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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 505: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2010

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Criminal Justice and Policing (Devolution)

1. What assessment he has made of the outcomes of the recent talks at Hillsborough between the Northern Ireland political parties; and if he will make a statement. 3. What recent progress has been made on the devolution of criminal justice and policing; and if he will make a statement. (314136)

The Hillsborough talks established by my right. hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last week have now continued for eight days. The British and Irish Governments helped to establish a basis and a pathway on which we believed it would be possible for the parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Considerable progress has been made. With good political will, we believe that the parties should soon be able to reach a reasonable agreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. May I place on record the thanks of the people of Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the extraordinary patience and diligence that they have applied throughout these talks? Does the Secretary of State share the frustration and anger of the people of Northern Ireland about the lack of real progress in these talks? Could he explain to the House why the Government have abandoned the core agreement principle of inclusivity by excluding 44 per cent. of the electorate from meaningful inter-party dialogue at these talks, and explain the abandonment of proportionality in the allocation of Ministries?

I certainly share the sense of frustration; after eight days and 110 or 120 hours of talks, sleep deprivation might be having its effect, as well.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach wanted to ensure that it was possible for the political parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Let us remember that, ultimately, because of the St. Andrews arrangements, the completion of devolution will be decided by a cross-community vote. However, before that, the political parties have been engaging in the past week in talks in an inclusive way. I can only say that, from what I have seen so far of the product of these talks, many of the points that the political parties in Northern Ireland would have wanted to see in such a process are very much under consideration.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for clarifying the position for the House. I have been a little concerned in listening to at least one of the parties talking about whether any agreement that was reached among the parties to the talks would have in some way to be put out for public consultation or a vote—it is a bit unspecific. What is the Government’s position on that? Do they think that that would be a helpful process or that it would hinder a solution that would be durable and remain for the foreseeable future?

Clearly, whatever agreement is reached by the parties must be durable. It is very important for us all to understand that what is at stake are not simply arrangements for a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, for which the Government strongly believe that the time is now right: this is the end of a political process that began with the peace process itself. If we succeed with this, we will secure all the achievements of the peace process; if we fail, we will put many of them at risk.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, and all the other local and national politicians, on all the efforts that they have made in trying to progress this very important matter. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the new unit that he opened this week in Maghaberry prison. On that particular aspect, if the devolution of policing does not go ahead, what might be the implications for the future of the prison-building programme in Northern Ireland?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for security and policing, had the pleasure of opening that unit. He was allowed out of our open prison to go to another one, but I am pleased to report that we brought him back pretty promptly.

We are committed to the provision of new places in prison. In the past two years, we have provided some 300 new prison places, with 120 more to come. The House may wish to note, however, that if no agreement is reached in the next few days, and if therefore we cannot complete devolution, the loss of the £800 million that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would make available would almost certainly mean that extra prison places would not happen, that the new women’s prison would not happen, and that, indeed, the new Magilligan prison would be unlikely to proceed.

Does not the Secretary of State think that an essential ingredient of the current discussions must be a consensus that can command community confidence? Without that community confidence, no matter what pressure is placed upon me or my colleagues, the Democratic Unionist party will not be buying into any deal. Progress has been made, but more remains to be done, and we certainly agree with including all the other parties in these discussions.

Of course everyone must have confidence, but confidence does not belong to any one community. One of the principles is that an agreement must indeed command support from everyone in Northern Ireland, but we are speaking about something that was understood in the St. Andrews agreement and that people expected would be completed. All the political parties in the Assembly elections understood the importance of completing devolution. The Assembly has been up and running for nearly three years, and that business remains to be done. We believe that the confidence is there, and it is now time to summon leadership and courage and act.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important that no party in Northern Ireland is seen to be blackmailing Her Majesty’s Government? The actions of Sinn Fein, in threatening to pull down the Assembly if the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach did not go almost straight over to Northern Ireland and spend hours without sleep, would not seem to any reasonable person a sensible way forward. Of course we want the agreement to happen, but that is not necessarily the best way to move forward.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Let us be clear that the Prime Minister works extremely hard whether he is here in Downing street or in Northern Ireland, which is why I am sure we are all very grateful to him for what he has done. He went to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach because he has been following the matter very closely over the past few months and judged that the time was right last Monday to go and help facilitate the talks and to build a pathway on which it would be possible to construct a reasonable agreement. That was the critical role that he played in those two days. If we reach agreement, the people of Northern Ireland from every community should be grateful to him and to the Taoiseach.

In thanking the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the time and effort that they have spent over the past few days, may I urge the Secretary of State to use whatever extra patience is necessary to ensure that when an agreement is reached, as I hope and trust it will be, it will hold and be supported throughout all the communities in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and indeed for his help during those two days when his being in Northern Ireland with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs coincided with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach being there. He is absolutely right that patience is required, but equally we must be careful not to try people’s patience to distraction. Unfair failure to make progress would not be rewarded—not by any particular process now, but by the people of Northern Ireland. We have changed their lives through the peace process and secured peace in the political process. It is right to make progress, but we now sit on the edge.

For those of us who definitely do not want to go back to direct rule and who want devolution and the talks at Hillsborough to succeed, with the principles of tolerance and respect at their core, what more can we in this House do to encourage those in the negotiations to take them forward and make them successful, in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. She always speaks well on these issues, and indeed she always speaks well on behalf of her constituents. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of tolerance and respect. It is essential that we also learn to put trust into the process. Every step of the way in the peace process has at times required us to make acts of faith. We need acts of faith and trust now, and whether one is a negotiator or standing outside the process, we all have a responsibility for its success. We would all have a responsibility were it not to succeed, although I hope that that will not happen.

May I, too, endorse the efforts of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in recent days in relation to the talks? I endorse also what the Secretary of State says about the importance of trust and faith. Does he believe that he would have been able to engender that trust and faith and perform the role that he has if he had been caught out trying to construct a pan-Unionist alliance?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me with the last part of his question. I will not make any attempt to secure any party advantage, because the politics of Northern Ireland are such that we must put the interests of the people above any party interest. However, I say this to the hon. Gentleman: we all have a responsibility. It is possible to grandstand what is happening in Northern Ireland, and in doing so, to say “It wasn’t my fault” if it fails. As I have said before, we are all responsible.

Everyone acknowledges the determination of the Secretary of State and his colleagues to see devolution completed, and we fully support his efforts and objectives. For devolution to be durable, it must command community confidence. Will he therefore ensure that both the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party are fully involved in the negotiations as equal members of the four-party coalition?

I wish to put on record that I believe that that can be done only if there is an unequivocal commitment to succeed by all parties in the House. I am grateful for what I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s full support for what we are trying to negotiate, but let us be clear that the process at Hillsborough has been open to all parties. None the less, the agreement must be forged initially between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Let me pay tribute to the leadership offered by both parties. The process has been undertaken in a good spirit and in good faith, but it requires the support of those who may not be able to be involved in the intimate parts of every negotiation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do all he can with his alliance partner in Northern Ireland to help that party understand that the talks must succeed.

The negotiations have been much more protracted than anyone anticipated. Like the Secretary of State, we want them to succeed, and I again assure him of our continued support. Can he confirm, however, that issues other than criminal justice, policing and parades that have been raised by the parties are being carefully considered as part of the final deal?

These talks are to facilitate an agreement—the agreement must be reached by the political parties. I can confirm that in plenary sessions those issues have been raised and that a reasonable agreement would include a process to address them. However, it is sometimes difficult to address such issues if some Northern Ireland parties are not available for meetings or if they are not as prepared as other parties to meet me or my right hon. Friend the Minister.

Security Situation

2. What his latest assessment is of the level of threat in Northern Ireland from dissident republican groups. (314137)

4. What his latest assessment is of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (314140)

The most recent Independent Monitoring Commission report confirmed that the threat from dissident republicans is at its highest for six years. I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Security Service in combating and disrupting terrorism in all its forms.

The Minister will be aware of the latest attempt by dissidents to carry out an attack on the security forces, which happened last night. Thankfully, it was thwarted through co-operation between the PSNI and the police in the Irish Republic. It is that kind of co-operation that will help to defeat those terrorists.

Is the Minister aware of a realignment that is taking place within those dissident republican groups, as a result of which we have seen an increase in the number of attacks and the risks that they pose to the security forces? Will he reassure us that the Chief Constable will be given the resources he needs to combat that serious threat?

There was an attack last night on the Old Park barracks, which indeed followed an attack a few days ago at Bessbrook police station. Of course, all such incidents are to be condemned. The IMC noted that there was some tactical co-operation between certain groupings, which of course the PSNI and the Security Service are aware of and are dealing with, but the key thing is that the completion of devolution of policing and justice provides a real opportunity to snuff out those who would oppose the political and peace processes and try to bring disruption. We have a real opportunity to move such people right away from the mainstream of society, who support law and order and want visible policing on their streets to deal with everyday kinds of crime, including antisocial behaviour.

Does the Minister share my concern about the sheer brutality and nerve of the recent drive-by shootings? Is he satisfied that the human intelligence-gathering capability of the PSNI is as good as it was in the RUC?

I have absolute confidence in the capacity of the PSNI and the Security Service to deal with the threat that is posed. It is a severe threat, and we recognise that, but the police and the Security Service have the capability to deal with it. I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning the people who carried out those attacks, and those who carried out the despicable attack on Constable Peadar Heffron a short time ago. I am pleased that because of Constable Heffron’s great strength and the support of his family, he has now regained consciousness and is in a stable condition. Their approach to life stands in stark contrast to the despicable behaviour of those who tried to take his life.

I join the Minister in condemning the attack on Constable Heffron and wish him a rapid and full recovery from his very serious injuries. His is one of a series of attacks, as we have heard this morning, mainly—although not exclusively—on police officers. On behalf of the Opposition, I condemn those attacks without reservation and I ask the Minister again whether he can do anything to help the police to protect their officers from these murderous and cowardly attacks.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that all police officers in Northern Ireland have received an appropriate briefing on their own security. This year the Government have made available an extra £28 million to deal with the terrorist threat, and more money will follow next year. It is a great tribute to the PSNI, when one looks back at some of the serious attacks in the past year, that two people have been remanded in custody and charged with murder in relation to the attacks at the Massereene barracks, two have been charged with the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, and two have been charged with attempted murder in relation to an attack planned recently in Garrison against a young police officer. The police service is absolutely up for this and is determined to deal with the threat.


At the beginning of January, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed a major act of decommissioning by the UDA. We applaud the leadership and courage behind that decision and those responsible.

Order. These are important and serious matters we are discussing, but on both sides of the Chamber there are far too many private conversations taking place. If people want to have private chats, the answer is simple: leave the Chamber.

The Secretary of State rightly says that there has been welcome decommissioning by the UDA, but he will also be aware of the worrying number of loyalist dissident assaults, which are up by almost 250 per cent. on the same time last year. What is his Department doing to ensure that the people who orchestrate and authorise such assaults face justice?

First, this is a matter for the Chief Constable. That being said, we are ensuring that the resources are available for him to deal with all those who are engaged in crime. If the agreement that we are trying to work through at Hillsborough succeeds, an additional £800 million will be available to policing and justice in Northern Ireland to help with these things. If the agreement is not reached, that money will not be available and the police will have to suffer the consequences of a failure to reach agreement.

Along with others, my right hon. Friend has played a major part in the decommissioning talks. They have certainly brought safety to Northern Ireland, but does he believe that there is more to come from decommissioning, and has he any news that he can share with the House today?

Let us reflect on the success of the decommissioning policy. We have seen full decommissioning from the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, and limited decommissioning is reported from the Loyalist Volunteer Force. It has been an extremely successful programme, but I should share with my hon. Friend the fact that next week, on 9 February, it comes to an end—the process will be over—and that will be that on decommissioning.

PSNI (Recruitment)

6. What his most recent estimate is of the level of recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland of (a) Catholics and (b) Protestants; and if he will make a statement. (314142)

Since the introduction of the temporary recruitment provisions in 2001, there have been 3,751 appointments to the PSNI—1,888 Catholic, 1,831 Protestant and 32 not determined. Catholic composition within the PSNI has increased from 8.3 per cent. to 27.68 per cent. We remain on track to reach the target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March 2011, and today I am laying before Parliament an order that will renew the temporary provisions for a further final year.

What further measures will the Minister take to ensure that the required level of membership will be met from both denominations?

It was necessary to introduce the temporary provisions to deal with the historical imbalance in the representation in the PSNI. As I said, in 2001, 8 per cent. were Catholic, but now that figure is 27.68 per cent. As we move forward, however, it is important to ensure that, with confidence in policing shared across all communities, we can expect applications and people of high calibre from all communities and that they will be recruited. Of course we also need strategies to ensure that women apply to join the PSNI, and people from ethnic minorities too.

The Minister will be aware that over the past 12 months a number of PSNI and prison officers and former security force members have had to leave their homes following dissident republican threats. Does he agree that, if that continues, it will be a hindrance to encouraging young people to join the PSNI?

It is important, of course, that the Northern Ireland Office stands alongside the PSNI and provides support and protection where appropriate to police officers who may be under a serious and individual threat. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we all bear a responsibility to ensure that we create an environment in Northern Ireland in which those who seek to carry out the kinds of attack that we have seen are isolated from the mainstream community and stand unsupported and alone, so that they can have no further impact. All of us, including the hon. Gentleman and me, bear a responsibility.

Paramilitary Groups

8. What recent assessment he has made of the level of activity by loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (314144)

Although I welcome the positive leadership that has delivered decommissioning in Northern Ireland, some individual members of loyalist paramilitary organisations remain involved in criminality, as reflected in the latest IMC report.

In January, youth workers warned that social networking sites were being used by both Catholic and Protestant groups to foment violence. May I ask what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such sites are not so used?

That is primarily a matter for the PSNI, which is looking at how such websites are used. Where there is illegal use of such sites or material, it will pursue the matter. However, I would simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the talks taking place right now in Northern Ireland will do more than anything to ensure that in the future young people find no interest in such activity. I ask him to urge his hon. Friends to do all they can to help the talks succeed.

Fuel Smuggling

The latest assessment by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs confirms that the amount of revenue lost through the non-payment of UK duty is reducing. We are not complacent, however, and in the past year HMRC has seized 1.09 million litres of illegal fuel.

In 2002, the Chancellor’s Budget targeted fuel smuggling, yet in a written answer on 14 November 2008, column WA150, the noble Lord Myners pointed out that £210 million in diesel revenue had not been collected, and that in 2005-06 it was also £210 million. Given the importance of fuel smuggling to terrorist organisations, why has there patently been no progress whatever since 2002?

The most important thing that we need to do is ensure that we find those who smuggle and deal in illegal fuel in Northern Ireland, seize their assets and bring them to justice. Under the remit of the Organised Crime Task Force, the PSNI and other law enforcement agencies are deeply involved with that. Operations now take place week after week to seize equipment and bring people to justice.

Further to that question—and indeed, to all the questions that have been asked today—does my right hon. Friend believe that conducting clandestine negotiations exclusively with Unionist politicians in a stately home in England helps or hinders the process?

Order. I was listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. I was hoping that he would refer to fuel smuggling, and he did not.

Tempted, as I often am by my hon. Friend, to respond to the question that he asked, there is a serious point, and it is the one that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made previously. This is not a moment for party political advantage in this place; it is a moment for the parties of Northern Ireland, with our support, to strive for and find the agreement that can pave the way to permanent peace in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the service and sacrifice in Afghanistan of Lance Corporal Graham Shaw and Corporal Liam Riley, both from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, attached to 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. We think of their families and their loved ones, and we will never forget the sacrifice that they have made and the service that they have given.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be in contact with the Northern Ireland parties later today.

I add my sympathy and condolences to the families of those brave servicemen who have lost their lives in the service of our country.

All our constituents are rightly concerned about transparency, expenses and cleaning up politics. With that in mind, now that it is clear that there was a £50,000 fund solely for the Prime Minister’s use at his headquarters, will he explain why he did not declare this in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

Q12. Across the country, police officers and their community partners are working immensely hard to tackle violent crime. Who does my right hon. Friend think they should turn to, to monitor their success: to the Opposition, who have been caught bang to rights issuing dodgy crime statistics, or to the authoritative and independent British crime survey, which suggests that violent crime has fallen by 41 per cent. in the past 10 years? (314808)

I think that we all have a duty in the debate about law and order to give out all the facts that are relevant. To misrepresent facts that have come from the police and the British crime survey is not to allow us to have a fair debate in this country. The police have said that the use of the figure of 71 per cent. by the Opposition is “extremely misleading”, while the BBC home affairs editor has said:

“The story is of falling and then stable violence for over a decade.”

I think that there is a duty on everybody to report the facts accurately.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Liam Riley and Lance Corporal Graham Shaw, who were killed in Helmand on Monday. They were both very brave men. Everyone should be proud of their service and we should all honour their memory.

Is it not becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the Government in general, and the Prime Minister in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant that our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?

I will welcome the opportunity to speak to the Chilcot inquiry, but the right hon. Gentleman must know that defence spending rose every year, with the fastest rises for 20 years, and that our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan received £14 billion from the contingency reserve to enable the fighting there to take place. Not only did we prepare the Army, Navy and Air Force with proper funding; we also funded every urgent operational requirement that was made. I do not believe that it is in the interests of this House to tell people that they were not properly equipped when funding was provided.

What the Prime Minister has just said is completely at odds with what witness after witness has said to the Chilcot inquiry. Let us listen to what they have said. The former Defence Secretary said that we now have fewer helicopters because of the decisions that the Prime Minister took as Chancellor. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walker, said that

“money …was taken out of the helicopter budget”.

Soldier after soldier has complained about the lack of body armour, vehicles and equipment, and we now know that the service chiefs threatened to resign en masse. Is it not time that the Prime Minister admitted to the mistakes that he made when he was Chancellor?

First, the Conservatives do not even know what their policy is for 2010 on spending on anything. Secondly, I have always taken seriously the need properly to fund our defence forces. In the 2002 spending review, which is the subject of discussion here, the defence estimate was the best for 20 years. The Defence Secretary at the time said it was an excellent settlement that allowed us to modernise the forces. In 2004, the defence management board made its own decisions. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that he stood on a platform at the last election to cut defence spending by £1.5 billion.

As ever, this Prime Minister is in complete denial of the facts. He just said that he always took defence seriously. Another former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Guthrie, said that this Prime Minister

“was the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer, as far as defence was concerned”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 961.]

Just today, in front of the Chilcot inquiry, the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Kevin Tebbit, said that while troops were in Iraq, and while that man was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his budget was subject to “arbitrary” cuts and a “guillotine.” He said that he

“was running…a crisis budget rather than one with sufficient resources”.

Is not the evidence mounting that the Prime Minister ignored the welfare of our armed forces right up until the moment it became politically convenient to do otherwise?

I repeat: the Conservative party went into the last election wanting to cut defence expenditure by £1.5 billion. We continued to increase the defence budget every year and we made every urgent operational requirement that was necessary for Her Majesty's forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has included £14 billion of extra expenditure from the reserve. Expenditure on Afghanistan was £600 million a few years ago. It will be £3.5 billion this year. Defence expenditure is rising this year, as it is rising in the next financial year. The right hon. Gentleman cannot portray a picture of defence cuts when defence expenditure has been rising. The only Government who cut defence expenditure recently were the last Conservative Government, who cut it by nearly 30 per cent.

I call Jamie Reed. [Interruption.] Order. I am sure Government Back Benchers want to hear Mr. Reed.

Q14. It is true. Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that he is the only leader of any political party to support nuclear new build in this country. What certainty can he give my constituents, businesses and the supply chain in my constituency that we will make the necessary changes to the planning system to enable them to invest with confidence and certainty? (314810)

I hope that there is all-party support for the nuclear expenditure that is necessary to give us security in our power. It is 8 minutes past 12 and I understand that the current Conservative party policy is that nuclear power is a last resort. That is not the basis on which one can plan for the future. The Conservatives can change their policies every day. We will remain consistent in support for the energy needs of our country.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Corporal Liam Riley and Lance Corporal Graham Shaw from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who tragically lost their lives serving so bravely in Afghanistan this week.

I would like to return to the issue of defence spending. The Government are about to make a statement on the future defence needs of this country, yet the Prime Minister has already excluded the Trident nuclear missile system from the strategic defence review. How can that review be taken seriously if the most expensive weapons system that we have is to be excluded from it?

One can either take a unilateralist or a multilateralist attitude to defence. We take a multilateralist attitude that we are prepared to work with other countries for nuclear disarmament. We do so on the basis of being prepared to discuss the future of Trident as part of multilateral talks. We are prepared to look at and discuss the scientific evidence for reducing the number of submarines from four to three. The defence review paper will state all these things. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that in a very unsafe and insecure world where countries are acquiring nuclear weapons, breaching the non-proliferation treaty, it is better for us to be part of multilateral discussions to reduce nuclear weapons around the world.

Look at what we have: we have troops in battle without proper equipment and guillotined defence budgets in a world that has changed out of all recognition since the cold war, yet the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition want to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money replacing and renewing a nuclear missile system designed to flatten Moscow at the touch of a button. How are we to face the threats the country faces if Government thinking is so stuck in the past?

I give the right hon. Gentleman credit for being consistent in his policies—something that I cannot say about the Opposition. It is important for us to maintain the resources we are spending in Afghanistan and it is important to understand in our strategic defence review that we are dealing with the problem of global terrorism, which is quite different from what we have experienced before. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will look carefully at all the uses of equipment for the future. It is important to recognise that we want to be part of multilateral discussions for the future.

I add that it is not fair to our troops in Afghanistan to give the impression that they are not properly equipped for the job they are doing. We have spent £3.5 billion from the reserve this year and it will be even more next year. The average expenditure per member of our forces is nearly £0.5 million to ensure that they are properly equipped. More helicopters have gone into Afghanistan over the last few months, as have more vehicles. Special attention is being given to counter-terrorism and dealing with the threat of improvised explosive devices. It is completely wrong to say that our troops are not properly equipped. We are proud of them; they are professional; and they are properly equipped for the job they are doing.

Q2. Before Christmas, the Government confirmed in the pre-Budget review that funding for front-line schools, hospitals and police would be protected and increased in real terms. Neither the Tory Opposition here nor the SNP Government in Scotland have given a similar pledge. Meanwhile, in my constituency, schools are facing savage budget cuts at the hands of a Lib Dem-led council. Does this not show that only Labour can be trusted to protect front-line services? (314798)

The Scottish Administration have had a record increase in public expenditure as a result of the previous public expenditure review. It is sad that they have not made a priority of education for the young people of Scotland. They will pay a price for that failure at the ballot box. Some of the cuts having to be announced by the Scottish Administration are the result of the wrong and misleading decisions that they have made.

Thirteen years into government and 90 days before a general election, can the Prime Minister tell us what first attracted him to changing the voting system?

No one on the Opposition Benches seems to understand that the politics of the last year has changed for ever the way the public view the House of Commons and our parliamentary institutions or that the status quo cannot last and has to be changed. If the Conservatives want to defend the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, if they want to postpone reform of the House of Lords for more than 10 years and if they want to refuse the people a referendum on the alternative vote, they are making a mistake about what the British people are thinking. My message today is to the British people: we are prepared to change our constitution—and to change it for the better. We are for the alternative vote; the Opposition are for the hereditary vote.

It is back to the bunker time with that line. I do not know whether the Prime Minister pulled the secretary out of the chair before he typed that one, but it was a lot of old rubbish. The Prime Minister talks about the hereditary principle, but there is only one leader in this House who inherited his title. What a lot of rubbish! [Interruption.] It is good of the Chancellor to have a laugh.

The reason why the Prime Minister is in favour of the alternative vote is that it is election time. This is the man who ducked the leadership election and bottled the general election, and now he is trying to fiddle with the electoral system. He must think that the whole country is stupid. Have another go! Why are you doing it?

This is the man who, at Christmas, promised us a policy-a-day blitz to show us the substance of the Conservative party if it were in government. We have had confusion over the married couples allowance, we have had chaos over public spending, we have had exaggerations about crime, and we have had the Conservatives retreating on the hereditary principle and now supporting it for the House of Lords. This is a Conservative party that is in a complete muddle and has no manifesto. The Conservatives do not have the substance to be able to govern the country. They are a shambles.

Why do we not go over some of the history? The last Liberal leader who got suckered into this was, of course, Paddy Ashdown. He wrote this in his diary about Tony Blair:

“Time after time after time, he’d say ‘Yeah Paddy, I agree, but I can’t get it past Gordon.’”

He went on to say:

“Gordon was the “primary block.”

Does not real improvement mean cutting the size of the House of Commons, cutting Ministers’ pay, and complete transparency on expenses, but is not the one thing that we should not change the ability, at a general election in Britain, to get rid of a tired, incompetent, useless and divided Government?

There would be no change under the Conservatives—no change at all. The right hon. Gentleman is supporting the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. He is supporting the—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but we must have some quiet. I want to hear the answer, and I hope that others want to hear the answer as well.

The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is about no change. It is the politics of no change at all. He supports the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. He supports no reform of the House of Lords for a decade. He supports no referendum to allow the electorate to have a chance. This is a party that has fundamentally not changed at all. The Conservatives are the same as they always were. We will vote for the alternative vote; they are still voting for the hereditary vote.

In the context of the Prime Minister’s response to the parliamentary institution, is he aware that tomorrow Sir Thomas Legg will publish his full review of MPs’ allowances? Building on the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Kelly recommendations—all of them the initiatives of the Prime Minister—can we put the sad and sorry saga of MPs’ expenses behind us, and rebuild this institution called the House of Commons?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must reform the system of expenses, and we must follow through with the Kelly and, now, the Kennedy reforms under IPSA. But I have to tell the House that we must do more than that. If I have a message for the whole country it is that it is not enough simply to change the expenses system; we must change the way in which we govern ourselves in this House of Commons and in the House of Lords.

I come back to the essential questions. If the Conservatives are not prepared to face up to major change in the constitution, the public will see that the Conservative party has not changed one bit.

Q3. If what the Prime Minister told us a moment ago about defence spending was correct, why on earth did defence chiefs threaten to resign because of his proposed defence cuts, as General Walker told Chilcot this week? (314799)

I have to report to the House that defence spending was rising every year during that period. It was rising in real terms, and no one has doubted that every aspect of Iraq and Afghanistan was funded. I repeat that it was the Conservative party that went into the last election wanting to cut defence expenditure.

I am sure that Members throughout the House will applaud the care and support given by the Royal British Legion to those who are serving and have served in our armed forces. The Royal British Legion is asking Members of Parliament and those wishing to be elected to the House to do our bit and keep the faith with our brave heroes. May I invite my right hon. Friend to sign the Royal British Legion pledge in support of our armed forces family?

I would be delighted to, and the Defence Secretary has already done so. I pay tribute to the outstanding work of the Royal British Legion and welcome its continued support to our armed forces and veterans. The Government support our service personnel and their families, and our services Command Paper was an attempt to show how we do so right across the services. The Green Paper published today by the Secretary of State for Defence reiterates our commitment to doing this.

Q4. At the weekend, National Express Group cancelled without consultation the No. 41 bus in Birmingham, causing major problems to people in the city. This is symptomatic of a national problem. When will the rest of the country be allowed to use the same system for bus management as is used in London? (314800)

I am sure I should call an emergency Cabinet meeting to look into the situation involving the No. 41 bus. I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman has said, and write to him.

Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who wishes to be taken seriously on defence has got to be prepared to commit, unequivocally and without reservations, to the aircraft carriers? Does he also agree that there is a party difference here, in that the aircraft carriers and the Royal Navy are safe with Labour, but they would be sunk with the Conservatives?

There is no stronger defender of the case for the aircraft carriers than the Member for the constituency in which some of them are to be built. We are committed to the aircraft carriers. The future policy of the Navy is being organised around them, and I hope all parties will support the aircraft carriers.

Q5. All Governments make mistakes, and all Prime Ministers have regrets. Which of the following does the Prime Minister regret most: (a) the collapse in adult learning, with 1.4 million places lost; (b) the fact that the latest figures show that fewer young people are starting apprenticeships; or (c) the growing gulf between the number of university applications and the number of places? For the brevity you seek, Mr. Speaker, as well as for clarity for the House and the convenience of the Prime Minister, perhaps he can restrict his answer to saying just (a), (b) or (c). (314801)

What I regret most is the Conservatives’ failure to support us as we were trying to take this country through recession with more apprenticeships, more people going to university and college, and every school leaver guaranteed the chance of a job or training. All these things were resisted by the Conservative party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that investing in apprenticeships is an important way of investing in recovery? Does he therefore share my despair at the action of Tory South Ribble borough council in abandoning its apprenticeships scheme, and will he urge it to reconsider that and thereby show for once that the Tories are interested in young people and their futures?

It is difficult to know what the Tory party policy is on anything at the moment, and such is the lack of clarity that certainly for 2010 I could not guarantee that any apprenticeships that my hon. Friend wishes to support would be supported by the Tory party. We have trebled the number of apprenticeships; there are 250,000 of them now. We want to give every young person the chance to get an apprenticeship, if they have the qualifications to do so. Throughout the recession, we have been trying to maintain apprenticeships so that young people have the qualifications for the jobs of the future. There is only one party opposing that and opposing the expenditure on education, training and employment, and that is the Conservative party.

Q6. All those involved in the 1998 defence review know that the Prime Minister’s only interest was to get a £1 billion cut from the Conservative expenditure plans, which was reduced to £500 million a year only by the intervention of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Why is it that the Prime Minister is inviting us to believe that all the distinguished servicemen and civil servants who have given evidence to Chilcot on the chaos surrounding the financing and provision of equipment in the run-up to Iraq are wrong, and he is right? (314802)

The figures show that defence expenditure was rising every year in real terms, and that they were the biggest rises for 20 years. The figures also show that every single urgent operational requirement that the Ministry of Defence asked of us for Iraq and Afghanistan has been met. I am afraid it is the Opposition who are having difficulty with figures at the moment.

My right hon. Friend has come under severe attack for not cutting the deficit fast enough or hard enough, but those who made those calls in this House seem to agree with him now. Does he think that that is what is meant by the statement that it is “a year for change” on the airbrushed Conservative poster?

It is a year for the Conservatives changing their mind every week about every single policy that they put forward. Two weeks ago, the Leader of the Opposition said that it would be “moral cowardice” not to tear up the Budget for 2010. The shadow Business Secretary then said that there would be “calamitous consequences” if that were to happen. Now the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury is boasting that he does

“not have a detailed plan”.

In other words, not only do the people not know where the Conservative party stands, but the Conservative party does not know where it stands.

Q7. Thanks to the assistance of Finance Wales, the staff of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Royal Bank of Scotland, we have secured up to 100 new jobs at Regal Fayre in Montgomery. However, those are more than outweighed by 180 potential redundancies in Shop Direct’s Newtown call centre. Could the Prime Minister arrange a meeting with the relevant Minister, once I have met Shop Direct’s senior management tomorrow morning, to discuss this possible closure, which could cause a localised new recession in Montgomeryshire? (314803)

I understand the concern when any jobs are lost; it is a personal tragedy for those people who have, in many cases, given their lives to one company, which is unable to continue to employ them. I shall arrange for these meetings that the hon. Gentleman asks for to take place. I can assure him that every teenager who has been unemployed for six months now has the guarantee that they will get work or training, and that the services available to those who are unemployed are better than they have ever been. The result of that is that 300,000 people are leaving the unemployment register every month, and that employment is at a higher level and unemployment a lower level than people expected months ago.

Even though the claimant count is 48 per cent. down in my constituency, it is nevertheless a great disappointment to hear of Bowater going into administration. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that the parent company’s actions are investigated—it seems to be playing fast and loose with the British work force—and that the work force affected and the supply chain are given every possible support?

I know that the regional development agency stands ready to help my hon. Friend’s constituents and the company that is in difficulty. This is clearly a difficult time for the work force. The administrators have said that in this case they will keep the business trading while they explore all options, which include looking for a buyer for the business. I can assure him that all the local agencies, including the rapid response teams at the jobcentre, will be available to help those workers in his constituency who are affected.

Q8. I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware that in percentage terms the population of the United Kingdom and Ireland is the greatest reservoir of the prion that causes the fatal and incurable human brain disease vCJD. One of the means of transmission is blood transfusion. Last October, the Government’s scientific committee that is examining this issue recommended the use of a filter for blood for transfusion for children initially. When are the Government going to react to that recommendation? (314804)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious matter in great detail. That recommendation is obviously very important for the future of the blood transfusion service. I shall look at it very carefully and get back to him.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister confirm that inheritance tax cuts of £200,000 for the richest 3,000 families could be achieved only at the expense of spending on schools and hospitals throughout the nation? If he rejects that policy, can he guarantee that there will be no Cameronian wobble on this side of the House? (314805)

The one thing that the Conservatives have stuck to through this month of muddle and division is their policy on inheritance tax. Like their policy on hereditary peers, it will give the richest people in our society the greatest amount of additional wealth. That could be at the expense of schools, it could be at the expense of the health service and it could also be at the expense of defence. I think people should know that the Conservative party’s first priority, above all others, is to reduce inheritance tax for those who are perfectly able to take care of themselves. We are for the many, they are for the few.

Q10. Health funding is skewed towards younger, urban, Labour-voting areas, rather than towards older, rural areas such as my constituency. That is why Hull receives more than £1,800 per head whereas East Riding receives just £1,200 per head. The Prime Minister knows that age, not deprivation, is the key driver of health need, so why does he put the electoral interests of the Labour party ahead of the needs of the sick? (314806)

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the evidence is that in his region there are 12 new hospitals and 37,000 more NHS staff. We have doubled expenditure on the national health service so that everyone in our country will benefit and we are giving personal guarantees to every citizen of this country that they will receive cancer treatment within two weeks, that they will be in a position to get an operation within 18 weeks, that they will get regular check-ups and, at the same time, that they will be able to see a doctor at weekends or in the evening. The party that has resisted giving rights to every citizen is the Conservative party.

Q11. My right hon. Friend is only too aware that we have, regrettably, too many war widows, to whom this country owes a great deal. Will he promise, in any Administration that he runs, to stop any suggestion to make those people relatively worse off, via the tax system, because they are not married? (314807)

There should be no discrimination against widows and no discrimination against those who have been abandoned by their partners. That is why we have a system of individual taxation and special allowances for widows. I would hesitate to say that the proposal for a married couple’s or married man’s allowance would be fair to widows or to people who had been abandoned by their partners.

Q13. Last year, Lord Mandelson launched a £1 billion strategic investment fund. It was designed to help industries across the country. I know that the Prime Minister struggled when asked about £50,000 earlier, but let me try him with this number: why is it that 90 per cent. of that fund does not help industry across the country but has been given to Labour constituencies? (314809)

The purpose of all our measures in the recession is to help industry and business out of recession. Some 300,000 businesses have been helped in all constituencies across the country. The difference between us is that the Conservatives opposed all our measures and we took the action to get us out of recession. We are taking action to keep us out of recession, while the Conservatives do not have a clue what they would do in 2010.

Does the Prime Minister welcome the proposals announced last week for licensing and planning concerning houses in multiple occupation? Will he urge local authorities with a high concentration of HMOs, such as Southampton, to make early use of the powers that they will gain?

I know my hon. Friend has taken this issue up on many occasions and that it is an important issue when dealing with cities such as Southampton, where there are houses in multiple occupation. I can assure him that we will be urging councils such as those in his area to take up these proposals with speed.