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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Corporation Tax

1. What recent progress has been made in discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on changes to corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (47492)

I have had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on this issue yesterday and today. A Government consultation paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy will be published tomorrow. The paper will include a discussion on the potential for transferring the power to reduce corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Executive.

To what extent has the Azores judgment had a bearing on the Government’s ability to vary the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland and other regional authorities?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question—given that I converted him to the Conservative party in my kitchen. The Azores judgment will conform to our plans, which will be laid out in the consultation tomorrow. We agree that the powers should be devolved to an Assembly that has entire control over its own area and that there should be no countervailing intervention from central Government.

I thank the Secretary of State for his interest in the subject. Will the Government now consider the devolution of further tax-raising or tax-varying powers to the Northern Ireland Executive? Does he agree that the more economic levers the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland community have available to them, the more the economy will be helped to develop in a better way?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have no plans to devolve further powers, and I would stress to her and her colleagues that we are talking about a consultation. It is not in the bag. We have lengthy discussions with other colleagues and the Treasury, and it would help if she could galvanise a campaign across Northern Ireland to work with us.

It is good that it is not yet in the bag, because the Secretary of State will know that since 2000, 80 countries have cut corporation tax rates. I am sure that, among those, he has studied Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States which has an effective corporation tax rate for manufacturing of 2%. What assessment has he made of how that has helped tackle unemployment in that United States territory, and how it has helped those countries generally to recover from global recession?

I am most grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his question, but Puerto Rico is a bizarre comparison. I spent three and a half years travelling to Northern Ireland every week. Week after week I went to businesses, and week after week they said that a reduction in corporation tax would most help them.

It is clear that the Secretary of State travelled week after week, but it is also clear that he learnt nothing. Unemployment in Puerto Rico went up again last month, to 16%. The economy remains in recession for the fourth year. We need Northern Ireland to get out of recession, not to stay in it, so let us be clear—and a simple yes or no will do. Given the vital importance of infrastructure, education and skills to attracting and retaining business, will he guarantee that any consequential changes to the annual block grant and from tax revenue will not leave the Executive with an annual net loss? Yes or no?

We need no lectures on the economy from the right hon. Gentleman. He was in the bunker with the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and he left us with a bill of £280,000 a minute in borrowing and £120 million a day in interest costs. We are absolutely clear that, following the example of the Republic of Ireland, we will grow the revenue.

Economic Situation

Northern Ireland Executive Ministers and I agree that the economy in Northern Ireland needs to be rebalanced. The Northern Ireland economy is too dependent on the public sector, for all the reasons that the House will understand. The consultation paper that we are publishing tomorrow and our ongoing work with Executive and Treasury Ministers will play a significant part in boosting the private sector and attracting investment to Northern Ireland.

In the last quarter for which figures are available, almost 22% of 16 to 24-year-olds were not involved in education, employment or training, at a cost of more than £250 million. What measures can be taken to rectify that?

The detail of training and employment policy is now in the hands of devolved Ministers, but my hon. Friend has touched on a common theme. We all have an interest in reviving the private sector in Northern Ireland and seeing those young people put into worthwhile employment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom economy, because it is this Government and this Chancellor who will get the budget deficit back under control and rebalance the economy in favour of sustainable economic growth, as highlighted recently in the OECD report?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind the House of that. We have a worse deficit than Ireland or Greece, yet our interest rates are considerably lower. That is thanks to the robust measures that the coalition Government have taken to enable us to recover from the wreckage left behind by the previous Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the very high price of petrol and diesel in Northern Ireland—the highest in the United Kingdom—is having a severe impact on the living standards of families and the viability of businesses? In his discussions with the Chancellor yesterday and today, has he raised support for a fuel duty stabiliser and other measures to tackle this crippling problem, specifically in relation to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to raise the issue of fuel costs in Northern Ireland. He will have to be patient and wait to hear what the Chancellor has to say in a few minutes, but I can tell him that the issue has been raised at the highest level.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. An issue that he can respond on is his talk of an enterprise zone for Northern Ireland. Will he elaborate on that and tell the House what specific measures he has in mind to bring about real change and boost competitiveness for Northern Ireland businesses? Has he looked at the specific issue of air passenger duty, which is having a detrimental effect on Northern Ireland compared with the Irish Republic?

I have been using the expression “enterprise zone” for three and a half years as a cover for looking at ways of reviving the private sector in Northern Ireland. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am a convinced evangelist for the proposal to devolve corporation tax, to allow it to be lowered. The paper published tomorrow will also contain an amalgam of ideas from the Executive. On the issue of air passenger duty, he will also have to be a little more patient and wait for the Budget statement.

On the subject of robust policies, we have now had nine months since the emergency Budget, yet the 65% employment rate in Northern Ireland is the lowest in the UK and unemployment is rising to 8%. May I ask the evangelical Secretary of State how much further pain families in Northern Ireland must be expected to bear?

The hon. Gentleman should remember the Budgets that he voted for. I remind him that we are borrowing £280,000 a minute, and that we are spending £120 million a day on debt interest, compared with £95 million on education. That is where the money is going: we are paying off the deficit that he left behind.

Air Passenger Duty

3. What assessment he has made of the likely effects of changes in air passenger duty on business travel between Northern Ireland and London. (47494)

I have had meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to discuss air passenger duty. My Treasury colleagues fully understand the issues involved. The rates that took effect last November were, of course, set and legislated for by the previous Government.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that, in addition to air passenger duty, Heathrow and Gatwick intend to levy passenger landing charges for regional flights, which will compound the problem. Will he confirm that this matter is at the top of his agenda, so that we can ensure that Northern Ireland businesses have access to the capital?

Indeed; these things have been discussed at ministerial level. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is here to listen to the hon. Lady’s comments. We take this matter very seriously. A lot of the issues to do with Gatwick and Heathrow are commercial matters that are more properly dealt with by BAA.[Official Report, 4 April 2011, Vol. 526, c. 12MC.]

Will the Minister continue to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the possible dangers that a per plane duty could pose for businesses in Northern Ireland, given the geographical situation of the Province?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is worth pointing out that 75,000 fewer people—business men and tourists—went to the island of Ireland every week last summer. It is important that we keep up the amount of people who come here. I think that his question might be better directed to Ministers after the Budget, which will follow in a few minutes, but I am sure that his comments will have been heard.

Political Donations

4. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the registration of donations to political parties active in Northern Ireland. (47495)

10. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the registration of donations to political parties active in Northern Ireland. (47501)

An order to extend the current confidentiality arrangements for political donations in Northern Ireland was debated and approved by both Houses last month. [Interruption.] This order came into effect only from 1 March, so I have not had discussions on this issue with ministerial colleagues since then. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand that the House is eagerly awaiting subsequent business, but there are far too many noisy private conversations taking place, which is very discourteous to the people of Northern Ireland.

While discussing donations to political parties in Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Minister made reference to “details of the recipient”, “the amount received” and when donations were made. Those were the reference points, so can the Minister tell us what progress has been made?

Indeed, I can. I remain firmly of that view. We are not in the position that we would like, but I am advised that there are serious doubts about whether the issues that I mentioned can be addressed under existing legislation, which is very tightly drafted. I hope to make provision to bring more transparency to existing arrangements when a suitable legislative vehicle can be found.

Will my hon. Friend let us know when legislation will be brought forward to make sure that donations and loans made to political parties in Northern Ireland during the prescribed period are not disclosed when the prescribed period expires?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which was behind the introduction of the statutory instrument. I hope that this will happen at the earliest opportunity. Primary legislation will be required: we have extended the order for a further two years, so it allows us time to find a suitable legislative vehicle.

One of the problems with regulating donations to political parties in Northern Ireland is that a loophole enables some parties to bring funds in through the Republic of Ireland—without requiring the kind of registration that applies to funds donated within the United Kingdom. Will the Government move to close this loophole so that there is a level playing field for the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that any donation over £7,500 has to be declared to the Electoral Commission, as it does in the rest of the UK, so that is covered. When we move towards a Bill on the whole issue of elections in Northern Ireland, we can certainly look at that issue, along with other anomalies that we believe exist.

The Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force was the snappy title given to the alliance adopted by the Conservative party and the Ulster Unionists in last year’s general election. Will the Secretary of State share with the House how the new force in UK politics is doing these days?

We remain committed to bringing national politics to Northern Ireland. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question is within the scope of the subject of registration of political donations, but I can assure him that many people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom wish to support a Conservative party, which is why we are in government and he is not.

Aggregates Levy Credit Scheme

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland. (47496)

I have spoken with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary on this matter. The Government remain fully committed to reinstating the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland. The Treasury is in regular contact with the devolved Administration to co-ordinate the provision of evidence to the European Commission to support a new scheme.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that the withdrawal of the scheme is having a severe impact on a hard-pressed sector in Northern Ireland. It is also having an impact on the public purse in its effect on capital expenditure. As well as talking to the Treasury, will the Minister consider together with the European Commission whether a recasting of the overall agricultural levy scheme could help to get Europe round its undue hang-ups?

The hon. Gentleman signed the early-day motion on this matter tabled by the leader of his party, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who is in her place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has twice met Gordon Best, the director of the Quarry Products Association, and we are seized of the importance of this industry to Northern Ireland and of the unfairness with the Republic. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Treasury is continuing its negotiations with the Commission and that the proper place for suggesting ideas is through the Treasury to the Commission. The Government remain committed to addressing this very serious—

I represent an area that contains seven quarries which employ more than 100 people and generate a multi-million industry that exports to all parts of the globe. Will the Minister confirm that he will work industriously with the Northern Ireland Executive and, indeed, the Treasury to ensure that the exemption for the quarries continues in the near future?

It is quite handy having the Chief Secretary to the Treasury here to listen to Northern Ireland questions. We should try to arrange for it to happen more often.

The Government remain very disappointed by the suspension of the aggregates levy credit scheme, but, although disappointing, it is unavoidable. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his constituents in Strangford, but this does not affect only Strangford; as I have said, the industry is important throughout Northern Ireland. We are in a difficult position, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with Treasury Ministers, as indeed are the Executive in Northern Ireland. The Finance Minister himself discussed the matter recently with the Economic Secretary to the Treasury.


The Government are committed to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to help boost private sector growth and investment in Northern Ireland. The consultation proposals for rebalancing the economy that the Government will publish tomorrow will send a powerful message to overseas investors. They have the potential to make Northern Ireland a beacon for foreign investment.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that one of the most competitive parts of the Northern Ireland economy is the renewable energy sector? Will he convey to the Chancellor the message that the establishment of a strong green investment bank with its own borrowing powers during the current Parliament is essential to drive the green economy in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive question. He will have been pleased to note the significant investment in Harland and Wolff’s wind apparatus by DONG Energy the other day—that is very much a theme of the coalition Government—but if he wants to hear further announcements, he will have to restrain himself and wait for the Budget statement which will be delivered in a few minutes’ time.

Northern Ireland, like North Yorkshire, is powered by small business. What message does the Secretary of State think today’s sizzling Budget for growth will send to risk-takers in Northern Ireland and beyond?

We have the Ulster fry, with which we can celebrate in numerous splendid establishments in Northern Ireland. I think the message is that we have stabilised the economy. We have moved out of the danger zone that we used to inhabit after inheriting the mess from the last Government, and today we can celebrate moving forward with a constructive Budget and specific measures to help small businesses in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Budget sizzles but does not burn the economy.

Does the Secretary of State believe that a corporation tax change for Northern Ireland which also imposes a huge financial burden on public expenditure is likely to promote the competitiveness to which he has referred? Will he ensure that if corporation tax is devolved, it is devolved at a fair rate and in a way that does not make it—

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and I discussed this matter at length at Hillsborough the other night. We talked until after midnight. He knows that we are proposing a consultation. If the power is then devolved, it will be up to him and his colleagues to decide the manner in which that is done. [Interruption.] He also knows—if he looks south of the border—that the reduction in corporation tax there was recently described as a “cornerstone” of the success of the rebuilding of manufacturing in the Republic of Ireland.

Can the Secretary of State give us any advice on steps that the Northern Ireland economy might take to become more productive and efficient? [Interruption.] I am thinking especially of research and development, and in particular of European framework programme 7 for R and D funding.

Order. I appeal to the House to come to order. It is very difficult for Ministers even to hear the questions that they are being asked.

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until tomorrow to see the details in the consultation paper, but I can tell him that we have taken up a range of measures proposed by the Executive. Let me also draw his attention to the national policy that we have imposed, which involves a huge range of measures to revive science and research in this country.

Enterprise Zone

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will unveil the Government’s plans for enterprise zones later today in the Budget. Separately, tomorrow we will publish a consultation paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and making Northern Ireland an even more attractive place to do business.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. A recent report by the Work Foundation found that 80% of the jobs created by enterprise zones are a result of relocation, and therefore are not new jobs. How will he ensure that the enterprise zones in Northern Ireland will be different?

The hon. Lady probably does not know that I have been using the phrase “enterprise zone” as a cover-all term for a whole range of measures that would revive the private sector in Northern Ireland. I am sure she agrees that it is unsustainable for—according to one report—77.6% of the gross domestic product of the Northern Ireland economy to come from public spending. Tomorrow, we will publish a paper blending our ideas with those of the Executive on how we will rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.

Does the Secretary of State agree that an enterprise zone across the whole of Northern Ireland is one thing, but if it is interpreted as it was in the 1980s, that will cause major displacements throughout the Province?

I repeat again what I just said: I have used the phrase “enterprise zone” over the past three and a half years as a cover-all term for referring to investing in a whole range of measures that will help revive the private sector. I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and he agrees with me that we must rebalance the economy. The Chancellor will announce the detail of specific measures on enterprise zones in a few minutes, and I hope they will be taken up by the Executive, who will have responsibility in Northern Ireland.

Security Threat

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. (47500)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. This Government continue to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in countering the small but dangerous groups who regularly endanger the lives of police officers and the general public. That is demonstrated by the recent exceptional provision of an additional £200 million for the PSNI over the next four years to combat the threat.

I am sure Members of all parties will join me in condemning the small number of dissidents who continue to use violence. Will my right hon. Friend reiterate how important it is for the public to co-operate with the PSNI by passing on any information that could lead to taking terrorists off our streets?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the role that the public can play. The PSNI now has broad support across the community, and as Robert Peel said, the police are citizens in uniform. If the Antrim road bomb had gone off, members of the public would have been maimed by a device put on a bicycle.

I thank Members for their silence.

Given that during the troubles terrorist organisations murdered 102 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary reserve, and that the Secretary of State could not attend a thanksgiving service for the reserve at St Anne’s cathedral on Sunday, will he please take this opportunity to put on record his appreciation of the outstanding courage and enormous sacrifice of the RUC reserve?

I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Lady’s comments. Unfortunately, the Minister of State and I had long-standing commitments that we could not break, but we were ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), who stood in for us, and who will have visited several people there and expressed the same opinions we would have expressed had we been in his place.

Dissident Activity

11. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of dissident activity in Northern Ireland. (47502)

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Garda on the outstanding co-operation over the past few weeks, particularly over the arrest of several dissidents just south of the border?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his continued interest in Northern Ireland, and we value his experience. I wholeheartedly wish to place on the record our tribute to the Garda for the work that they have done. We have an unprecedented level of co-operation with them: I have met Martin Callinan, the new commissioner; I met the Taoiseach in Washington last week; and I will be visiting Dublin soon to follow up my recent discussions with the new Tanaiste and Justice Minister. We are indebted to the work that the Garda have done and by working with them we will bear down on these unrepresentative dangerous terrorists.

The dissident threat level remains high. Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced the end of the 50:50 discrimination rule in recruitment to the police. Will he join us next week in ensuring that the 10 years of discrimination against young Protestants is completely at an end, and in ensuring that young Protestants and young Catholics can join that police service to combat dissident threat levels and ensure a return to normality in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are happy that the Police Service of Northern Ireland now represents the community and offers a career path that attracts people from all across it. The issue is now in devolved hands, which is where it should be.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Daniel Prior, from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Friday at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham having been wounded in Afghanistan on Wednesday. Tragically, Private Prior had just become a father and our deepest condolences should be with his family and friends, especially his wife and his newborn son. We must make sure that he grows up in a country where everyone honours the memory of his father and what all our armed forces stand for.

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 thank the Prime Minister for that answer and associate myself, and all on the Opposition side of the House, with his moving tribute to Private Daniel Prior.

The Prime Minister has taken the right decisions to extend the life of the Nimrods and HMS Cumberland so that our armed forces remain equipped to protect in this conflict. He knows the uncertainty we now face, so will he, in due course, extend that rethink of our defence capabilities?

Obviously we will look very closely at all the lessons we should learn from what we are engaged in: diplomatically; politically; and in terms of both foreign policy and military equipment. What I would say, though, is that the whole predication of the strategic defence and security review was that we should be able to deploy at speed anywhere in the world and have very flexible armed forces, with particular emphasis on transport and on things such as special forces. We think that we did anticipate the sorts of things we are doing now, but if there are further lessons to learn, of course we should learn them.

Q2. Our hearts go out to the people of Japan as we watch their horror unfold and see warnings today about heightened radiation in Tokyo’s water supply. It is not just earthquakes and tsunamis that can threaten the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, so does the Prime Minister agree that what has happened at Fukushima will have consequences for the new nuclear power stations proposed for the UK? (48223)

I am sure that the whole House will want to join the hon. Lady in sending our condolences to people in Japan and to express our admiration for their incredible bravery and resilience in dealing with this immense crisis. Of course we must learn any lessons that need to be learned about nuclear power, which is why the head of the nuclear safety inspectorate is looking at this issue. As I have said before, the power stations we have in Britain are of a different type from those in Japan. We are not planning to build any like those, and we are not in an earthquake zone or a zone subject to tsunamis, but of course we have always got to test against all eventualities. I am sure that there is further testing we can do on nuclear power.

Japan is doing a good job in dealing with this problem and the signs from the nuclear station are a little better than they were a few days ago, but it is certainly not out of the danger zone. What we should do is make sure that we give the correct advice to all British citizens in Tokyo—that is what we have done and what we will continue to do.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Daniel Prior. He demonstrated outstanding bravery in the line of duty and our thoughts are with his wife and young son and all his family and friends.

I am sure that the whole House will also want to think of our armed forces personnel now in action in the military operation in Libya and to pay tribute to the outstanding work they are doing. Following the overwhelming vote in the House on Monday, will the Prime Minister update the House on the progress of our military operation and the actions of British forces?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he says and for his speech in that debate on Monday, which I thought was extremely powerful. To update the House on the military operations, a no-fly zone is now in place over Libya and 11 nations are contributing more than 150 aircraft. As we discussed on Monday, there has been an early and good effect as regime forces have had to retreat from Benghazi, but there is clearly great concern about what the regime is doing in Misrata. Any idea that the second ceasefire was any more meaningful than the first is, we can see, complete nonsense. We made good progress in the no-fly zone and good progress in turning some of the forces back and protecting civilians. Everything is clearly still in the early stages, however, and a lot more remains to be done.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and for what he said about the debate on Monday. We support UN resolution 1973 to protect the people of Libya. The support of the Arab League was a key factor in securing the UN resolution. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the military contribution that Arab states will make to the operation and what conversations he has had with Arab leaders about their continued role in the enforcement of the resolution and the plan of action?

I can do that. First, the Arab League met again yesterday and reinforced its view that a no-fly zone is right and that it supports UN Security Council resolution 1973. In terms of concrete assets, I can confirm that yesterday the Qataris deployed the first of their contribution—Mirage aircraft and other support aircraft—and we will get logistic contributions from countries such as Kuwait and Jordan. I hope that further support will be forthcoming but I would like to be clear that because we had to act so quickly on Saturday it was not possible to bring forward as much Arab support as might have been welcomed by, I think, everybody in this House. There is clear support from the secretary-general of those Arab nations. I also had a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister yesterday and I believe that support in the Arab world—not just among Arab leaders but among Arab people—for saving lives in Libya is very strong.

Let me emphasise something that the Prime Minister mentioned on Monday, which is the importance of the contribution of Arab countries to the military operation. He also said that there would be a regular and more formal process with the Arab League and others. It seems to me very important that that process takes place. Let me ask the Prime Minister one other thing about our action. Will he clarify the Government’s position on the targeting of Colonel Gaddafi? It is important that we stick to the terms of the UN resolution as we seek to maintain the coalition we have built on that resolution.

I am grateful for that question and for the chance to set this out clearly to the House. All our targets must be selected to be absolutely in line with UN Security Council resolution 1973. That allows us to take “all necessary measures” to enforce a no-fly zone and to put it in place as safely as possible as well as to take action to protect civilian life. All targets should be in line with that but I do not propose to give a running commentary on targets or, frankly, to say anything beyond that.

Q3. As my right hon. Friend struggles to sort out the mess left behind by the previous rotten Labour Government, will he take this opportunity to unite the House on health matters by praising the work of Marie Curie nurses, highlighting the dangers of prostate cancer and supporting low salt week? (48224)

I yield to no one in blaming the last Government for all sorts of ills, but I think even I would probably draw the line at blaming them for the level of salt in food—[Hon. Members: “Oh, go on.”] Well, I suspect that the previous Prime Minister probably put salt in his porridge, but we will have to leave it there.

My hon. Friend mentions a very important charity, Marie Curie Cancer Care, and the work it does to help people, particularly when they are suffering often incurable conditions; it should be praised by everyone in this House. The whole point of what we want to do through our health reforms is to involve in an even greater way such great charities, which do so much to help people across our country.

North Tyneside’s Tory, elected mayor has spoken of her intention to become the council’s chief executive under new government powers. Does the Prime Minister think that the mayor, who was elected on a political ticket under the alternative vote and has no proven professional experience for such an apolitical role, should go back to the electorate in the true spirit of localism and get their opinion on this issue?

I thank the hon. Lady for reminding everyone that North Tyneside has an excellent Conservative mayor who is doing a great job. It will be a matter for her and the people and the council of North Tyneside to work out what a fantastic job she can do in future.

Q4. Croydon town centre is just 15 minutes from central London by rail, but rateable values are 60% lower. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is huge potential to save public money by relocating part of the Government estate from the most expensive real estate in the country in SW1? (48225)

I just heard a suggestion from my hon. Friend that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should be based in Croydon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) makes a very good point. We have already saved £50 million by relocating Government property. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who sits in the Cabinet and does an excellent job, has saved £2.6 billion by combining quangos and public bodies, but I am sure there is more we can do, including, perhaps, in Croydon.

Will the Prime Minister explain why he proposes to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance from 80,000 care home residents?

Not for the first time, I have to tell the Prime Minister what is in his own legislation: clause 83 of the Welfare Reform Bill proposes precisely that and people do not understand why he is doing it. If he is saying that he is going to abandon the policy, then, great, let us abandon the policy.

The review of disability living allowance and the mobility component is wrapped up in the new personal independence payment. That is what is happening. To be frank, this point has been raised right across the House of Commons and is a point that we have responded to. It is a review that the right hon. Gentleman can take part in; perhaps he can say something constructive.

It is not a review, it is a proposal—a clause—in the Bill to take away the mobility component of DLA. Some 22 disabled persons organisations up and down the country are saying that the Government should abandon the policy. I have a suggestion for the Prime Minister: why does he not complete the review now and say that he is dumping the policy? He has done it before.

The first thing the right hon. Gentleman said about disability living allowance was that he wanted to support our gateway reforms, but we do not hear much about that any more. As I have said, the review of DLA is rolled into the personal independence payment. That is how we will reform the mobility component. Instead of getting so excited about it, he should congratulate the Government on listening to opinion from across the House.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister might be aware that the Financial Times reported earlier this week that Gaddafi is sitting on $6.5 billion-worth of gold in his war chest. Although there is precious little to commend the current leader of Libya, gold has been the great inflation hedge throughout our history. Britain, on the other hand, sold off her gold reserves at the behest of the shadow Chancellor, when he worked as a bag carrier at the Treasury, in order to bolster the then failing euro. Which of those two is more psychologically flawed?

That was an ingenious question from my hon. Friend. I have to say that selling the gold was one of the many appalling decisions taken by the previous Government and was advised by the two people now responsible for their economic policy in opposition.

What we have done in the banking industry is make sure that it is paying a £2.5 billion banking levy, not as a one-off, but every single year during this Parliament, so under this Government, the taxes it pays will go up; the bonus levels have gone down; and the lending to small businesses—and large businesses—will increase. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that approach.

What conclusions has the Prime Minister drawn from the statement of the secretary-general of the OECD, who recently said

“if you don’t deal with the deficit you can be assured that there will not be growth”?

The OECD was in town last week and gave the clearest possible message: if we do not deal with the deficit, we will not get any growth. That is what it said, and it is about time that the Opposition started listening to it.

Q6. I am sure the Prime Minister is aware that unemployment in my constituency will increase as a result of public sector cuts. What is his Government doing to expand private sector job opportunities in the area, such as supply-chain jobs from the Hitachi train-building programme? Will he ask the Business Secretary to meet local businesses and Durham county council about that, to boost jobs in Durham and the north-east? (48227)

I am very happy to arrange that meeting. The point that the hon. Lady makes is absolutely right: at a time when, frankly, any Government would have to make public sector cuts, we have to make sure that the private sector grows. That is why we have the regional growth fund, which is putting money and leveraging new jobs into the north-east. That is why we will introduce things such as enterprise zones, and that is why, if she sits and waits patiently, she will hear in the Chancellor’s Budget a whole series of measures to fire up the private sector and make sure that we get growth right across our country.

After fuel duty, council tax is the most despised tax in the country, and under the Labour Government it increased mercilessly, year on year. Will the Prime Minister tell me how many councils, like Bedford borough council, have taken advantage of the offer made by the Chancellor in last year’s Budget and frozen or reduced council tax?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth while noting that we now know that every single council in the country has agreed to take part in the Government’s council tax freeze. I would have thought that would be welcomed across the House of Commons, because people do face a difficult situation with the cost of living. We have taken action on council tax; we are lifting people out of income tax; we are uprating the pension in line with earnings, instead of prices; and I hope that the Chancellor will have a few more things to say in a minute or two.

Q7. The Prime Minister knows of my passion for the no campaign on the alternative vote, and I know that he will be working day and night on that subject. However, I have another passion: legal aid. What will his Government do to protect those who are debarred from legal aid, and to get rid of all the abuse in the legal aid system at present? (48228)

Of course, this is a devolved issue for Scotland, but what we have done elsewhere in the United Kingdom is maintain the grant that we give centrally to the citizens advice bureaux to make sure that work goes ahead. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the comparative figures, he will see that this country spends way more per head on legal aid than comparator countries, and it is right that it should be reformed.

Q8. Is the Prime Minister aware of the very poor rail services between Gloucestershire and London? As a result of that problem, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and I have campaigned very long and hard for the line between Swindon and Kemble to be redoubled. Will the Prime Minister give every consideration possible to that project? (48229)

I do know the problems that there are between London and Gloucester, and also, as a Member of Parliament with a seat to the west of London, I know the problems on the Cotswold line, which has recently been improved through redoubling. I hope that my hon. Friend will sit patiently, because I very much hope that the Chancellor might have something to say about how we will make life easier for my hon. Friend’s constituents who want to get to and from Gloucester and London.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the representations that he has received from the Deputy Prime Minister on reinstating the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters? (48230)

The hon. Lady knows well that this was done on the basis of affordability, but she also knows that Sheffield Forgemasters has been encouraged to bid under the regional growth fund; that is an approach it can take.

Given the central role that RAF Marham and the Tornado have played in securing a no-fly zone over Libya, and the brave actions of our service personnel despite the ongoing uncertainty at that base, is it not time that we confirmed the future of RAF Marham as a fast jet base?

My hon. Friend makes an important representation on behalf of a vital base in her constituency. It gives me the opportunity to pay tribute again to what our brave pilots are doing, whether flying Typhoons in order to police the no-fly zone, or flying Tornadoes in order to carry out vital operations on the ground in Libya. She makes a very strong case, but I know that others will be making a case too. These decisions will be taken in due course by the Ministry of Defence.

Q10. Last week the Prime Minister told the House that people here are twice as likely to die from a heart attack as people in France, but is not the truth that survival rates are improving, we will have a lower death rate than France by next year, and we have record levels of satisfaction with the NHS? When will he stop talking down the NHS and distorting the figures? (48231)

The NHS has done extraordinary things for me and my family. I am passionate about the NHS. I passionately want it to remain free at the point of use on the basis of need and not related to people’s ability to pay. The point of reforming the NHS is to safeguard it for the future. That is what everyone in the House wants. I will never talk down the NHS, but if we really believe we cannot do better on cancer, heart disease and stroke, we are fooling ourselves. We must do better, and that is the aim of our reforms.

The coalition agreement promises the public greater accountability in NHS commissioning through directly elected individuals on the boards of primary care trusts. As PCTs are on their way out, does the Prime Minister accept that the best way now to deliver that commitment is to reserve places on GP consortia boards for locally elected people?

One of the ways we can make the NHS more accountable is through the better combination of the NHS and local government. That is what our proposals envisage. That is the best way to make sure that there is good democratic accountability for what happens in our NHS.

Q11. The Government have not yet factored into their future Budget proposals the sell-off of the bank assets that we own. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to volunteering and the dire straits that many young people face because of unemployment, will he consider an endowment fund for a nationwide volunteer programme, building on the six-week national citizen service and benefiting individuals and the nation as a whole? (48232)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely interesting suggestion. Obviously, there will be an opportunity to sell the bank assets that we own. I do not think that that opportunity is right now, or that we should wait to get national citizen service, which he rightly mentions, up and running. I want to see every 16-year-old in our country have the opportunity to take part in something like that to make them feel more part of our country and recognise the responsibilities that we all have as we move towards adulthood.

Q12. With the recent OECD report underlining the fact that the structural deficit has caused so many difficulties for our economy, does the Prime Minister agree that it is all the more important that we upgrade our industry and business by providing training opportunities for young people? (48233)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is why we are making bold and difficult reforms in education. As we stand today, less than 50% of young people at 16 are getting grades A to C in English and maths. We must make sure that people are properly prepared for the world of work, and that is not good enough. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary, who is setting a higher bar for himself and for the Government. We have to make sure that we get over it.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s U-turn yesterday with the announcement that the United Kingdom will now opt into the EU directive on sex slave trafficking, which many have campaigned on for six months. This is a cross-party issue which he takes seriously. Will he ask the Home Secretary, seated on his left, to look particularly at unaccompanied children arriving at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, as there is evidence that some of them may be trafficked? We may be able to put some block on this terrible thing with a bit of work there.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely right: this is an issue of cross-party concern. As he knows, we completely agree with what was proposed for the human trafficking directive. We decided to wait and check that it would actually be in line with what was wanted and did not have further dangers in terms of our immigration policy. I am happy to say that we will be opting into the directive, with parliamentary permission. Above all, we must ensure that our arrangements are in place to help trafficked children, including in the way he suggests.

Q13. A recent Public Accounts Committee report found that in the past hospitals were built under the private finance initiative even though it was more expensive than other forms of financing. In some PFI hospitals, it now costs £333 to change a light switch. What is the Prime Minister going to do about it, and whose fault was it? (48234)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the PFI deals that were entered into were extremely expensive, and the costs will rack up on taxpayers for years to come. He does not have to believe me, as we now have it from Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, who has made a number of helpful interventions in recent weeks. The latest one was in the Morning Star—not a paper I always read. Whether talking to a communist paper or backing Tory plans, he is very consistent: he is always in favour of what the Government are doing. He said:

“There is definitely a case for saying we were poor at PFI, poor at negotiating PFI contracts from the outset.”

I could not agree more.

Q14. Some £180 million of land and property assets assembled by One North East are at risk of a fire sale to benefit central Government coffers. The Association of North East Councils and the Northern Business Forum have joined forces in a bid to take on those assets for the benefit of our region. Will the Prime Minister back the bid and put his warm words on localism into action? (48235)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As we move from the regional development agencies to the new local enterprise partnerships, many of which are up and running and doing a good job, it is important that we ensure we have good consistency and continuity, and I will certainly look at the case she makes.

Will my right hon. Friend comment in advance of the Budget on this country’s current financial situation in terms that I can use to convey to my constituents the dreadful state of the economy that we inherited from the party opposite?

One way of putting that inheritance is that we had a Budget deficit that was bigger than Portugal’s, bigger than Spain’s and bigger than Greece’s. It is only because of the action we have taken in government to show how we will pay down our debts that we have interest rates in this country that are at a similar level to Germany’s. That is what we have been able to do, to the huge benefit of our economy and with absolutely no help from the party opposite.

Q15. It was reported at the weekend that the Department of Health has failed to publish research it commissioned and received last autumn showing the highest ever level of satisfaction with the NHS. Will the Prime Minister urge the Secretary of State for Health to publish that research without further delay, or, by not doing so, will he confirm that the British Medical Association was right last week when it deplored the Government’s use of misleading and inaccurate information to denigrate the NHS and justify their reforms? (48236)

This Government have published more information about the NHS than any other. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is quoting from a published report. The point I would make to him is this: if we had survival rates for cancer that were the same as the European average, we would save 5,000 lives every year. Do Members opposite want to save those lives, or are they going to stick with the status quo and say that there should be no choice, that patients should not have a say in how they are treated and that doctors should not be more involved in the health service? What a backward step, and what a backward lot.

Parents value the 15 hours’ free nursery provision they are given, but 22 nurseries I have met are concerned that the new guidelines do not give enough flexibility. Will the Prime Minister talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to see whether there is a problem?

I will certainly do that. Obviously, what we have done is to make sure that we have properly funded the extra hours of nursery education for three-year-olds and, for the first time, introduced that provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, so that is a big step forward. At a time of spending constraint and austerity, we have been able to help the poorest families in our country to have a better future, but I will certainly take on board the point my hon. Friend makes and make sure that she meets my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to ensure that it is introduced in the right way.

In a newspaper interview last weekend, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change cast doubt on the viability of investment in the civil nuclear energy industry. Given the strategic importance of the industry and the need for certainty and commitment from the Government, can the Prime Minister reassure the House and business that his policy is unaltered in that area?

I can do that, and the point I would make—the Energy and Climate Change Secretary would say exactly the same thing—is that what we have done is to create a fair playing field where that private investment can come forward. What we should not be doing is having unfair subsidies. We are making sure that on issues such as planning and carbon pricing the situation is very clear, so that nuclear, which is part of the energy mix in this country, can go on being part of the energy mix in our country.

Last Friday I visited Rawlins community college in my constituency and spoke to a very bright group of economics students. We discussed the fact that Governments cannot spend money they do not have. The students understood that; why does my right hon. Friend think the Opposition do not?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I know the Opposition do not like to hear about the mess they left, but let me give them some new published information about the mess they left. This is what we inherited: we are 72nd on wastefulness of Government spending, behind Kazakhstan and Cambodia; 108th on Government debt, behind Malawi, Lesotho and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Libya; and—this is the best one—on the soundness of banks, we are 133rd. Our banks, under Labour, were less sound than those in Serbia, Estonia, Madagascar and Chad. That is the record we inherited from the Opposition, and we will not tire of reminding them.