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Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2011

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.