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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Older People (Security)

I recently launched the “Safer Ageing” strategy for older people, which was developed in partnership with representatives from older people’s groups, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Policing Board. The strategy sets out how Government and partners will work together to reduce the crime and antisocial behaviour experienced by older people in Northern Ireland.

While I welcome the new “Safer Ageing” strategy, is it not the case that the recent spate of burglaries and attacks on older people in Northern Ireland has had a devastating impact on the individuals affected, and will it not in turn have created a deeper fear of crime across the older population? What practical measures are there in the new plan to reduce that corrosive level of fear?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been considerable public concern in Northern Ireland about the spate of attacks on older people there, and the impact on individual older people is devastating. He is also right to say that not only does it have an impact on them as victims, but that it has a wider impact in terms of the fear of crime.

Two elements are very important here. The first is to have highly visible policing, which is certainly happening in the wake of the attacks. The second is the practical initiatives to which my hon. Friend referred, and I draw his attention to one in particular—the HandyVan scheme, which provides free locks, door chains, smoke alarms and other safety devices for older people. It helps them to feel safer, and it is an important initiative that my Department supports.

The Minister will be aware that there has been an increase in burglaries right across the Province of Northern Ireland. In my constituency, there have been at least 15 burglaries in three weeks in the town of Portadown, and in Lurgan and Banbridge. Does he agree that the reduction of 90 officers in Upper Bann and the closure of the Portadown police station are unacceptable at this time?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any crimes that take place in his constituency, or indeed anywhere. However, he has referred to the loss of 90 posts in H district, but these are not police officers who are being cut out of the police provision for his area. These are 90 police officers who have been identified by the Chief Constable as officers whom the hon. Gentleman’s constituents never see because they do jobs in the back office. The Chief Constable wants to get them out of the back office and into the community, where they will be more visible and able to deliver a more personal policing service.

Weapon Decommissioning (Loyalist Paramilitaries)

2. What recent assessment he has made of progress on decommissioning of weapons by loyalist paramilitary organisations. (306251)

The Government remain optimistic that, building on the success of decommissioning already this year, further acts will be completed before the deadline of 9 February 2010.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Will he tell the House what approaches have been made to the Northern Ireland Office by, or on behalf of, the Ulster Defence Association for funding in anticipation of decommissioning? Is he aware of loyalist paramilitaries making similar approaches to the Irish Government for multi-million pound funding?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my focus is on decommissioning, and that my concern is to ensure that decommissioning takes place by 9 February of next year. As for discussions between those engaged in legitimate political activity and the Northern Ireland Office, we will of course be happy to talk to people who are wholly engaged in legitimate political activity and who have eschewed violence of every kind.

Obviously, the entire community wants there to be further progress on loyalist decommissioning. However, will the Secretary of State continue to work in the loyalist working-class estates, where some paramilitary groups have had a stranglehold in the past, to try to ensure that the young people in those communities are not weaned into paramilitarism, but are weaned away from it in favour of the democratic principles that we all espouse?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the grip in which some communities were held in the past by the activities of those who do not respect the rule of law and order. Regrettably, communities in some areas are still held in that same grip. We will do everything that we can, including encouraging and working with the Northern Ireland Executive, to help all communities that have been held in the grip of violence. We will continue to work with them so that they too are able to enjoy the fruits of a normal society.

In its discussions with loyalists about decommissioning, can the Northern Ireland Office explain to the House what efforts it has made to glean any information about the whereabouts of Lisa Dorrian, a constituent of mine who was murdered and disappeared almost five years ago by people with loyalist connections?

The hon. Lady has on many occasions raised constituency issues, not least but not only that of Lisa Dorrian. I remember dealing with this when I was a junior Minister, and the hon. Lady never gives up on behalf of the family. It is a tribute to her that she continues to work so hard for her constituents. Of course that remains an ongoing case. Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. We may set the framework and the deadline of 9 February, but when that deadline comes to an end, I can promise the hon. Lady that our interest and concern for the family of Lisa Dorrian will continue.

Given that this is the last Northern Ireland questions before the end of the arms amnesty on 9 February, can the Secretary of State give reasons for his reported belief that the UDA will decommission some weapons over Christmas, when it is also reported that the UDA is seeking assurances on the future of power-sharing before it does so? Does the Secretary of State agree that laying down such conditions is unacceptable, because there is no reason or excuse for illegal arms to exist in any part of the United Kingdom?

May I take this opportunity to wish not only the hon. Gentleman but the entire House a happy Christmas on this important occasion? I hope the amnesty means that all hostilities between us will cease. That may be a slightly premature Christmas present, so I am not expecting anything in that box.

On decommissioning, I am interested only in making two things clear: first, that illegally held weapons have no place in society in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, and secondly, that on 9 February the arrangements for decommissioning will come to an end for good, for ever—the end. The IICD will be engaged with a number of organisations. At the end of that process, I hope to report to the House further progress on decommissioning. I am not interested in discussing conditions with any group.

Police Recruitment

3. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of police recruitment in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (306252)

Since the introduction of the temporary recruitment provisions in November 2001, there have been 3,751 appointments to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Catholic composition within PSNI regulars currently stands at 27.69 per cent. We remain on track to reach the target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March 2011.

That is extremely good news and everybody involved should be congratulated. It has not been easy. Can the Minister give an assurance to the House that once we reach the 30 per cent.—the sooner, the better—the special arrangements will cease and we will return to straightforward recruiting?

I welcome the endorsement from the right hon. Gentleman. That is deeply appreciated. It is a mark of how far things have come that we have gone from 8 per cent. Catholic representation to 27 per cent. and on to 30 per cent. I give him the assurance that he seeks. We intend to come to the House in March next year to ask for a renewal of the temporary powers for a further year. We are confident that we will get to 30 per cent. within that year. Indeed, if we reach that level before the end of the year, Ministers intend to come back to the House and rescind the special arrangements.

In a reply to a parliamentary question that I received yesterday, the Minister informed me that there are currently 5,305 Protestant police officers and 1,904 Catholic police officers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to correct this imbalance?

I repeat to my hon. Friend the progress that has been made. There were only 8 per cent. Catholic officers in 1998; that figure is now 27 per cent. and moving to 30 per cent. It was essential that we got a more representative police service in Northern Ireland so that there could be confidence in all sections of the community. It is worth saying that when we go back a decade ago, a plan for policing was emerging in Northern Ireland that many people thought was barely possible. Today we have almost 30 per cent. Catholics; we have every party represented on the Policing Board; and we have all parties unanimously choosing a new Chief Constable. These are amazing achievements in Northern Ireland, and they have come about because of the political will to deliver them.

Does the Minister accept that before the introduction of a 50:50 quota system, the level of Catholic applications to the Royal Ulster Constabulary stood at 25 per cent., so it is not all down to the 50:50 rule? Does he accept that people want to see the rule done away with and there to be a move towards selection and appointment on merit, untrammelled in that sense? Does he agree that recruitment is important, but that it is also important to retain experienced police officers, both regular and full-time reserve?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that people from the Catholic community applied to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and there were many fine Catholic officers in the RUC, but not enough of them. That is why the temporary provisions were put in place. I can tell him that the application rate from Catholics is now at 38 per cent., so it has moved on. That is encouraging, because once the special provisions are removed, we will want to encourage applicants from all sections of the community so that the police service remains fully representative of the community that it serves.

To pick up on the Minister’s very last point, may I ask what the Government are doing to ensure that the drive towards a representative police force goes beyond the question of simply Protestant or Catholic communities in Northern Ireland? It must include and embrace all communities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is not mentioned often enough: we want a police service that is representative of the whole community. It is therefore encouraging that, broadly, ethnic minorities are represented in the police service in the same proportion as they are present in Northern Ireland. Crucially, in the lifetime of the PSNI, the number of women regular officers has doubled from 12 per cent. to 24 per cent. That is also an indication of the influx, the interest and the commitment of women who want to be effective police officers, and it is ensuring that the police service is fully reflective of the community that it serves.

Prison Estate

The Northern Ireland Prison Service has a capacity of 1,775. The prison estate comprises two adult male prisons and a third establishment that houses both young offenders and women.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for that reply. Will he tell the House how many prisoners in Northern Ireland suffer from either drug addiction or mental health problems?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The point of the question is to highlight how many vulnerable prisoners there are in Northern Ireland’s prisons, and how many suffer from mental health problems and personality disorders. There are high numbers of such people in prison in Northern Ireland, but he will be encouraged, I am sure, by the fact that about 18 months ago the health service in Northern Ireland took over responsibility for the delivery of health care, including mental health care. I expect to see substantial improvements in the support and service that is provided to vulnerable prisoners as a result of that measure.

Prisons in Northern Ireland are operating at close to full capacity, and for a long time now there have been discussions about the provision of a new prison in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister update us on that situation? Will the planned new prison be affected by the budget difficulties that are going to lead to capital cutbacks?

There are today 1,406 prisoners in prison in Northern Ireland, and that is lower than the figure on this day last year, when there were 1,481 prisoners in prisons. We are making available to the courts community sentences, electronic tagging and other measures that mean that, where appropriate, there is an alternative to prison. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to point to the need to improve accommodation. This year we have a new 60-cell block at Magilligan prison and a new 120-cell block at Maghaberry prison, and he and his hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), who is sitting next to him, will know that there is a clear commitment to rebuilding Magilligan prison. It badly needs rebuilding. The plans are in place, the work can begin in 2012 and the Government are mindful of the fact that it needs to be delivered. In all discussions between the Prime Minister and politicians from Northern Ireland, the need for a sustainable capital commitment to a new prison on the Magilligan site has always been on our minds.

Dissident Republican Groups

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the threat posed by dissident republican groups; and if he will make a statement. (306254)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the security threat in Northern Ireland from dissident republicans. (306257)

9. What steps are being taken to reduce the level of activity of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (306258)

10. What his most recent assessment is of the level of activity of dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (306259)

While the self-styled criminals remain a serious threat, their cowardly actions have been rejected by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. None the less, the Government are not complacent about the threat that those people continue to pose.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly with reference to a minority dissident republican group that appears to be causing trouble to try to put a stop to the peace process. Will he assure me that that will not happen, that he is working with everybody in Northern Ireland to ensure that it will not, and that that group will be named and dealt with in the appropriate manner?

I am pleased to report that that group is, indeed, being dealt with in the appropriate manner. That follows in part as a result of the extensive co-operation of the community, whose members do not wish to see Northern Ireland plunged into anything like the chaos they saw in the past. I will also say this to my hon. Friend: the dissident groups may wish to undermine the peace process, but they will do so only if they undermine confidence in the political process. If we succeed with the politics, we will preserve the peace.

Given the recent resignation of the prison governor and the sale of a judge’s home owing to dissident threats, what can the Secretary of State tell us about the action that the Government are taking to ensure the protection of prominent public figures?

The prison governor made it clear that his reasons for resignation, which we regret, were a matter of personal circumstances. My hon. Friend the Minister is making the appropriate arrangements in relation to that. As regards threats to individuals posed by the self-styled dissident groups, we will do everything we can to protect people in Northern Ireland. It is clear that this small minority of people, who have no support in the community, would like to undermine public confidence. We will ensure that those who promote peace and the politics and the institutions of Northern Ireland have the appropriate protection that they deserve.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the media have been endeavouring to connect the devolution of policing and justice with dissident republican activity. What steps are the Government taking to defeat dissident republicans? Does the Secretary of State understand that no political stunts or intimidation of Unionists will weaken our resolve in ensuring that policing and justice are devolved when there is community confidence, which means dealing with and resolving the issues, including the parades issue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that following the attacks at Massereene in his constituency in March, measures of public confidence were extremely high, not least because the public in Northern Ireland saw politicians across the divide come together with a unity of purpose. I believe, as the Independent Monitoring Commission report recently observed, that early completion of the devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont would be a potent intervention against these people. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about community confidence, but there could be no greater sign of confidence than the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

The Secretary of State will know that some in the security services believe that there is an intelligence deficit with regard to dissident republican groups. Does he share that concern, and what steps is he taking to overcome that problem?

First, many of these matters relate to the operational independence of the Chief Constable, which I am sure that all hon. Members would respect. We are ensuring that the resources are there for the security services in Northern Ireland and the PSNI. The hon. Lady will know that in order to meet this challenge, the Prime Minister has made additional reserves available to the PSNI this year and guaranteed it additional money next year. As for intelligence about these dissident groups, I congratulate the PSNI and the security services, who have consistently managed to thwart these people, whose objective is to undermine confidence and damage the peace process itself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any threat to the stability of our political institutions feeds into the warped thinking of the so-called dissident so-called republican groups? Does he further agree that the sooner we can agree on the devolution of justice and policing, avoid any threat of the collapse of our institutions, and reject any speculation that Sinn Fein may be planning to withdraw from policing arrangements such as district policing partnerships, the sooner we will defy the agenda of the dissident groups?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I wish to note, and the House will wish to record, that only in the past few weeks those at Stormont have completed the passage of the Department of Justice Bill, which would enable a Justice Department to be created, and invite the identification of a Justice Minister. Progress is being made. Let us not allow the dissidents any voice at all; let us have a show of confidence and complete the devolution of policing and justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order. I know that hon. and right hon. Members will want to listen intently to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I call Sir Patrick Cormack.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and a very merry Christmas.

Does the Secretary of State agree that 2009 would have been a very much blacker year had it not been for the achievements of the PSNI in defusing some terrible bombs that could have caused enormous harm? Will he give the House the categorical assurance that the PSNI will be kept up to strength and increased in strength to combat that terrible threat?

May I first take this opportunity on behalf of the House to record our thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work in Northern Ireland and with the Select Committee? I say that conscious of the decision that he has announced in relation to next year. We thank him for what he has done, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for his work and that of his Committee.

The work of the PSNI in 2009 has been tireless and successful, despite enormous provocation. The House will wish to know that had the bomb intended for the Policing Board headquarters gone off, it would have caused certainly severe damage to the building and probably severe loss of life. Brilliant work by the PSNI and the services across the board continues to ensure that these criminals who call themselves dissidents do not succeed. I only hope that next year will be an even better year for the PSNI.

May I strongly endorse the comments of the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the performance of the PSNI this year?

We do not underestimate the threat posed by dissidents, but we firmly believe that the response must be proportionate. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that every part of Northern Ireland is policed on a regular basis to ensure the confidence of all parts of the community in the effectiveness of the PSNI?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and join in his observations. The objective of these criminals is not damage to a building or even the loss of life but to undermine confidence in the politics and damage the peace process. We must all bear in mind that they seek to wreck the political process and in turn the peace process, and I can confidently say that this House will not allow them to succeed in that.

A few weeks ago, the Conservatives agreed to endorse the substantial financial package that would follow the devolution of policing and justice. Given the current threat, has the Secretary of State considered drawing on parts of that package in advance to enable the Chief Constable to deliver more effective policing?

My hon. Friend the Security Minister and I are in regular discussions with the Chief Constable, who of course has operational independence on these matters. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made available nearly £30 million of extra money this year for the PSNI and has offered more than that for next year. That money has not been exhausted, but my right hon. Friend has made it very clear to the Chief Constable that he is always open to representations from him because regardless of circumstances, this Government stand with the people of Northern Ireland.

Peace Process (Ministerial Discussions)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State on the peace process in Northern Ireland. (306255)

Does the Secretary of State fully appreciate the support of the Conservative party for the tremendous efforts of the Americans, and particularly the Clinton Administration, in keeping the peace process on track? Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Northern Ireland, does he anticipate further economic investment there?

The people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for the investment that has been made by the United States, which has allowed several hundred new jobs to be created this year in Northern Ireland despite the international recession. The decision by Secretary of State Clinton to create a special economic envoy, Declan Kelly, meant that only last week, 14 top American companies made presentations to the Administration in Northern Ireland looking at investment for next year. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have made it clear that their support will be as unstinting and relentless as that of Presidents Bush and Clinton before them.

What work is being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office further to integrate the areas across the divide in Northern Ireland, particularly in social housing? What is the NIO doing to remove the dreadful physical barriers that divide the two communities?

My hon. Friend will know that many of those matters have now of course been devolved. However, I simply say this to him: established in the Good Friday agreement and endorsed in the St. Andrews agreement were the principles of equality and justice for everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of faith and geography, to ensure that they enjoy shared power and a shared future that is fair.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply.

I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the two soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who died in Afghanistan yesterday. We send our deepest sympathies to their families. This Christmas, we will all be thinking of the bravery and dedication of our armed forces overseas, and especially at this time of year, of the families who support them.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Copenhagen. This morning he met the UN Secretary-General; this afternoon he will address the assembly.

The whole House will endorse what the right hon. and learned Lady said about those fallen soldiers, and our thoughts will very much be with their families.

However, may I turn to the home front and other families who will be desperately worried that their own loved ones might not return home for Christmas because of the British Airways cabin crew strike? Although there has been good news this morning that Unite and British Airways might now be talking, may I have an assurance from the deputy Prime Minister that she will use her considerable influence with the trade unions to ensure that this damaging strike is called off as soon as possible?

Both the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary have said that they, like I am sure everyone in the whole House, want to see that a strike does not take place. That is important not only for those who have travel plans this Christmas either to go abroad to see their families or to have their families join them, but for the long-term future of BA. I hope that when the talks take place this afternoon, they will reach a settlement.

We wish the Prime Minister well in the current talks in Copenhagen. We need a united position with our European partners to reach agreement in those vital talks. How much harder does my right hon. and learned Friend think it would be to reach such an agreement if we were isolated in Europe? Does she share my concern at the divisions in the group of allies of the Conservatives in Europe—more than half of their group opposes the European targets?

As the Prime Minister said, it is an uphill task at Copenhagen, but there could not be a more important task than to get all the countries of the world to agree on tackling climate change. As my hon. Friend says, there is indeed a contrast between the Prime Minister at the centre of events—[Interruption.] He was the first world leader to decide personally to go to Copenhagen. What a contrast, as he works with other world leaders, that the shadow Foreign Secretary has not even been able to persuade his own side that climate change is important.

May I join the Leader of the House in recording our sadness at the news last night of the death of two British soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles serving in Afghanistan? Over Christmas and the new year, the untiring efforts of our servicemen and women serving their country in a theatre of war must never be far from our minds.

The House of Commons is today rising unusually early for Christmas—the earliest we have risen for Christmas for 31 years—and I want to ask the Leader of the House about three particular pressing issues on which the Government will not be able to report to Parliament over the next three weeks. One indeed is the vital negotiations at Copenhagen, in which we wish the Prime Minister and other British representatives every success, although we should have been able to hear about the outcome next week, not just the prospects this week. Does she share our concern about the comments by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reported this morning, that a firm commitment on the proposed fund for developing countries to tackle climate change may be set aside and not addressed until next year? After the Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General this morning, what were the chances of that major setback being averted?

The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the House is somewhat spurious. We are rising early, but we are coming back early.

It is indeed important that we have not only a political agreement at Copenhagen, but legally binding targets that are independently verifiable and this $10 billion fund to ensure that the developing countries—the emerging economies—can play their part in the effort to tackle climate change. That is a difficult challenge. The Prime Minister, the Secretary-General of the UN and world leaders are working on it today, and I hope that the whole House will wish them well.

Well, we do wish them well, and I know that the Leader of the House will agree with me that in particular we must address the serious issue of the destruction of the world’s rainforests. As she thinks that we are not addressing this issue seriously, it is good to know that what we proposed last month the Government have since agreed to propose —that additional significant EU financial support should be given to developing countries to halt deforestation. Will the Government now also agree with one of the proposals I made three weeks ago—to set an example to other nations and show that we will take determined action under domestic law by making the import, possession and distribution of illegally harvested timber an offence under UK law?

I am sure that we will take every action possible, and we have already taken action to ensure that only sustainable timber is used. I did make a comment about the right hon. Gentleman’s party, and this week 11 Conservative Members have been party to the production of a report entitled “Climate change is natural: 100 reasons why”, claiming that it is nothing to worry about. We will deal with domestic law to protect timber and we will ensure that we take the action internationally to tackle deforestation: he should deal with Conservative Members who are climate change deniers.

I hope that the Leader of the House will indeed take seriously what we have proposed and look at what I have just put to her, because it may help the Government to take the issue seriously, as well as the Opposition. We look forward to that.

On another issue that requires urgent attention in this House, does the Leader of the House agree with the Foreign Secretary that, following the issuing of an arrest warrant for the Israeli Opposition leader Mrs. Livni, Parliament needs to look urgently at ways in which the system might be changed? While we all agree that allegations of human rights violations by all sides in the Gaza conflict need to be addressed, how is Britain meant to play a leading role in the middle east peace process if Israeli politicians cannot visit Britain without fear of arrest?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the Foreign Secretary’s words. We should be in no doubt that it is important for Israel’s leaders to be able to talk to Ministers in this country. Israel is an important strategic partner and we need to ensure that the situation is as the Foreign Secretary said it should be.

Can the Leader of the House shed a little more light on this? When the International Criminal Court Act 2001 was introduced, it was never meant by any one in this House to obstruct normal diplomatic business such as the vital work of the middle east peace process. Senior serving politicians, to whom we all need to talk every day, were not meant to be affected in this way, as we understand it. Can she say whether magistrates are applying the law correctly? If they are not interpreting the law correctly, will the Government give fresh advice on that point. If they are interpreting the law correctly, what will the Government do about it and when will a Minister come to the House to report on this and say what they propose to do?

I think that I am in a position to tell the House that we agree. Our objectives are the same as those set out by the right hon. Gentleman, and Ministers will be looking at the matter and ensuring that the situation is resolved.

I thank the Leader of the House for that, and I hope that they will do so quickly and report to the House when it returns.

On a further issue needing urgent attention, and which might become the biggest threat to world peace in 2010, do the Government agree that Iran’s continued failure to come to an agreement on its nuclear programme, and the mounting evidence of its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, make the need to agree vastly strengthened sanctions of immense and pressing importance? Will the Government commit during the recess to do their utmost to accelerate agreement on European Union sanctions and the new UN Security Council resolution that is urgently needed?

Yes, I think that we can agree that we want to ensure that the threat from Iran, which we have never underestimated, is recognised with increasing sanctions. I would certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Once again, that is something else that the Foreign Secretary will be taking forward.

We know that the Foreign Secretary will be taking that forward, but the Prime Minister has twice announced new sanctions against Iran without them ever taking effect. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to ensure that an effective new wave of sanctions is set out, including a ban on any new European investment in Iranian oil and gas—something that he announced in the middle of last year—and serious financial sanctions such as those that exist in the United States? Will she ensure, as Leader of the House, that a statement will be made to Parliament early in the new year by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary about what this country, the European Union and the UN Security Council are prepared to do at this critical point?

Indeed, the Prime Minister mentioned that in his statement following the European Council, and as Leader of the House I ensure that the House is kept updated on this important issue.

How telling it is, however, that on this day, when we have seen employment rise, the number of people in work increase and the number of people claiming unemployment benefit fall for the first time in two years, those things have not had a mention. I would have thought that today was the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary would come to the House and admit that the Tories had got it wrong.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen today’s Daily Record, which exposed a legalised lending company charging an annual percentage rate of 2,639,538.9 per cent? Is it not about time that we followed the lead of European countries and put a cap on interest charges, especially in the run-up to Christmas?

I congratulate the Daily Record on its campaign against loan-sharking. It is important that we inform everybody that Government-funded money advice centres are there to help people, that in all areas there are loan-sharking investigation teams and that people can look to their credit unions for help. For many families, there is a lot of pressure at Christmas, so they should take advice and use credit unions.

May I add our condolences in respect of the two servicemen who died serving this country in Afghanistan?

One of the Government’s achievements is that the share of tax revenue in the economy has now fallen to the lowest level since the days of Harold Macmillan. Yet, this week, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimated that about £40 billion is not being collected and is being evaded. Where is that money? [Interruption.]

Order. I ask the Leader of the House to wait. Government Back Benchers are in an especially boisterous mood today, but I want to make progress down the Order Paper and get as many people in as possible.

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, tax revenue has fallen because if fewer houses are being bought and sold, stamp duty falls, and if unemployment increases, there are fewer people paying taxes. Corporation tax has also fallen. Tax revenue has fallen because this country has been hit by a global economic recession.

We have been determined to take measures to stop tax avoidance, and we think it important that an example be set not only in this House, but in the House of Lords. According to an old saying, there should be no taxation without representation. What about no representation without taxation? We will introduce legislation to ensure that people are domiciled, resident and ordinarily resident in order to sit in this House or in the House of Lords.

I take that point, but perhaps make it in a less partisan way—[Interruption]—and perhaps commend the leader of the Conservative party for the helpful suggestion of new legislation, based on Liberal Democrat proposals, so that Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords who are non-doms should not sit in Parliament. May I welcome the fact that there is such enthusiasm, from turkeys voting for Christmas, and suggest that the Leader of the House give immediate effect to their wishes, by bringing in an amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill, so that non-doms such as Lord Ashcroft can leave Parliament immediately?

We certainly need transparency on the issue, and as I said, we will bring forward legislation. The hon. Gentleman is busy commending the Conservative party; at the risk of being accused of being partisan, I would like to complain about the Conservative party. The deputy chairman of the Conservative party made a promise to the honours committee—this pertains to the need for legislation—that he would make his tax affairs on shore. The Foreign Secretary—[Interruption]—the shadow Foreign Secretary—can tell us what the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury says he knows. Has Lord Ashcroft—

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady, but we need not pursue that point any further.

The Efford community in my constituency is a strong community, but does my right hon. and learned Friend understand the shock, horror and dismay at the crimes for which a nursery worker received an indeterminate sentence yesterday? Will she work with me to ensure that the lessons of the serious case review, which can now move rapidly to a conclusion, are fully and speedily learned?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Everybody has the utmost sympathy for the parents whose children were at that nursery and will expect, as there have been, stiff sentences in that case. If there are any lessons to be learnt, from what we hope is an exceptional incident, I am sure that they will be learnt by the serious case review panel.

Q2. In 1998, the Government put into law their code for fiscal stability, since when the so-called golden rule on borrowing has been broken in every year since 2001. If we are to have any confidence in the announced Fiscal Responsibility Bill, can the deputy Prime Minister tell us what penalties will apply to Ministers who break that law? Will there be fines or loss of office—or worse—for such Ministers, or is this just another Labour gimmick? (307389)

The Fiscal Responsibility Bill lays out a statutory responsibility and a statutory duty, and this House will hold Ministers to account. I would say that it is fiscally responsible to ensure that the economy grows and that we do not pull the plug on it. Although we are seeing encouraging signs, the recovery is still fragile. We want to ensure that we have fiscal responsibility when it comes to taxation to help the public finances and that those who are best off pay most. As well as putting the public finances back on a proper footing, we want to ensure that we protect public services. All of those are the fiscally responsible things to do.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best measures for tackling inequality of assets in this country is the child trust fund, which benefits 3,941 children in my constituency? Does she also agree that the very worst measure would be an inheritance tax cut for millionaires?

The reason why none of my hon. Friend’s constituents would benefit from the Conservatives’ tax cuts for millionaires is that they live in Glasgow, not in Notting Hill Gate. He can rely on this Government to protect his constituents with measures such as the child trust fund.

Q3. On equality, given that in the past parliamentary decade, which ends today, Labour Cabinet Ministers have paid themselves an increase of more than £30,000, how does the Leader of the House justify the fact that the increase in Cabinet salaries alone is greater than the annual take-home wage of the people she is elected to represent? (307390)

The pay of all Cabinet Ministers—and, indeed, of all Ministers—has been frozen, and Cabinet Ministers and Ministers have also agreed to forgo their pay increase as Members of Parliament.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport said that the electrification of the midland main line was a matter not of whether but of when. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give her support to ensuring that that happens as soon as possible, as it is vital to the economy of the country?

I give my strong support to the proposal that my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is important that we invest in our economic infrastructure—transport is an important part of that—as we have done consistently over the past 10 years.

Q4. This morning, I visited a homelessness project run by the charity Crisis. One in 20 of the people that it is likely to cater for this Christmas will be homeless ex-service personnel. Given everything that those people have already done to serve their country, is there more that the Government can do to honour the military covenant and to focus on serving the health and welfare needs of those people who have so bravely served us? (307391)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything possible, as part of the military covenant, to support our serving military forces in the field, our ex-servicemen and women, and their families. If he would like to make any suggestions about this, I am sure that they would be well received by the Defence Secretary.

My constituent, Leon Jones, was just 21 when he was killed in a fatal stabbing near his home recently, devastating his family, friends and the local community. Already, that local community has been proactive in raising awareness of the possession of knives, and of knife crime. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such campaigns are needed, along with tough laws? Will she give the House an assurance that this Government will raise the minimum sentence for murder by knife from 15 to 25 years?

First, I would like to express my sincere condolences—as my hon. Friend has done—to the family of Leon Jones for the terrible loss that they have suffered as a result of his tragic death. We have to take knife crime very seriously, and we are upgrading the sentencing to put it on a par with gun crime. Everything must be done to protect people and to send out the message that knife crime cannot be accepted.

Q5. Is the Leader of the House aware that a planning application to build a massive distribution centre at Pyestock, on the border of my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), was refused by the local authority? The appeal was rejected by the inspector, yet an unelected Minister, Lord McKenzie, who knows nothing about the area, allowed the planning application to go through. Is this what the Government mean by supporting local democracy? (307392)

The hon. Gentleman will know what the planning processes involve. They have been laid out and agreed under statute by this House, and if he had any proposals, he should have put them forward in the Planning Bill.

All the schools in my constituency have benefited immensely from the investment of this Government in terms of both staffing and capital costs. Just last week, the Great Yarmouth high school heard an announcement that it was going to receive £12.5 million from the Building Schools for the Future fund. Can my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that any future Labour Government will continue with that Building Schools for the Future fund to ensure that investment in education continues?

The Building Schools for the Future fund has been important not only to make up the backlog and legacy of disrepair in our schools but in ensuring that our young people and children are educated in the best possible facilities. It has also provided much-needed help for the construction industry at a time when private sector construction has been facing tremendous difficulties. That is one of the reasons why we have not pulled the plug on public investment in construction in the way that the Conservatives have insisted that we should.

Q6. Copenhagen is the land of make-believe and fairy tales. Does the Leader of the House have a favourite fairy tale? Could it be the Emperor’s new clothes? Is she the little robber girl or is she really the princess? (307393)

We could learn a lesson from fairy tales, which is that you need to avoid the brothers Grimm, which we would get if they—[Laughter.]

Order. I say to right hon. and hon. Members that good humour is one thing, but disorder is another. We have to try to impress and reassure the public, not to disgust them.

The Leader of the House may recall on that on 7 May I drew to her attention the plight of migrant workers and those people whose papers are languishing in Lunar house, Croydon, where a parlous state is prevailing. Will she arrange for a meeting with the charity London Citizens and faith groups, including Bishop Patrick Lynch and his Anglican and Methodist colleagues, to discuss the problems of migrant workers and those people whose status here is yet to be determined?

I will ensure that there is a meeting of the relevant Minister with London Citizens, which is a very good organisation to whose work I would like to pay tribute. I am sure that it will be reassured to know how fast the backlog is being reduced under the leadership of the Home Secretary.

Q7. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has mentioned the mega Pyestock warehouse on the borders of our constituencies. Is the deputy Prime Minister aware that the decision of the noble Lord, overruling 12,000 local residents and the local councils and her own inspector, was taken in the rather doubtful interests of employment, but against the interests—[Interruption.]—because the jobs the Minister suggested might be created are very doubtful—but against the interests— (307394)

I cannot assist the right hon. Gentleman further except to repeat my answer to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). These are decisions made under a legal framework. They are made as ministerial decisions, but in the public interest. One public interest that the planning system is determined to promote is employment, and I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman agreed with that.

On the subject of the Geneva Conventions Act, will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to reassert the principle of judicial independence and, in particular, the power of the courts to issue criminal process against anybody—whatever side they are on, whatever their status, rank or influence against whom good prima facie evidence has been laid?

Of course that is the case. The courts act judicially and independently under the framework of law, both national and international, and we have to make sure that we not only guarantee judicial independence, but have the right legal framework.

Q8. Today, the UK Payments Council meets to determine the future use of cheques and it is anticipated that it will recommend their phasing out by 2018. Many older people and small businesses, especially those without access to the internet, continue to use cheques and value their convenience. What steps will the Government take to save the cheque and to ensure that vulnerable people and small businesses can continue to use this form of payment? (307395)

The hon. Gentleman has made a significant point, particularly in relation to older people. The Equality Bill ensures that public authorities making those changes must take account of the interests of older people, and must not take steps that discriminate against them. We need to look to the future, but also to ensure that older people do not suffer as a result.

Q9. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the measures in the Local Transport Act 2008 that enable elected local transport authorities to introduce quality contracts giving them power to determine local bus routes, frequencies and fares? Does she agree that any proposal to revoke those powers would remove from local communities the right to make decisions about their own bus services, and would be entirely contrary to the principle of local democratic accountability? (307396)

I think that those quality contracts represent an important step forward, and that it would be folly for the Local Transport Act powers to be revoked. That is one of the things that the Conservative party is threatening to do, and it should not happen.

Is not part of the problem the fact that we have an Administration run by Tweedledee and Tweedledum? As we approach 2010, if the Prime Minister really does want to give the people of this country a great new year cheer, he will announce a general election sooner rather than later.

Q10. I frequently receive representations from small businesses in my constituency about the costs of Government regulation. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in these difficult times, it is essential for the Government to reduce the burden of regulation, and can she tell me what the Government are doing about it? (307397)

We are ensuring that the Government help business, both big and small. One of the things that we have done is help businesses to defer their tax under the time-to-pay scheme. I think that the most important announcement for small business over the past few weeks was the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report that that scheme would continue. We want to do all that we can to help small businesses. One of the things that we will not be doing is abolishing the regional development agencies, which are so important to helping small businesses but which the Tories would abolish.