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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment he has made of the level of paramilitary activity by republican groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (322973)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (322976)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. The Government are not complacent about the threat that dissident republicans continue to pose despite their having little or no community support. The House will wish to know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to disrupt the activity of that small criminal group. So far this year, it has made 51 arrests, brought 12 charges and made three seizures.

The Northern Ireland Executive, fully supported by the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, not least the Unionist population, have achieved huge success, with major concessions to the nationalist population. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that there is now absolutely no need whatever for any paramilitary activity, unless it is by a hard core of people who want to destroy the peace, stability and economic success of Northern Ireland?

The House will know of the historic vote that took place in Stormont on 9 March—nearly all parties in the cross-party community vote were in support. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there never has been a need for any paramilitary activity: not then, not now, not in future. As for concessions, we need to understand this as a matter not of concessions, but of power sharing. Both sides may have compromised, but they have done so for the good of everybody in Northern Ireland.

The new Chief Constable is supported—for the first time—by all parties in Northern Ireland, and yet the police’s reputation for effectiveness in combating crime and terrorism has never actually been lower. Why is that?

I am afraid that I agree with only one part of the hon. Lady’s question, which is to recognise that the Chief Constable was appointed to his job with unanimous support; I entirely disagree with everything else she says. Confidence in policing in Northern Ireland is at record levels and will stay at record levels, and it continues to enjoy a support of which most hon. Members in this House would be extremely envious. The PSNI has brought down crime and been extremely successful in tackling even the activities of some of the most hated criminals in the community, and I hope she recognises that.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no hiding place for violent republican dissidents across the border, and that co-operation has never been better, particularly under the new Garda commissioner?

I put on record that the levels of co-operation in both Northern Ireland and the Republic have never been greater or better. That is true of every aspect of dealing with and preventing crime, none more so than those areas of crimes associated with paramilitary activity, and especially the investigations that are taking place into the recent murders of soldiers and a police constable.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist party could not come on board in what was happening in the devolution process, and that perhaps, the Conservatives might have done a bit more to try and persuade it to come on board?

I think I will not take the temptation to make a political point, because I actually want to thank the Conservatives for their support. Their alliance with the UUP is of course a matter for them, as is the question of whether they can ultimately influence that party. I regret the fact that the UUP did not vote for the Hillsborough castle agreement and the devolution of policing and justice.

Dissident republicans pose a serious threat to the people of Northern Ireland. On Saturday last, a pipe bomb was found in a public place, outside the police station in Magherafelt, which is just a few yards from my home. Also, members and ex-members of the PSNI in my constituency and a number of others are under threat from dissident republicans. What active measures are the Government going to take to ensure that those organisations are infiltrated, brought to justice and defeated?

The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the impact of that kind of activity, not only as a very fine and outstanding constituency Member of Parliament, but as a person and as a family member, so I say this with huge respect for, and understanding of, where the question is coming from. We will do everything to support the Chief Constable and the PSNI to tackle both those who have committed crime and those who intend to commit crime. We will work as closely as possible with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and the institutions of devolved Government to bring those people to justice.

Obviously it is very disappointing that the Ulster Unionists in the Assembly did not support the cross-community vote. Will my right hon. Friend continue to work on a cross-party basis in the hope that the Ulster Unionists will be persuaded to back this in future?

Although the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and its Assembly Members did not vote for this on 9 March, it was perfectly clear from public opinion and the confidence that all political parties had established in Northern Ireland that that vote had the support of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those who would identify themselves as supporters of the Ulster Unionist party. Unfortunately, its leadership did not reflect that on the day.

The Secretary of State’s assessment of the level of risk is clearly sensible and realistic. It brings with it the potential for future challenges for the PSNI in dealing with that risk if it becomes reality. Will he confirm that he will use his good offices to ensure access to the Treasury for contingency funding should the necessity arise?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in this. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an additional £30 million of funding available from the reserve for the current financial year for the PSNI. My right hon. Friend has already committed nearly £40 million of additional funding, which will be available to the Chief Constable to deal with the threat posed by dissidents. This Government will stand with the people of Northern Ireland and with the devolved Government.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs strongly supports the devolution of policing and justice. Is he also aware that we attach the highest possible importance to the operational independence of the Chief Constable in tackling dissident republicans and in dealing with all his other duties?

The operational independence of the Chief Constable is one of the principal outcomes and a huge success of the Patten reforms. It has enabled enormous confidence to be established across all communities in Northern Ireland. That, of course, has been the case and after devolution on 12 April it will remain so.

A few days ago, an attempt was made to murder police officers in Newry after they were lured there by what is reported to have been a hoax bomb. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there are sufficient intelligence sources to enable the police to counter what is becoming a very worrying and increasingly dangerous terrorist threat?

Let us remember that those who wish to commit these crimes are people who, regrettably, refuse to accept the political settlement that has now been agreed. The Conservative party, along with other parties in this House, has helped to ensure that the early devolution of policing and justice has taken place. Let us remember that the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission said that that would be the “potent intervention” in dealing with dissident republicans.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on savers in Northern Ireland of the collapse of the Presbyterian mutual society. (322974)

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are both members of the ministerial working group established by the Prime Minister. They, along with Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive, are in regular contact in an effort to assist members of the PMS whose investments were affected by the society’s entry into administration.

The Financial Services Authority warned of a problem with the PMS almost a year ago, the Prime Minister set up his working group last summer, the Treasury Committee issued a scathing report this February saying that nothing would be resolved unless a political lead was given and this morning the relevant Minister in another place gave no lead whatsoever and no clue as to what might happen. Is this not a classic example of a Government who are incapable of taking a decision and who are letting down 100,000 savers in Northern Ireland?

No, it is not, because the Prime Minister established the working group and I hope that it will very shortly be able to consider a proposition—a paper—from the Executive in Northern Ireland, which will put forward a range of options. The commercial option is, of course, one that we would all wish to see taken, if it is possible to do so. The Executive have also been working on specific ideas. We need to hear those ideas, consider them and look for solutions.

Does the Minister agree that regardless of the legal and commercial niceties, there is a moral obligation on us all to help relieve the serious distress, both financial and emotional, that genuine savers in the PMS are suffering? These people invested in good faith and we have a moral responsibility to return that good faith or give them some return on it.

I agree that there is a sense of moral obligation here—the Prime Minister has said that—but none the less we have to find a solution that is hard-headed. We need a solution that will actually work in the interests of those who genuinely and in good faith invested their money in the PMS.

The Minister will be aware of the hardships faced by many PMS savers, who become more concerned as time goes on. Will he and the Secretary of State use their good offices to ensure that the Treasury co-operates fully with the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward a solution and a package that will bring real assistance to PMS savers as soon as possible, so that their plight can be resolved?

I agree strongly with the right hon. Gentleman, who knows, as I do, that many, particularly older, investors, have lost money and are suffering financial hardship as a result. We all have enormous sympathy with them, but what we need more than sympathy is a solution. Yes, we might need to consider a hardship fund in the end, but it would be better to find a sustainable solution that would work in the long term. A commercial solution would be best, but ideas will be coming from the Executive shortly that are worthy of consideration. We should work together to see whether a sustainable solution can be found.

The Minister of State and the Secretary of State have been excellent Ministers for Northern Ireland, and I appreciate their efforts on many fronts. Will the Minister of State give a clear assurance to PMS savers, not just in my constituency but across Northern Ireland, that the Government will find a solution, before the election, to the situation in which those people find themselves through no fault of their own? Will he give a clear assurance that there will be a solution before the general election?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments about me and my right hon. Friend. I give her an absolute assurance that for every day of this Parliament that remains, we will continue to search for a solution that will work for those investors and that will restore confidence and, I hope, some money to them. In the end, it is their hard-earned money that has been lost, and we need a hard-headed solution that will work in practice.

Last June, the Prime Minister announced a review group to look at the plight of those involved in the PMS, and promised that it would report by September. The Prime Minister intervened to rescue the Dunfermline building society, and boasted to the Labour party conference that

“not one British saver has lost a single penny”,

but it was his guarantee to banks that triggered the run on the PMS. What is the reason for yet another broken promise from this bankrupt Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman may be more interested in process than in solutions, but my right hon. Friend and I are interested in finding solutions. It is a completely false comparison, as anyone who has studied this knows, to compare the situation of the PMS with that of the Dunfermline building society. That financial institution was regulated by the FSA, whereas with the PMS we are talking about an industrial and provident society. I hope that, even at this stage, he will join us in the search for a solution rather than dwelling on process.

The Treasury Committee, with a Labour majority, said it was

“unacceptable and farcical that both the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive…have failed to act.”

In Northern Ireland questions last June, the Secretary of State promised me further talks,

“not with empty slogans and hollow promises but with real action—and not by doing nothing.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 261.]

But here we are, nine months later, and nothing has happened. We cannot go on like this. Is it not time for change and for him to make way for a Secretary of State who will stick up for the people of Northern Ireland? [Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the answer. There is far too much noise and there are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber.

I was trying, before, to give the hon. Gentleman a fairly basic lesson in the economics of this issue, but we will shortly be getting an economic master-class from others at this Dispatch Box. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to listen very carefully, because he might just learn something for a change. The position is absolutely clear: a considerable amount of work has been done, even in the recent past, by Members of the Executive in Northern Ireland. They are represented on the working group that has been convened by the Prime Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary also belongs to that group. We want to find solutions—

National Security Protocols

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the national security protocols to be used after the devolution of policing and justice matters. (322977)

I have discussed the national security protocol with a range of individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland. The current text addresses a number of concerns raised in those discussions.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. The intelligence services withheld information from the investigation into the tragedy of the Omagh bombing, and allegations have recently been made about the intelligence services’ role in the death of Kieran Doherty in Derry. What further discussions will he have with the Northern Ireland Executive to prevent such things from happening and to facilitate future investigations? He told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that it would become more likely that the intelligence services would co-operate, but more likely is not good enough.

I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been an assiduous Member of Parliament for 23 years and was a founding member of his party. We wish him well in the future.

I am of course considering the Select Committee’s report, but I remind the House that Sir Peter Gibson published his report last year and that after he examined the information available on the day, he concluded that

“to the extent that any relevant intelligence was derived from interception, it was shared with RUC…and Special Branch South promptly and fully”.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who has always been an assiduous and hard-working Member of Parliament.

Does the Secretary of State recall that, alongside discussions with the Executive about the national security protocols, there was consideration of finance and other related matters, including the transfer of four military sites? Will he use his influence to ensure that the promise given by the Prime Minister is not broken by the Ministry of Defence, which is trying to hold on to elements of those sites?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the bases are being transferred to the Executive as part of the generous devolution package that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I agreed at Hillsborough castle. There are, of course, outstanding points of detail in relation to those bases, but I am confident that they will be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. [Interruption.]

Order. I appeal to the House to settle down. We are discussing extremely important matters and I think that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a bit better.

Fuel Smuggling

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on steps to tackle fuel smuggling in Northern Ireland. (322978)

Tackling fuel crime is a key Government priority. Law enforcement agencies in the Organised Crime Task Force are working to disrupt fuel fraudsters, bring them to court and confiscate their criminal assets.

Will the Minister tell the House who is responsible for investigating smuggling, which involves a loss to the Exchequer of £200 million a year? Is it London or Belfast?

The Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland is an excellent initiative that brings all law enforcement agencies together—Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is increasingly important that they work with their counterparts from the Republic of Ireland—the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Revenue Commissioners—because it is by working together that we can best bring to justice the people who perpetrate these dreadful crimes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to stop the smuggling would be to reduce the price of fuel in the UK and not introduce the 3p levy?

My hon. Friend makes a late bid with regard to the business that will come later. On reducing opportunities for fuel smuggling, it is important that the price of fuel is now virtually the same in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That reduces the incentive for fuel smuggling, but it encourages fraudsters to consider other kinds of fuel fraud, especially fuel laundering, which is why the Organised Crime Task Force must continue to pursue the issue with great vigour.

Decommissioning

7. When he expects to receive the final report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. (322979)

I placed in the Library of the House on 3 March the most recent report from the IICD, which recorded full and final acts of decommissioning. I expect a final report, including a report on armaments, to be published later in the year.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that within the final report, there will be a full inventory of the weapons that were decommissioned, as his predecessor assured us would happen?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the IICD was set up by both the British Government and the Irish Government. The arrangements to bring to an end decommissioning in the Republic of Ireland have now been concluded. We are in discussions with the Irish Government and with the IICD about the scope of the IICD’s final report, which will contain a report on armaments.

The Secretary of State rightly referred to the fact that both the British and Irish Governments set up the IICD. They did so arising out of agreements and negotiations in the talks leading to the Good Friday agreement. Does he recognise that when that commission was being set up and whenever decommissioning was being pursued, the main Unionist party insisted that decommissioning was not intended to happen as part of the agreement and was a fiction? Will he therefore acknowledge that the progress that has been made proves that those of us who committed to the agreement and to decommissioning were right and were honest?

In the course of the peace process, political parties in Northern Ireland have taken positions which in the end will, I hope, reflect a unanimous position that all the work that has been done to achieve peace and stability in Northern Ireland has succeeded. I hope that all political parties—including, as I am sure it does, the Democratic Unionist party—support the work of the IICD.

Per Capita Expenditure

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on trends in per capita expenditure in Northern Ireland on matters for which he is responsible. (322980)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has had no recent discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on these matters.

The public expenditure per head of population in Northern Ireland is now more than £10,000, and more than a quarter higher than the UK average. As things have got better in Northern Ireland, one would have thought that trend would go down. Does the Minister agree, or does he expect to see it at a constant level?

The expenditure for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is responsible relates now only to policing and criminal justice matters, and they will shortly be devolved. It is true that the number of police officers per head of population in Northern Ireland is higher than it would be in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or mine, but that is perfectly understandable when one considers the troubles of the past 30-odd years and the prevailing problem and challenge from dissident republicans. [Interruption.]

Is it not right that, after more than 35 years of the most terrible terrorist campaign, the level of expenditure on security in Northern Ireland was rightly spent to defend democracy and the Union with the rest of the United Kingdom? Will the Minister give a commitment that in the event that at any point in the future some kind of civil emergency arises, the money will be available to protect and defend the ordinary people of Northern Ireland against terrorism?

Both in the current financial year and for the next financial year a considerable amount of additional money will be made available to the Chief Constable to deal with the security threat. It is very much the judgment of the Chief Constable that we listen to. We will listen to his assessment and respond accordingly.

Saville Inquiry

9. When he next expects the final report from the Saville inquiry to be published; and if he will make a statement. (322981)

The House will be pleased to hear that finally, after more than a decade, Lord Saville will, this afternoon, I believe, make available to my officials his final report and inquiry, so that they may begin the checking process on article 2 obligations and national security that I am obliged to carry out as Secretary of State.

What took place on Bloody Sunday was a tragedy, whoever was to blame. It took place nearly 40 years ago. We have spent £200 million of taxpayers’ money and 12 years looking at the issues, probably just to stir up old enmities and reopen old sores. Does the Secretary of State think that it is all worth doing?

The hon. Gentleman is right to record the fact that the report has cost £200 million. I disagree with him about the value of the Saville inquiry. Without the Saville inquiry, there would have been no stable peace process. Because of the inquiry, it has been possible to establish the bona fides for a peace process to succeed, and the whole House will be grateful for that success.

Given that almost £200 million has been spent, with no definitive outcome yet in sight, does the Secretary of State agree that now is the time to call an end to further wasteful inquiries and deal with genuine innocent victims for the future rather than trying to remember the past?

The hon. Gentleman need take no lessons, certainly from me, in being reminded that several thousand people lost their lives in the course of the troubles. We cannot forget the past; I am sure that he shares that view. The Saville inquiry will help us to produce the truth about the events of that day. We will learn from this inquiry. However, we do need a process to enable Northern Ireland to reconcile itself with its past.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will join me in remembering the life and achievements of Serjeant Steven Campbell from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, who died in Afghanistan earlier this week. We pay tribute to his energetic, brave and dedicated service. His infectious enthusiasm and his sincere patriotism will be sorely missed. The thoughts of everybody in this House, I know, are with his family, friends and colleagues.

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

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed forces, especially those who have lost their lives this week. Our thoughts and prayers are not only with those who have lost their lives, and their families and loved ones, but those who have been injured.

Last week the Prime Minister admitted that he had misled the Chilcot inquiry about the funding for the armed forces. When did he realise that he had misled—before or after he gave evidence?

As I said last week, when I was preparing for last week’s Question Time I was shown the transcript of what I had said in the Chilcot inquiry, and I decided to make it absolutely clear, on the first occasion, to the House and then write to Sir John Chilcot. But I repeat: defence spending has risen by 12 per cent. in real terms. Every request for funding by the Ministry of Defence and the commanders has been met by the Treasury for the operations that have been conducted. I have to say that there was a 30 per cent. real-terms cut in defence expenditure under the last years of the Tories.

May I pay my own personal tribute to all the officers we have lost and give my condolences to their families? I am sure we miss them all.

May I ask the Prime Minister why, in his view, fairness should be the hallmark of a good Government?

I appreciate the importance that my hon. Friend and her constituents attach to the fairness measures that we have introduced: the child tax credit, which has helped 6 million families in this country; the pension credit, which is helping 2 million pensioners to escape poverty in this country; educational maintenance allowances, which are helping half a million children to go to school; and a guarantee that young people under 24 will receive help and will not be unemployed but will have training and work. These are the measures that have been put forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor; they could never have been put forward by the shadow Chancellor.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Serjeant Steven Campbell, who died in Helmand on Monday. We are paying a high price in Afghanistan, and our troops and their families need to know that they have all our support. Our prayers and thoughts are with those who will not come home.

This is likely to be the second last Prime Minister’s questions before the general election, and clearly the Chancellor’s statement is the main event of the day, so this provides an opportunity to clear up a number of different issues. May I start with a simple one? It is Budget day, and there is a picket line outside the Treasury, so will the Prime Minister confirm that on this occasion he would like people to cross it and go to work?

Let me first congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his wife on the good news about their baby. Secondly, I thank him for getting near again to asking a question about the economy. Of course everybody is going to work here, and we will continue to work for a Labour Government and for jobs.

I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his congratulations. I have had a lot of texts and messages from many hon. Members, most of them focusing on how to find the time for these things, but I am very grateful none the less.

It was a very interesting answer from the Prime Minister. Last week he would not give any support to British Airways workers, but apparently the First Lord of the Treasury is content for his own work force to go to work.

In this spirit of clearing up a few issues, one of the things the Treasury is working on concerns the Prime Minister’s disastrous decision to sell gold at rock-bottom prices, losing—[Interruption.] It lost the country £6 billion. The Treasury has now lost its four-year battle against the Information Commissioner to keep the information about that decision secret, so will the Prime Minister now confirm that those documents will be published in full, with no redactions, before the general election?

I am very happy for any document to be published on that matter, but the right hon. Gentleman must do a bit better than that if he is talking about the future. We are lapsing into these issues, so let me just remind him that we have taken people out of unemployment and into work, that we have helped thousands of small businesses and that we have been helping people avoid the loss of their homes. The Conservatives have nothing to say about the present and the future. It is about time he started to think about the policies that work for the future.

If the Prime Minister is so relaxed about this information being published, can he tell us why he spent four years fighting it?

It is a matter for the Information Commissioner and the Treasury. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am happy if the Information Commissioner wishes to publish documents, but is the right hon. Gentleman going to come forward with any serious policy about the future of this country? Has he got anything serious to offer this country for the future? Has he got anything to say to the unemployed of this country, or to mortgage holders or businesses? The person who will be talking about the future is the Chancellor. The shadow Chancellor has nothing to offer.

So really that is it—the Treasury always wanted this information published, and it was only the Information Commissioner stopping it. Once again, this Prime Minister takes the whole country for fools.

Let us try another one. The Information Commissioner has also ordered the Department for Work and Pensions to release information on the Prime Minister’s disastrous raid on every pension fund in the country. The Information Commissioner ruled in November that that should be published and the Department has appealed against it. Now that we hear the Government are not interested in these appeals, will the Prime Minister withdraw that appeal and make sure the information is published?

We had a debate—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor may laugh, but he was the subject of the debate in this House on these very issues and he could not sustain his case about the dividend tax credit. We made the right decision for British industry and the right decision to protect British pensioners. It is the Conservative party that has let pensioners down and would do so in future by opposing many of the measures that we have taken. I am happy for everything in my record to be judged. Now let us start with the Leader of the Opposition—will he tell us what happened over Lord Ashcroft?

It is a simple question. If the Prime Minister is happy for this information to be published, will he withdraw the appeal and have it published—yes or no?

We had this debate on pensions. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] Yes, we had this debate on pensions in this House of Commons. The shadow Chancellor tried to pursue the case against our policy to withdraw dividend tax credits. He could not even make a sensible argument about that at the time. We won this debate on dividend tax credits because our policy was the right policy, and it continues to be so.

On this, the second last Prime Minister’s questions, we have just had what we have had all along from this Prime Minister: no answers, endless cover-ups, not giving the information, not answering the question and dithering on all the important decisions. How much longer are we going to have to wait until we get rid of this useless bunch of Ministers? The cab meter’s ticking. Come on, tell us when the election is, then.

The right hon. Gentleman has been wrong on every single issue about the economy. When the people look at what the Conservative party proposed, they will see that it was wrong on Northern Rock, wrong on the restructuring of the banks, wrong on help for the unemployed, wrong on help for mortgage holders, wrong on help for small businesses and that, when it comes to right or wrong, it was wrong on Lord Ashcroft. Wrong, wrong, wrong—that is the Conservative party. [Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers in particular must calm down. I am sure that they want to hear Fraser Kemp.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Six days ago it was announced that the world’s first mass-produced, affordable zero-emission car would be made in Wearside by Nissan, securing and creating thousands of highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the investment that has been committed to provide the infrastructure for charging points and to support the British motorist who wants to switch to zero-emission cars will be maintained and improved in the coming years, so that the UK can take its rightful place as the world leader in zero carbon emissions?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has done and what Nissan has done to create in the United Kingdom the first mass-marketed electric car. That will mean not only safeguarding and creating jobs, but 50,000 vehicles a year being produced in the United Kingdom.

The one reason why it was possible for Nissan to make that investment was that Government support was available for the development of the new technologies that it is making. Unfortunately, the Conservatives’ industry policy would withdraw support from low-carbon areas. We are the party of jobs and building industry for the future; they are the party of unemployment.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Serjeant Steven Campbell from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, who tragically died this week after serving so selflessly and professionally in Afghanistan.

Despite all the news about lobbying in Parliament, the issue has not yet been raised today. That might be because when we put forward proposals to restrict lobbying in Parliament, Labour and the Conservatives both blocked us; when we tried to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs, they both blocked us; and when we wanted to clean up party funding, they both blocked us. Is not the truth that this Parliament will go down as the most corrupt in living memory because they both blocked reform?

We have proposed and will implement a compulsory register of lobbyists. I have also made it clear that anybody who goes before the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, as a former Minister, is compelled to take the advice of that committee. In future, Ministers will sign in advance a contract stating that that is exactly what they will do. We have taken action to make the system more transparent. We cannot say anything other than that the behaviour of the Members who were dealt with in that programme was unacceptable, and I believe that, because such behaviour diminishes us all, the action that we are taking is necessary for the transparency that the public want.

The Prime Minister has had 13 years to clean this up. Let us look at his record. Last summer, we put forward an amendment to introduce recall elections; Labour voted against it and the Conservatives did not turn up. Two days later, on our proposal to cap donations, they both voted against it. On our attempt in the Companies Bill to restrict lobbying, Labour voted against us and the Conservatives did not even turn up. Is this not just a grubby stitch-up between two old parties that basically want to keep things exactly the way they are?

I rather think that the right hon. Gentleman prepared his second question before he had heard the answer to the first.

Oh, he did not. I made it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that any action that is necessary to secure transparency and proper accountability will be taken. That is why there will be a compulsory register of lobbyists; that is why every action that Ministers or former Ministers take in relation to business appointments will be transparent; and, if I may say so, I think that there is a need for humility on all sides of this House.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at 8 per cent., the unemployment rate in the United Kingdom is far below the rate in the United States, of 9.7 per cent., in France, of 10.1 per cent., and in Spain, of 18.8 per cent? Will he assure the House that he will never adopt the policies of the Conservative party, which thinks that unemployment is a price worth paying?

Unemployment is never a price worth paying. I have to say to the House that the claimant count for unemployment today is half what it was in the recession of the 1990s. I should also say that unemployment kept rising for five years after the recession ended in the 1980s. Unemployment is now falling as a result of the action that we have taken, and whatever happens to employment and unemployment in the next few months, we have saved half a million jobs that would otherwise have been lost.

Q2. Given the need to restore faith in politics, could the Prime Minister assure the House that no Labour MP caught up in the lobbygate scandal will be given a peerage? (323603)

Talk about an own goal! I say to the Conservatives that the standards that will be applied to future membership of the House of Lords will be a lot higher than those applied to Lord Ashcroft.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The taskforce on missing people has presented its recommendations. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ensure that they are acted on to protect children at risk?

No one has done more to stand up for the needs and requirements of missing children than my hon. Friend. She deserves the gratitude of the whole House for everything that she has done. I received, this week, the report of the taskforce on missing people. The Government fully accept all the report’s recommendations, which set out a plan of action to improve how agencies will respond when young people go missing and provide the support that should be available to families. We are committed, and I thank her for how she has prosecuted this issue while she has been in the House. We are committed to taking the recommendations forward.

Q3. Which would the Prime Minister rather be remembered for—doubling council tax or destroying people’s pensions? (323604)

I would like to inform the Prime Minister that there are now nine Sure Start children’s centres in Bedford and Kempston, delivering high-quality, much respected and popular support to a wide range of families. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to cut back on the universal service so carefully built up over the past decade would be a tragic betrayal of future generations?

We have achieved our target of 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres, which are now reaching 2.7 million children under five and their families. I understand that the view of the Conservative party is that the Sure Start centres should be restored to their original purpose, which only covered a minority of children. The Sure Start children’s centres are now vital parts of every single community, and nobody should tamper with the advances made in helping children under five.

Q4. The Prime Minister has now had a week to think about it: will he now urge all British Airways staff to go back to work this weekend? (323605)

Yes, and I have done so, and I have done so consistently. The hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] If the Conservatives want to turn an industrial dispute into a political provocation, they are going the right way about it. Any party that wishes to hold government in this country should want to see an industrial relations dispute stopped and arbitration and negotiations take place—it should want to bring this to a conclusion. After all, that is the view of its trade union envoy, who said that it was the business of the Conservatives to help people get back into work.

A ban on mephedrone will come too late for my constituent, Jordan Kiltie, who died last week at the age of 19, but will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that, when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reports on 29 March, he will act immediately to ban such legal highs?

I am very concerned about what my hon. Friend has told me, and I send my sincere condolences to Jordan’s family and to their friends. We are committed to preventing young people from starting to take drugs. The advice is clear that, just because a substance is legal, that does not make it safe. We are concerned specifically about the harms of mephedrone, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is considering that and similar compounds as an absolute priority. We will receive its advice on 29 March, and subject to that advice we will take immediate action. We are determined to act to prevent this evil from hurting the young people of our country.

Q5. Can the Prime Minister tell us when the more than 40,000 policyholders in Equitable Life—including many in Northern Ireland—who have waited many years for a satisfactory outcome are likely to be informed of a positive result? Thousands of such policyholders have passed away since the company began to decline business 10 years ago. (323606)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question and the concern that his constituents and others have expressed. The Government expect Sir John Chadwick to submit his final report in May this year, and we have undertaken to provide a response within 14 days of its publication.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that, following Total SA’s announcement that it is to develop the west of Shetland gasfields of Laggan and Tormore, involving development investment of £2.5 billion, it has placed an order with Corus Tubes to manufacture the gas pipelines at Hartlepool, involving an investment of £200 million? Is that not good news for Teesside and for the country?

That is indeed good news for the country; it is worth around 2,000 jobs in the country as a whole. It is because our recent tax changes have been able to support the development of remote deep-water fields that the project announced by Total can go forward. It has a development cost of £2.5 billion, and Total has awarded a contract worth £200 million to Corus Tubes to manufacture the gas pipelines in Hartlepool. That means jobs in Hartlepool, jobs in the north-east and jobs in Scotland. It means 2,000 jobs in the UK as a whole, and that is because a Government have been prepared to support with tax reliefs the development of North sea oil and gas.

Q6. If the Prime Minister finds himself in Essex during April, as I suspect he might, will he kindly drop in on Castle Point to meet the wonderful people at Age Concern? They will thank him for deciding to re-index the basic state pension to earnings, but will he get on and do that quickly? (323607)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to visit him and to visit Essex. I am aware that he is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and I pay tribute to the work that has been carried out by Age Concern. It is right that, after the Turner report, we made recommendations about linking pensions to earnings. The hon. Gentleman will also recognise, however, that a lot of the work that helps pensioners is done by local councils, and I am afraid that some Conservative councils are letting down the elderly.

The eminent economist Professor David Blanchflower has predicted that if the various measures that are now in place to support people in jobs were to be withdrawn, unemployment could rise towards 5 million. What does my right hon. Friend think the effect would be if a policy of cuts were to be adopted as a matter of principle? How would that affect the recovery in our economy?

Every major country has made a choice about whether to continue the support for the economy that is necessary to ensure a recovery. Every major country in Europe, as well as America and all the major countries in Asia, has made the choice to support the economy so that we can avoid unemployment rising to the levels of the 1980s and 1990s recessions. Only one party seems to stand out against that by wanting to cut now, perhaps at the expense of causing a double-dip recession, and that is the Conservative party.

Mental Health Units

High-quality in-patient care is one component of acute mental health services, supported by appropriate alternatives to admission. The Government paper “New Horizons”, which the hon. Gentleman will know of, published in December 2009, set out a cross-Government programme of action to improve the mental well-being of people in England and to drive up the quality of mental health care.

Praise where it is due; under Blair’s Britain, several first-class state-of-the-art mental health in-patient units were opened in or near my constituency. Under Brown’s Britain, one of them has just closed and another is under threat. Instead of in-patient facilities, we are promised

“a shared dashboard of clinical performance quality indicators”.

Is the Prime Minister happy to see front-line services replaced by management gobbledegook?

I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to be fair, and the World Health Organisation says that we are the best when it comes to the provision of mental health care. We obviously want to do better every time. Since 2001, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in real-terms investment in mental health. It is wrong to say that we are underfunding mental health. We are trying to do what we can and we will continue to do what we can. The hon. Gentleman should be fair in recognising that.

Main House in Birmingham has been providing a much valued residential therapeutic service for people with a personality disorder since being nationally commissioned more than 10 years ago. That service has just closed because when national commissioning ended, Ministers’ intentions that commissioning should be picked up regionally were not undertaken by the strategic health authority. Will the Prime Minister look into what went wrong, with a view to reopening the service as soon as possible?

I would be very happy to look into that and I will ask the relevant Minister to get in contact with my hon. Friend.

Engagements

Q8. My constituent, Mrs. Ditchburn, fled from Gran Canaria to the UK with her two children because she was involved in a violent and abusive relationship. Her partner has now invoked the Hague convention and her children have been snatched back under terrible circumstances. Will the Prime Minister now take a personal interest in the case and assist Mrs. Ditchburn to get her children back? (323609)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of this question. I am sorry to hear of the difficult situation between his constituent and her husband about their children. The hon. Gentleman will know that following an application under the 1980 Hague child abduction convention on 17 March 2010, the High Court of England and Wales ordered the return of the children to their country of habitual residence. The children therefore returned to Gran Canaria on 20 March 2010. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is not for me to comment or intervene in the decisions of the court, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary to look into this matter. He will write to the hon. Gentleman soon.

Q9. The 82-year-old Mr. Harold Binney from Wombwell in my constituency is supporting my campaign to scrap the derisory 25p age addition on state pensions for the over-80s, which has remained at the same level since 1972, and to replace it with an additional £25 a year through the popular winter fuel allowance. Will the Prime Minister have a word with his very good friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to make sure that this measure is included in his forthcoming Budget? (323610)

I do not want to anticipate all the news that my hon. Friend will receive in the Budget in a few minutes’ time. We have made sure that over the last 10 years pensioner households—indeed, households over 60—have had winter fuel payments every year; they have reached a record level of payment. The Chancellor will comment on that in a few minutes’ time.

This is the last time I will bother the House and the Prime Minister with a question—I am sure he is greatly relieved about that. I would like to associate myself and my colleagues with the words of condolence spoken in the House today. This is a sad and tragic hour in our nation, and rumours of war and wars are common. There is sorrow in hearts. Of course, people bury their dead; they put up their monument, but their heart is torn. I have been in too many houses like that in the north of Ireland not to know how deep the cuts are.

In view of the situation that we have here, and its sadness and its sorrow, and the dark shadow that lies upon the whole of our world today, I ask the Prime Minister to continue to give himself, as always, to the task of deliverance and victory and peace—and may it come speedily.

I think the whole House will want to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for a long and distinguished career, not just in this House but in a number of forums. That includes his position as First Minister of Northern Ireland. I believe that the part he played in bringing the Unionist community together—indeed, bringing the whole community together in Northern Ireland—to ensure that we had devolution of power, and to ensure that the process of devolution of power was completed, will adorn the history books in many decades and centuries to come. On this day and on this occasion, I want the whole House to thank him for his service to the House and to the whole community.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no Member of this House or the other place should seek to prevent, through censorship, the BBC or the Independent newspaper from questioning the involvement of Lord Ashcroft in alleged corruption scandals in the Turks and Caicos islands? [Interruption.] (323611)

They do not like hearing the name “Lord Ashcroft”, Mr. Speaker, but he is chairman of the Conservative party. Perhaps the Conservatives’ zeal for investigations should extend to an investigation into Lord Ashcroft.