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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2010

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Presbyterian Mutual Society

1. What progress has been made in providing assistance to savers affected by the current situation of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (4204)

Both the Prime Minister and I have publicly stated our firm commitment to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution to the PMS situation, and all options are being considered. The reconvened ministerial working group will meet soon to review progress, and I will be its chairman.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of those with savings of less than £20,000 in the PMS are in the older age bracket? As a result, they have been denied access to their savings for more than 20 months and have faced hardship and great distress. Does he appreciate that the urgent resolution of this situation is necessary? What timetable is he working on to resolve it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I totally appreciate the severity of the pressures, particularly on older people, who are having trouble paying nursing home fees and so on. I would love to set a timetable, but I cannot do so. All I can say is that this Government take this issue seriously, we will get a grip on it, we have reconvened the working group and I will chair it. I very much hope that we will arrive at a solution.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Given the extent of central Government support for failed financial institutions and the severe budgetary pressures faced by the Northern Ireland Executive, does he accept that it is imperative that the Treasury endeavours to alleviate the financial burdens faced by savers in the PMS? Will he take those views on board when he begins to chair this group shortly? If the Northern Ireland Executive find resources for this organisation, will the Treasury match those several-fold?

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I would not want to prejudge the result of our deliberations, so I merely say that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be on the working group, and its other four members are all part of the Executive and will put the point of view of the Executive clearly in our deliberations.

Dissident Paramilitary Activity

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (4205)

3. What his most recent assessment is of the level of security threat from dissident republican organisations in Northern Ireland. (4206)

7. What recent assessment he has made of levels of dissident paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. (4210)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, but the security forces continue to bear down on this small number of criminals. So far this year there have been 121 arrests and 30 charges brought, which compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges brought in the whole of 2009.

I thank the Minister for his response. In the light of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s report, the increase in the activity of a small band of dissident republicans and, in particular, the worrying use of car bombs, will he consider continuing the previous Government’s practice of providing additional funds from the reserves to tackle terrorism?

We did, of course, endorse that approach and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we wrote the most open-dated cheque in supporting the previous Government’s moves in that direction before the general election. In my opening remarks, I referred to the level of activity among those who reject the peace process and who have, in effect, turned their backs on it. I do not wish to distinguish them by calling them “dissident republicans” because I believe that that gives them a status that they do not deserve. I believe that the security services, particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice in Belfast, which is headed by David Ford, and crucially, the Garda in the Republic of Ireland, are working extremely carefully and closely together to try to prevent these atrocities from happening on a more regular basis.

The Minister will be aware that in recent days a 300 lb bomb and a 160 lb bomb have been planted in Northern Ireland by these so-called “dissidents”. Further to the previous question, may I ask whether he will give assurances to this House today and to the people who live in the area where these bombs were put that we will get whatever resources are needed, be they financial or manpower?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency had the pipe bomb in the grounds of the Brownlow PSNI station on 18 June and the tragic and unacceptable murder of Constable Stephen Carroll by the Continuity IRA. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we support any bid by the PSNI for additional resources, and we will make representations to the Treasury as and when necessary, because the security of innocent individuals in Northern Ireland should be paramount in everything we seek to do.

Does the Minister agree that this is not just about the threat of bombs and dissident activity but about the fact that many dissidents in Northern Ireland—as I know from my experience as a Minister there for some time—are involved in criminal activity? Even today, we have seen reports of criminal gangs and prostitution run by dissident paramilitaries. Will he ensure that resources are available not only to tackle the emergency situation but to deal with the long-term security and crime issues that impact on the community across the Province?

Indeed. Things have changed since the right hon. Gentleman was in Northern Ireland and, of course, crime issues that are without any kind of terrorist connotation are a matter for the Department of Justice, David Ford and the PSNI. Of course, we will provide all the resources that are needed. I cannot stress enough the close co-operation we have with the Garda on cross-border issues. I am delighted to make an announcement today on one of the things for which we have been lobbied by the PSNI—an automatic number plate reading device that will cost £12.9 million. The Secretary of State has been lobbying the Treasury since he took office and I am delighted to be able to announce to the House this morning that we have that funding for the PSNI. That will be a useful device in its continuing battle against those who would commit crime.

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State on their appointments and wish them well in Northern Ireland? Further to previous questions, may I ask what discussions have taken place between the Government, the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland on access to the security fund?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Privy Council. We have regular meetings, both on a statutory basis and on an informal basis, with David Ford, the Chief Constable and others in Northern Ireland. We listen to the requests that they make for access to the funds, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I think that they will be heartened by the news that when they asked us for something during the first few weeks of our being in power, we delivered.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and congratulate him on his announcement today. Given that he is now off to a good start, I hope that he can continue with that. On the wider issue of resources, will he give us an assurance? Given the amount of powers that are devolved to Northern Ireland, one of his main tasks will be, along with his colleague the Secretary of State, to fight the Treasury for funds for Northern Ireland. He will be judged on that, so will he give a commitment that he is fighting on that front, too?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we do not have to fight with the Treasury, because in the Treasury are our dear and trusted colleagues. Whenever we have asked them for anything, they have delivered— although I would concede that that has happened only once to date. Without being particularly partisan against Labour Members, I refer the right hon. Gentleman back to the outgoing Chief Secretary’s remark that “There is no money.” This is a very tight fiscal round and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I will make representations to the Treasury when asked to do so on behalf of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on their appointments. Does the Minister agree that one way in which paramilitary activity can start to be countered is if there is co-operation between people in all sections of the communities in each of these areas? Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient progress is being made in that respect?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being appointed Chair of the Select Committee. I hope that that is one issue that the newly formed Select Committee will consider. Of course, he is right, particularly in the light of the Saville report on Bloody Sunday when, for many people, we finally got the truth of what happened on that dreadful day. It is incumbent on everyone in Northern Ireland to come forward and tell the truth. It is only through the truth being told that we can get reconciliation and allow Northern Ireland to move on in the way that everybody in this House would wish it to.

I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him genuinely warm good wishes in his responsibilities. I also welcome the very good news that he and the Secretary of State have secured this additional £12 million from the reserve. That is vital funding and I congratulate them on obtaining it. I am sure that he will agree that the Independent Monitoring Commission has played a vital role in the political process and in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Now that devolution is complete, what role does he envisage for the IMC in the future?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and I have heard nothing but good about his time in Northern Ireland as a Minister. He is a hard act to follow. To keep my answer short, in line with what you have just suggested, Mr Speaker, the IMC has, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, performed a sterling service. We and the Irish Government keep the continuing need for it under review.

Public Inquiries

4. What his policy is on holding further public inquiries into events involving deaths which took place during the troubles in Northern Ireland. (4207)

I reaffirm the statement made to this House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 15 June, where he reassured the House that there would be

“no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 741.]

May I, too, congratulate my next-door neighbour from just over the border in Shropshire on his appointment as the Secretary of State? Does he agree that the Saville inquiry, no matter how long it took, marked a watershed in the troubled history of Northern Ireland? While respecting the families’ legitimate rights still to grieve, it is important to look to the future. All the Governments of the past 30 years should be congratulated on their efforts toward reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but will he outline what specific initiatives the new Government will take to secure peace in Northern Ireland?

I am most grateful for my neighbour’s kind comments. He is absolutely right that Northern Ireland needs to look ahead, but the people of Northern Ireland need to work together, and solutions for dealing with the past and looking ahead must be agreed among those who lead the country at local level. We cannot have solutions being imposed from above.

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State on assuming their posts. In the Prime Minister’s statement on Saville, he said that he wanted to

“reassure the House that there will be no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 741.]

We know that that was also the Secretary of State’s position in opposition, so we were a little intrigued to hear from the Prime Minister in the same statement that we

“should look at each case on its merits.” —[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 744]

So—a straight answer here will do—does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he may have been a little rash, in opposition, definitively to rule out future inquiries, whatever the case? A yes or no will do.

I am most grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his comments. I do not want to turn this into a love-in, but I compliment him on delivering the final stage of devolution. That was his great achievement as the Secretary of State. It is important, in considering that past, that we do not shut out any possible solutions. The Prime Minister said last week in his statement that the Historical Enquiries Team is doing good work, has support across the community and achieves very high satisfaction levels: 86% of those who have had HET reports were satisfied with its performance. For the time being, that is the route ahead, but we cannot impose a solution from above.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentions the HET, which he will know was established as part of a process and is not, of course, the process. It is looking at 3,268 unsolved killings, but after five years it is still working on the 1970s. It is not an inquiry, it is not an inquest and it is not a police investigation. We know that all families want the truth, so will he be straight with those families, including the family of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), and admit that now Saville has been published, there is a responsibility on the Government to come forward with a fully funded, comprehensive process to establish and discover the truth and bring reconciliation for all families?

We have a process through the HET that is achieving very high levels of satisfaction—of the families who have had a report, 95% credited it for professionalism and 86% for performance. That is working. Before we go further, we need to work with local politicians. As I keep repeating, there is no role for us, as the national Government, to impose. I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to comments made by David Ford this week.

“We cannot have a Saville-type inquiry for all the tragedies of the past, but the fundamental matter of dealing with the past is something which has to be dealt with collectively by the Executive.”

Consultative Group on the Past

5. What plans he has to take into account the recommendations of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past in formulating policy on reconciliation measures in Northern Ireland. (4208)

In determining what role I can play, I will of course consider the recommendations made by the Consultative Group on the Past. I will shortly publish a summary of responses to the previous Government’s consultation on the group’s proposals.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and I thank him and his predecessor for the quality of contact and consideration that they extended to the families regarding the publication of the Saville report. On the wider issues of the past, there are thousands of victims, all of whom have different needs in terms of truth, recognition and remembrance. Does the Secretary of State agree that the community also has a collective responsibility to discharge its regard for the past so that future generations will know that it was a dirty war and that we will never settle for a dirty peace?

I am grateful for that question and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken me to his constituency. I met the families in the Bogside two or three years ago, and on that trip I also met Dr Hazlett Lynch a few hours later. That drummed into me the fact that there is no consensus on the past. We have to work at local level, and I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to work with his colleagues in the Executive, in collaboration with us, to find a way forward. However, there is no black-and-white solution that will work if we impose it from above.

May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on his appointment? Is he aware of the report produced this morning by the Commission for Victims and Survivors giving the Government advice on dealing with the past? How will he take forward the report’s recommendations so that we have a more comprehensive process for dealing with all aspects of the past and the needs of victims?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. The document will form part of our listening exercise. We will publish the summary of the conclusions of those who responded to the previous Government on the Eames-Bradley report. As I have said, we will be going round talking and listening to various groups, but I repeat—for the nth time in this question session—that we cannot impose. It is up to people in Northern Ireland to work together to decide a strategy going forward.

Pat Finucane

I am aware of the previous Government’s commitments and that there has been a long-running exchange between the previous Government and the Finucane family on the question of an inquiry.

Before I explain how I propose to approach this question, I want to hear the views of the Finucane family for myself. I have written to the family to invite them to meet me.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position and thank him for that answer. Earlier, he indicated once again that there would be no more open-ended inquiries, but when the Prime Minister responded to the Saville report, he said both that and

“but of course we should look at each case on its merits.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 744.]

Although I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, I am not sure—and I wonder whether the family of Pat Finucane are sure—which of those positions holds true for that case.

As the hon. Lady knows, the issue was the subject of considerable discussion between the Finucane family and the previous Secretary of State. I think that today it is appropriate for me to talk to the family first rather than to give a black-and-white answer on how we are going to take this forward.

As the Secretary of State will know, there is no bar to an inquiry on this issue, except that the family are looking for some kind of special provision. If he grants that, the danger is that he will create a hierarchy of victims, and that thousands of people who have not had justice will look on and wonder why they are not getting the same justice.

I am grateful for that, and the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I repeat my earlier reply—that, at this stage, the first thing that I should do is to go and talk to the family—but I also repeat that it is our policy not to have any more costly and open-ended inquiries.

Dual Mandates

8. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the system of dual mandates in the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly. (4211)

I should be demanding time and a half.

I have had several discussions with ministerial colleagues on the system of dual mandates. I believe that dual mandates should be brought to an end but that the best way to do so is by consensus among the Northern Ireland parties.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that so-called “double jobbing” has scarred Northern Irish politics for far too long? If local parties will not agree to end that voluntarily, will he consider introducing legislation to restrict the practice and ensure that double-jobbers take only one salary?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and he is quite right. The time to end double-jobbing is upon us: quite simply, a Member cannot sit in two legislatures at once. We know from local polls that double-jobbing is very unpopular—in one poll, 71% of respondents were against it. We would like to negotiate with local parties and, if absolutely necessary, we would legislate. However, I draw attention to the example set by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). On the day that he was elected to this House, he announced his intention to stand down from the Welsh Assembly, and he has forgone his salary for the rest of this year.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very unfair on the hon. Member asking the question, and indeed on the Minister answering. The House must come to order.

Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland

9. When the Government plan to publish their response to the consultation on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. (4212)

I thank the Minister for that illuminating reply. Before the election, the Secretary of State expressed scepticism about legislating for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, but does the Minister accept, now that he is in office, that as there was a solemn commitment to doing so, and as that was part of the Belfast agreement, it would present difficulties in the peace process if he were to renege on that commitment now?

I do not think that there is any question of reneging. The fact is that the world has moved on; we now have a coalition Government who are committed to looking into a UK-wide Bill of Rights. Of course we remain committed to fulfilling the commitments in the Good Friday agreement, and we are considering the best way of doing that within the architecture of a UK-wide commission. We genuinely believe that if we are to have a UK-wide Bill of Rights, the people of Northern Ireland are best represented within that, rather than by any stand-alone sideshow.

Security Threat

10. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the level of security threat in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (4214)

The Minister will be aware that in north-west Northern Ireland, more pipe bombs were exploded or defused in the first five months of this year than in the entire 12 months of 2009. On the Fountain estate in Londonderry, hundreds of attacks have taken place in the past year. What resources are being put into Northern Ireland to ensure that the police—and the Army, if called on—are there to respond to such a threat?

The hon. Gentleman will be glad about our announcement this morning on automatic number plate recognition. That will be a useful tool for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He mentioned pipe bombs; we condemn all those attacks. They are indiscriminate, and they target innocent people. When we talk about policing in Northern Ireland, it is worth remembering that operational decisions are matters for the Chief Constable, in whom we have great faith and with whom we have regular meetings, and of course the Department of Justice and David Ford. It is perhaps worth remembering that in Northern Ireland, there is still an average of 4.36 police officers per 1,000 of the population. That compares with 2.87 per 1,000 of the population in England and Wales. I am not saying that that is necessarily enough—it can never be enough—but there are police and resources, and we respond to demands from the PSNI.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the wider security threat in the context of Ulster Volunteer Force activity and the murder of Bobby Moffett?

I join most people in this House, I suspect, in condemning the gunning down of Bobby Moffett in the cold light of day in a completely unacceptable way, and I pay tribute to all those people who live in that part of the city and who attended his funeral. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make any judgment on the case, as it is obviously the subject of ongoing investigation by the PSNI, but it is not impossible that there will need to be a hard line taken later, in the autumn, when the IMC next reports.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

11. What recent discussions he has had on his Department’s policy in response to the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (4215)

I have held a number of discussions with both Treasury Ministers and Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive in recent weeks as we seek to identify options to assist members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. The reconvened PMS ministerial working group will meet soon to review progress.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reply, which will give some reassurance to the thousands of people in Northern Ireland affected by the collapse. Does he recognise that there have been 18 months between the collapse of the society and the general election, and that this is another example of the Labour party leaving a mess for us to sort out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it was a boast of the previous Prime Minister that

“No UK depositor has lost money.”

That is why we have decided to grip the issue, and why I will chair the working group. I very much hope that we will come to a resolution soon.

Rather than those on both sides of the House playing party politics with the needs of savers in Northern Ireland, can the Secretary of State tell the House when he will come to a conclusion, so that savers, especially pensioners who are hard pressed at this time, can access and use their money?

We have been in power only seven weeks. We have set up the working group. We will set about our work with determination, and I hope we will provide a solution soon.

Speaking as someone who was very kindly treated by the Garda when I made a map-reading error in hot pursuit, may I ask my right hon. Friend what the relationship currently is between the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but unfortunately his question does not relate to the response to the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. I hope he will take that gentle admonition in the spirit in which it was intended.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Is the reason that the Prime Minister wants to put fewer criminals in jail to do with cutting crime or cutting budgets?

What the Government want to do is clear up the complete mess of the criminal justice system left by the Labour party. Each prison place today costs £45,000, yet 40% of prisoners are back in prison within a year, more than half of them are on drugs, and around 10% of them are foreign national prisoners, who should not be here in the first place.

The American waste giant, Covanta, is proposing to build in my constituency an incinerator about the size of Wembley. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that decisions about such matters will be made at a local level in future?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this, and it is right that decisions should be made locally. We want to make sure that all the latest technology for alternatives to incineration is considered, so that we can make sure that we are using the best ways to achieve a green approach.

We were very concerned this morning to read reports that as a result of the right hon. Gentleman’s Budget, 1.3 million jobs will be lost. Can he confirm that this was an estimate produced by Treasury officials?

The right hon. and learned Lady should know—[Interruption.] I will give a surprisingly full answer if Opposition Members just sit patiently. This morning the Office for Budget Responsibility produced the full tables for the Budget for employment in the public and the private sector. That never happened under a Labour Government, right? As shown in the Budget, unemployment is forecast to fall every year under this Government, but the tables also show public sector employment. It is interesting that from the tables we can see the effect of Labour’s policy before the Budget and the effect of our policy after the Budget. What the figures show is that under Labour’s plans, next year there would be 70,000 fewer public sector jobs, and the year after that, there would be 150,000 fewer public sector jobs. We have had the courage to have a two-year pay freeze. I know we have all been watching the football, but that was a spectacular own goal.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has published some new figures today, but it is the figures that he has not published that I am asking about—the figures that show that 1.3 million jobs will be lost. Why will the Prime Minister not publish those Treasury documents? Why is he keeping them hidden?

The forecasts that are published now are independent from the Government. That is the whole point. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members chuntering about that. They now support the Office for Budget Responsibility, completely independent of Government. The right hon. and learned Lady’s approach is extraordinary. Before the election the shadow Chancellor, the then Chancellor, was asked on BBC radio on 23 April 2010, and the transcript says:

“‘Will you acknowledge that public sector jobs will be cut?’ Darling: ‘It’s inevitable.’”

But even the OBR says that under the Prime Minister’s Budget, unemployment will be higher than it would otherwise have been. It says that on today’s figures and it said that on last week’s figures. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the secret Treasury analysis shows that under his Budget, 500,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector, but even more will be lost in the private sector?

The figures published today show 2 million more private sector jobs. They show 1.4 million more people in work at the end of this Parliament. They show unemployment falling every year. It is not really any surprise that the former Labour Minister, Digby Jones, after the Budget said—[Interruption.] Why not listen?

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Prime Minister. I must ask hon. and right hon. Members to listen with some restraint. I want to hear the answers.

The Opposition gave him a peerage. They might as well listen to what he had to say. He said:

“I think that sign has gone up around the world saying Britain is serious about sorting out its economic mess”.

He is right. It is a pity he did not say it when he was in office.

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the question about the 1.3 million. He has not agreed to publish those documents. He should know what abject misery this unemployment will cause to individuals, to families and to communities. Can he tell us now how much extra it will cost in unemployment benefits?

The right hon. and learned Lady does not seem to understand. Unemployment will be falling during this Parliament. We have published the full figures, but it is not now us publishing the figures, it is the Office for Budget Responsibility. She must understand that this is something the Labour party now supports. Let me repeat: the figures show that unemployment in the public sector would be higher under Labour’s plans next year and the year after. When she gets to her feet perhaps she will tell us whether she now supports the pay freeze to keep unemployment down?

Mr. Speaker, you can always tell when the right hon. Gentleman does not want to answer a question, because he asks me a question. He should recognise that under the OBR figures published today, unemployment is higher than it would have been because of his Budget. The same is shown in the OBR report last week. He will not tell us how much more the Treasury will have to pay out in benefits to people without work as a result of his Budget. Will he tell us how much less will be coming in in taxes as a result of fewer people in work because of his Budget?

There will be more people in work. Like every Labour Government, the Opposition left us with unemployment rising and at the end of this Parliament unemployment will be falling. That is the difference. My advice would be to look at the figures before standing up and asking the question. If one looks at the figures one sees higher public sector unemployment next year and the year after under Labour. The right hon. and learned Lady has slotted the ball straight into the back of her own net.

We will look at the figures if the right hon. Gentleman will publish them. We know that because this Budget hits jobs, the Treasury will have less money coming in and more money going out. Does not that make reducing the deficit even harder and more painful, with bigger tax rises or even deeper cuts in public services? Why are the Lib Dems just sitting there letting this happen? No one who voted Lib Dem voted for this.

The right hon. Lady talks about reducing the Budget deficit, but we have not heard one single proposal for cutting the deficit. We all know that the Opposition left us the biggest Budget deficit in the G20—the biggest Budget deficit in our history. We have been having a good trawl for the stupidest piece of spending that they undertook, and I think we have found it. It was in her own Department, which spent £2.4 million doing up the Department, including £72,000 each on two-storey meeting pods known as peace pods. This is what they were for—[Interruption.] It is true. I am reading from her own Department’s staff magazine. Taxpayers have a right to hear where their money went. This is where it went. It was

“a 21st century…space of quality, air and light, where we can…relax and refuel in a natural ebb and flow.”

That is what has happened. They have gone from peaceniks to peace pods, and bankrupted the country in the process.

The Prime Minister will be aware that Winchester hosted the largest homecoming parade of returning troops from Afghanistan to date last Wednesday afternoon, when 650 men and women from 11 Light Brigade marched through the city’s streets in the presence of the Duchess of Cornwall. Will he join me in paying tribute to those 650 brave men and women, the 64 who did not make it home and, of course, the thousands of Winchester constituents of mine who showed their gratitude for a job well done?

I shall certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all those who served in Afghanistan. The homecoming parades that have been instituted are an absolutely excellent way of showing the whole country’s support for our armed forces. He rightly talks about those who did not come home, and we should also think of those who have come home wounded and will need our support, backing and help in terms of health and mental health services, prosthetic limbs and other things of a really high quality for the rest of their lives. I am determined that we will honour that commitment.

Q2. The leaked Treasury papers are absolutely clear that unemployment will rocket by 1.3 million over the next five years. Does the Prime Minister not realise that millions of people watching this who face unemployment over the next few years will think that his comments are tinged with contempt in his refusal to answer perfectly straightforward questions from the Labour Front Bench? (4721)

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We are publishing the figures, and they show exactly what will happen in terms of private sector employment and public sector employment. As the previous Government accepted, there will be reductions in public sector employment, but according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is independent of the Government, the growth in the private sector more than makes up for that. After he has left this room, he should maybe spend some time in a peace pod, wander to the Library and have a look at the figures, where he will see the Office for Budget Responsibility showing unemployment falling every year of this Parliament.

Q3. Following last week’s much welcomed Budget announcement, does the Prime Minister agree that correcting our deeply unbalanced economy will require fresh investment and enterprise in many northern cities, such as my own of York, which for so long was neglected by the Labour Government? What assurances can he give to me and my constituents that the coalition will do all it can to encourage the economic growth— (4722)

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that point, because during the past decade the disparity between regions actually got worse. Regional policy has for the past decade been a complete failure, and that is why we are right to cut rates of corporation tax, to say to new businesses, “You can set up without having to pay national insurance on your first 10 employees,” to bias that policy in favour of parts of the country where the needs are greatest and to have a £1 billion regional growth fund that can help parts of the country such as the one that he represents.

Does the Prime Minister accept that one consequence of a prison sentence is that those serving them are unavailable to reoffend?

Yes, absolutely—I mean, that is absolutely right. That is why prison is there. I believe that prison can work; the fact is that it is just not working properly at the moment. When we have got those reoffending rates, the cost of each prison place and the appalling problem of drugs in prison, we have got to reform. If the Labour party wants to put itself on the side of the argument of simply defending the status quo, it is making a great mistake. If ever there were a part of our public services that needed radical reform to make sure that prison does work, then now, that is it.

Q4. Given the Chancellor’s recent comments stating that the UK is open for business, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister why foreign students who come here to study at English language schools for a period greater than six months and contribute an estimated £600 million a year to that vital industry must now already be able to speak English before they can obtain a visa. Will the Prime Minister arrange for me and a delegation to meet the Immigration Minister to sort that out and show that our Government really are open for business? (4723)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we want to make sure that this country is open for business, and we are taking steps to do that. The point about people coming here to learn English is that, if they come to learn English for less than six months, that is permitted, but clearly there are problems, as everybody knows: too many bogus colleges and too many people pretending to come and study, when really they are coming for work. I shall certainly organise a meeting between my hon. Friend and the Immigration Minister to discuss that, but it is right that we have to deal with the problem of bogus colleges, where there has been so much abuse in recent years.

The Prime Minister has said that he wants to see more companies owned by their workers—the so-called John Lewis model. Sheffield Forgemasters is one of those companies. Will the Prime Minister therefore now accept that he was wrong to criticise its shareholders for seeking a loan from the Government? They were not seeking to line their own pockets; they have not yet taken a penny in dividends. What they were seeking to do was ensure the future of that company and other jobs in the UK.

The hon. Lady talks about the importance of firms being owned by their own employees; I am looking forward to her support and the support of every Labour Member when we make sure that the Post Office has that sort of ownership model and we get the investment going as well. [Interruption.] I will take that as a yes, then.

Q5. About 5,000 young people a year leave local authority care, and without parental support many of them end up on the streets or in our prisons. Do the new Government have any plans to intervene more effectively in the lives of that very vulnerable group, to try to improve their life chances? (4724)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We really do need to do better as a country. The fact is that around 0.6% of children are in care, but 23% of adult prisoners in our prison system were in care. We have to do better. One of the problems is that, unlike other 18-year-olds, children leaving care aged 18 have nowhere to go and no one to help them. We have to do better. We are looking at this area and I recognise that dealing with the scandal of the poor outcomes for children in care is something, frankly, that everyone in this House ought to support.

Homecoming parades for our very brave soldiers in Afghanistan are incredibly important, but so is an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Given the growing agreement that there is no military solution to the crisis there and that the head of the Army himself has said that we should start talking to the Taliban soon, would the Prime Minister not agree that we should start talking now, so that we can save more lives on all sides and bring our troops home?

May I first of all welcome the hon. Lady to the House? Winning her seat was an incredible achievement for her party, and I know that she will make a huge contribution during this Parliament.

We discussed Afghanistan at quite some length in the House yesterday. Of course there is no purely military solution; very few insurgencies are ended by purely military means. But I think it is important to continue with the strategy this year of the military surge, to put pressure on the Taliban—and, of course, there should be a political track. But as I said yesterday in the House, we have to recognise that there is a difference between the Taliban linked to al-Qaeda, who want to do so much harm not just in Afghanistan but across our continent as well, and those people who have been caught up in an insurgency for other reasons. Should there be reconciliation and reintegration? Yes, of course; there is, and we can go further. But I think that the things that the hon. Lady is talking about would not be advisable.

Q6. As we pay tribute to the members of our armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, it is worth remembering that for every life lost there, six more are changed for ever through the loss of one or more limbs. Sometimes there are things that money cannot buy, but I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of an extra £67 million to try to help to counter improvised explosive devices. Will he explain to the House how that money will be spent? (4725)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to him as a member of our Territorial Army reserve. He is himself a bomb disposal expert who has served in Afghanistan. What the bomb disposal and IED teams do is beyond brave. I saw for myself in Camp Bastion their training and instruction. They do a really extraordinary thing for our soldiers and our country. We announced an extra £67 million to give proper protection; £40 million of that is for more protected vehicles. We will also be doubling the number of teams. All the time, we have to keep up with the technology that our enemy is using.

My hon. Friend mentioned people coming home having lost one limb or two. These are young people, who do not just want to have a new limb and a quiet life—they want to run marathons and to climb Everest. They want to have fulfilled lives. We have to make sure that the support and the very best prosthetic limbs are there for them so that they can lead those lives.

Q7. In light of the earlier exchanges about employment and job losses, does not the Prime Minister think that the announcement this week of a further 4,000 full-time-equivalent staff being cut from Jobcentre Plus by next March amounts to a false economy? (4726)

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. Not everyone will know that she was head of the Child Poverty Action Group, which has done incredible work in our country over many years. I pay tribute to her for that.

Let me just repeat: the forecasts show employment rising—that is the key—and employment is the best way of tackling poverty. Of course there are going to be public sector job losses, and of course there are going to be cuts in some programmes—that would have been true under a Labour Government, and it is true under our Government. The key, though, is gripping this problem so that we start to get confidence and growth in our economy and so we start to get the recovery. I say to Labour Members that they have got to engage in this debate rather than play this pathetic game of pretending there would not have been cuts under Labour. There would have been—they announced them, they just never told anyone what they were.

The campaign of the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) is so confused these days that he is seeking support from Conservative MPs. He says that the Budget was avoidable. Can I ask the Prime Minister whether it was avoidable or—[Interruption.]

Order. It is a good idea to start with a question that directly relates to the policy of the Government, but unfortunately this one does not.

Q8. The paediatric cardiac unit at Glenfield hospital in my constituency provides outstanding care, not only in terms of the quality of surgery but of the excellent nursing, aftercare, and facilities and support for parents. Will the Prime Minister confirm that all aspects of care will be considered as part of the Government’s review of children’s heart surgery; and will he agree to visit the Glenfield’s unit before the review makes its recommendations to see for himself the excellent care it provides? (4727)

I quite understand why the hon. Lady raises this question. A national examination of children’s cardiac services was started under the last Government, and it will continue under this Government, because we have got to make sure that standards are as high as they can be in this incredibly difficult and technical area. We all have our interests to defend—obviously, I have the John Radcliffe hospital, which does a great job as well, next to my constituency—so she is right to stand up for her constituents in that way. The examination needs to take place. However, one of the keys is going to be protecting, as we believe is necessary, spending in the NHS over this Parliament, with modest, real-terms increases each year. That is our policy; it is no longer the policy of the Labour party. So when difficult decisions have to be made, it would be worse if we were adopting the Labour policy of cutting the NHS.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the fact that through protecting investments in health care, the coalition Government have been able to approve the £40 million hospices capital grant, £600,000 of which will go towards the expansion of St Richard’s hospice in Worcester, which will benefit at least hundreds of patients a year, with community care, and hundreds of families and care workers across Worcestershire in the years to come? (4728)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the hospice movement, which has been one of the great successes of the big society that we have in this country. I think we all cherish what the hospice movement does.

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of the whole House, to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s father, who served in Parliament for 49 years? He gave great service to this country, and he gave great service in Wales. He had many achievements in his long career. If politics is about public service in the national interest, and things that can change people’s lives, his pioneering reform of selling council homes to their tenants is something that I think has greatly improved our country.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister could tell us who he considers to be right on short prison sentences—the Secretary of State for Justice or the leader of his party in the Scottish Parliament.

The point here is straightforward. We all know we have to keep short sentences for some purposes; I have said that, and the Lord Chancellor has said that. Of course we need to have that in some circumstances, but do we benefit from lots and lots of very short sentences? I think it would be better if we could improve community sentences so that they were tough. One of the problems of the appalling inheritance that we have from the past 10 years is that no one has any faith in the community sentences that ought to be a good alternative to prison.

Q10. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ignore Simon Heffer when, in The Daily Telegraph today, he advocates the complete abolition of the Department for International Development on the basis that charity begins at home? Will he take this opportunity to tell those sections of the Poujadiste press that keep on having a crack at the Government’s commitment to international development that our national interest, security stability and sense of humanity very often begin overseas? (4729)

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and he has a record as a Minister for Africa and a Development Minister in a previous Government. The fact is that we have made a commitment, both nationally and internationally, to increase our aid spending, and I think Britain should be a country that sticks to its word. I have to say, even to those who take a more hard-headed approach to these things, that overseas aid is in our domestic interest. When we think of the problems that world poverty causes, we see that it is in our interest and that of our national security to deliver that aid. Above all, Britain sticking to its word, as I found at the G8 and G20, gives us the opportunity to have some moral authority and moral leadership on this vital issue.

How can the Prime Minister justify the fact that hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, the victims of the financial crash, will unquestionably lose their jobs because of the huge public service cuts to come, when the bankers and super-rich, the architects of the financial crash, whose wealth grew by £77 billion in this last year according to The Sunday Times rich list, stand to lose neither their jobs, their income nor their wealth? Is that what he means by everyone being in it together?

The right hon. Gentleman fought the last election on £50 billion of unspecified cuts. That is why the figures published today show that public sector job losses would be higher under Labour in the next two years. He can say all he likes about bankers; the fact is, his party would not introduce a bank levy until the rest of the world had decided to do it. We have done it in seven weeks.

Q11. My constituent Milly, aged five, wrote to me recently asking why there are special days for mothers and fathers and not for children—[Interruption.] (4730)

Will the Prime Minister commit to working with voluntary organisations to raise the profile of our children’s day on 20 November, to celebrate the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and indeed to celebrate the achievements of all our children, whether they be rich or poor?

The hon. Lady has a long record of supporting children’s day and the United Nations convention, which was signed in 1990. I think we should raise the profile of the day, and I know she will be pleased to note that the coalition is making good progress on that. Only this morning the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), held a seminar about special needs children and how we must ensure that their needs are properly protected under this coalition Government.

Q12. The Prime Minister might have noticed that the people of Scotland did not choose his party, except in one seat out of 59, and they did not choose the Conservatives’ poodles, the Liberal Democrats, either. Can he assure the House, as an absolute chill runs through Scotland at the 1.3 million hidden job losses that he did not publish, that any proposals for cuts in public services and expenditure in Scotland, and any Barnett formula cuts, will be brought before the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs—[Interruption.] (4731)

I am well aware that the Conservative party did not sweep Scotland, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of it.

What I said I would do if we formed a Government was to go straight to Scotland and Wales to meet the First Ministers and have—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has asked a question; he might as well listen to the answer before he starts shouting at me. I said that I would have proper meetings and have a respect agenda in which we respected the devolved Assemblies. I have to say that under the last Government there was a whole year during the financial crisis when the Prime Minister of our country did not even meet the First Minister of Scotland. That will not happen under this Government—we believe in respect.

Q14. May I tell the Prime Minister how pleased my constituents were when he found £50 million to help further education colleges that were promised funding but left high and dry by the previous Administration? Will he ensure that the application for an FE college in Haverhill in my constituency is given the attention it deserves, so that Haverhill can get the FE college that it is promised? (4733)

My hon. Friend makes a very good public spending application, and I am sure that the Treasury will have been listening carefully. He also makes a very good point: even in a difficult Budget, when reductions had to be made, we have boosted spending on FE colleges and increased the number of apprenticeships, after the shambles left by the last lot.

Q13. The Local Government Chronicle has listed my constituency as the one that has received the biggest cuts in Britain—nearly £3 million at district level. As the Prime Minister will be aware, it is an area of poor health, low incomes and some of the worst housing in Britain. In fact, at the weekend the Liberal Democrat leader of Burnley borough council, the neighbouring council, said:“The cuts announced by the Government are hitting deprived areas like Burnley much harder than the more affluent areas.”Does the Prime Minister agree with his colleague in the Liberal Democrats? (4732)

Of course there will be difficult decisions in the Budget and on public spending reductions. Everybody should know that and should be honest about it rather than pretending that they would not have happened if we had had a different Government. What we will do is help areas of need through the tax changes we are making and also through the regional development grant of £1 billion, for which areas such as Hyndburn are able to bid to ensure that they get an increased private sector, to try to get the motor of our economy going again. That is absolutely vital.