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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Paramilitary Organisations

1. What recent assessment he has made of the threat to security from paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (14502)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the level of dissident republican activity in Northern Ireland. (14504)

With permission, I would like to make a brief comment about the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), and his deputy, the shadow Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), as this might be their last outing in their current positions. We should put on record our gratitude for the work that they did when in office and for pulling off the great final stage of ensuring that policing and justice were devolved. We all owe them—and everyone in Northern Ireland owes them—a debt.

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. The security forces continue to bear down on these terrorist groupings. So far this year, there have been 163 arrests and 56 persons charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. The numbers involved are small in terms of the overall population, but not insignificant in some areas. Everyone must play their part in demonstrating that these people have nothing to offer but suffering, damage and the diversion of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

I join the Secretary in State in condemning attacks by dissident republicans on police personnel, property and community. I also join him in thanking the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for their work in Northern Ireland over recent years.

I would like to move on in respect of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland to today’s findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which state that the Ulster Volunteer Force leadership sanctioned the murder of Bobby Moffett and that it could have stopped it if it had wanted. I am sure that the Secretary of State and all Members would agree that that should be viewed very seriously. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it undermines the assurances that we were given about UVF decommissioning? Does he have no concerns that a decision not to re-categorise the UVF ceasefire will send a signal that a planned killing is par for the course and represents an acceptable level of violence? Does he further agree that all this raises the question of when is a ceasefire a ceasefire?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. This was a disgusting murder, carried out at just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon in front of good, ordinary people going about their daily business, and it should be utterly condemned. The IMC report makes clear how extremely serious the matter is, but it does not recommend that we consider specification. We in Westminster, those in Stormont, the police, those responsible for security in Northern Ireland and, above all, the community have to bear down on this small number of people. I pay tribute to the very large number of people who turned out for the funeral, showing what the local community really thinks.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent attack by dissident republicans in my constituency, in which two young children almost lost their lives. My understanding is that six or seven people were arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but all were released. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the frustration of my constituents at the fact that no one has been charged for that and other offences, or is it the case that the PSNI no longer has the experienced detectives that it needs?

I am very sympathetic to the problems that the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency. This small number of people are wholly unrepresentative of the community. What they are doing is utterly irresponsible and risks serious damage to lives—it has to be utterly condemned. We have to respect the operational independence of the police. As I cited earlier, arrests are up and charges are up this year. We have had 56 charges as against 17 last year, but it is not for me to interfere with the processes of the police or of justice. The hon. Gentleman has good contacts with the local Minister and this is a devolved matter. If the local judicial system can be accelerated, that is now in local hands; we should not tamper with the independence of either the police or the judiciary.

I also pay tribute to the work of the shadow Secretary of State when he was in office, and I particularly thank the shadow Minister of State for the very courteous way in which he treated me while I shadowed him for a number of years.

Given the pressures of historical inquiries and the inevitable budgetary pressures that all public sector workers and departments are facing, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the PSNI has adequate resources to counter the threats we face—not only from dissident republicans, but from any terrorists in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. We will stand by Northern Ireland, and we will do what is right. As for police numbers, we know that there could always be more—there is not a chief constable in the United Kingdom who would not like more—but I am in regular contact with the local Justice Minister, the Chief Constable and those who are bearing down on dissidents, and we will ensure that we do the right thing by Northern Ireland.

I echo the words of thanks to the former Secretary of State and his former security Minister. We had several bruising encounters—some good and others not so good, but very enjoyable none the less.

Let me turn to the dissident threat. Will the Secretary of State give us a progress report on the automatic number plate recognition system that his security Minister announced in the House not long ago? Has it been introduced, and what progress is being made in countering and surveillance activities relating to dissident republicans?

At the previous Question Time, we announced that we had approved the final tranche—the £12.9 million that was required for the new technology, which I expect to have a real impact in bearing down on the small number of dangerous people. Its implementation is in the hands of the local Minister and the Chief Constable. I shall meet them in the forthcoming days and ask how they are progressing, but at the time of my last meeting with them, they were well on the way to introducing the technology.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State and, indeed, other Members who have made generous remarks this morning. I wish the Secretary of State and his deputy every success in their responsibilities.

Dealing with threats to security in Northern Ireland requires full public confidence in a police service that is representative of the community it serves. Although policing has now been devolved, the legal framework for ensuring that 30% of officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland come from the Catholic community remains the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Will he take this opportunity to confirm his commitment to achieving that target as soon as possible?

As the shadow Minister knows, the Patten commitment was to achieve a figure of 29% to 33% by this year. The current figure is 29.33%, so we have achieved the Patten threshold. The renewal of the measure was due to last one more year, and we agreed to that when we were in opposition. What we do next is up to us to discuss with the local Minister responsible and with those who now run the police service, but I hope that we have established enough momentum to ensure that people throughout the community will see joining the PSNI as a worthwhile career, and will be attracted to it.

Economic Affairs

2. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the effects of the recession on the Northern Ireland economy. (14503)

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I wish to add my thanks to the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for the assistance that they have given since we took office.

In Belfast last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and the Northern Ireland Ministers for Finance and Personnel and for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We regularly meet Northern Ireland ministerial colleagues to discuss economic matters and how we can best work in partnership to stimulate economic growth and encourage inward investment in Northern Ireland.

The economy in Northern Ireland remains delicate. Unemployment rose between March and May. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that politicians and parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland do not play politics when making economic decisions?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with those sentiments. I am pleased to say that these are matters for the Executive. However, I understand that, in his capacity as Minister for Finance and Personnel, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is present—at least, he certainly was earlier—will meet my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury later today, along with representatives of the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, to discuss financial matters, including the forthcoming spending review.

It is, perhaps, worth my adding that I echo the views of the hon. Member for East Antrim, who has said:

“In some quarters, there appears to be an unwillingness to address the serious financial questions that are being posed. Let us be clear: we cannot dodge difficult decisions in formulating a new Budget. Delaying the Budget process until next spring is not an option.”

That is the way in which to proceed.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of deep public spending cuts in the Northern Ireland Executive budget, not only for the public sector but for the private sector, which depends on many of the contracts that are let? What assessment has he made of the impact of the VAT rise on the ability of the Northern Ireland economy to escape from the recession?

The right hon. Gentleman does not, of course, draw attention to his Government’s own cuts of £44 million, and he—and the House—would do well to remember that we are in the current economic situation as a result of the legacy of the previous Administration. There are a number of positive things to say about Northern Ireland, however: there is the increase in the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, and the waiving of national insurance contributions on the first 10 jobs created by a new business in year one will benefit more than 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland, while reversing the most damaging part of the planned increase in employer national insurance contributions will add a saving of about £80 million in Northern Ireland. The situation is very serious, but it was more serious before the coalition Government put these measures in place. It is not going to be easy, but Northern Ireland must play its part, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, in confronting the deficit and getting the economy going once more, which must be the aspiration of every Member.

What meetings has the Minister or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with Treasury Ministers—and what representations have they received from them—on public expenditure in Northern Ireland generally, and specifically on the level of block grant to Northern Ireland after the spending review?

I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that there will be a meeting this afternoon attended by his party colleague, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and representatives of the other Administrations in Scotland and Wales, at which, no doubt, these matters will be discussed in the proper manner.

I asked the Minister what meetings he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had had with Treasury Ministers, not what meetings there had been between Executive Ministers and the Treasury. However, does he accept that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are unique? It is the only country or region in the United Kingdom that is suffering from the dissident terrorist threat—a subject that has already been discussed—and that shares a land frontier with another country, and it is also the only area in the United Kingdom that is coming out of 40 years of violence and terrorism, which has greatly truncated the ability of the private sector to compete. It is also the only area that has already had 3% year-on-year efficiency savings, implemented by the Executive. Will the Minister ensure that the fabric of society and vital services in Northern Ireland are protected by making sure that everything is done to protect the level of the block grant after the spending review?

Let me put the right hon. Gentleman straight: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet Treasury Ministers regularly and have done of late, not least to discuss the issue that confronts us all to do with the Presbyterian Mutual Society, and we will continue to do so. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, however, in that this issue brings to the fore once more the fact that it is completely unacceptable and unsustainable in the longer term for Northern Ireland’s economy to be so dependent on the state sector—the relevant figures are about 70% as opposed to 30% for the private sector. We have to address that, such as by looking at other ways to kick-start the private sector, not least through corporation tax measures. We have to look at enterprise zones, too. All those things we are doing—

Corporation Tax

4. What progress he has made in discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on changes to corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (14505)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, the Exchequer Secretary and I met Executive Ministers last month to discuss corporation tax and how the Northern Ireland economy could be rebalanced. We are working closely with them in the preparation of a Treasury paper and shall consult on this later in the year.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that the problem with the Northern Irish economy is that the private sector is too small, and that reducing corporation tax rates will help boost the private sector and rebalance the economy?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me give one figure: 77.6% of Northern Ireland’s GDP is dependent on public spending. That is clearly wholly unsustainable, and our proposal is to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy—which I estimate will take at least 25 years—by a number of measures that could include the devolution of corporation tax rates, thereby allowing the local Executive to reduce them.

In the Secretary of State’s consideration and representations on these matters, will he take particular account of the circumstances of border areas? Is he prepared to receive proposals on cross-border economic zones and their tax treatment, not least in the north-west, so that we can win investment and employment on the back of the cross-border Project Kelvin?

I am open to any ideas that will help to revive the private sector in Northern Ireland, which we all agree is too small. If the hon. Gentleman would like to make suggestions, my door will always be open. However, he should remember that a lot of this is devolved, with the decisions in the hands of his colleagues in the Assembly, and that this is a team game.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for their kind words. It has been a huge privilege for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and I to serve the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever my future, which is in the hands of my hon. Friends, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will continue our bipartisan support for his policy.

During the general election, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) talked about targeting Northern Ireland and the north-east of England for special cuts in Government spending. The Secretary of State tried to blunt that with the prospect of cutting corporation tax, but he will know from the Azores ruling that it is legal only if Northern Ireland bears fiscal consequences. What is his estimate of the annual additional cut the Treasury would have to take from the annual block grant to fund a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I would just like to correct an inadvertent comment on my colleague the Prime Minister, who did not target Northern Ireland; he just said, correctly, that it is one of those parts of the United Kingdom that is over-dependent on the public sector. On the question of the corporation tax sums, I say, bluntly, that nobody knows. That is why I am working closely with my Treasury colleagues—in particular, the Exchequer Secretary—to work out exactly the cost. Some international accountancy firms have estimated that, according to the Azores ruling, about £100 million to £150 million would have to be taken off the block grant.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland is over-dependent for a very good reason: because of the troubles. The answer to the question is contained in the report produced by Sir David Varney for the Treasury, and it is that £300 million would be taken out of the block grant. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that the net cost to the Exchequer for 10 years would be estimated at £2.2 billion. He is a very good sort of fellow, so why does he not level with the people of Northern Ireland? Just as his party’s electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists left them with nothing, just as his party’s talks on the Presbyterian Mutual Society look like leaving small investors with nothing, the promises on corporation tax will result in at best nothing and at worst an invitation to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to wield the axe.

I am sorry that the tone has descended. All my colleagues in Front-Bench positions inherited the odd prawn behind the radiator. We inherited Northern Ireland and a whole bag full of old langoustines stuck under a radiator going at top speed. We face a long-term problem with the economy. The Varney report is, sadly, now out of date. It cited a figure of more than £300 million, whereas the independent Northern Ireland Economic Reform Group, which carried out a detailed study of the benefits that a reduction of corporation tax would bring, gave a lower figure. The fact is that we do not know yet, and we will be studying this in detail and introducing our proposals later in the autumn.

Saville Inquiry

The reaction to the report of the Saville inquiry and to the Prime Minister’s statement to this House on 15 June has been overwhelmingly positive. Since publication, I have also met the families of those killed. I have received no formal representations in relation to the inquiry’s report, other than routine correspondence.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State once again informed the House that he will be meeting the families who lost their loved ones in Ballymurphy in August 1971. Will he assure the House that the issues that cannot be explored by the Historical Enquiries Team will be resolved by a process that is satisfactory to the families?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think that she should understand the sensitivities of these historical cases. Where I have given a commitment—I have a meeting planned with the families—it is appropriate that I talk to the families before I comment further.

Whatever mechanism we adopt to deal with the past, if we adopt any at all, surely it must be consistent. Does the Secretary of State agree that, whereas the Saville report dealt purely with the activities of the troops, soldiers and other activists on the day, the Billy Wright inquiry, which the media attended, seemed to deal with issues before and after the events of the day? We need a consistent approach to try to bring some closure.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why we have launched a process of talking to local politicians and local groups to work out a way forward on how we handle the past. It was clear from the submissions to Eames-Bradley that there is absolutely no consensus, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we must have a process that is consistent. We will be working on that over the coming months.

Pat Finucane

7. Whether he has met the family of Pat Finucane to offer an inquiry into his death; and if he will make a statement. (14508)

I met the family of Pat Finucane while in opposition. On becoming Secretary of State, I wrote to the family and invited them to meet me.

Will the Secretary of State elucidate the questions that were put to him by the family at that meeting?

The meeting that I had with them in opposition was some time ago. I have a meeting planned shortly and I think that it is appropriate, as I have said on several occasions, that I talk to the families before pronouncing further. The hon. Gentleman knows from his time as a Minister in Northern Ireland how sensitive and difficult this issue is, which is why it was not resolved by his Government.

Surely the Secretary of State will realise that, rather than individual inquiries, it would be better to put the resources into the Historical Enquiries Team so as to allow a swathe of the people who have been injured and who suffered through the tragedies of Northern Ireland’s years of terrorism to find answers to their questions.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Historical Enquiries team is looking at 3,268 deaths on a budget that was originally set at £34 million over six years. We must contrast that with the Billy Wright inquiry on which I reported yesterday, which cost £30 million and looked into one death.

Cross-border Economic Co-operation

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Government on cross-border economic co-operation. (14509)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held discussions on economic matters, which are largely devolved to Northern Ireland, with Irish Government Ministers when he was recently in Dublin. The trade and business development body, which aims to enhance the economy on both sides of the border, is a forum operating under the North/South Ministerial Council that also allows Northern Ireland and Irish Ministers to discuss those matters.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Have he and his team considered what lessons can be learned from the economic successes of the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s that could now be applied to the economy of Northern Ireland?

Yes, we certainly continue to study that. It is worth pointing out that despite the economic slowdown experienced in recent years the Republic of Ireland continues to attract major foreign direct investment. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland’s stock of direct inward investment is five times greater than the OECD average. According to one leading accountancy firm, there have been well over 50 investment projects this year alone. It is significant, we believe, when spending is being cut and many taxes are going up, that the one set of taxes that are not being touched in the Republic is the low rates of corporation taxes.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept and agree with me that cross-border co-operation is vital for economic recovery in border areas of Northern Ireland? Does he agree that because of the banking crisis there are major cross-border interests that we need to deal with at a British-Irish level?

I most certainly do, bearing in mind that a lot of these decisions are up to the Assembly and the Executive. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt welcome, along with us, the forthcoming investment conference in Washington under the patronage of Secretary of State Clinton, as well as the advance trip to Northern Ireland by her husband, former President Clinton, at which representatives from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be present hoping to attract inward investment, which will benefit the very cross-border communities to whom the hon. Gentleman has alluded.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who died on Friday after being injured in Helmand province on 23 August. We are for ever indebted to him for the sacrifice that he has made. We send our sincere condolences to his family, friends and comrades who all miss him very much. He will not be forgotten.

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.

May I add my sympathies to those of the Prime Minister?

At a time when we need to maximise growth and restore our public finances, is it not the height of irresponsibility that the unions are planning to go on strike, and should not former Ministers be ashamed of themselves for encouraging it?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Everyone in the country—the trade unions included—knows that we have to cut public spending, that we have to get the deficit down and that we have to keep interest rates down. It is the height of irresponsibility for shadow Ministers to troop off to the TUC and tell it that it is all right to go on strike. They should be ashamed of themselves.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment? We honour his bravery and we think of his family and friends as they mourn their loss. May I give my condolences to the Prime Minister and his family on the loss of his father? The words he used to express his love for his father touched everyone. Today, as we welcome the Prime Minister back to his place, I also congratulate him and Mrs Cameron on the birth of their new baby.

Let me ask about an issue that is of great concern on both sides of the House—the trafficking of women and girls for sex. This week, a gang was convicted here in London of bringing girls as young as 13 to this country to be sold for sex. The work of the police and prosecutors has protected young women from that gang, but this evil trade is growing. All parties in the House are united in their abhorrence of it. Will the Prime Minister update us on the work that is being undertaken to stop it?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady not only for what she said about the serviceman whom we lost in Afghanistan but for her very kind words about my father and our new daughter. I am very grateful for what was said last week by the shadow Lord Chancellor and for the letters that I have received from Members right across the House. It is very touching and heart-warming that people think about one at times like these, so I thank them for that.

Let me take this opportunity to say something about the right hon. and learned Lady, as I think this will be the last time that we face each other across the Dispatch Box. She is the third Labour leader with whom I have had to do battle—she is by far the most popular—and she has used these opportunities to push issues that she cares about deeply such as the one she raises today. She has been a thorough credit as the stand-in leader of the Labour party and I thank her for what she has done.

The issue of the trafficking of women and girls is an extremely important, sensitive and difficult one. I have been to see some of the exhibitions that have been run, including the one by Emma Thompson, about how bad the problem is. We are committed to working across the Government to do everything we can to help the police, to help at our borders and to make sure that we have in place all the laws and systems to bring this evil trade to an end. It is something that, tragically, has grown over recent years. We often talk about how we have ended slavery in our world, but we have not; it is still with us and this is the worst manifestation of it.

I thank the Prime Minister for his complimentary words—it is just as well that I am not wearing a hoodie.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about human trafficking, and I am grateful to him and the Deputy Prime Minister for working with us on it when they were in opposition. Will the Prime Minister help to build on that work by agreeing that the United Kingdom will opt in to the new European directive on trafficking in human beings, which the Commission proposed in March?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for raising that point. We are looking carefully at the issue. From looking at the directive so far, we have discovered that it does not go any further than the law that we have already passed. We have put everything that is in the directive in place. I am happy to go away and look again but, of course, as we do when thinking about all the things that we have to consider opting in to, we have to ask ourselves not only what is in this directive and whether we are already doing it—the answer in this case is yes—but what might be the consequences for our security and borders, and our ability to take decisions in the House. That is the consideration that we have to make, and I give absolutely no apology for saying that this Government will look at these things very carefully before signing them.

But the difficulty is that the Government have already indicated that they will opt out of the directive. If we are already complying with it in this country’s laws and practices, as well as working internationally, we should be proud of that and step forward to sign the directive. Will the Prime Minister reconsider?

I have already answered that, but let me make some additional points: first, the directive itself is still being finalised; and, secondly, there are opportunities at any stage to opt in to something of which we approve. However, the key point is that we must examine the directive and then ask whether opting in would add anything to what we already do in this vital area—[Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Hon. Members say yes, but the fact is that we do all the things that are in the directive today, so we then have to ask whether opting in would in any way endanger our borders and immigration system. That is a question that a responsible Government ought to ask, and it is a question that this Government will ask.

The right hon. Gentleman is hanging back on this—he should step forward and sign the directive. The point is that trafficking is an international crime. The traffickers work across borders, so we have to work across borders to stop them. Will he reconsider and opt into the directive?

I have answered the question. The fact is that we have to work internationally. We are working internationally as well as making sure that we have what we need at our borders and in our police service here in the UK. We are also looking at something that the previous Government did not put in place: a proper border police force, which would make a real difference to securing our borders. However, as I said, when looking at such directives, it is right to ask not just whether we are already doing the things that are in them, but what might be the other consequences of signing up. That is a sensible thing to do; the previous Government signed far too many things without ever thinking about what the consequences would be.

I am disappointed by the Prime Minister’s answer. I know that some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe, but he should not let them stand in the way of stopping human trafficking.

I have one last question before I go. When the Conservatives were in opposition, they regularly complained that we had Prime Minister’s questions only once a week. Now that the right hon. Gentleman knows just how enjoyable the experience is, does he plan to bring it back to twice a week?

It is one of the few things that Tony Blair did of which I thoroughly approve. Quite seriously, having worked for Leaders of the Opposition and Prime Ministers who did Prime Minister’s questions, I think that a half-hour session once a week is good not only so that Parliament can grill the Prime Minister, but so that the Prime Minister can grill everyone in his or her office to find out everything that is going on in government. That is the right way to do these things.

I know that we are not saying goodbye to the right hon. and learned Lady—it is only au revoir—and that she will be the deputy leader under whichever leader the Labour party elects. I note that she can spend some time over the coming days contemplating what to do with the four votes that I think she has in the election, because she is of course a member of a trade union, a Member of Parliament, a member of the Labour party and a member of the Fabian Society. Her position can be combined with her husband’s, whom I believe has another three votes—democracy is a beautiful thing!

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the saddest legacies the Government inherited is the fact that one child in five grows up in a household in which nobody is in work? Does he agree that it is not just an economic but a moral imperative that we should, to coin a phrase, move from a handout to a hand up?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want to tackle poverty, we must go to the causes of poverty. The chief cause of poverty is people being out of work generation after generation and, as he says, young people growing up in homes where nobody works, where there is no role model to follow. That is why we are pursuing the welfare reform agenda so vigorously, because we want to help people to get out of unemployment and into work. We want it to be worth while for everybody to work or to work more than they do now. That is what our welfare reforms, so scandalously neglected by the previous Government, have set out to achieve.

Q2. The proposed £400 million Mersey Gateway project, which will create up to 4,000 new jobs in the area, is under threat because of the spending review, despite the fact that it is strongly supported by business and by all local authorities across Cheshire and Merseyside, including the Chancellor’s local authority. How will cutting projects such as the Mersey Gateway help economic growth in the north-west? (15258)

We are not making any further cuts in capital spending. The hon. Gentleman ought to ask the question of those on his own Front Bench. The Labour party went into the last election with a 50% cut in capital spending in its figures, and did not tell us one single project that would be cut. We have said that that is far enough; we should go no further. We will be protecting capital spending to help to boost the recovery in our country.

Q3. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his excellent speech on parliamentary reform, promised far more free votes in the Committee stage of major Bills. Can he confirm that this bold and courageous policy will apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? (15259)

We have already taken some big steps to pass power from the Executive to Parliament—[Interruption.] Someone shouts “Rubbish.” We established the Backbench Business Committee. The Opposition had 13 years; they never did that. We gave the House of Commons control over electing Select Committee Chairmen. The Opposition had 13 years to do that. It never happened. We will be giving Select Committees further powers over selecting and looking at appointments in the public sector, and I am the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right to call a general election. As for major parts of legislation set out in our coalition agreement, I regret to inform my hon. Friend that I will be hoping for all my colleagues to support them with head, heart and soul, if I may put it that way, but should there be greater opportunities for free votes, yes, there should be. I remember the previous Government, even on topics such as embryo research and experimentation, whipping their Members, particularly in the House of Lords. That was quite wrong and it will not happen under this Government.

Q4. Given the strategic defence importance of the aircraft carriers, on which work has already started, will the Prime Minister undertake to meet urgently with me, other parliamentary colleagues and workplace representatives so that they can put to him their concerns about reports that the aircraft carriers will be cancelled, before it is too late? (15260)

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and his Ministers are happy to meet anyone who wants to discuss the state of the defence budget and the appalling legacy that we have been left. Of all the budgets that I have looked at, that is the one where we were left the biggest mess—£38 billion over-committed, and decisions taken that made very little sense at all. But the hon. Gentleman will be seeing a strategic defence review in which we properly review how we can make sure that we have forces that are right for our country, right for our interests and ensure that we protect our interests around the world.—[Interruption.]

I am afraid I have no props.—[Laughter.]

With only five years to go to achieve the millennium development goals, which are still way off track, what will the Prime Minister do to ensure that those critical promises are kept?

My apologies for missing the joke. Next time I will look more carefully. I did not know that we were allowed props, Mr Speaker, but obviously you take a more relaxed view of these things.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point and the conference—[Interruption.]

Order. I may take a relaxed view about some things, but not about excessive noise. The Prime Minister must be heard.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the millennium development goals, set in 2000 and meant to be completed by 2015, and there is a vital conference, which the Deputy Prime Minister will be attending next week, on that specific issue. This country—this applies to parties on both sides—can hold its head up high, given that we are going to hit the 0.7% target of gross national income going to aid. That means that we will be playing our part in making sure that those vital MDGs are met. It is important, although spending decisions are going to be difficult, that we hold our head up high not only overseas but at home and say, “This is right, to help the poorest in our world, even when we have difficult budget decisions at home.”

Q5. May I join the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the family of Kingsman Darren Deady, who was a constituent of mine and sadly lost his life last Friday, having been injured in Afghanistan three weeks ago? His senior officer said that Kingsman Deady “was a superb soldier—trusted, respected and an example to others.”He will be sadly missed. Bolton Community and Voluntary Services has already lost £89,000 of grants this year for small voluntary groups—groups often working with the most vulnerable. Many organisations are on the brink of closure because of those cuts. If the Prime Minister believes in the big society, what will he do to save those groups? (15261)

What I would say to the hon. Lady’s local council is what I would say to every council in the country, which is that we all know—and Opposition Members know—that we have to make spending reductions. The Opposition were committed to £44 billion of spending reductions at the last election, and we should say to every single council in the country, “When it comes to looking at and trimming your budgets, don’t do the easy thing, which is to cut money to the voluntary bodies and organisations working in our communities. Look at your core costs. Look at how you can do more for less. Look at the value for money you get from working with the voluntary sector.” The hon. Lady should take that message to her local authority. That is the message that I would take to her local authority, and everyone should try to work in that direction.

Q6. Has the Prime Minister received any representations from Fidel Castro on deficit reduction? Is there any possibility of arranging a trade union conference pass for Mr Castro so that he might be able to enlighten the trade unions on cutting the size of the state? (15262)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This week it was revealed that even Communist Cuba has got with the programme that we need to cut budget deficits and get spending under control. So we have Comrade Castro on the same planet as the rest of us; we just have to get the Labour party and the trade unions on that planet at the same time.

Q7. Burma and Iran were signatories to the universal declaration on human rights, but there are some men and women who cannot exercise those rights. In particular, Sakineh Ashtiani awaits death by stoning, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned because she won an election. Will the Prime Minister make urgent and renewed representations to the Governments of Burma and Iran in order to free those brave and courageous women? (15263)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue, and I shall do precisely as she says and continue to make those representations. It is important that we make them not just to those Governments, but to Governments who sometimes take a slightly different view. When I was in India I raised the issue of Burma with the Indian Government, because I think it is important that we talk to the neighbouring states of those countries and make sure that they are campaigning in the same way.

The human rights record in Iran is absolutely appalling. The person to whom the hon. Lady refers is being treated in a completely inhuman and despicable fashion, and we should be absolutely clear that the situation in Burma is an affront to humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention is an outrage. She has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest, and her example is deeply inspiring. All of us like to think that we give up something for democracy and politics; we do not. Compared with those people, we do nothing. They are an inspiration right across the world, and we should stand with them.

Like the last Government, we have promised to act on the litter that defaces our towns and countryside. Unlike the last Government, will we take some real practical action, such as starting a bottle deposit and refund scheme, which a Campaign to Protect Rural England report launched today shows will protect the environment and save local authorities millions of pounds?

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion. Bill Bryson has made this suggestion to me as well because of the success that schemes like this have had in other countries. I will certainly ask his right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary to look at this issue and see if we can take it forward.

Q8. Back in June, Andrew Cook boasted that he was the largest donor to the Conservative party in Yorkshire, yet it turns out that his registered main residence is on the island of Guernsey. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that when he accepted free plane flights from Andrew Cook, he did so having satisfied himself that such a donation was both legally and morally acceptable? (15264)

Obviously it is up to every party leader to make sure that when they accept a donation they make proper checks and do so in the proper way. All the donations that the Conservative party has received are properly set out with the Electoral Commission and other bodies, and we do everything we can to make sure they are accurate; I hope that the Labour party does the same thing.

Q9. Two weeks ago, Bola Ejifunmilayo and her three year old daughter Fiyin burned to death in an unregistered house in multiple occupancy. Often poorly converted, with enormous fire risks, the majority of HMOs in Milton Keynes and elsewhere remain unregistered. What more can the Government do to end this plight and hopefully prevent another tragedy? (15265)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about an absolutely tragic case. As he knows, local authorities are responsible for licensing houses in multiple occupation, and they have the power to prosecute landlords who fail to apply for a licence—and they should do so. There have been too many cases like this. The law is there; it should be used. Our whole approach is to give local authorities the power they need, and the discretion they need, to take action for the good of their communities; that is the change we want to bring.

Q10. Building work is already under way on a new campus for Skelmersdale and Ormskirk college in my constituency, so it was a real shock to find that £4 million committed to the project will now not be available because of the Government’s decision to stop the budgets of the regional development agency with immediate effect. Will the Prime Minister please meet me and those at the college to try to find a way through? The building is already going up, and this would be a real embodiment of a hand up to the young people of Skelmersdale and the start of the regeneration of Skelmersdale. (15266)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this specific case, and I will go away and look at it. In the Budget, while we did make difficult decisions, and some spending reductions were made, we actually put some money back into college building projects because so many schemes had suffered from the overspending and lack of control over the past couple of years. I will certainly look at her case and see whether a Minister can meet her to see what progress can be made.

In Great Yarmouth, one of our Labour legacies is that we still have one of the more deprived wards in the country. Will the Prime Minister outline the plans he has to deal with one of the legacies he has inherited, which is the shocking breach in the achievement levels of deprived schoolchildren?

There are many things we need to do to tackle deprivation. We have spoken today about the importance of tackling long-term unemployment and joblessness that goes back through generations. Clearly, one of the other things is making sure that children from less well-off backgrounds are getting access to the best schools available. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has announced this week how we are going to try to help children on free school meals to get access to the very best schools in our country, and we want to expand the number of good schools by allowing academies and free schools to go forward. I hope that Labour Members will back those plans. The problem we have is that there are not enough good school places. It does not matter how many different schemes are devised for lotteries or anything else for getting kids into good schools, we need more good school places, not least in Great Yarmouth.

Q11. Talking of schools, on 2 September the Department for Education sneaked out the equalities impact assessment associated with the Building Schools for the Future decision. That assessment showed that the scrapping of that policy had a disproportionate impact on poorer children in our society. Can the Prime Minister explain what is progressive about that? (15267)

One person’s announcement is another person’s sneaking out; I do not quite understand that. Let me tell the person who was largely responsible for designing Building Schools for the Future what a completely shambolic and disastrous programme it was. It took three years and £250 million before a single brick was laid; well, maybe we should assess that. The other thing that we could perhaps assess—it is worth reminding people of this—is the bureaucracy of Building Schools for the Future. There were nine meta-stages to putting in a bid. Each of the nine stages had further sub-stages. This is what a local authority had to do—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman was responsible for the programme; I am sure this will be a trip down memory lane for him. [Interruption.]

Thank you very much.

Local authorities that wanted to get involved needed a partnership for schools director, a director of education project adviser, a 4Ps adviser, an enabler from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—[Interruption.] I am sorry the list is so long, but it goes on and on. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] The answer is that it was a disastrous programme, completely overspent and totally out of control. The last Government had announced 50% cuts and had not told us where a penny was coming from, and the hon. Gentleman is largely responsible for it.

Could the Prime Minister confirm that the Minister for Immigration will in the next few days come up with a solution for the English language schools in the UK, so that the good schools can move forward productively while bogus colleges and bogus students are dealt with?

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is working extremely hard on that issue. We all want the same thing, which is to ensure that Britain benefits as a provider of great education courses, universities and colleges that can attract talented people from around the world. But at the same time, we all know that there have been too many bogus colleges and too many bogus students coming here not really to study but to work or for other reasons, and we have to crack down on that. That is what my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister is trying to do, and I am sure he will be in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) to ensure that that is the outcome of the policy.

Q12. I want to help the Prime Minister to reconsider the fact that we are not signing up to the directive on human trafficking, which, as he may understand, I know a little about. As a consequence, we rely on sections 57 and 59 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That means that we cannot, for example, pursue or have any jurisdiction over someone who is normally a resident of the UK but is not a UK national, who is involved in human trafficking. More importantly, we cannot have jurisdiction when a UK resident in another EU country is trafficked by a non— (15268)

I will obviously listen very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, and perhaps he would like to set out in detail why he thinks this is so important. The point is that the UK’s victim care arrangements are already in line with internationally agreed standards, as set out in the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. The UK already does what is required by the proposed directive on assisting victims, so the proposed directive would not improve the provision of victim care. Those are the facts, and Opposition Members need to engage with that point.

If the Prime Minister were invited to lecture at Harvard university, like the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), on what subject would he care to speak?

Q13. What is the Prime Minister doing to protect manufacturing in the west midlands, and in Coventry in particular? Equally, what is he doing to protect the research and development that a lot of manufacturing companies rely on? (15269)

The most important thing that we can do is make Britain a great place to do business, to set up a business and to manufacture. That is why we showed in the Budget that we are going to cut corporation tax to one of the lowest levels in the developed world, why we are cutting national insurance for every new business that sets up, and why we are dealing with the appalling economic inheritance that we were left by the Labour party so that this economy can grow, have low interest rates and get moving to provide good jobs for all our people. That is what this Government are all about, and that is what we are fixing.

Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that the last Government took £30 million a year out of our social housing budget to give to their friends elsewhere? Because of that under-investment, one in 10 people in my constituency are on the council housing waiting list. Does he agree that social housing money raised in Harlow should be spent in Harlow, and that Harlow housing money should be for Harlow people? (15270)

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, which is that in our relations with local government, at a difficult time in terms of budgets, we should be giving it money and taking away the ring-fencing and complications and all the different grants. We should say, “There’s the money. You’re democratically elected, you decide how that money is spent.” That is what people are going to see from this Government, and I think it will be welcomed by local government up and down the country.

Before the election, the Prime Minister said:

“If I am Prime Minister a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with”

the Northern Ireland

“Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS”—

the Presbyterian Mutual Society—and continued:

“you’ve done the right thing and you deserve for that to be recognised and rewarded.”

How soon will that pledge be honoured?

I am determined that we will honour that pledge. This is important. I know how angry people in Northern Ireland are when they hear British politicians say, “Of course, nobody lost any savings in the crash.” People did lose money, including in Northern Ireland, and they are right to be upset and angry.

A working group is trying to go through those issues and to find an answer. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is involved in that, and the Chancellor is engaged in the issue. It is not easy, but we are determined to find a solution so that we can give satisfaction to people who lost money in Northern Ireland and who currently feel that they have been let down.