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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2009

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Saville Inquiry

That date is three days before one of the possible dates for a general election. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be impossible to publish the report during the final stages of a general election campaign? Is there anything that he can do to bring forward the publication of that already overdue report?

The House will understand that it is not for me to speculate on dates of general elections. I can, however, tell the House that I have again met the families and the soldiers, and I am grateful to hon. Members for facilitating those meetings. The families are deeply disappointed by yet another delay; it is agonising for them. The same is true for the soldiers and their families. This delay is causing very real distress, and it is clearly compounding an already very anxious situation.

Given that the publication date that Lord Saville has indicated is a possible, if not a likely, date for a general election announcement, is he aware of the toxicity and controversy that will undoubtedly follow his report in that context?

I had the opportunity to meet the hon. Gentleman in his constituency only a week ago, when I was also meeting the families. I am particularly concerned about the delay. With great respect to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the date of a general election is a matter for him. However, there should be no delay in publishing this report. I have urged Lord Saville, and made every effort available, to ensure that we publish it as quickly as possible.

As well as a statement when the Saville report is published, will there be a full debate in this Chamber in Government time on the report?

The report has taken more than 10 years to produce, and it has cost nearly £200 million, half of which has been spent on legal aid. The report has been crucial to the peace process, and we will study its findings carefully. I say that because I think that the House will want a debate on it, and the Government would want to grant it a debate on the report and its findings.

May I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing to meet a deputation of soldiers? That was very much appreciated. Will he express to Lord Saville our anger at the expense that he has run up, and at the ultimate discourtesy to this House and to the people involved that he has not yet published the report? Please will he express our anger at his incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman will know the concern that I have, for both the families and the soldiers who are part of the report. I am very concerned about the delay, and I very much hope that Lord Saville not only takes my representations seriously but finds the opportunity to read the Hansard of today’s questions, because it is extremely important that he understand the genuine concern across the whole House.

Paramilitary Activities

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of activities of dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. (296667)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the level of activity of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (296673)

I have today placed in the Library a copy of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s 22nd report on the activities of paramilitary groups, in which the IMC states:

“Dissident republican activity since the early summer of 2008 had been consistently more serious than at any time since we had started to report in April 2004.”

Speaking as a former Grenadier Guard who served in Northern Ireland, may I ask the Secretary of State to express his condolences to the families of the three Guardsmen and two military policemen killed yesterday in Helmand province? Does the Secretary of State recognise the contribution to the peace process made by the Grenadiers in Northern Ireland, including building the peace line? Finally, will he tell the House whether the upsurge in violence is due to new terrorist activity, or to the Provisional IRA under another name?

I heard at least three questions there, but one answer from the Secretary of State will suffice.

In answering the hon. Gentleman’s third question, may I associate myself firmly with the remarks made in his two previous ones? In response to his third question, I urge him to read the IMC report, which makes it clear that such activity cannot be attributed to the organised activities of those who may have represented paramilitary activity in the past. The report is extremely clear in laying the blame where it appropriately lies, particularly with the so-called RIRA and CIRA—Real IRA and Continuity IRA. Those groups are extremely dangerous, and a political solution is pressed as a matter of urgency.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the tragic death of Constable Stephen Carroll, allegedly by a 17-year-old, means that we should look carefully again at community policing and at how it helps to stop young people getting involved with proscribed organisations?

The hon. Gentleman will understand why I may not wish to speak about the particular individuals who have been charged with the murder of Constable Carroll, but I will say that the IMC report—I urge all hon. Members to read it—is very clear about where some of the recruitment, particularly of young males, is coming from and why it is happening. Within the report, there is also a proposal for a political intervention, which the IMC believes would be potent in having an effect on these people.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the logic of the IMC today is consistent with advice that the Social and Democratic Labour party has been giving for over two years about the importance of devolving justice and policing as a way of disarming the dissident groups? Does he also acknowledge that we are concerned that the dissidents could be assisted by some of the consequences of the Ashdown review? Given the seriousness of the situation, why has only the leader of the Alliance party been given confidential security briefings and why is the Secretary of State asking the Alliance leader to go quiet on the shared future in the countdown to the devolution of justice and policing?

You might me rebuke me, Mr. Speaker, if I chose to answer all of those questions. I will none the less try to find an envelope that might succeed in answering the purport of the question. The report is very clear about the problem that we are facing in Northern Ireland today as a result of criminals calling themselves dissidents. It is very clear that there is a political solution and the report advocates that early devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly could provide a potent intervention. I urge that intervention on all those elected in Northern Ireland, regardless of party.

I welcome the views of the IMC and its conclusion that the time is right for the transfer of policing and justice powers to the devolved Assembly. I ask my right hon. Friend to reiterate in very strong terms the view of the IMC that the transference of those powers would, in its words,

“be a platform for co-operation against those trying to undermine the peace process.”

That is the best signal to send to the dissidents.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It might be worth drawing the attention of the House to one of the remarks in the IMC’s report today, which is that the activities of these dissidents

“represent a challenging of the peace process by groups always violently opposed to it”,

but critically at the moment

“not an unravelling of that process.”

We have a duty to ensure that that peace process does not unravel.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the attack by dissidents at the home of a police officer under a car that was driven off by his partner, although fortuitously no lives were lost as a result? Will he underline the need for police officers and their families to be particularly vigilant at this time, as even if they consider themselves to be living in safe areas, they need to remain alert? Will he indicate what steps he intends to take to meet the challenge set by the dissident republicans from their increase in activity over the past number of months?

I very much join the right hon. Gentleman in those remarks and I thank him for the role that he is playing in trying to drive forward progress on completion of devolution. I would none the less remind him that paragraph 5.1, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) referred, is very clear in saying that

“the early devolution of policing and justice powers to the…Assembly…could provide a potent intervention… It would be because policing and justice would no longer be a point of contention across the political divide; rather, it would be a platform for co-operation against those trying to undermine the peace process.”

Will the Secretary of State pass on the congratulations of this House to the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the skill and vigilance that enabled it to defuse a massive bomb on the border? That occurred since the House last had Northern Ireland questions.

I am happy to pass on those remarks to the PSNI. I am sure that the House would warmly welcome the new Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, who has taken over control of the PSNI. The PSNI does an extremely brave job, as this report demonstrates, in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and the IMC report—that the devolution of criminal justice would indeed be “a potent intervention” that politicians could effect in dealing with dissident republican groups? Does he agree with me and those with whom I am associated in Northern Ireland that, in the long term, these groups will be countered only if we are able to pursue an agenda of shared futures?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of the shared future. There has been a lot of discussion about community confidence being built before devolution can take place. The report puts clearly before the House and the public of Northern Ireland that the real challenge to community confidence is the threat posed by dissidents. We have a choice, and we can act: early devolution would be a potent intervention, and I hope we will complete it soon.

Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), with Remembrance day approaching we should remember all those who were killed or injured serving the security forces, protecting our democracy and safeguarding our public. The latest IMC report published this morning contains some encouraging news, but also other deeply worrying information. The report states:

“The overall level of dissident activity was markedly higher than we have seen since we first met in late 2003. The seriousness, range and tempo of their activities all changed for the worse in these six months.”

The Secretary of State has had time to analyse the report. What are his conclusions, and what does he intend to do?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I would like to mark our thanks to the Opposition parties who have helped in supporting the financial package put forward by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to enable early devolution to take place. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the part of the report relating to the security issue, which goes on to say that the challenges

“pose a major challenge to the law enforcement and other agencies on both sides of the border. Had it not been for the work of all these agencies North and South, more lives would have been lost.”

The report identifies a major challenge, and I hope that all parties in Northern Ireland rise to it.

On the conclusion that the report endorses the devolution of policing, the Opposition have always taken a responsible approach. We support the devolution of policing and justice, and we supported the Bill in March. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has confirmed our long-term commitment to the significant financial package proposed by the Government. We have always made clear that devolution should happen only when all parts of the community are supportive—

Order. I am increasingly unhappy about the length of the preamble before we reach the question. Can we please now have a question? I want to make progress.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is down to all four parties in the coalition on the Executive to work together to finalise the details and the timing?

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is up to the four parties. But let us be clear: as the report highlights, this is perhaps a moment when whatever individual issues might still prevent parties from moving forward, they should now set aside their differences, find the points of common unity and purpose, and ensure that the dissidents do not become a major threat to people in Northern Ireland.

Loyalist Paramilitaries

3. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of the activities of loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. (296668)

Although I welcome the positive leadership that has delivered major progress on decommissioning, some individual members of loyalist paramilitary organisations remain involved in criminality and punishment attacks.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. However, when does he believe that the loyalist paramilitaries will disband their command structures, and what is he doing to try to ensure that that happens?

It is important that those organisations take down their command structures and desist from criminality, and that the Ulster Defence Association in particular moves to complete the decommissioning process it has begun—certainly no later than February next year, when the powers run out. I am particularly concerned about the increase, reported today by the IMC, in the number of paramilitary-style attacks in loyalist areas this year: already more than double the number last year. These people must stop taking the law into their own hands, and let the police and the courts do their job.

Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s urgent intent not only that there will be full and immediate decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries, but that PSNI and the Serious Organised Crime Agency will pursue their criminally acquired assets and those of other paramilitaries past and present?

It is essential that decommissioning be completed by February next year, as the special arrangements will not be extended. My hon. Friend is also right that those who, as part of paramilitary gangs or other groups, have acquired criminal assets, often running into millions of pounds, should have them taken back off them. I reassure him that SOCA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the PSNI will pursue those people relentlessly and bring those assets back into the public domain.

When the Government extended the arms amnesty until 2010 a few months ago we supported the Government, very reluctantly. Will the Minister confirm yet again that he will not seek to introduce primary legislation to extend the amnesty? We certainly could not support any further extension, because after that date we shall see these people as nothing more than criminals.

Let me once again express my appreciation for the Opposition parties’ support for our approach to the decommissioning amnesty order. I believe that an unequivocal message went out from the House from all parties that there would be no tolerance of people who hold back on decommissioning, and no extension of the amnesty powers beyond February next year. Next February, the powers will run out for good. Those who still hold on to weapons must decommission them, and decommission them now.

Equality Commission

4. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on proposals for the appointment of new commissioners to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. (296669)

The Secretary of State appointed four new equality commissioners in September this year, following a fair and open competition. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, responsibility for making such appointments lies solely with the Secretary of State. He wrote to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to notify them of the launch of the competition, and he informed them when the appointments were made.

Will the Minister warn the new commissioners about the unease that is felt about the commission, particularly among many Unionists, and will he ensure that it does not add to the compensation culture in Northern Ireland or fuel the already crippling burden of political correctness there?

How did I guess that the phrase “political correctness” might just creep into the hon. Gentleman’s supplementary question?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions, including occasions on which I have been at the Dispatch Box, and I think it fair to say that we do not agree on it. This is not about political correctness; it is about putting fairness, justice and equality at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That is what the Good Friday agreement did when it established the Equality Commission. The hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the difference that the commission has made, and the distance that it has taken us in terms of the progress made in Northern Ireland.

Surely it is difficult for the Equality Commission to demonstrate fairness, and to be a paragon of fairness, when the composition of its own staff is so out of kilter with the community in Northern Ireland. There is a serious under-representation of Protestants. How can the commission go to local councils and other public bodies and ask for fairness and equality when it has itself failed to practise those virtues?

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the staff, but the commissioners themselves reflect communities across Northern Ireland. In appointing commissioners, the Secretary of State must have due regard to their community background, although there is of course an open competition. The appointments to which I referred in my first answer were made in a fair and open way, and the Equality Commission plays a very important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Loyalist Decommissioning

The House will note the report from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which was placed in the Library last month and which records very significant acts of decommissioning by loyalist groups. The House will also know from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the decommissioning order will end unequivocally on 9 February next year.

The Secretary of State has made clear that the amnesty will end in February. That being so, what more can he do to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to participate in the decommissioning process so that it can be completed once and for all? Will he also make clear that those who break the law can expect the full rigour of the law to come down upon them, and that they will face due process?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is yes. As for his first question, we are making that requirement clear. That is why we are, I believe, making substantial progress on decommissioning, although we expect more. [Interruption.]

Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very unfair on the Member asking the question, and on the Minister answering it.

My party welcomes the progress made towards total decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries. When that process has been completed, will the Secretary of State publish an inventory of the weapons decommissioned by both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries?

As the hon. Lady knows, as part of the process there will at the end of it be a full statement by the IICD.

Historical Inquiries

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past on the operation of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (296672)

The Government have recently concluded a consultation on all the recommendations made by the Consultative Group on the Past and are currently considering the responses. Meanwhile, the Historical Enquiries Team is continuing to carry out its important work with great sensitivity and professionalism.

The primary task of a police unit to pursue criminal justice seems inimical to the mandate of the HET to resolve unanswered questions, which would surely be better handled by a legacy commission. Does the Minister believe that recent new money for the Province will be adequate to finance the HET and that it will not become bogged down in an expensive legal morass of Savillian proportions?

I reassure my hon. Friend first that the PSNI does a fine job in pursuing criminals and keeping Northern Ireland and its people safe. We have made no decisions yet in relation to the recommendation by the Consultative Group on the Past on a legacy commission, but I also reassure my hon. Friend that the HET is a very cost-effective way of dealing with the issue of unresolved murders. Substantial resources will be made available to the Northern Ireland Executive if policing and justice powers are devolved, but how that money is spent will, of course, be for the Justice Minister and Executive to determine.

I have already written to the Minister about the money being spent by the HET and the alleged inefficiencies in how it is being spent. What steps is he taking to ensure that the tens of millions of pounds currently being spent by the HET are spent in an effective and efficient manner?

I believe that that money is spent in an effective and efficient manner, and, indeed, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has paid great tribute to the HET for being both effective and independent. Many hundreds of cases that have been opened and dealt with by the HET have been resolved, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that it is inefficient in any way; it is doing a very important job very well.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is still much work to be done before the needs of many of the innocent victims are met? A scurrilous rumour is going around that he intends to bin the report of the Consultative Group on the Past. Does he have any plans for making progress?

There is certainly absolutely no intention whatever to bin—as the hon. Gentleman puts it—the work of the Consultative Group on the Past. The work it has done has been very important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened up a further consultation on its recommendations. That consultation is now completed. [Interruption.] We are considering the outcome of the 230 representations that were made as part of that consultation, and we will publish a summary of those responses in due course. [Interruption.]

Order. I hope that Members will have the courtesy to listen to the questions and then to the answers.

Local Government Reorganisation

8. What progress has been made on reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (296674)

The reorganisation programme is the responsibility of the Minister of Environment in Northern Ireland, who recently made a statement to the Assembly that plans to reduce the number of district councils from 26 to 11 are on track and that the new structures will be in place by May 2011.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As he will know, the new local councils are not yet in place, and I am grateful to him for confirming that the date of the local elections in Northern Ireland is May next year.

The hon. Lady will know that we delayed the elections that would have taken place this year to 2011. That is an absolutely final date so far as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are concerned, and I am pleased that the Minister of Environment has committed to put the necessary legislation in place so that that can happen.

On an issue that is the Minister’s responsibility, can he tell us whether he will bring forward legislation to allow councillors in the current set-up to retire without the need for costly unwanted by-elections as we come to the fag end of the current councils leading up to 2011?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; we do not want a succession of by-elections between April next year and May 2011. I recently published a consultation document on a number of options to make sure that we deal with the issue and do not have all those by-elections to which he referred.


9. What recent assessment he has made of the progress of devolution of responsibility for criminal justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. (296675)

It is for the parties in Northern Ireland to decide when to request transfer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a settlement of upwards of £800 million available to the parties if they reach agreement.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that in no circumstances will intelligence-gathering be compromised under any possible devolution?

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the five soldiers who died in Afghanistan yesterday—three soldiers from the Grenadier Guards and two soldiers from the Royal Military Police. The death of five brave soldiers in a single incident is a terrible and tragic loss, and I want to pay tribute, as the whole House will, to their professionalism, and to their courage and service. Our thoughts must also be with the five additional members of our armed forces who were seriously injured in the same incident yesterday. Evidence is now being assembled, but it appears that they were targeted because they were engaged in what our enemies fear most—they were mentoring and strengthening Afghan forces to make Afghanistan more secure. While we will step up and strengthen our security wherever we can, we will not stop doing what the Afghan Taliban fear most. The sacrifice of our military is great and our resolve must match it.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings today.

I am sure that everyone in this House will associate themselves with the comments made by my right hon. Friend, for those who have fallen in the line of duty in Afghanistan have done so not only on our behalf, but on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.

Many of my constituents have benefited from the Prime Minister’s abolition of prescription charges for cancer patients and many more still welcome his cast-iron guarantee to introduce one-week screening for suspected cancer patients, but we need to do more. What more will this Government do to ensure that we end the postcode lottery and to ensure that people, whatever their wealth and wherever they live, get the cancer medicines they deserve and need?

We will not only make promises to improve cancer care in the national health service, we will deliver on these promises. We will not only have a two-week maximum before people can see a consultant, we will move to a one-week maximum before people can actually have the diagnostic tests they need. However, I think that people should be warned about the national health service, because the shadow Health Secretary said yesterday—

Order. I do not think that we need to go into that today, Prime Minister. I call Mr. David Cameron.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the five brave servicemen who lost their lives, three of whom were from the Grenadier Guards and two of whom were from the Royal Military Police? We must honour their memories, we must care for their families and we must never forget their service. Our thoughts and prayers, as the Prime Minister rightly said, should be with those who, I understand, were badly wounded in what was clearly an horrific incident. Given that it apparently included an Afghan police officer, it does raise some very worrying questions. Can the Prime Minister tell us what inquiries will be made and when we can expect to know more about what happened in this very disturbing incident?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s condolences to all those who are affected by this terrible and tragic incident. I did say, in my initial comments, that evidence is now being assembled on what happened in this terrible incident and that security will be stepped up, where that is necessary, but we cannot desist from the practice that is absolutely essential for the future of Afghanistan and the security of our country: training and mentoring the Afghan forces. That means that our troops will be working with the Afghan police and the Afghan army. Of course, we need to take all the necessary security measures, but it is an essential element of the whole coalition strategy that we train up the Afghan forces so that they themselves are able to take over the security of their country, and that we will continue to do. It is in line with the McChrystal report, and it is in line with the statements that have been made by President Obama, with NATO statements of the past few days and with what we have set out as our strategy for the future. So, yes, we will step up security, but we must not allow ourselves to give up what the Afghan Taliban fear most: that we will have a strong Afghan security force that is Afghan-based and is able to face them.

Clearly, as the Prime Minister says, the training and mentoring is absolutely essential. I have seen it in Afghanistan for myself and the work that is being done is incredibly impressive, but I think that the public will be concerned knowing as they do that British soldiers, including military police, are, even as we speak, living and working side by side with the Afghan national police across Helmand. They will want to know what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that we are safeguarding our forces after what happened yesterday.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working very closely with the Afghan army and the Afghan police for a number of years. We are stepping up the closeness of our operations. I myself visited a joint Afghan-British operation where both military police and the Army from Britain were working with Afghan soldiers and police forces. Obviously we will review the security arrangements for this, but I repeat that it is an essential element of our strategy that we are not seen as an occupying army but that we work with the Afghan army and are seen to be training the Afghan forces so that they can take over responsibility for the country. Although this has been a terrible and tragic incident, all our commanders on the ground will want to maintain the strategy, which is to work with the Afghan forces so that one day they can take responsibility for the security of their country.

Everyone will agree with what the Prime Minister said about working with the police, but clearly the attack raises questions about the infiltration of the Afghan police by criminals, drug dealers and militants. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Afghan police force was described as

“one of the most dysfunctional institutions in the country”,

with reports that the police were actively involved in criminal activities, including the drugs trade. We all agree on a more focused and targeted mission in Afghanistan, and at the heart of that mission, as the Prime Minister has just said, is training Afghans to take more responsibility for their security. Given that, what more can he say about the efforts to clean up an organisation—the Afghan national police—that is essential to the success of our strategy but still seems to be going so wrong?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that while we are assembling evidence, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for this incident. It might be that the Taliban have used an Afghan police member or have infiltrated the Afghan police force, and that is what we have to look at. It is the Taliban who have claimed responsibility for this incident. There are about 98,000 police in Afghanistan, many of whom have been moved from one part of Afghanistan to another. There is an issue about their training, which we are addressing with a European effort to ensure that the police are properly trained. We will have to increase the number of police, but it is clear that we will have to increase the quality of police, too. I would not want to draw conclusions about all the Afghan police from one single incident, and what we know is that the Taliban have claimed responsibility for this.

Clearly what the Prime Minister says is right, although he has in the past said that the Afghan police are not seen as a fair part of the Afghan state and so progress needs to be made. Our armed forces will also need to have every confidence that stronger economic development and political effort will go in behind them. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is perhaps time, once again, to return to the idea of a single, strong co-ordinating figure—not just from the United Nations but someone who works across the coalition, including with the Afghan Government and NATO—to deliver this effort more effectively than anyone has done so far? Is it his understanding that that is being considered in Washington and should be part of the revised strategy that we hope that President Obama and his team will announce shortly?

Yes, we have been discussing that, and the possibility that we could have a co-ordinator who works more closely with the Afghan Government and with the allied forces. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the first thing that we have to do is to ensure that this new Government, led by President Karzai, will adopt a set of policies that will deal with the problems that have worried not just the international community but people in Afghanistan. The first is that he should deal with corruption, and, whether he appoints an anti-corruption commission or commissioners, he will have to do far more than has been done in recent years. He will have to deal with the problem of the appointment of district and provincial governors as well as appointments at the centre. He will have to show that his new Cabinet is free of the stains of corruption. He has promised to do that and we will be looking for it in his inauguration address and in the measures that he wants to bring forward. The next, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is to ensure economic and social improvement for the Afghan people, and that will need the co-ordination of allied efforts and those of the Afghan Government. Our efforts to move people from heroin to wheat production in Helmand have been successful, but the final element for the Afghan Government is the training of Afghan forces. The only way that we can look to a future where the numbers of our forces can come down while we still have security in Afghanistan is for an Afghan army, in particular, to be ready to take on the responsibility.

A day when we hear the news of such an appalling incident in Afghanistan is not one for obsessing about the internal workings of Parliament and the House of Commons, but is it not important that today we accept in full Sir Christopher Kelly’s report? Does the Prime Minister agree that, in accepting the report, it is important that we say that, from now and into the future, Members of Parliament should not vote on our pay, expenses, pensions, terms of service, resettlement or expenses packages? Is not that an essential part of restoring faith in Parliament and politics—and in this House of Commons, which all of us care about?

People want to know that the system will be different in future. It will be open, transparent and fair. It will not be managed by MPs themselves but by an independent body that will take responsibility for that. That is why it is right to refer the Kelly report for action and implementation not by ourselves but by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. That is the recommendation of the Kelly report, and that is what we should do. The vast majority of MPs are trying to do a decent job on behalf of their whole communities. At the same time, we must make sure that the public trust in the institution of Parliament is restored. That is why we should accept the Kelly recommendations and make sure that they are implemented as quickly as possible.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what he thinks of the credibility of a party leader who has spent so much time and energy attacking him over the Lisbon treaty, only to reveal now that his cast-iron guarantee has turned out to be made of plywood?

Order. May I ask the Prime Minister to focus his response on the policy of the Government rather than that of the Opposition?

Yes, Mr. Speaker. The Government will work in concert with the other 26 countries of the European Union. We will work with them on the same policies to bring about economic recovery and to bring down unemployment in our country, and we will work for greater international co-ordination. We will not make iron-cast guarantees that are broken—[Interruption.]

May I first say that, after a shameful year for this Parliament, I agree that Sir Christopher Kelly’s report finally gives us the opportunity to start restoring people’s trust in the work of MPs here? That is why we must implement the report in full, without any further delay.

I want to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the three soldiers from the Grenadier Guards and the two from the Royal Military Police who tragically lost their lives yesterday afternoon, and of the five who were seriously injured. People will be shocked to the core by the fact that they have been working selflessly for the Afghan people and were killed by someone whom they thought that they could trust.

The truth is that without a legitimate and inclusive Government in Kabul and a new coherent international plan for Afghanistan, it will be increasingly difficult for our brave soldiers to do the job there that we are asking them to do. In the Prime Minister’s conversations with President Karzai, how much time is the right hon. Gentleman giving him to clean up his Government? What measures will he take if President Karzai fails to act?

President Karzai said yesterday at his press conference that he was going to operate a policy in which there would be a clean-up of politics in Afghanistan. We will now have to test him by his words. I think that the first thing that he can do, in his inauguration address, is to signal the changes that he will make in the way that he runs central Government, appoints governors, and deals with the problems with corruption—especially corruption relating to heroin and drugs. It is for President Karzai to show the international community that his Government can have credibility because of the actions that he is prepared to take.

I am grateful for those words, but the Prime Minister needs to be more precise. May I ask him again—[Interruption.] He needs to acknowledge first that our mission in Afghanistan is in trouble because we do not have a legitimate Government in Kabul, and we do not have a coherent international plan for Afghanistan. So I ask him again what exactly he will do if the legitimate and inclusive Government whom we so desperately need in Kabul do not emerge?

I have already made it clear that the additional troops that we are prepared to make available to Afghanistan are conditional on three things. The first is that the Afghan Government can show that they are willing to take the action necessary to gain the trust of the people of the country and for the security of the people of the country. The second thing is that the Americans and our coalition partners are prepared to engage in burden-sharing. The third thing is that President Karzai and his Government are prepared to make available Afghan forces to Helmand so that we can train Afghan forces for the future. We have made it very clear what our conditions are for the future. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree that these are necessary conditions. Of course, they include the improvement in governance, both local and national, in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to the bravery of our soldiers. Is not the country entitled to know how long British military personnel will be in Afghanistan? Can this war be won?

I have said before that as we train Afghan security forces to get them to take over the task and the responsibilities of Afghanistan—I am saying what President Obama and the other leaders have said—we will be able gradually to bring our forces home. The measure of success in Afghanistan will be that British forces can come home because Afghan forces are able to deal with the security problems of the country themselves. That is what our strategy is about—to build up the Afghan army and security forces, to build up economic prosperity for the Afghan people, and to make sure that the structures of local as well as national Government reflect the will of the people.

Q2. The Government have today slashed the money available to pay for the freedom pass in London. What is the Prime Minister’s estimate of the council tax increase that will be needed to pay for this financial shortfall? (297504)

No Government have done more to provide help for transport, both in London and in the rest of the country. The hon. Gentleman should know that the national concessionary pensioner fare that we introduced is not just for London, but for the whole country. The Government have supported public transport, whether it be by rail or by road, and done more than any other Government for 50 years.

Q3. Why have countries like ours with good relations with Israel allowed the blockade on Gaza to continue for so long? It is denying Gazans the essentials for life, including reconstruction materials, and denying them a good living throughout this very cold winter. (297505)

I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu a few days ago and I made it clear that not only the policy of Britain but the will of the international community is to make sure that supplies can enter Gaza so that the Palestinian people there can be sure that they will have a winter in which shortages do not exist. That is the will of the international community, it is what we are urging Israel to do, and while I believe that the Israelis are right to be worried about security and about terrorism, there is also a humanitarian duty to make sure that the people of Gaza are fed.

Q4. Island prisoners must be guarded when they need health care outside prison. By the end of this year, the local health budget will have been exceeded by more than £1 million. That could pay for an extra 15 nurses. Will the Prime Minister ensure that this inequity is corrected urgently? (297506)

I understand the hon. Gentleman asking for more resources for the health service in his area, but we are spending more on the national health service than ever before. Where issues arise from the treatment of prisoners, we will deal with them.

Q5. The Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought in the family tax credit, the working tax credit and pensioner tax credit. Can he give me, in the popular phrase, a cast-iron guarantee that this benefit will not be cut or means-tested, whereas the Conservatives would pull it to shreds? (297507)

We made promises that we would create a tax credit, and we have delivered on that promise. When we have made a commitment, we have actually done what we have said we will do; and, where we have made promises, we will continue to deliver on them, unlike some other people.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware that several police authorities, including Northumbria, are using Home Office guidance as a basis for cutting the pensions of police officers who have been forced to retire when they have been seriously injured on duty? On the principle that we should stand by those who risk their lives and face serious injury protecting us, whether in the armed forces or in the police, will he take a personal interest in the matter and investigate it? (297508)

I shall obviously look at the matter. When policemen or women retire, they receive their pension. I see no reason why their pension entitlement should be broken, if it is, indeed, an entitlement, and I shall look at what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Q7. Last Friday, the Youth Parliament met to debate in this Chamber, and the MYP for Milton Keynes, Sean Barnes, spoke strongly in favour of votes at 16, helping to persuade the Youth Parliament to make the issue its top campaigning priority. Will the Prime Minister respond to that clearly expressed demand by the democratically elected Youth Parliament and make sure that his Government implement a reduction in voting age and an extension of full democratic rights to 16-year-olds? (297509)

I think that bringing the Youth Parliament to this House was a tremendous innovation, and we should be very proud of it. While I do not always agree with your rulings, Mr. Speaker, your innovation in doing that was very important. I personally favour giving young people the vote at 16. It is a matter on which we should consult widely with the public, and then we should make a decision.

Q8. Colchester is the fastest growing borough in the country. Despite that, Tory-controlled Essex county council plans to shut two of the town’s seven secondary schools. It is now known that the council massaged the figures on projected pupil numbers. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that the reorganisation proposals should be investigated by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, particularly as Essex county council gave false information to the Department for Children, Schools and Families? (297510)

I shall look at the matter. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who said, “If you want to know what a Conservative Government will look like, look at the Tory councils”? The Tory council in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency proves the point.

The Labour Government have made great strides in getting and keeping disabled people in work. What is my right hon. Friend’s reaction to the news that the Glencraft factory in my constituency could be forced out of business by the lack of support from the Scottish National party-Liberal council? If the factory closes, more than 30 disabled people in Aberdeen will lose their jobs.

When there was a Labour council, Glencraft got a huge amount of support from it. I have heard that the grants are being cut by the SNP-Liberal administration in the area. We will look at what we can do, but it is clearly important in a recession to help those people who are most in need of support, and that includes the disabled members of our community.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Ministry of Defence should publish regular figures showing the number of soldiers who have lost limbs or suffered other life-changing injuries in Afghanistan? If he does, will he let me have those figures by the end of the week? (297511)

We give as much information as possible on what is happening in Afghanistan. We have 9,000 troops there, and we report to the House whenever there have been fatalities. I have reported today also that five soldiers have been seriously injured. Many of them will end up at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham for the best treatment that they could receive, and of course I am happy to give as much information as possible, consistent with what the Chief of the Defence Staff advises.

Q10. Derbyshire firm Baltex, which is based in my constituency, makes technical textiles and has twice received the Queen’s award for industry. Among its work, it reinforces hoses that go into new cars. The company tells me that sales of that particular product line have soared since the inception of the scrappage scheme. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the scrappage scheme in terms of jobs and sales UK-wide? (297512)

The car scrappage scheme, which was dismissed by so many people, has been a great success. So, too, has the help that we are giving to small businesses. Now 200,000 or more small businesses have received cash-flow help from the Treasury. We have taken action to help businesses to keep on employees and to train employees during this difficult recession. None of that would have been possible without the fiscal support that we were prepared to give; that is the difference between ourselves and the Conservative Opposition.

After 14 service personnel died aboard Nimrod XV230, the Ministry of Defence accepted responsibility and said that compensation would be “expedited”. Three years on, compensation has not been resolved. Do not these service families deserve better?

We have just had the final report. The Government, and all those responsible for the mistakes that were made in relation to Nimrod, have apologised. I shall look exactly at the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The report has now finalised the issues surrounding Nimrod, and I will write to him.

Q11. The hon. and gallant Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I may form an unlikely combination, but we are as one in endorsing the calls made by the Greenford branch of the Royal British Legion for reserved seats at Prime Minister’s Question Time for members of the armed forces. Would the Prime Minister agree to make representations to the Serjeant at Arms in order that we can achieve this? (297513)

We do want to recognise the commitment of our armed forces. Special arrangements are made in a number of different parts of our society. This is an interesting proposal that has been made on an all-party basis, and I am sure that the Serjeant at Arms and the Speaker will want to look at it. It seems to be something that we can support, but we will have to have consultations with all the different forces in the House.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister remember promising that Rosyth would not become a nuclear graveyard? Fifteen years later, not only are seven nuclear submarines still rotting in the dockyard, but the Prime Minister is considering the dockyard as a permanent location for those submarines. When will he live up to his promise? (297514)

No decision has been taken on this. I have to remind the hon. Gentleman that Rosyth dockyard is working as a result of the actions that we have taken. The aircraft carriers are coming to Rosyth to be built as a result of a decision that we have made. If other parties had been in power, there would be no Rosyth dockyard at all. We have taken the action that is necessary.

Q13. With quality child care being essential both to allow parents to work and for child development, and given the huge investment that the Government have made in the national child care strategy over the years, can my right hon. Friend help me to understand why some local councils, such as Kensington and Chelsea, are proposing to close their nursery schools? What can we do to block this retrograde step? (297516)

I hesitate to use the words “iron-cast guarantee”, but we have provided—[Interruption.] The words have become so devalued over the past few days. People will not forget that on Monday the Leader of the Opposition also made an iron-cast guarantee to the national health service; people will remember that as well. On nursery education, we are determined to ensure that three and four-year-olds have the best nursery education possible. We have increased the number of hours for nursery school, and we will continue to make sure that Sure Start provision is available in every constituency.

Q14. The Prime Minister promised in June that there would be a statement on the restoration of compensation for victims of pleural plaques. It is now November, so can he tell us why we have not yet received it? (297517)

We are meeting the Members of Parliament who have raised this issue with us, and we will come back to the House with a statement on exactly that.

Does the Prime Minister still have full confidence that the Afghan army and police will be prepared to lay down their own lives, and to slaughter those of their brother Afghans, in the service of foreign powers and in the service of a President who is corrupt and who has just rigged his own re-election?

The members of the Afghan army want a safe and secure Afghanistan, as do most of the people in Afghanistan. The members of the Afghan army who have been working with the British Army on Operation Panther’s Claw are members who were sent by President Karzai in increasing numbers to back up the work of the British forces. We want to work with the Afghan army and security service. We want to train them and mentor them, and I have heard our chiefs talking about the quality, in the main, of Afghan army members, which is something that we want to continue to increase and strengthen over the months to come.

As a former Science Minister myself, I am well aware that scientific advice can be politically inconvenient, but will the Prime Minister reassure the scientific community that when disagreements happen, he will engage in rational debate rather than shoot the messenger?

Scientific advice is valued by the Government in every area. On climate change, on foot and mouth, on dealing with swine flu and on nuclear matters as well as on drugs, we have very good scientists who have been advising us. From the drugs advisory committee, we accepted all but three of more than 30 recommendations. The issue was not the ability of the committee to give advice or the expertise of the members, it was that once Ministers have had to decide a position, after listening to advice on a wider range of social issues than simply the scientific advice, it does not make sense to send out mixed messages to the whole community about drugs. That is why the Home Secretary made his decision.