Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2010

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the contribution of Northern Ireland to the Government’s programmes to increase the level of exports for the purposes of international trade. (22147)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues in Northern Ireland on economic development issues. We will continue to work with the Executive to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and grow the private sector.

Does the Minister agree that the inspirational visit to China by the Prime Minister shows that we should redouble our efforts on exporting?

Yes, I certainly do. Invest Northern Ireland has recently led trade missions to Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and 35 Northern Ireland companies from across the sector went with it. What is going on in China should work as an incentive to others to export. Let me pay tribute to a company that I visited the other day in Ballymena—and I see that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is present. Wrightbus has just supplied 450 double-decker buses to Singapore and has won the design project for the replacement of the iconic Routemaster bus here in London. The answer to rebalancing part of the Northern Irish economy is to get—

Order. That answer is too long. The Minister will resume his seat, and he must not repeat that.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the need to provide growth in the Northern Ireland economy and ensure jobs and investment, can he provide assurances to the House that the Prime Minister, on his current trade mission to China, is aware not only of the need to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland but of the products that could be exported as part of international trade—and also of the fact that the Government are about to publish a paper on the Northern Ireland economy and corporation tax?

Of course the Prime Minister continues to take an interest in Northern Ireland. The food, drink and tobacco sectors account for 45% of total sales and 46% of external sales. These figures could and should increase, and the Secretary of State and I will work with the devolved Administration, in whatever way we are asked, to support any incentive of that kind.

Will the Secretary of State commit to making representations to the Treasury regarding alterations to how tobacco tax is lifted, so that the Treasury can receive a bigger taxation take while allowing the industry to invest in securing jobs in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman has in his constituency the Gallaher Group, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited recently. The loss to the United Kingdom economy from contraband cigarettes and forfeited duty is in the region of £2 billion to £3 billion a year. We should consider that closely, and continue to make representations in that regard.

Is the Minister as concerned as those of us who come from Northern Ireland that recent reports show a third quarter fall in growth in the private sector in Northern Ireland, and will he therefore redouble his efforts to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy more effectively?

Clearly, Northern Ireland is not immune to what is going on in the rest of the world—one has only to look over the border at what is going on in Ireland to see that. We work very closely with Northern Ireland on rebalancing the economy and we have the support of the Finance Minister, who, along with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, is meeting the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs this afternoon to discuss corporation tax. We must leave no stone unturned in our attempts to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy and, critically, to provide well-paid and sustainable jobs.

Unless I am mistaken, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) did not put a supplementary question to the substantive question. If he did he can nod his head, but if he did not, he should do so.

The Disappeared

In July, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains successfully recovered the remains of Charlie Armstrong, and it awaits DNA confirmation regarding remains it believes to be those of Gerard Evans and Peter Wilson. This would take the total number of disappeared who have been located to nine.

May I pay tribute to the excellent work of the ICLVR, particularly Geoff Knupfer and Jon Hill, who do such good work, as I have seen for myself? I met the Wilson family just before the find was announced, and I can testify to the very serious effect that it has on families who have waited for many, many years to find their loved ones so that they can be placed in a grave and they can go to see them regularly. That achieves closure for many people. The commission is a joint initiative between the Irish and the British Governments. It is led entirely by intelligence, and we will continue to be led by intelligence—

Order. The Minister will have to practise. He is far too long-winded, and that has got to change.

The Minister refers to the recovery of remains, which is a painful reminder of the need to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. If the Secretary of State decides to place any new obligations on the Historical Enquiries Team, will he ensure that it is fully and properly funded to undertake them?

The two bodies are entirely different. We believe that the HET is a good organisation and should be properly resourced, as we believe that it represents the way forward.

The whole House will think fondly of that gallant soldier Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards, who was so brutally killed by the IRA. Does the Minister have any up-to-date information about whether his remains may yet be discovered?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. Alas, Captain Nairac is not alone. A considerable number of bodies have yet to be located, and that we hope that will happen in due course.

The Minister has already referred to the winding up of the commission dealing with the disappeared. Does he think that is wise, and does he think it is wise also to wind up the Independent Monitoring Commission, given the ongoing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman may have misheard me. I have not said that we will wind up the former. With reference to the latter, we announced that there would be one more valedictory report. It was established in the first place to monitor the connections between elected representatives and paramilitaries. We believe that that is no longer appropriate or necessary.

Would the Minister kindly give me a commitment that fresh efforts will be made to retrieve my young constituent, Lisa Dorrian, who was murdered and disappeared by those with loyalist paramilitary connections five years ago? That is five long Christmases for the family, who deserve closure. What fresh efforts are being made to retrieve her body?

The hon. Lady is entirely correct, but she must understand that the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office in these matters is limited, and quite properly so. The ICLVR is an independent organisation and responds to intelligence provided to it—very often anonymous intelligence. I hope that it will listen to what the hon. Lady has said, but it will respond only when the intelligence comes. I hope that those who have any understanding or any knowledge will bring that forward.

Barnett Formula Funding

3. What recent discussions he has had with private sector companies in Northern Ireland on the effects on them of changes in Barnett formula funding for Northern Ireland consequent upon the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review. (22149)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with people from the private sector in Northern Ireland. I have found a widespread recognition that the public sector can and should respond by delivering better value, and support for the objective that we and the Executive share of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.

The Minister will be aware of the recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers stating that 36,000 jobs will be lost in Northern Ireland as a result of the Government’s policies—20,000 in the public sector and a further 16,000 in the private sector. What estimate has he made of the cost to the taxpayer of those 36,000 people currently in work being made unemployed by the Government’s policies?

The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time, but these are not the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties’ cuts. These are Labour’s cuts—[Interruption.] Northern Ireland has done better out of the spending review than it was led to believe would have been the case under the previous Government. It is in the interests of everybody in the House to talk up Northern Ireland, to attract inward investment and to rebalance the economy so that it is not so dependent on the public sector. That is the way forward for Northern Ireland, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support us on that.

Does the Minister agree that to reform the Barnett formula, all the devolved nations would need to agree to a process, and that if one nation, such as the Scottish Government, refused to participate in that process, that would be showing disrespect to all the others?

Of course I am aware of the House of Lords Select Committee report on the Barnett formula, the Holtham Commission on Welsh funding and other commentators on the system of devolution funding. At present we are trying to get the public finances under control to get the economy moving again. Any change in the system of funding the devolved Administrations must wait for the stabilisation of the public finances.

One of the impacts on the private sector will be the huge reduction of 40% in capital spending over the next four years, and there is disagreement about whether the settlement honours the St Andrews agreement settlement on capital spending. In the one area where there is dispute, does the capital settlement for Northern Ireland include capital spending on the police? Is that part of the Minister’s assessment of the total capital budget for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman knows that under the previous Government the reduction was likely to be 50% of capital expenditure. Under us it is 37% over four years. In response to his comments on policing and justice, I can tell him that we stand by the commitments. As he knows, the Northern Ireland Executive’s capital allocation of £3.3 billion over the spending review period will permit those costs to be met, but there will be difficult decisions, and unfortunately it is up to the hon. Gentleman, as the Finance Minister at Stormont, to make those difficult decisions. It is up to him and the Executive, and I support his attempts to get them to form a budget.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of Northern Ireland will welcome the cut in business taxes, which will create real private sector jobs, and the coalition Government’s action to deal with the £120 million a day in interest and debt that we are paying?

Yes, of course. Northern Ireland, like other parts of the United Kingdom, will benefit from those actions, which the incoming Government took very quickly. Beyond that, however, we are thinking about how, in the long term, we can stop the dependency on the public sector, which is disproportionate in Northern Ireland. In that context, one way forward will be to look at the whole issue of corporation tax.

Comprehensive Spending Review

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on security in Northern Ireland of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review; and if he will make a statement. (22150)

Following the outcome of the 2010 spending review, it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide how funds are allocated to the Northern Ireland Departments. It will be for the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in the first instance, to negotiate the PSNI budget with the Executive. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we will protect the people of our country from the terrorist threat with every means at our disposal.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. He will appreciate that people in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK will be concerned about the impact of spending cuts on peace and security in Northern Ireland. Can he assure the House that the comprehensive spending review will not impact on front-line community policing in Northern Ireland? That is something that the Minister stopped short of saying in response to an earlier question.

We have been absolutely clear that we will stand by Northern Ireland. We will do what is necessary to bear down on that threat, but the first port of call is for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable to negotiate with the Executive on the very substantial allocation of public money that has been granted to them in the spending round.

The Select Committee on Northern Ireland met the assistant commissioner of the Garda two days ago, and he assured us that in spite of the financial difficulties in Ireland they would continue to police the border, in particular, in the same way. He said that there would be absolutely no reduction in their efforts. Can the Secretary of State give us the same assurance today?

Emphatically yes. We have exceptional co-operation with the Garda, and I should like to congratulate them on their seizure of a significant amount of armaments at Dunleer woods in County Louth. Emphatically yes: we will work extremely closely with them and match their effort.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the deteriorating security situation in parts of Northern Ireland due to the dissident threat. Will he be open to an approach, should it be required, for additional resources to deal with that threat as it materialises over the winter months?

We have been clear, from the early negotiations that I had with the shadow Secretary of State, when he was Secretary of State, that we would endorse the very substantial policing settlement that the previous Government negotiated with the Northern Ireland Executive. That was quite clear. Should there be security pressure, and should the security position deteriorate, it would be right for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable to come to us and ask for contributions from the national reserve.

Security Situation

5. What his most recent assessment is of the level of threat posed by terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. (22151)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. We are not complacent, but I am pleased to tell the House that this year, following eight further arrests this morning, there have been 195 arrests and 71 persons have been charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. I commend the security forces for their continued successes in frustrating the efforts of residual terrorist groups. The coalition Government are committed to continuing to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, and standing firmly behind the agreements negotiated and the institutions that they established.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The national security strategy has highlighted the fact that there have been 37 separate attacks this year, so the threat from residual terrorist groups remains high. What steps is he taking to combat that threat?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have taken this to the highest level of Government. We presented a paper to the National Security Council, and as a result of that, the threat from Northern Ireland has been put in tier 1 in the national security strategy.

The latest Independent Monitoring Commission report highlights the continuing involvement of dissident republicans in very serious levels of criminal activity. Will the Minister assure the House that all resources will be made available to ensure that that threat does not continue?

I repeat that we are working extremely closely with the devolved Administration and the Dublin Government on bearing down on this threat, and we will do what is necessary.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the deep anger among all sections of the community in Northern Ireland at the growing level of attacks by paramilitaries—with, indeed, activity on both sides, but particularly among dissident republicans? People are looking for action to be taken, and for co-operation between the agencies for which he is responsible and the Northern Ireland Executive to deal with this problem urgently.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to make that comment. That is why we produced a substantial paper for the National Security Council, which was discussed at the highest level; and that is why we are working so closely with the devolved Administration and the Justice Minister, to whom I spoke this morning, and the Government in Dublin. We are determined to work at all levels to end this security problem.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and acknowledge the work that he is doing in terms of the tier 1 level of threat assessment in Northern Ireland. However, the fact that the recent bomb find at East Midlands airport happened on the same day as a bomb find at Belfast City airport shows the level of threat against citizens right across the United Kingdom. Can we be assured that while the threat of al-Qaeda is a priority, the threat in Northern Ireland is also treated as a top priority?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these threats affect us all in the United Kingdom. That is why the threat from Northern Ireland has been placed in the No. 1 category—in tier 1.

The Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave an unambiguous undertaking before the Hillsborough Castle agreement that the previous Government’s financial arrangements for the devolution of policing and justice would be upheld. In relation to the security situation, this unequivocally included a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive would have access to the reserve. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he continues to stand by that commitment, without any new conditions being imposed by the Treasury?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I have said this already, but I am happy to look him in the eye and repeat it. Should the security situation deteriorate, then—according to the agreement that the previous Government, in which he was Secretary of State, made with the then Executive—the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable have the right to approach the Government with a clear strategy on security grounds in order to call on the national reserve.

I am grateful for that reply. We all note the decision to raise the threat level here in Great Britain, and the Secretary of State can be assured that the Opposition fully support the decision to address the problems created by that threat. Given the level of recent attacks in Northern Ireland, including the recent use of a hand grenade, and given the need for the response to be measured, proportionate and joined up, would a request by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet the Prime Minister as soon as possible be fully supported by the Secretary of State?

The Prime Minister made regular visits to Northern Ireland when he was Leader of the Opposition. He met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister then, to discuss a broad range of issues. He intends to go back to Northern Ireland, and at that time he will have the opportunity to discuss matters with them. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring specifically to the budget settlement, it is appropriate that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister first discuss that with me, having done their utmost to come to an agreement and consensus in the Executive on a budget for the substantial funds that have been allocated to them in this spending round.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

6. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the implications for Northern Ireland of the provisions of part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. (22152)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and with elected representatives in Northern Ireland on the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and will continue to do so as the Bill continues its progress through both Houses.

Does the Minister recognise that as it stands, part 2 of the Bill has serious implications for the Northern Ireland Assembly, whose constituencies are meant to be coterminous with parliamentary constituencies? Reviews every five years that could put those constituencies out of cycle, or change the total number of constituencies in Northern Ireland, will be hugely unsettling. Will he take steps to ensure that full consideration is undertaken with the authorities in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as with his ministerial colleagues?

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman raised this matter during the passage of the Bill. It is true that coterminosity between the parliamentary and Assembly seats has worked well, and the amended rules can continue to provide for the Electoral Commission to take that into account. I should say to him that as he knows, the size of the Assembly is up to the Assembly, not to Parliament or to this House through the Bill.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

8. When the Government plan to disburse their proposed financial assistance to savers with the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (22154)

In the spending review announcement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government would meet in full a £175 million loan and £25 million in cash to fund the Northern Ireland Executive’s proposal to resolve the PMS crisis.

I thank the Minister for that response, but given that the Government’s proposals are a carbon copy of what my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister announced, why did the Secretary of State delay the announcement by six months, causing unnecessary suffering and misunderstanding for the people who had lost money in the PMS?

There is a fundamental difference between what the previous Government did and what the current Government have done about the problems connected with the PMS: we have actually done something. We have responded to the request from the Executive in full. We stand by the Prime Minister’s commitment, and we are very pleased that we were able to act so swiftly—unlike some others.

Dissident Violence

9. What assessment he has made of the reasons for the recent increase in the level of dissident violence in Northern Ireland. (22156)

This violence is a direct response to the continued political progress in Northern Ireland. Those people are outdated and backward-looking. All that they have to offer is to destabilise the peace process and disadvantage the people of Northern Ireland, but they will not succeed. The Government take the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland extremely seriously. There have been 39 attacks so far this year, compared with 22 throughout 2009.

I heard what the Secretary of State had to say earlier about the operations of the police in the Republic. Can he also give me some assurance that there is intelligence sharing between the Northern Irish Government and that in Dublin?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and for his interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I do not think I can give a better example than the fact that the current Chief Constable always had good relations with his neighbour when he was chief constable of Leicestershire, but has said that his relations with Fachtna Murphy, the Garda commissioner, are even better. I should like publicly to pay tribute to Fachtna Murphy, who is, sadly, retiring at the end of the year. He has been a great friend of Northern Ireland. The collaboration between the Garda and the PSNI is at an exceptional level, and I look forward to helping it continue.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent series of dissident republican operations in my constituency, including the bomb at a railway bridge and a previous bomb that almost killed three local children. Does he share the Chief Constable’s current assessment of the levels of resources and manpower available to the PSNI?

I am grateful for that question. I am also pleased to send on my sympathies to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have been subject to such intolerable attacks, which, thankfully, have not caused death or injury. Last week the Chief Constable said:

“We are absolutely putting huge resources back in, we are going to sustain that next year and the year after until those responsible are brought to justice or they can be persuaded to give up.”

Fisheries (EU Legislation)

10. What assessment he has made of the effects on the Northern Ireland fishing fleet of the operation of EU legislation on working time; and if he will make a statement. (22157)

Responsibilities here are divided: fisheries generally are a devolved matter, but the UK Government have led on aspects of the EU working time directive as it applies to fishing vessels.

EU legislation includes a fundamental right to work. What steps has the Minister taken with his European counterparts to ensure that the fishermen of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeen, who have had their days at sea restricted, have a right to work?

I understand that Diane Dodds and other Northern Ireland MEPs are working hard to address some of the difficulties experienced by the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. I must stress though that fishing matters are partly devolved. None the less, I undertake to look into the matter, write to the hon. Gentleman in due course and put a copy of the letter in the Library.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been leading a major Government and trade delegation to China, and is now travelling to Seoul for the G20 summit.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Senior Aircraftman Scott Hughes of 1 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, who died in Cyprus on Sunday while returning from operational service in Afghanistan. He was a professional and brave airman, and it is very sad that he died while returning home from a tour of duty. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.

This week, on the eve of Remembrance day, we especially remember all those who have given their lives in the service of our country, both in recent years and through previous generations. The sacrifices made by our servicemen and women for our peace and freedom must never be forgotten.

On a much happier note, let me, on behalf of the Government, extend our warmest congratulations and best wishes to the Leader of the Opposition and his partner, Justine, on the birth of their baby son. It is wonderful news and we really are thrilled for them.

A 12-year-old haemophiliac from Lindley in Huddersfield was injected with contaminated blood products, giving him HIV, hepatitis C and CJD. When will he and the 2,000 other survivors of this shocking scandal get fair compensation?

I know that my hon. Friend is a vigorous campaigner for all those whose lives have been so tragically affected by contaminated blood. It really is a dreadful catastrophe for all those affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), intends to report by the end of the year on the outcome of the current review to see what more can be done for those affected by contaminated blood. Tomorrow, Health Ministers will hold an open meeting in Westminster Hall at which hon. Members from all parts of the House and peers from the other place can raise their concerns.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Senior Aircraftman Scott Hughes of 1 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment. We honour his memory and send condolences to his family. We will remember all our servicemen and women on Remembrance day. I should like to echo, too, the right hon. Gentleman’s best wishes to the Leader of the Opposition and Justine on the birth of their new baby.

In April, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was his aim to end university tuition fees. Will he update the House on how his plan is progressing?

Of course I acknowledge that this is an extraordinarily difficult issue, and I have been entirely open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition. Because of the financial situation and because of the compromises of the coalition Government, we have had to put forward a different policy—[Interruption.]

None the less, we have stuck to our wider ambition to make sure that going to university is done in a progressive way, so that people who are currently discouraged from going to university—bright people from poor backgrounds, who are discouraged by the system that we inherited from the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government—are able to do so. That is why our policy is more progressive than hers.

Well, I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister thinks it is so fair. I hope he will be going out and telling that to all the students and lecturers who are marching on Westminster today. In April he said that increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year would be a “disaster”. What word would he use to describe fees of £9,000?

I think there is more consensus than the right hon. and learned Lady concedes on the simple principle that people who benefit from going to university should make a contribution to the cost of that university education. The question is: how do we do it? Do we do it fairly and in a progressive way? The proposals that we have put forward will mean that those who earn the least will pay much less than they do at the moment—while those who earn the most will pay over the odds to provide a subsidy to allow people from poor backgrounds to go to university—and will, for the first time, end the discrimination against the 40% of people in our universities who are part-time students, who were so shamefully treated by her Government.

None of us agrees with tuition fees of £9,000 a year. This is not about the deficit: the Chancellor said that the deficit would be dealt with by 2014, when the new system will hardly have begun. No, this is not about the deficit; this is about the Deputy Prime Minister going along with a Tory plan to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families. We all know what it is like, Mr Speaker. You are at Freshers’ week. You meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Is not the truth of it that the Deputy Prime Minister has been led astray by the Tories?

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady now thinks that she can reposition the Labour party as the champion of students, but let us remember the Labour party’s record: against tuition fees in 1997, but introduced them a few months later; against top-up fees in the manifesto in 2001, then introduced top-up fees. Then Labour set up the Browne review, which it is now trashing, and now the Labour party has a policy to tax graduates that half the Front-Bench team does not even believe in. Maybe she will go out to the students who are protesting outside now and explain what on earth her policy is.

As a result of the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans, English students will pay among the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world, and why? It is not to give universities more funds, but to replace the cuts that he is making to university teaching. Can he tell the House what the percentage cut to the university teaching grant is?

I can certainly confirm that the right hon. and learned Lady and her party also had plans to make massive cuts in the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which would have affected higher education. Here are a few facts. Every single graduate under our scheme will pay less per month than they do under the scheme that we inherited from Labour. The bottom 25% of earners will pay much less in their contributions to their university education than they do at the moment. Part-time students will pay no up-front fees, and not a single student will pay a penny of up-front fees whatsoever. It is a fair and progressive solution to a very difficult problem.

It looks as though the right hon. Gentleman has been taking lessons from the Prime Minister on how not to answer the question. I asked him about the cut in the teaching grant. The truth is that it is a staggering 80%––80%. No wonder he is ducking the question. The real reason he is hiking up fees is that he is pulling the plug on public funding, and dumping the cost on to students. Is that not why he is betraying his promise on tuition fees?

The graduate tax that the right hon. and learned Lady advocates would be more unfair and would allow higher earners to opt out of the system altogether. We all agree—she agrees—across the House that graduates should make some contribution for the benefit of going to university. The question is, how? We have a progressive plan; she has no plan whatsoever.

But during the election, the right hon. Gentleman hawked himself around university campuses pledging to vote against tuition fees. By the time Freshers’ week was over, he had broken his promise. Every single Liberal Democrat MP signed the pledge not to put up tuition fees; every single one of them is about to break that promise. He must honour his promise to students and their families throughout the country. Will he think again?

It is quite something to take lectures from the right hon. and learned Lady about party management after the mutiny in the parliamentary Labour party on Monday—[Interruption.] Labour Members are cheering her now, but they certainly were not at the mutiny on Monday night. The truth is that before the election we did not know the unholy mess that would be left to us by her party. On this issue, as on so many, the two parties on this side of the House have come together to create a solution for the future. The two parties on this side of the House have one policy; the Labour party has two policies.

In the international dialogue about democracy that we are witnessing, what would my right hon. Friend say to those who welcomed the elections in Burma, which were nothing more than an utter sham?

I strongly agree that those elections were a complete and utter sham. Their conclusion was already decided well before they took place, with reserved seats for the military, and reserved seats for parties that were put up by the military. They are simply swapping their military uniforms for civilian clothing, but keeping their iron dictatorial grip on the people of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi should be released when her house arrest comes up for review in the coming days, and real democracy should finally be introduced in Burma.

Q2. Given that we all know how important consistency is to the Deputy Prime Minister, will he explain to the House why his Chief Secretary to the Treasury is pictured on the Liberal Democrat website leading the campaign against selling off forestry in Scotland, at the same time as he is proposing that in England? (22885)

The poor Chief Secretary to the Treasury is picked on all the time—first for being ginger. Did the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) make an impact assessment of her outrageously discriminatory remarks?––[Interruption.]

Order. First, the Deputy Prime Minister must be heard. Secondly, the public thoroughly disapprove of this level of destructive barracking from wherever in the House it comes: note that, and learn from it.

I was simply making the point that any form of discrimination against rodents or ginger-headed folk is wrong.

As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) knows, on forestry issues, as on many others, there is a devolved division of responsibility. He should know that better than anyone else.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Prime Minister received the “people’s port” community mutual’s bid for the port of Dover? Will he allow a community right to buy, or will it be another British icon sold overseas, as the previous Labour Government planned? (22886)

Of course I am pleased, as no doubt everyone is, that there is such a strong community interest in the future of the port of Dover. Campaigners have received stellar backing, and I wish their campaign all the very best of luck. As my hon. Friend knows, the port’s assets are owned by Dover harbour board, not by the Government. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) is considering proposals for a scheme that would allow the board to sell the port, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on that decision.

Q4. AgustaWestland is an excellent company providing skilled manufacturing jobs in Yeovil. Sheffield Forgemasters is also an excellent company, providing skilled manufacturing jobs in Yorkshire. Why did the Government decide to support one and not the other? (22887)

Of course I agree with the hon. Lady that both are outstanding companies. The difference is that the announcement of the decision to provide a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was made 11 days before the general election, when there was no money in this year’s budget to make that promise. It was a promise made by the previous Labour Government knowing that the cheque would bounce. We have made a decision on Westland in the light of our difficult, controversial decisions to bring sense to the public finances. That is the difference.

Q5. The Deputy Prime Minister might be aware that, in response to the comprehensive spending review, the three most senior officers of Pendle borough council have announced a wage cut of 27%. In contrast, the chief constable of Lancashire police, Steve Finnigan, has started a 90-day consultation on making all Lancashire’s police community support officers redundant. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the chief constable should think again and that he should support our PCSOs—[Interruption.] (22888)

Of course I welcome the decision by Pendle borough council and its executive directors to reduce the council’s wage bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has called on all local authority chief executives earning £200,000 a year to take a 10% pay cut, and those on £150,000 to take a 5% cut. They need to make sacrifices, just as everyone else is. On policing, of course I understand everyone’s attachment to PCSOs, but it would be a flagrant breach of the traditions of policing in this country if we were to start second-guessing chief constables. I think we all want more visible policing; it cannot be right that the system we inherited from Labour means that only 11% of police officers are ever seen on our streets at any one time. That is wrong and it must change.

Q6. Tens of thousands of students have gathered outside this place today to oppose the right hon. Gentleman’s shameful policy of tripling student debt. He received a request to address the crowd, but as yet no response has been received. May I give him the opportunity to give that response now? (22889)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I meet student leaders and representatives of the National Union of Students all the time. I hope that, when he joins the demonstrators, the first thing he will do is explain what on earth his party’s policy is. We have a policy; he has no policy and no plan, and is giving no hope to future generations of students.

Q7. My right hon. Friend might be aware of the great work being done by the East of England Energy Group, and by the borough councils, the county council and local small companies in Norfolk to ensure that Great Yarmouth and East Anglia benefit from economic growth and regeneration through the energy markets. Will he and the Government support our work to ensure that East Anglia gets a fair and even chance to bid for the opportunities that these new markets can provide? (22890)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that renewable energy is one of the great industries of the future, and we are doing everything we can to support those areas that want to exploit the opportunities. We have committed £1.4 billion to a regional growth fund, and we are establishing a green investment bank with the explicit aim of creating further investment opportunities in green infrastructure in areas where private sector investment is currently constrained. I am delighted to hear about the way in which councils, businesses and the not-for-profit sector in Norfolk are working so effectively together.

In answer to a question that I asked last week, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning indicated that the major reason for his proposals on fees was to change the way in which higher education was funded, and to shift the burden from the state to the student. How does the Deputy Prime Minister square that with his party’s view that the proposals are a deficit reduction measure only, and that they could be changed in the future?

As I said earlier, I think every Member agrees that the funding for universities should be a mixture of direct support from the state and contributions made by—[Interruption.] As soon as we came into government, we looked exhaustively at the option of a graduate tax, which was proposed by some Labour Members and by the National Union of Students, but we discovered that that would be much more unfair and would allow particularly high earners to opt out of the system altogether, compared to the progressive system of graduate contributions that we are proposing now.

Q8. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a business payment support service, which has helped many businesses in my constituency that have met short-term problems to achieve a delayed payment of taxes—sometimes the taxman can help, apparently. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a valuable service and that HMRC, alongside every other part of Government, should provide as much flexibility and support as possible for business, if we are get out of the recession left to us by the previous Government? (22891)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I think that HMRC’s business payment support service is indeed, as he says, a very valuable and important service, and it remains in place. By the end of September this year, 371,200 arrangements had been granted, worth £6.38 billion. That is extraordinarily valuable to small and medium-sized enterprises, which are indeed struggling and deserve all the support they require to power us out of this difficult economic environment.

The Minister for Universities and Science has made it clear that all public funding will be withdrawn from non-STEM subjects in universities. Last Wednesday, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning told a Westminster Hall debate:

“We will continue to support the arts through the subsidy for teaching in universities.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 315WH.]

Who is right?

The statement we made was very clear. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the model of mixed financing for our universities—partly from the Government and partly from graduates, who, as he knows, stand to benefit on average from tens of thousands in extra earnings because they have a university degree—is one that we are preserving and building on in a progressive manner.

Q9. In Gosport, our Sure Start centres provide valuable support to some of our most vulnerable people, which proves that even the Labour party can get something right. I welcome the Government’s continued support for Sure Start, but will the Deputy Prime Minister please reassure me that the programme will be refocused so that those in the greatest need get the greatest support? (22892)

I strongly agree. Sure Start children’s centres play a vital role in helping families and giving them the help when they need it through early intervention. That is why we announced in the spending review that Sure Start funding will be maintained in cash terms. As for how that funding is allocated to reflect deprivation, which was the hon. Lady’s question, the money is already weighted so that local authority areas with higher levels of disadvantage get more funding than others and, of course, local authorities have a high degree of flexibility and latitude themselves—and we do not propose to change that system at all.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to higher education? He says that higher education should be paid partly by the individual and partly by the state, but the confusion that the people of Islington will have is that the right hon. Gentleman was not saying that in April, so when did he change his mind? In the best possible scenario, if we had a fantastic economy and no debt at all, would he still believe that higher education should be paid partly by the student and partly by the state?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Lady can piously ask questions about changing one’s mind on this issue, when her party said no to fees in 1997, and introduced them; said no to top-up fees in the manifesto of 2001, and introduced them; said yes to the Browne review, but now says no to it; says yes to some graduate taxes, but no to others. Labour Members should make up their minds.

Q10. As the coalition continues to stabilise our economy, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure my constituents that providing long-term relief and support for small and medium-sized businesses remains high on the Government’s priority list? (22893)

Yes, absolutely, as I said in answer to the earlier question. Over the past six months, we have taken a number of steps to help small and medium-sized enterprises: reducing the small profits rate of corporation tax from 21% to 20% from April next year; introducing new rules whereby for any new regulation, another one must be scrapped; the new enterprise capital fund of £37.5 million to provide additional equity finance; and of course the enterprise finance guarantee fund, which will be increased by £200 million. That is real support for the wealth creators of the future.

Q11. On 6 May, hundreds of the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituents and hundreds of mine in Sheffield were denied the right to vote because of current legislation. Why has the Deputy Prime Minister not taken the opportunity of legislation before Parliament to change the law, so that in future all those in the polling station at close of poll are allowed to vote? (22894)

I am acutely aware of the problem. I visited polling stations several times on that day, and saw the huge queues of people, many of whom were denied their democratic right to exercise a vote. The question is: what do we do about it? I happen to think that, in this instance, simply passing a law will not deal with the problem, which was a lack of resources and poor organisation by the returning officer, who acknowledged as much, as the hon. Lady knows, in Sheffield. That is what we need to address; we should not always simply reach for the statute book.

The partnership between schools and universities in the provision of teacher education is absolutely critical, and at the moment it works terribly well. The university of Cumbria is Europe’s largest provider of newly qualified teachers. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that universities such as mine, which provide teacher education, will continue to have a leading role in the training of our teachers of the future?

Of course we must support all those institutions that produce the great teachers of the future. We must have great teachers who can also lift the aspirations of children in this country and particularly of bright young people from poor backgrounds who at the moment feel completely intimidated from going to university. I hope such teachers will explain to those young people that under the new scheme that we have proposed, they have a real route to live out their hopes and dreams at our great universities in the future.

Q12. Yesterday, the National Housing Federation reported that a first-time buyer in London needs a salary of almost £100,000 to buy an average-priced property. In the light of that, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me how many low-cost homes will not be built in the capital as a result of his Government’s decision to cut the affordable housing budget by 63%? (22895)

What I do know, of course, is that we inherited a situation in which fewer—[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, but they have to—it is the truth. Fewer and fewer affordable homes were built, and more and more people and families ended up on the waiting list for affordable homes. We have a plan finally to put that right, and to increase the construction of new affordable homes at a rate that the Labour party never achieved.

Successful counter-insurgency operations in the past, such as in Malaya, suggest that not one of the preconditions for success—control of borders, good troop density levels, a credible Government, and support of the majority of the population—exists in Afghanistan. Does this not beg for a more realistic assessment of the situation?

We have sought to introduce a strong element of realism, not only in the extra resources and support that are required for our troops in Afghanistan, but in the recognition—I think this is the implication of the question—that there is not a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. There must be a marriage of a military strategy, which applies pressure on insurgents who want to disrupt the peaceful co-existence of communities and people in Afghanistan, with a political process of reintegration and reconciliation, so that we can leave Afghanistan—

Order. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to face the House? Otherwise, it is difficult for him to be fully heard. [Interruption.] Order. I want to hear the Deputy Prime Minister.

I was always taught to address the person who had asked me the question, Mr Speaker. So let me say, addressing my hon. Friend, that we need to marry a political strategy with a military strategy. Only by balancing the two will we be able to leave Afghanistan with our heads held high, knowing that we have done the difficult job that we were asked to do there.

Q13. Apart from the promise to give rapists, murderers and paedophiles the vote, what pre-election promises has the Deputy Prime Minister kept? (22896)

I am not sure whether that was a question or merely a line that the hon. Gentleman has rehearsed over and over again over the past few days. As for the issue of prisoner voting rights, in 2005, as he knows, there was a court judgment on which the last Labour Government consulted repeatedly. At some point, regrettably, we need to bring our law into line with the court judgments, and that is what we will now seek to do.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, according to a report on Radio 5 Live this morning, after the changes in tuition fees graduates earning £25,000 a year will have to pay back only £30 a month?

Opposition Members simply refuse to acknowledge that the 25% of lowest graduate earners will pay much less than they do now. That seems to me to be a strong indication of the progressive nature of our proposals.

Q14. Business to be dealt with later today includes the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the anger and frustration felt by many thousands of Equitable Life policyholders, will he address that, and will today’s business—with, hopefully, his support and that of Members in all parts of the House—reach a more satisfactory conclusion for those policyholders? (22897)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, under the last Government there was no prospect of any compensation for Equitable Life policyholders. He will also know that the compensation package that we announced in the comprehensive spending review is far in excess of the compensation levels recommended by the independent review. Of course the situation is difficult, and we would always like to provide more compensation, but the compensation that we are providing is much, much more than many people expected.

The Times Educational Supplement recently published a feature article stating how effective the pupil premium would be. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my frustration at the fact that the Labour party appears to be more interested in scoring partisan points than in supporting the coalition Government’s serious attempts—

I think that the pupil premium is a significant policy. It puts an end to the system that we inherited from Labour, which meant that if you were a poor child at school in one part of the country a lot of extra money would be allocated to your education, whereas that would not happen if you were a poor child in another part of the country. The pupil premium is attached to children from poor backgrounds wherever they live, to lift their sense of aspiration and to improve the one-to-one tuition support that they need if they are to have the fair chance in life that all children deserve in our country.

Q15. Up to 100,000 tenants are paying rent to more than 44,000 private landlords who are being investigated for non-payment of tax on rental income, and 53% of those tenants are receiving housing benefit. What are the Government doing to clamp down on private landlords who fiddle the tax and housing benefit system? (22898)

I strongly agree that we should come down very hard on those unscrupulous landlords, who are profiteering from the housing benefit system that was so poorly administered by the previous Government. As the hon. Gentleman will know, rents in the private sector have declined by about 5% over the last year, while rents that depend on housing allowance have increased by 3%. That is why we need to bring some sense and proportion to the way in which we administer housing benefit, which has more than doubled over the past few years.