forward a Green Paper that will have the objective of ensuring that there is independence and choice in the provision of services, that the highest quality of services is available to everybody, and that those services are affordable for the individual, for the families and for the public purse.

May I associate myself with the remarks that the right hon. and learned Lady made about those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and in Camberwell?

Is not the Government’s policy on the funding of long-term care accurately summarised as being to procrastinate and to delay? Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that Tony Blair promised action on this subject to the Labour party conference in October 1997? Since then, we have had the Wanless review, we have had a zero-based review, we have had several comprehensive spending reviews, and we have had a royal commission—but we have had no action. When will the Government deliver the action that the then Prime Minister promised 11 and a half years ago?

This Green Paper will be a very important next step, but it is not true that we have taken no action. Since we have been in government, we have recognised the importance of family care and those who go out to work as well as care for older relatives. That is why we brought in the right to request flexible working for those who care for older relatives—that is action. That is why we have increased resources for the health services for the many older people who need health care support. That is why we have increased resources for social services, so that there is domiciliary care available to people who remain independent in their own home as well as social services residential care. Yes, we will take further steps and we will consult on the challenges ahead, but it is absolutely not true to say that we have made no progress over the past 10 years. We have.

Q2. I join in offering condolences to those who have lost their lives at home and abroad, particularly Trooper Joshua Hammond, who has a very large family in Plymouth mourning his loss. My constituency is home to a large number of hard-working public sector workers—cleaners, cooks, health care workers and administrators. Public sector workers have an average pension of £7,000 a year. Does my right hon. and learned Friend understand their anger and concern when those rather modest pensions, and indeed their modest pay, come under attack as being somehow unfair or unreasonable? (284663)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are strongly committed to public services and to the work that public servants do, particularly those who work hard, often for very modest incomes, and we make no apology at all for public service pensions remaining an important part of the remuneration package of public sector workers.

On behalf of the Opposition, may I also send our condolences to the families of the six people, including a three-week-old baby and two other children, who died in such tragic circumstances in Camberwell, in the right hon. and learned Lady’s constituency, on Friday evening? That event was deeply distressing to her constituents and the whole country.

I join the right hon. and learned Lady, of course, in paying tribute to the seven servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan in the past week: the soldier from the Light Dragoons killed on Tuesday; the soldier from the Royal Engineers killed on Monday; Lance-Corporal Dane Elson; Lance-Corporal David Dennis; Private Robert Laws and Trooper Joshua Hammond, who were both aged just 18; and Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, who was the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards.

Given those casualties, should we not particularly remember this week that our forces deserve our gratitude and admiration? Are the Government satisfied that everything possible is being done to provide the best possible protection and mobility for our forces there, including the earliest possible increase in the number of helicopters and armoured vehicles?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must do everything possible to ensure the greatest protection for our troops in the field, and there is no complacency about that. We have increased the number of armoured vehicles that have been procured for and made available to our troops, but we are not going to be complacent and there must be more. We have increased the number of helicopters by 60 per cent. over the past two years, but we recognise that we should do more. We want to do more not only for their personal protection but in recognition of the importance of their mission in Afghanistan, not only to that country but to the region and to the security of this country.

We all recognise that it is important to do more, and we will hold the Government to the commitments that the right hon. and learned Lady has made.

Moving on to Government policy more broadly, will she put into plain English for everyone the Prime Minister’s assertion last week that

“total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013”?—[Official Report, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 294.]

The right hon. Gentleman will know that all the figures are set out in the Budget book. Our commitment is clear: we are making public investment now to help to back up the economy, get through the recession and ensure that it is shorter and shallower than it would otherwise be. That means backing businesses, protecting people’s jobs, helping the unemployed and ensuring that people do not face repossession. We are taking action. The right hon. Gentleman wants to concentrate on numbers to avoid facing up to the fact that the Opposition have proposals to cut public investment now—[Interruption.] They have proposals to cut public investment this year, just when the economy needs investment most. I understand that the shadow Chancellor revealed last week that he spends 40 per cent. of his time thinking about economics. It is amazing that he spends 40 per cent. of his time thinking about doing absolutely nothing.

Perhaps the Leader of the House could spend 100 per cent. of the next minute trying to answer the question she was asked about what the Prime Minister meant by a “zero per cent. rise”. Is it not now clear that every single word of the assertion that he made last week is wrong—that total spending will not rise, and there will not even be a “zero per cent. rise”, as he bizarrely called it, in 2013, but that the figures in the Government’s books, which the Leader of House mentioned, show that there would be a fall? As so many supporters of the Government are now calling for honesty about spending, should she not find it in herself to do what the Prime Minister refuses to do: admit the facts of the Government’s figures? Will she come down on the side of reality and say that, on the Government’s figures, total spending is set to fall?

Our honest and committed view is that we need to invest now to back up the economy, not only to protect individuals, who have worked hard to build up their businesses, but to ensure that the situation is not worse in the longer term. How telling it is that the Opposition want only to talk about figures in five years’ time to distract attention from the action, which they do not support, that we are taking now.

There is no need to talk about the figures in five years’ time as the Government’s figures show that capital spending will fall from £44 billion this year—and fall every year—to £22 billion in four years. Is it not an indisputable fact that capital spending is being halved?

I think the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that the reason for the figures is our bringing forward capital spending. We are not cutting capital spending—we have increased it and we are bringing it forward because, given that, for example, the private sector construction industry is facing dire times, we think it right to bring forward capital investment in public construction, not only for the sake of the children’s centres, schools, hospitals and homes that will be built, but for the jobs that that will create. The truth is that there is a big distinction: while we are investing in bringing forward that capital investment, the Opposition would pull the plug on the public sector just when the private sector is struggling.

The Leader of the House’s statement “We are not cutting capital spending”, when the Government’s figures show it declining from £44 billion to £22 billion, is exactly the sort of statement that damages the credibility of politics and the Government. It is no wonder that they are abandoning their numeracy strategy when Ministers will not admit that 22 is half of 44. Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that capital spending from 2013 as a proportion of national income would be below the average for the whole 18 years of Conservative Government? That is the capital spending that the Government intend to deliver. Is it not also true that, on the Government’s figures, the huge increase in debt interest and the rise in unemployment mean it is an indisputable fact that their projections lead to departmental spending falling heavily in the next few years? Why can she not admit the facts?

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned capital spending, and I have made it clear that we are bringing it forward. He also mentioned unemployment, and we are taking action to protect people’s jobs. Unemployment would be growing if we had made the cuts that he is suggesting. When it comes to the estimates on unemployment, our estimate is that if we had not taken the action that we have taken to back up business and protect people’s jobs, 500,000 more people would have lost their jobs. Once again, he talks about figures in 2013 and 2014, but the action that we are taking now will ensure that the public finances are in a better position, because we will prevent the recession from being deeper and longer.

If the right hon. and learned Lady believes that capital spending is not being cut and that unemployment is not growing, it is no wonder the Government are so deeply out of touch with the people of this country and with the condition of the economy. Is it not the case that any Government elected at the next election will inherit public finances that are in an unbelievable mess, after 12 years of a Prime Minister who spent everything in the boom, who thought that the bust would never occur and who believed that he had abolished the economic cycle? Now capital spending is being cut, total spending is being cut and departmental spending is set to be cut. Those are the Government’s own plans. Are those not Labour cuts being brought in by a Labour Chancellor that have been made necessary by the actions of a discredited Labour Government over the past 12 years?

We have rebuilt hospitals over the past 10 years. We have rebuilt schools. We have paid down debt and we are now facing the challenge—[Interruption.] Yes—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Leader of the House, but there is simply far too much noise. Right hon. and hon. Members need to calm down.

And yes, we have paid down debt, so that we have the second lowest debt in the G7. We are responding to the challenge of this recession. The truth is that it is the Opposition who are embarrassed about their past, who are failing to face up to the challenge of the present and who have nothing to offer the future.

May I associate myself with the words of condolence for the brave and professional soldiers who have given their lives in Afghanistan over the past week, as well as those who so tragically lost their lives in that dreadful incident in my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency?

Thousands of people in Scotland, along with civic society, the Churches, East Ayrshire council, the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise, have joined in supporting the work force in my constituency at the Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock—700 of them—and those who work in the distribution plant owned by Diageo nearby. We have also been joined by Members from all parties in Scotland. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join us in seeking to persuade Diageo not to discard two centuries of loyal, hard-working and profit-making contributions to its business in the name of improved shareholder value and will she pledge Government support for that campaign?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is meeting the chief executive of Diageo today, and he will be urging him to think again about the proposed closure of its Kilmarnock plant, as my right hon. Friend has requested. The announcement is very bad news for the workers and their families and will be a body blow to Kilmarnock. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be seeking an assurance from Diageo that it will commit to looking seriously at alternative options that the workers and Scottish Enterprise come up with.

May I add my condolences to the families of the seven brave servicemen who died in Afghanistan and to those of the victims of the Camberwell fire?

In welcoming the Minister back to her temporary job running the country, may I express the hope that when she was briefing the Prime Minister for talks with his friend Signor Berlusconi, she remembered to enclose an Italian translation of her progressive views on gender equality?

My question is about public sector pay. How do the Government expect low-paid public sector workers, whom the right hon. and learned Lady has rightly just defended, to accept restraint in an environment where the Government are allocating to senior management—senior civil servants—large salaries, generous pensions and very large bonuses, averaging £10,000 a head?

We have made it clear that we expect to see restraint at the top of the public sector. It is important in difficult times that those in a leadership position in the public sector take their responsibilities seriously and set a good example.

But that does not address the basic principle. Why is it that two thirds of all senior civil servants expect to receive bonuses in order to get out of bed in the morning, on principle? May I also address the issue of the most highly paid public servants—namely, those who work in the publicly owned and guaranteed banks? Why do the Government simply not stop bonuses being paid within those banks? They are publicly owned banks, owned by the taxpayer. Why do the Government not simply say no?

The Government have made it very clear indeed that we want to see an end to recklessness whereby people have enriched themselves while gambling with other people’s money and given themselves big bonuses as a reward for failure. We have made it clear that we expect action from the Financial Services Authority, and the Chancellor will be making a statement about that shortly.

Q3. Until very recently, I had the great honour of being a trustee of the much-respected UK Youth Parliament, which has been working hard on bringing together proposals for a consultation that will reach about 1 million young people aged between 11 and 18. The consultation will seek their views on politics and democracy. Will my right hon. and learned Friend help me to support the UK Youth Parliament in getting this important consultation out, to ensure that the project is as successful as all of us here need it to be? (284664)

I agree that we need to do everything we can to increase the involvement of young people in politics, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her consistent work on this issue. It is very important that, at last, the House has decided that, when the House is not sitting, the UK Youth Parliament can use this Chamber. You never know—when we see how it conducts its proceedings, we might even learn something from it!

Q4. Cornwall has been satisfying the Government’s house building strategy by growing faster than almost anywhere else. In fact, it has more than doubled its housing stock in the past 40 years, yet the housing problems of local people have got dramatically worse over that time. Rather than grinding on with another 20 years of a failed strategy that has turned Cornwall into a developers’ paradise through building unaffordable housing, will the Government give Cornwall the power to concentrate on meeting the now desperate need of local families? (284665)

We want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s county of Cornwall has not only the power but the resources to ensure that there is more affordable housing for rent and for people to buy. That is why, in the Budget this year, we announced nationally a further £400 million to provide 9,000 more homes to rent or to buy. In “Building Britain’s Future”, which we announced last week, we put forward a further £1.5 billion over the next two years so that we can have 20,000 energy-efficient affordable homes for young families—some of which, I am sure, will come to Cornwall.

On Monday, while some Conservatives were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ending of the dock labour scheme—with Lord Fowler, the architect of that legislation, as their guest speaker—11 of my dock workers were being told that their jobs were ending owing to the casualisation of the port. This is happening despite the fact that Lord Fowler, when he was a Minister in this House, gave an assurance that the legislation would not result in a return to casualisation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in encouraging the employers to return to the negotiating table to secure the future of the port dock labour scheme in Great Yarmouth so that we can ensure continued employment for the future?

I know that my hon. Friend fights hard for the dock workers and for the industries that are dependent on the docks in his constituency. I will raise this matter with Ministers in the relevant Departments and ask them to meet him to discuss taking the matter forward.

Q5. The seven soldiers killed in Afghanistan, whose names the right hon. and learned Lady gave us at the start of Prime Minister’s Question Time, bring to exactly 170 the tragic total of those killed in Afghanistan since 2006. Many people in my constituency are starting to doubt the wisdom of this war and I wonder whether she could remind the House of precisely what our military objective in Afghanistan is. (284666)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We do not want anyone to be in any doubt about the importance of this mission in Afghanistan. It is important to ensure that in the mountainous regions surrounding Afghanistan and Pakistan, we do not have a crucible for the development of terrorism, which threatens people not only in those countries but in the wider region and, indeed, the whole world. This mission is also important for the education of people in Afghanistan. There are now 6 million children in school in that country, compared with only 1 million in early 2001. Our troops have paved the way, working with other international forces, to make that possible. They are paving the way for economic development and a more secure democracy as well as security in the region and the world. We want to make it clear to our soldiers, their families and the people of this country that we have no doubt about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan.

Q11. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that hard-pressed families and businesses alike are struggling to pay the price of fuel at the pump, which has gone up substantially. Will she look to have a conversation with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to see if she can scrap, or at least defer, the 2p duty increase that is due in September? (284675)

There is real concern about the increase in fuel prices—not only the cost of petrol at the pumps, but its effect on people in their homes and on businesses. We want to make sure that there is fairness, that people are protected from the price rises, that there is proper transparency and that help is available for those who struggle to make ends meet.

Q6. More than 300 Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion on Equitable Life, which seeks justice for Equitable Life policyholders. The vast majority of those MPs have joined the all-party group for justice for Equitable Life policyholders, which I chair. Unfortunately, Sir John Chadwick, who has been appointed by the Government to review the compensation scheme, refuses to come before us to interact with us, so will the right hon. and learned Lady use her good offices to ask him to reconsider in order for him to be accountable to us and through us to the British people? (284667)

We all strongly believe that there should be justice for the Equitable Life policyholders who have fallen victim to mismanagement stretching back to the ’80s and to a failure in the regulatory system for which the Government have apologised and recognised the need to set up ex gratia compensation. In order to establish how we should do that, following the ombudsman’s report, we have asked Sir John Chadwick to report on making progress on setting up a framework for compensation. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a statement to the House and there have been debates on the matter in Westminster Hall. We will ensure that the House is updated. This is a very important issue and we will make sure that Equitable Life policyholders get justice.

Q7. May I welcome the plans and funding set out last week to enable local authorities to build 150,000 new council houses over the next 10 years? Does my right hon. and learned Friend have plans to ensure that those houses will be built to the highest sustainability standard and the highest possible level of the code for sustainable homes? Will she ensure that new local authority house building becomes an exemplar for sustainable and low-energy housing in this country? (284668)

My hon. Friend is right: the new affordable home building taking place under “Building Britain’s Future” is important not only because of the homes that it will provide and the jobs that will thereby be created, but because those homes will help to reduce carbon emissions and help the people who live in them to cut their fuel bills. The issues that my hon. Friend raises will be addressed in “Building Britain’s Future”

In March, the Prime Minister told us to expect a statement on compensation for pleural plaque sufferers after Easter. After Easter, the Justice Secretary told us to expect a statement before the summer recess, which is two weeks away. May we be assured that there will be a statement in the next two weeks, rather than an announcement of further delay?

We want to ensure that there is a statement about compensation for those who have developed pleural plaques. It is one of the many vicious respiratory diseases—which can be terminal—that come on people purely because of the work that they have undertaken. We want to ensure that those people receive proper compensation, and following the House of Lords judgment we must review the compensation system to make sure that it is fair to all.

Q8. Like the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), I am very disappointed—as are many of my colleagues—that there is no compensation scheme for pleural plaque victims. The Scottish Parliament is on the verge of introducing such a scheme. Will my right hon. and learned Friend drag the Justice Secretary to the Dispatch Box so that he can make a statement about the English and Welsh victims of pleural plaques? (284669)

My hon. Friend and other Labour Members have made their position absolutely clear. They think this is a question of fundamental justice, they want the Government to get on with it, and we must heed what has been said.

Q12. At Prime Minister’s Question Time about a year ago, I reminded the Prime Minister that no Labour Government had left office with unemployment lower than when they had entered it. His response was that it would not happen on his watch. Do the Government still hold that view? (284676)

I think that no Labour Government have faced the global economic crisis from which this Government are ensuring that the country will emerge, and I think that no Labour Government have done more to protect people from unemployment. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about unemployment, why does he not back the public sector investment that would create jobs, and why does he not back the investment in jobcentres on which we are taking action and which his party would cut?

Q9. York has such a severe shortage of affordable housing that many young people are being priced out of their own city. I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement last week of an extra £1.5 billion for affordable and energy-efficient homes, but will my right hon. and learned Friend ask representatives of the Homes and Communities Agency to meet me, along with councillors from York, to discuss how the additional money could benefit our city? (284671)

I will ask the head of the Homes and Communities Agency to meet York councillors and my hon. Friend.

Is it not telling that whereas both Liberal Democrat and Labour Members have called for more affordable house building, there has been total silence from the Conservatives? That is because not only would they not put in the extra investment, but they would cut the existing investment that is so sorely needed. I assure all Members that we will take the necessary action to ensure that there is more affordable housing.