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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2011

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Value Added Tax

1. What assessment he has made of the effect on economic growth in Northern Ireland of the increase in the basic rate of value added tax. (38253)

Before answering, may I pay tribute to Ranger David Dalzell of the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment? He came from Bangor, but he was also stationed with his regiment in my constituency at Tern Hill. I am sure the whole House will join me in offering our condolences to his family and friends, and thanking this brave young man for his service to his country after he was killed in Helmand this week.

The reckless years of debt and spending made the VAT rise a necessary step for national economic recovery. Forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Government’s plans will deliver sustainable growth for each of the next five years, with employment rising by 1.1 million by 2015, and the deficit falling.

When will the Secretary of State set out his paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy? That is particularly crucial at a time when the VAT rise is damaging local retailers.

The hon. Lady is correct. We need to bring the paper forward as a team effort, working with local Ministers. I will come to that in response to later questions. We had a very satisfactory meeting with the Exchequer Secretary earlier this week, and we hope to publish the paper as soon as possible.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for his question. That has to be finally decided, but I would estimate that we should have a public consultation period of two to three months.

I associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State on Ranger Dalzell. Across the House we are all well aware of the bravery and courage that all those young men show. We sympathise with his family at this time.

On VAT, shoppers from the Republic of Ireland coming across to Northern Ireland contribute greatly to the economy of Northern Ireland. The VAT increase has impacted directly on Northern Ireland, leading to a 10% reduction in sales and a 28% reduction in exports. What will the Secretary of State do to address that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on Ranger Dalzell.

Cross-border taxation is an issue that we will consider as part of the paper. We are acutely aware of the ability of consumers to move their spending rapidly either way, depending on taxation.

Can the Secretary of State put into context the changes in taxation? Basic rate taxpayers in Northern Ireland have had their personal allowance increase, which has taken many of them out of the tax net.

We regard Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland taxpayers pay their tax and receive public spending in return.

I join the Secretary of State in his tribute to Ranger Dalzell and his family.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that he wants to be Northern Ireland’s man in the Cabinet. As he knows, following the rise in VAT instituted by his Government, a litre of fuel in Northern Ireland is the most expensive in any part of the UK. Can he tell the House why it is more expensive in Belfast than in North Shropshire, and what a litre of fuel costs in Belfast this morning?

Prices vary from 120p to 133p for petrol or diesel, but the right hon. Gentleman should remember that it was his Government who increased the rate of duty on fuel. He was in the bunker with the great incompetent for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who got the country into this mess in the first place.

I am glad that the Secretary of State managed to find an answer in his folder. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are asking him urgently for help in Northern Ireland now. He has been in the job for nearly a year, but so far there has been no real help on the economy, just a promised paper on the economy that is still stuck in the printing press. Meanwhile, VAT is up, fuel prices are up and private sector business activity is reporting the biggest fall in 26 months. Hundreds are losing their jobs at Belfast Metropolitan college, 4,000 more are due to lose their jobs in health and social services and tens of thousands more jobs will go in the public sector. In Dublin, demand evaporates. Now we learn that he is losing his battle with the Chancellor for a future grab on end-of-year funding from the Executive. We can all see that it is hurting. When are people in Northern Ireland going to see it is working?

I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman has the nerve. When he was sitting in the bunker in Downing street shoring up his former boss, who overruled the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) when he wanted to raise VAT, the Belfast News Letter found out that I was in Northern Ireland more than he was. We were in the danger zone in May, but thanks to the measures that we have taken, everyone in the UK, including in Northern Ireland and Lancashire, are in a better place as we establish stability in the public finances. We cannot go on spending £120 million a day on debt interest.

Stop-and-search Powers

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State updated the House this morning on plans to make amendments to powers of stop and search in Northern Ireland. These powers are essential in Northern Ireland for tackling the threat from terrorism. They have prevented attacks, saved lives and led to arrests and convictions. The Police Service of Northern Ireland uses all available legislation to deal with the terrorist threat. Oversight and accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure that powers are used properly.

I thank the Minister for that response and for the statement that has been placed in the Library. The use of section 44 powers has undoubtedly saved lives in Northern Ireland, along with powers under the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007. What assurances can he give the House that the PSNI will in no way be hampered in its efforts to disrupt and prevent terrorist activities?

That is an entirely legitimate question. The changes that we are making are to bring legislation in Northern Ireland into line with changes to section 44. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured, because, as he would imagine, we have been discussing these matters closely with the PSNI. It has a range of other powers at its disposal, but I agree that it would be a retrograde step to limit its powers at what is a difficult time in Northern Ireland. The proposed amendment will not do that.

Will the Minister kindly confirm the precise details of the Army’s powers of stop and search if deployed in Northern Ireland?

With your leave, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their generous tributes to my young constituent—only 20 years of age—David Dalzell, who fought alongside his fellow Rangers in 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment with great courage, enthusiasm and pride, but sadly lost his life in a tragic accident in Afghanistan at the weekend. I thank all Members for their comments today.

I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments. I can confirm that there are no plans to change the powers of stop and search for the military in Northern Ireland.

How can the Minister justify not changing the Army’s powers of stop and search in Northern Ireland, which exceed those granted to the police under the 2007 Act? They are not subject to annual renewal by Parliament as emergency provisions, as they were throughout the years of the troubles, and are now permanent and not subject to any of the accountability checks that apply to police powers?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the rising terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, and he will recognise the part played by the military’s bomb disposal units and the need to go about their business, not least in his own city of Londonderry, where unfortunately we had an incident recently.

When the police in Northern Ireland have used stop-and-search powers, they have used them when there is a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity. Will the Minister reassure the House that that will continue to be the case? Dissident republican activity is on the rise, and those powers are required principally and forcibly by the police to thwart that terrorist threat.

Look, we want to make those powers watertight; we do not wish to water them down. It is because the PSNI has used those powers proportionately that we are where we are with section 44, and the Home Secretary was clear in saying that. She went to Northern Ireland and specifically said that the PSNI had been behaving properly, but we do not want anything we do in Northern Ireland to be subject to a possible challenge. That is why we are taking that action, and why a code of practice will be worked out in conjunction with the PSNI—as I say, to make the powers that we have watertight, not to water them down.

Police Service of Northern Ireland

3. What arrangements he has made to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources to meet threats from dissident activity. (38255)

Funding for the PSNI is primarily a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. However, this Government are committed to ensuring that the Chief Constable has the necessary resources to counter the threat posed by terrorist groups. The Northern Ireland Justice Minister has made a strong case to the Treasury for access to additional resources, but discussions are continuing at the highest level, and I am confident that we will have a satisfactory outcome soon.

The Chief Constable of the PSNI has requested an extra £200 million to deal with the perceived dissident threat in Northern Ireland. Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he was “interrogating the request”. Surely we should have had a proper response by now.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister have made that request, and we are taking it extremely seriously. The bid is, of course, for money over four years, which is probably unprecedented for the reserve, and it is not an easy matter, given the national economic circumstances that we face. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, of the Chancellor’s words yesterday. He said:

“We will treat the request with due diligence, but I am clear that security comes first. That will be my priority.” —[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 148.]

The Secretary of State will no doubt be as delighted as I am by the proposed visit of the Queen down to Dublin, but he will have seen the news on republican websites that there is likely to be dissident activity. What assistance will be given to the PSNI during that difficult period?

My hon. Friend will know that no visit has formally been confirmed, although everyone in the House would welcome one. I should like to confirm that we have the closest possible collaboration with the Garda Siochana out in Dublin. A couple of weeks ago I met the new commissioner, Martin Callinan, and I am delighted to say that he is absolutely as robust and as determined to face down those terrorists as his predecessor, Fachtna Murphy.

Given the continuing perceived threat from dissident activity, the disruption to normal human and economic activity two weeks ago in Belfast, and the calculating callousness of leaving a booby-trap device on a child’s bicycle, will the Secretary of State now take action to ensure that intelligence is transferred from MI5 to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has all the accountability mechanisms in place?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the disgusting nature of those terrorists: booby-trapping a child’s bicycle is absolutely revolting. I know that her strong belief is that the regime should be changed, but at this moment it would be crazy to move the furniture around. Let me make it very clear that Lord Carlile, who conducted an independent review of the matter, said that MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are working very closely together, and that we could not do more work, or do it more energetically, to deal with what is a very difficult threat. I am afraid that we just have to disagree on this matter, but I do agree that we have to do everything that we can to bear down—

Although PSNI funding is rightly the responsibility of the devolved Administration, will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, in the event that dissident activity becomes much stronger, resources may be made available from the UK Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We made it clear that a bid has been made by the Justice Minister, whom I met on Monday and talked to this morning on the phone. We are raising this at the highest level of government and we are determined to stand by Northern Ireland and do the right thing.

It would be churlish of me to let this occasion pass without congratulating the right hon. Gentleman, the Minister of State, on his elevation to the Privy Council, and I do so with pleasure.

It would be negligent of me—

Order. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that there is real pressure on time, so let us get on with the question.

It would be negligent of me, Mr Speaker, not to remind the Secretary of State that the request for additional funding has been with the Treasury since last year—for months. The signal that we send to dissident terrorists is the most important thing here. Will the Secretary of State fight for Ulster, fight against the dissidents and fight with the Treasury to get this money, which the PSNI needs now?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations to my right hon. Friend. He is not quite right about the request—[Interruption.] No, he is not right to say “months”. The Minister of Justice has negotiated within the Executive and got a significant increase from his fellow Ministers, which we welcome. Having resolved where he stood with the Executive, he then wrote to me with a request calling on the reserve. That letter came to me in January.

Security

4. What recent assessment he has made of the level of threat to security in Northern Ireland posed by residual terrorist groups; and if he will make a statement. (38256)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the level of threat to security in Northern Ireland posed by residual terrorist groups; and if he will make a statement. (38262)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. So far this year there have been 15 arrests and three persons charged with terrorist-related offences. This follows 210 arrests and 80 persons charged in 2010. The severity of the threat was highlighted by the recent Antrim road incident, for which there have been three arrests in the past 48 hours. This attack not only endangered lives but also caused major disruption to local communities and businesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that cross-border co-operation between the north and the south is essential to address the level of threat posed by terrorist groups?

In a word, yes. My hon. Friend will have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say that he has now met the new chief of the Garda Siochana, Martin Callinan. We continue to work very closely with the Garda, which has had some very lucky finds and some finds as a result of its hard work and co-operation with the PSNI. We applaud the work—

The Minister has made it clear that he is in negotiation with the Treasury over the extra funds needed to tackle dissident groups. Can he say at this stage whether he agrees with the assessment of the Chief Constable that this money is required?

Clearly we do, because we have endorsed it. These things do not come out of the blue. We are working very closely with the PSNI. We continue to work with the Department of Justice and David Ford, and we continue to work with the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman needs to think about the sums of money that are involved in all these things. He would surely agree that it is only fit, right and proper that the Treasury looks at all applications for funding very closely so that we do not find ourselves in the same hole that we were in when we came into power in May last year.

The recent third annual report of the independent reviewer of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 states:

“So far as terrorism is concerned, the activities of the residual terrorist groups have been dangerous and disruptive.”

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help Northern Ireland to combat this threat?

The threat in Northern Ireland is extremely serious. The majority of people in Northern Ireland are against the residual terrorist groups, which have no support in the community and are disrupting businesses. In the case of the Antrim road incident, they put about 100 people out of their houses on one of the coldest nights of the year. We continue to work extremely closely with the PSNI. The PSNI works with the Garda in the Republic of Ireland to bear down on these terrorists. We are certain that we can do that and drive them out. They have no place in modern Northern Ireland—

Intelligence agencies tell us that a republican group in County Tyrone is planning to announce its appearance with a bombing wave in Northern Ireland. One hundred members of the Provisional IRA have seemingly pledged their allegiance to this new group. Can the Minister assure the House that any republican prisoner released under the Belfast agreement who becomes a member of this group will immediately be returned to prison?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I keep under constant review the possibility of recalling those who have been released earlier. It is under constant review.

I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for the work they have been doing with the Treasury to address the problems that are faced with dissident terrorist activity. Is the Minister concerned that the current to-ing and fro-ing is giving succour to those dissident terrorists when what the Treasury needs to do is to stand by commitments made?

No, I do not believe that. I do believe, as I said to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), that the PSNI has made a good case to the Treasury. We have worked on that with the PSNI and the Department of Justice. It is now up to the various bodies involved to negotiate an outcome. I can only repeat what the Chancellor said yesterday in answer to the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound):

“I am clear that security comes first.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 148.]

I have no reason to suppose that the Chancellor has changed his mind in the intervening 24 hours.

Will the Minister comment on the assessments that have been made of the intentions of dissident republicans here on the mainland with regard to the preparations for the Olympics? What might that activity mean in terms of future terrorist attacks here?

The right hon. Gentleman asks that question 15 years to the day since the Canary Wharf bombing, which heralded the end of the IRA ceasefire. It is therefore a timely question on a date that we all remember. Of course, there is a threat here from Northern Ireland-related terrorism. That is why, for the first time ever, the Home Secretary raised the threat level. I assure hon. Members that all services are working closely together to ensure that any attempt to disrupt the Olympics or any other occasion of national importance in the coming months or years—

Economic Development

5. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development in Northern Ireland. (38258)

The Minister of State and I met last week with the Exchequer Secretary and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Minister of Finance and Personnel, and Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Finance to discuss the Government paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and promoting investment and growth.

Given the coming corporation tax cut, the national insurance contributions holiday for small businesses and the avoidance of Labour’s national insurance tax increase next month, does the Secretary of State agree that this Government are restoring Northern Ireland’s reputation as a destination for inward investment, which was badly damaged by the previous Government?

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. We had an excellent meeting at Hillsborough only last week with a number of major businesses, at which we saw significant investment coming in from Denmark. I am pleased to say that our plans were endorsed by a coalition of significant business organisations last week.

Will the Secretary of State outline his assessment of the potential impact on the Northern Ireland economy of the reduction in corporation tax, and of its cost?

The coalition of businesses that I mentioned gave an estimate last week of 94,000 jobs, and the Northern Ireland Economic Reform Group published a report yesterday with an estimate of 90,000 jobs. On the costs, the hon. Gentleman should consider the case of Canada, where corporation tax has been reduced over recent years and revenue has increased. He will have to be patient and wait for the publication of our paper, which I hope will happen soon.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Northern Ireland urgently needs meaningful action on creating economic opportunity? Has there been any discussion about how we might create the authority for the Northern Ireland Executive to create bonds, thereby creating private funding to boost our construction industry and build the necessary schools and infrastructure that are missing?

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. [Hon. Members: “Hear! Hear!”] Agreement is one thing; abiding by it is another. Ministers cannot even hear what is being asked. A bit of order please.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We will have a consultation period once the paper is published. He made an interesting suggestion, which the Chancellor will have heard. I hope that he will put it through formally in the consultation process.

Economic Affairs

7. When the Government expect to publish their proposals for rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. (38260)

The Exchequer Secretary, the Minister of State and I continue to work intensively with Northern Ireland Ministers on the Government’s consultation paper to set out measures aimed at rebalancing and growing the Northern Ireland economy. We hope to complete our work and publish the paper soon.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Northern Ireland economy needs to stimulate the private sector? How do the Government propose to do that?

The hon. Gentleman is right. According to one report, Northern Ireland’s economy depends on public spending for 77.6% of its gross domestic product. That is wholly and totally unsustainable. I have been visiting Northern Ireland for three and a half years now and visiting businesses, and we are considering a whole range of measures for rebalancing the economy and helping to promote the private sector, which will be published in our report. There are excellent private businesses in Northern Ireland, just not enough.

The Secretary of State will be aware that to travel from Aldergrove airport in Northern Ireland on a transatlantic flight, a passenger has to spend an additional £150 in tax. If he travelled from the south of Ireland, 90 miles away, as of 1 March he would pay €3 in tax. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that to encourage people to travel on transatlantic flights from Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I discussed it with Declan Kelly, the US envoy, 10 days ago, and it was also discussed at our meeting with local Ministers and the Exchequer Secretary earlier this week. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is working on it with colleagues in the Treasury.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Ranger David Dalzell, from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who died on Friday, and Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Saturday. They were both highly respected soldiers who served with the utmost dedication and pride. They will be hugely missed by their colleagues and by all who knew them, and our deepest sympathy should be with their family and their friends.

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

I know that the whole House will want to join the Prime Minister in his expression of sympathy for the recent loss of life in Afghanistan. Training establishments in my constituency, such as the Sennybridge ranges and the infantry battle school, have built up very good relationships between the community and the military, which are ongoing and strengthening.

UK universities have a worldwide reputation for teaching and research. Many foreign students wish to attend those universities, and they are important not least because of the £5 billion that they contribute to the national economy. Many universities are very concerned that Government proposals—

Can the Prime Minister give an assurance to the universities that any proposals will not discourage the recruitment of genuine students?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. Our universities in this country are world-class, and we want students from around the world to come to those universities to study, not just for the contribution that they bring financially but because of the links they will make between our country and their country in years to come.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are not currently looking at limits on tier 4 immigration visas, but I make this point to anybody who is concerned about the issue: I profoundly believe that we can have excellent universities, open to foreign students, and control immigration at the same time. The reason I am so confident is that last year there were about 91,000 students who did not go to the trusted universities but went to other colleges—some 600 colleges. I am sure that the extent of the abuse is very great, and if we crack down on that abuse we can make sure that there are many students coming to our excellent universities.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Ranger David Dalzell, from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, and Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. We should all remember both men for their heroism, their dedication and their sacrifice, and our deep condolences go to their family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us, how is his big society going?

I actually believe that almost every single Member of this House of Commons backs what we are talking about. Let me just explain what it is. The idea of devolving power to local authorities, and beyond to communities, was in his manifesto, in my manifesto and indeed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I think we all support it. The idea of opening up public services to more local involvement and control, again, was in all our manifestos, and we support it. I believe that probably every single Member of the House spends time in their own constituency encouraging volunteering and philanthropic giving, and wants people to play a bigger part in a bigger society. I think the whole House is united on that.

We all support thriving communities, which is why there is such concern from charities up and down the country. Why does the Prime Minister not listen to people who know a lot about volunteering, such as Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the chief executive of Community Service Volunteers, which is the largest volunteering charity in Britain, who says that his policies are “destroying the volunteer army”?

Obviously, I do not agree with what Dame Elisabeth Hoodless has said, but I want to work with all those involved in charities and voluntary bodies to encourage them to play a strong part. We are putting £470 million into charities and voluntary bodies across this spending review. We are also establishing a £100 million transition fund to help charities that are affected by cuts. I can today tell the right hon. Gentleman for the first time that because of our deal with the banks the big society bank—[Interruption.] Wait for it. The big society bank will be taking £200 million from Britain’s banks to put into the voluntary sector. Labour would have got nothing out of the banks, so I am sure that he will want to stand up and welcome that.

The Prime Minister does not mention that he is cutting billions of pounds from voluntary sector organisations up and down this country. Let us take an example of where parents volunteer and of a crucial part of local communities: Sure Start. Before the election, he promised to protect Sure Start, but in fact he decided to cut funding by 9%, and the Daycare Trust says that 250 Sure Starts are expected to close. Can he tell us how that is helping the big society?

First, let me just say this: Labour put money into the banks; we are taking money out of the banks and putting it into the big society.

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically about Sure Start and the Daycare Trust. I must say that, not for the first time, he has not done his homework, because the chief executive of the Daycare Trust, Anand Shukla, said:

“The Government has allocated sufficient funding for the existing network of Sure Start Children’s Centres to be maintained”—[Interruption.]

Order. These exchanges are excessively rowdy—[Interruption.] Order. Again, I must ask Members on both sides to consider what the public think of this sort of behaviour. The Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Order. Questions will be heard, and the answers from the Prime Minister will be heard.

I look forward to the answer to this one. We have maintained the money for Sure Start and the money for children’s centres, and the head of the Daycare Trust backs our view rather than the right hon. Gentleman’s.

No, the Prime Minister has cut the funding and we will judge him on whether Sure Start centres close over the coming months.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s argument on local government, and with the nonsense peddled by the local government Secretary, is that they say they can make 28% cuts in local government funding and not affect any front-line services. What does the Conservative head of the Local Government Association say about that? She says that the local government Secretary is “detached from reality”.

Let us ask about libraries. Four libraries are threatened with closure in the Prime Minister’s own constituency, and hundreds are threatened up and down the country. Can he explain to people who are concerned about that how he expects people to volunteer at the local library if it is being shut down?

Let me just deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s question on Sure Start. I know he got that wrong—[Interruption.] We will come to libraries in a minute. On Sure Start, the budget is going from £2.212 million to £2.297 million. That budget is going up. That is what is happening.

The right hon. Gentleman gave a particular example, so let me put one to him—[Interruption.] We will come to libraries. Let me take the case of one council: Liverpool council. The cuts will mean that, by 2013, Liverpool council will go back to the level of grant it received in 2009, so what we are seeing is politically motivated moves by Labour councils. I remember the times when Labour leaders stood up to Labour councils that made those decisions.

On the issue of libraries, because we are taking council spending back generally to the level of the grants in 2007, I see no reason why they should not continue with a very well funded network of libraries. We all know a truth about libraries, which is that those which will succeed are those that wake up to the world of new technology, the internet and everything else, and investment goes in. That is what needs to happen. Should councils look at community solutions for other libraries? I believe that they should. Instead of sniping and jumping on every bandwagon, the right hon. Gentleman should get behind the big society.

Only this Prime Minister could blame the libraries for closing. He needs to understand why his big society idea is in such trouble. It is because libraries, Sure Start centres, citizens advice bureaux, community centres—including in Hammersmith and Fulham, his flagship council—which are at the heart of our society, are threatened with closure up and down the country. If it is going so well, why does his big society adviser, Paul Twivy, say that this idea

“is increasingly loathed by the public”?

We were all waiting for the right hon. Gentleman’s big idea, and we have now got it. Labour has published its fresh new ideas. The tree was chopped down, but there is nothing in the book. We all knew that we wanted a blank page, but no one thought that he would publish a whole book of them. What are his plans? What are his great ideas? He has not got a single idea for making this country a better place. Instead of sniping, why does he not join in and work out how we could build a bigger society in our country?

The Prime Minister should not get so angry: it will cloud his judgment. He is not the first Prime Minister I have said that to—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Did not the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) get to the truth behind the Prime Minister’s motives? The right hon. Gentleman said:

“If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.”

After what the Prime Minister is doing to charities up and down this country, no one will think he is Mother Teresa. Is not the truth being exposed day by day—he is cutting too far and too fast, and society is becoming smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger?

The problem with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said is that all the cuts that we are having to make are because of the complete mess that he made of the economy. That is the background for this whole debate. We now know what they think of the inheritance that they left us, because the shadow Chancellor has said:

“I don’t think we had a structural deficit at all in that period”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says:

“By the eve of the financial crisis…the UK”

had

“one of the largest structural budget deficits in the developed world.”

May I advise the right hon. Gentleman that the first stage of recovery is to recognise that you have a problem? The truth about the Opposition is that they doubled the debt, let the banks rip and bankrupted the country, and their only message is, “Let us do it all over again.”

Q2. My constituent, Rifleman Jack Otter, lost both his legs and an arm while serving in Afghanistan more than 15 months ago. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the whole House understand the debt that we owe Jack and others like him who have served our country. With the number of British soldiers losing limbs having increased by 40% from 2009 to 2010, does the Prime Minister agree that it is important that we find access to new resources to ensure that patients and staff at Headley Court can continue their excellent standard of work, which is sadly coming under greater pressure? (39062)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about what is happening in terms of the number of people returning as single, double and sometimes treble amputees, and about what we as a society must do to support them. I have visited Headley Court, and I know that many others have done so. It is an absolutely magnificent facility. A new ward opened in September last year and it now has a capacity of 111 trauma beds. Because of what Help for Heroes has done, there is a 25-metre swimming pool, a Battle of Britain gym with a sprung sports floor and a centre for mental and cognitive health. But we must go on ensuring that that magnificent facility is continually improved and that we do everything for our brave returning soldiers.

Just over a year ago the Prime Minister visited a maternity unit and found our midwives to be overworked. As a result, he promised that, with a Conservative Government, he would bring about 3,000 more midwives. A year on, could he tell us how he has gone about that?

The first thing that we have done is ignored the advice from Labour and increased the NHS budget. We would not be making progress on any of these health issues if we had followed the advice of the hon. Lady’s party and cut the NHS. We do need more midwives and more resources; we are making sure that those are going in.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister reflect on the decision taken in the House of Lords on Monday, which was supported by many senior Conservatives and Cross Benchers, to enable Parliament to have a review in the event of fewer than four in 10 people participating in the AV referendum? Will my right hon. Friend consider this compromise to be a reasonable one and to be consistent with the coalition agreement? Failing that, will he trust his own Back Benchers in a free vote to make their own judgments? (39063)

I have to say to my hon. Friend that we have not had thresholds in previous referendums, but I do not think that he should be so down on this. I am sure—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister’s answer must be heard. All this noise is—[Interruption.] Order. All this noise is damaging colleagues’ chance of getting in.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will work with me to get the turnout up, particularly for the no vote.

Last week a cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee report criticised the Government’s proposal to close Newport passport office, which will see the loss of 250 jobs, be devastating for the economy of Newport and does not appear to be saving any money. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), so that we can put the case to him personally?

I am looking at this decision. It is an important decision, and I know that there is great work being done in reflecting on what jobs can be saved in Newport and Liverpool, where the two competing offices are. I am very happy to arrange for the hon. Lady to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, because he is the one who will have to make the decision, so that he can hear from her and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) directly.

Nuclear Deterrent

Q4. What assessment he has made of the effect of coalition politics on the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. (39064)

We have made it clear that we are committed to maintaining a nuclear deterrent based on Trident. That is why it was excluded from the strategic defence and security review, and why we commissioned a separate value-for-money study. The replacement of Trident is going ahead, and initial gate will be passed soon. As set out in the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.

When the coalition was being formed, my right hon. Friend promised a meeting of all Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats would support the replacement of Trident. As we know, the key decision has been postponed until after the next election, and the Liberal Democrats, from their president downwards, have been boasting that this was their achievement. Will the Prime Minister give a pledge to this House and to the country that in the event of another hung Parliament, if the Liberal Democrats demand as the price for another coalition the scrapping of Trident, he will refuse to pay that price?

First of all, let me make this point. The replacement of Trident is going ahead. The investment is going in; the initial gate will soon be passed. The reason for the delay is that we had a value-for-money study because we desperately need to save some money in the Ministry of Defence, so that we can invest in front-line capability. That is the argument there. In terms of the future, all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am in favour of a full replacement for Trident, a continuous at-sea deterrent and making sure that we keep our guard up. That is Conservative policy; it will remain Conservative policy as long as I am the leader of this party.

But with due respect, the Prime Minister chose to break his word on the education maintenance allowance and matters such as reorganising the NHS, so why will this pledge prove any different?

I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and I know how important this issue is for him. I profoundly believe that we should maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. I have looked at all the alternatives over the years, and I am completely convinced that we need a submarine-based alternative—a full replacement for Trident—in order to guarantee the ultimate insurance policy for this country. That is my view, the view of my party and the view of most of the people sitting opposite me. I believe that there is all-party support for the move.

Engagements

Q5. Lord Carlile, the official reviewer of terrorism legislation, said last week that this country had become a “safe haven” for terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that this Government will do all that they possibly can to deport foreign nationals who are suspected of involvement in terrorism? (39065)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. I have been concerned for many years that we have not been able to deport people we suspect of plotting against us in the way that we should be able to. Lord Carlile has spoken and written about this extremely clearly. We have negotiated return agreements—so-called deportation with assurance agreements—with Algeria, Jordan, Ethiopia, Libya and Lebanon, but I want us to negotiate many, many more. In the end, we must do whatever is necessary to ensure that we can keep this country safe.

Q6. Northern Ireland is still being held back by some dissident republican groups. To deal with this, the Chief Constable has asked for up-front access to the reserve allocation over the next four years. Does the Prime Minister agree that, if the threat is not dealt with, it will quickly spread to the rest of the United Kingdom? Will he grant the Chief Constable’s request? (39066)

I have met the Chief Constable on several occasions since becoming Prime Minister. He came to the meeting of the National Security Council at which we discussed the security situation in Northern Ireland. We will do what is necessary to ensure that security, the police and everything else are properly funded. I think that it is right, now that these issues are devolved, that there is greater decision making and greater efforts to put money into the front line in Northern Ireland itself, but of course we always stand ready to help where necessary.

The Prime Minister might recall visiting the maternity department at Fairfield hospital in Bury when he was Leader of the Opposition. Last week, despite our pledge to keep it open and despite the very useful new criteria issued by the Department of Health, the NHS in the north-west decided to continue with the closure decision that was taken by Labour. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Secretary of State for Health the ways in which we can keep our pledge on this matter?

I am very happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and with the Secretary of State for Health. As he knows, we have introduced far tougher steps before these decisions can be taken, to ensure that local needs, and the views of patients and local GPs, are respected. The whole point about the new system, which is GP-led, is that hospitals will thrive when local people use and value them.

Q7. In the past few weeks, the Government have rebranded antisocial behaviour orders as criminal behaviour orders, renamed control orders as terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and rechristened curfews as overnight residence requirements. Does the Prime Minister not realise that no amount of rebranding will disguise the fact that a Government preparing to cut police numbers by 10,000 will be seen as nothing other than weak on antisocial behaviour, reckless on terrorism and soft on crime? (39067)

I notice that the Labour party is going a long way to rebranding new Labour as old and irresponsible Labour, and I have to say that the project is going very well.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the quality of the debate on the future of Britain’s debt burden is enhanced by the deficit denial on the Opposition Front Bench?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The Opposition were beginning to understand that they had left us with a debt burden, and beginning to own up to it, but now, with the new shadow Chancellor, they are in complete and utter deficit denial. They have not even taken the first step to being a responsible Opposition.

Q8. Around the country, driving test centres such as those at Arbroath and Forfar in my constituency are being closed without any consultation whatever with the local community or instructors. Surely that is the complete opposite of localism. Will the Prime Minister lean over and instruct his Transport Secretary to put a stop to such closures until there has been at the very least consultation with the local community and consideration of alternative ways to provide the service? (39068)

I understand the importance of these facilities in rural communities. As I understand it, the chief executive of the Driving Standards Agency has said that she will explore further how to continue to offer facilities in these locations. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), to contact the hon. Gentleman to discuss this important issue with him.

Last week, there was a memorial service in Gloucester cathedral for Tom Walkinshaw, a constituent of the Prime Minister and a legend in my city for all he did to revive Gloucester rugby. Does the Prime Minister agree that Tom, and many others like him who have invested so much of their own money in our great sports, have done a lot to increase self-belief and pride in our cities?

My hon. Friend speaks very well of someone who lived in my constituency and invested not only in rugby, but in Formula 1, which has been an absolutely world-beating industry for our country. We should celebrate that, particularly in my region, where so many people are employed in this incredibly high-tech endeavour.

Q9. Does not the Prime Minister’s plan to sell off the forests show once again that he knows the price of everything but the value of nothing? (39069)

Let me say to the hon. Lady and to all hon. Members who I know are very interested in this subject that we are having a consultation; we are listening to people’s views. Let me make a couple of things clear. First, we will not do what happened under the last Government, which was the sale of forests with absolutely no guarantees of access. [Interruption.] Yes, that is exactly what they did. We also have a good opportunity to bust a few myths about this situation. The idea that all Forestry Commission forests are open to the public and do not charge is simply not true. Many forests, such as the New Forest, are not owned by the Forestry Commission and have much better access, no parking charges and very good records on habitat. While we are having this consultation, we should bust some of the myths that have been put around about this idea.

The latest US Department of Defence report to Congress states that the Taliban’s strength lies in the Afghan people’s perception that the Taliban will ultimately be victorious. Is it not now time for fresh thinking on Afghanistan, which must include getting the Americans to open talks with the Taliban, because as we proved in Northern Ireland it is possible to talk and fight at the same time?

I would say two things to my hon. Friend. First, of course there has to be a political process; almost every insurgency in history has ended through some combination of military might and a political process. I accept that, but where I disagree with my hon. Friend is that I think that this year the Taliban will see that there is no meaningful removal of US forces from Afghanistan. This will be another year in which the Taliban are going to be heavily defeated on the battlefield, which will make a political solution more rather than less likely.

Q10. Why is the Prime Minister cutting benefits and pensions for the armed forces? Does he intend to honour the agreement with our armed forces? (39070)

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Indeed, the armed forces are excluded from John Hutton’s report, which is looking at increasing people’s contributions. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of what we have done for the armed forces. We said we would double the operational allowance for people serving in Afghanistan, and we have done that. We said that we would introduce a pupil premium, for the first time, for soldiers’ children who go to our schools, and we have done that. We have said that leave for the armed forces should start when they land back in the UK, not when they leave Afghanistan, and we are doing that. This Government are very pro our armed services and their families, and want to ensure that we give them a good deal.

The whole House will regret the regular reports of tragic knife-crime incidents in this country. Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who takes to the streets carrying a knife does so with the capability to commit grievous bodily harm or murder? What sort of punishment does he feel that these people should receive?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We must ensure that people who carry knives know that the result of that is likely to be a prison sentence. We must get tougher on what happens in terms of knife crime. Under the last Government, knife crime after knife crime was met with a caution rather than with proper punishment in courts. Labour Members can talk about knife crime as much as they like, but they were as soft as anything on it.

Q11. The provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill were not costed before or after the election. Given the extension of commercial providers, is it the case that the NHS is not safe in the hands of the Government, but that the hands are in the safe of the NHS? (39071)

On the NHS, I can do no better than quote the shadow Secretary of State for Health. This is what he said about our plans:

“No-one in the House of Commons knows more about the NHS than Andrew Lansley… Andrew Lansley spent six years in Opposition as shadow health secretary. No-one has visited more of the NHS. No-one has talked to more people who work in the NHS than Andrew Lansley… these plans are consistent, coherent and comprehensive. I would expect nothing less from Andrew Lansley.”

That was said by Labour’s shadow Health Secretary. I could not have put it better myself.

Q12. Last week the Government committed more than £100 million of investment to the M6 Heysham Port road link, promising to bring much-needed new jobs and businesses to my part of Lancashire. Can the Prime Minister reassure me that, despite our economic difficulties, the Government will continue to invest in major capital schemes, particularly in northern areas such as mine, which were much neglected by the last Labour Government? (39072)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have prioritised, in a difficult spending round, spending on capital infrastructure, including the scheme that he mentions. It is important, as we go for growth in our country, that we put capital expenditure into our roads and railways, and things that will help our economy to grow. That is exactly what we are doing in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and in many other constituencies across the country.

Q13. The Prime Minister insists that the financial crisis was caused by a lack of regulation, but even after the collapse of Northern Rock he complained that the last Government had subjected the banks to excessive bureaucracy and too much regulation. He promised to give them an easier ride, saying,“government needs to do less taxing and regulating”.Is that why donors in the City have given the Tory party so much money? (39073)

I remember a time when the hon. Gentleman used to write the last Prime Minister’s questions. Given what he has said, I think that the last Prime Minister is writing his questions. The fact is that Labour left us the most indebted households, the most bust banks, and a deficit—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister’s answer will be heard, and with some courtesy. That is what the public want to see. They are sick to death of this sort of behaviour.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me just make one point. The person who was the City Minister when the City blew up is now your shadow Chancellor. Great pick.

Q14. Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that Parliament will have the final say on whether prisoners will have the right to vote? In view of the public’s disdain for the unelected bureaucrats in Strasbourg, will he defend our country from any further sanctions from Europe on the issue? (39074)

I think the hon. Lady knows that I have every sympathy with her view. I see no reason why prisoners should have the vote. This is not a situation that I want this country to be in. I am sure that you will all have a very lively debate on Thursday, when the House of Commons will make its views known.