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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 528: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Independent International Commission on Decommissioning

1. When he expects to receive a final report on armaments from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. (55379)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by paying tribute to David Cairns, the former Member for Inverclyde, who died recently. He served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office for a short time in the run-up to devolution in 2007, and was liked and respected in all parts of the House. I speak for many in Northern Ireland in passing on our sincere condolences.

The British and Irish Governments have been presented with the IICD’s final report, which focuses on commissioners’ experiences and lessons learned. I am considering the report with my counterpart in the Irish Government and we will publish it in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, and may I associate myself with the condolences he expressed?

When the Secretary of State announced the dissolution of the IICD and the Independent Monitoring Commission at the end of March, he thanked the commissioners for the crucial part they played in assisting Northern Ireland’s transition to a peaceful, stable and inclusive society. Given developments since, what plans does he have to continue the work previously undertaken by those bodies?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and her comments. I would like to put on record our thanks to General de Chastelain, Brigadier Nieminen and Andrew Sens for the work they have done over the years. We intend to keep Parliament updated on developments, probably by written statements.

May I pay tribute on behalf of my colleagues to the late David Cairns, former Northern Ireland Minister, for the excellent work he undertook during his time in that post, and pass on our sympathies to his family?

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda on the recent Northern Ireland weapons finds in East Tyrone and South Armagh. Will he give an assurance that the amnesty previously offered under the decommissioning legislation to those handing in, and in possession of, such weapons will no longer apply, and that anyone caught in possession of weapons will be brought before the courts and any evidence arising from examination of the weapons will be used in prosecutions?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I entirely endorse his comments on the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda and the recent arms finds in Tyrone. The amnesty to which he refers expired in February 2010, and we have no plans to reintroduce it. There is no place for arms in today’s Northern Ireland. Everyone can pursue their legitimate aims by peaceful democratic means, and those caught with arms will go through the due process of law.

Security Threat

2. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the level of security threat from dissidents. (55380)

Close co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive plays a major part in our efforts to counter the threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland. This involves regular discussions with the Executive’s Justice Minister. I look forward to continuing work with the new Executive in the coming weeks and months on the security, economic and community aspects of this problem.

First, may I thank the Secretary of State for his tribute to David Cairns, whom I served with as a Northern Ireland Minister some years ago?

The Secretary of State will know that the PSNI is making good progress in capturing weapons and Semtex, but, with more than 100 bombings in the last year alone, I believe it is clear that supply is coming from outside Northern Ireland. Will he work with the Executive, the Home Office, the Irish authorities and, indeed, international authorities to ensure that he does everything possible to stem the supply of such material from outside Northern Ireland?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and pay tribute to his work on Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right that we must make sure that at every level of government we work to stem the flow of fresh arms into Northern Ireland. We now have unprecedented co-operation. That is the case not only between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—I pay tribute to all those who have recently been elected to the Executive, and I am delighted that David Ford, whom I spoke to this morning, has been re-elected—but there is also exceptional co-operation with the Garda. I discussed this matter with the Home Secretary yesterday as well, so we are clearly working at all levels.

May I also pay tribute to David Cairns on behalf of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs? I had the honour of working with him on a number of Committees and always found him to be extremely efficient and courteous.

All Members will recall the show of paramilitary strength by men in balaclavas over the Easter period, which brings shame to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State give an update on what is being done to pursue those who obviously have common cause with those who were threatening violence?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. As he will have seen over the weekend, the police investigation into those shocking scenes at Easter took its course, and in one case charges were laid against Marian McGlinchey. I took the decision to revoke her licence as she was charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. I spoke to the chief constable this morning. The police investigations continue, and I am confident that the PSNI will bring further charges when there is sufficient evidence.

Will the Secretary of State accept—I am sure he will—that the outcome of the recent Assembly and council elections in Northern Ireland showed a clear endorsement of moving Northern Ireland forward and a clear rejection of those who would use violence, whose philosophy is to wreck Stormont and drag us backwards? Will he give a clear commitment to work closely with the security forces, the police and the new Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to protect society and do whatever is necessary to protect all of us from dissident terrorist threats?

I wholeheartedly endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments; there is absolutely no place for the pursuit of any political aim by physical violence in Northern Ireland. I congratulate all those who were elected to the Assembly and to the Executive. Obviously, on this particular issue, I congratulate David Ford, to whom I spoke this morning. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will keep up the very closest co-operation with the Stormont Executive on this issue.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s action on the revocation of the licence of Marian McGlinchey—or Marian Price, as she was known—as it sends out a clear signal to those who would threaten violence. Will the Secretary of State give us his assessment of the number of people he believes are involved in dissident terrorism? What is his assessment of the current level of police and other resources deployed to combat that threat?

I am not sure that the number of those involved is as important as their capability. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that these people are continuous in their efforts to attack not just the police, but completely innocent members of the general public who are going about their day-to-day business. Although these people are small in number, as we saw in the recent elections, they do have capability and we do not underestimate the threat. That is why we endorsed £50 million of spending last year, and we managed to negotiate an extraordinary settlement of a further £200 million over the next four years. We are absolutely determined to stand by Northern Ireland and do the right thing.

I join the Secretary of State and hon. Members in their tribute to David Cairns. He was a much respected Minister when Labour were in government and a much loved colleague and friend. Our deepest sympathy goes to his family and his partner, Dermot.

It would be remiss not also to take this opportunity to put on the record the fact that the Queen’s extraordinary visit to Ireland at the moment is an enormous success. It is as healing as it is inspiring. The visit both symbolises the peace process and represents the next step in that process. The process is still necessary, as dissident republican groups pose new threats to the police and the public; just this Monday, a coded bomb warning brought huge disruption to central London. What is the Secretary of State’s evaluation of the capability of this growing number of dissident terrorists, not only in Northern Ireland but here in Britain?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the significance of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland. It is a wonderful way to end the current President of Ireland’s two terms and it is a wonderful, ringing endorsement of the normality between our two nations. Significantly, the right hon. Gentleman and I are not in Ireland this morning; we are here answering questions in Parliament. This is an endorsement of the tremendous progress that has been made and a sign of how we will move further forward. On the question of capability here, we do not like to get into operational matters but, as he knows, we do not underestimate the threat of these groups and we have done a significant amount in the past year to bear down on them.

The threat, none the less, has clearly heightened, not only in Northern Ireland, but here in Britain. We must all ensure that in Northern Ireland, as well as here in Britain, no part of government resides in just hoping for the best; realism is as vital a tool in containment as is prevention. As part of that realism, the British Government must continue to recognise their responsibility in addressing the sectarian legacy of the troubles. What is the Secretary of State’s response to Co-operation Ireland’s bid for £20 million from the British Government—not from the Assembly—to ensure that in Northern Ireland the big society is more than just aspiration?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We increased the threat level from moderate to substantial in Great Britain last year and we are doing what we think is necessary to work closely with the authorities not just in Northern Ireland but in the Republic and to bear down on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a policy of containment long term and we need to break the cycle. We are extremely interested in the projects run by Co-operation Ireland, such as that in Kilwilkie, but many of these projects are also run by the devolved Administration. As I mentioned in my reply to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we will discuss this work with the new devolved Ministers. I had a meeting with the chairman of Co-operation Ireland this week and I shall see him in Dublin later in the week.

Personal Protection Training

3. Whether he has reviewed the personal protection training plan for Government workers and VIPs in Northern Ireland in the light of recent trends in terrorist activity; and if he will make a statement. (55381)

The Government regularly review the guidance issued to staff on personal security and make them aware of any changes in the terrorist threat. The Chief Constable is responsible for the operational provision of close protection, which can include Government workers and VIPs.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. Can the Minister assure the House that, following the terribly sad death of Constable Kerr, specific training methods are being put in place to help protect VIPs, policemen and the like against the threat of under-car booby-traps?

Yes, I can. My hon. Friend will know, as he did many tours in Northern Ireland, that the enemy to personal security is complacency. It is incumbent on all those employed by the state in one way or another to be vigilant at all times. The Chief Constable goes to bed thinking about the security of his policemen and women and he wakes up thinking about them, too, as do we in the Northern Ireland Office.

The Minister will be aware that a small number of civilians work in security establishments in Northern Ireland, particularly in areas with a high dissident terrorist threat. He should also be aware that I wrote to him some three months ago about one such person who was trying to get a personal protection weapon to ensure his safety as he went to and from his work. Will the Minister ensure that he gets in touch with the Chief Constable to ensure that person’s safety, in so far as that can be guaranteed, in the light of this threat?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We take applications for PPW licences extremely seriously and they are looked into in great detail and independently assessed. I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers and we will get back to him once we have all the necessary details.

Bill of Rights

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, progress on this issue has been difficult in the absence of any agreement within Northern Ireland on how best to proceed. We want to see the issue resolved and we will be taking the views of the new Executive, political parties and others in Northern Ireland on how best to move matters forward.

I am grateful for that answer. I want to pay my own tribute to the late David Cairns, who was a fine Minister and a fine man.

With a new Executive and new Assembly in Northern Ireland, and as this issue is a fundamental part of the Good Friday agreement and the political process over the years, will the Minister undertake to try to seek consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland as soon as he can?

The Secretary of State and I have been very clear. We said we would return to this after the election of the new Assembly, which has now happened. The right hon. Gentleman might not be aware of the commission on a UK Bill of Rights, and the Lord Chancellor has written to the First Minister asking for two people from Northern Ireland to advise on the implications for Northern Ireland. The Executive need to initiate a parallel process to come to some consensus on what specific rights that recognise Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances might look like.

When members of the United States Congress asked the same question, perhaps not as elegantly as it was phrased by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the Prime Minister replied in a letter that he stood “ready to facilitate agreement”. Will the Minister tell me what steps he and the Secretary of State have taken in the past six months specifically to facilitate this agreement?

We have talked to a number of people, not least the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and we are currently advertising for replacements. The Secretary of State and I have been quite frank and have said that we want to return to the issue after the election and to move forward on it, which the hon. Gentleman’s party, I point out gently to him, did not do for 12 years.

Union (Referendum)

5. What his policy is on the treatment of any request by a Northern Ireland political party for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland as part of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (55383)

No such request has been made to the Government. The policy and legal position on this issue is set out in the Belfast agreement and the subsequent legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that Sinn Fein raised the issue of a referendum in the recent Assembly elections. May I push the Minister a little further and ask what mechanisms would be used to deal with any future request for a referendum?

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman’s domestic situation in Scotland—it is not the same in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has the right to hold a referendum at any point and he has a duty to hold one if it appears there is likely to be a majority for a united Ireland. It is quite clear in the Belfast agreement, but no such situation arises in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we very much hope that the new Executive will concentrate on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy rather than issues that seem to be of interest in Scotland.

Does the Minister recognise that dissidents try to make the argument on the ground in nationalist areas that those of us who support the Good Friday agreement have gone derelict on Irish unity? Does he recognise therefore that he has to treat with validity those of us who make the case for framing progress towards unity? Will he confirm that in the event of a referendum the British Government would play no part in imposing or opposing any free choice that would be made by the Irish people?

The hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is well known and I pay tribute here again to the way in which his party has embraced the ballot box and the democratic process. In a referendum, that would be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. I can do no better than support the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is probably a career-advancing thing to do—who, in a speech in May 2010, stated clearly and unequivocally:

“I will never be neutral on our Union. We passionately believe that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are stronger together, weaker apart”.

I believe that, as Aristotle said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Terrorism (Powers of Detention)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on powers to detain terrorist suspects. (55384)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regarding this issue. The Government are absolutely clear that reducing the maximum pre-charge detention period to 14 days will strike the right balance between civil liberties and the need to protect the public from the terrorist threat.

I thank the Minister for his reply. David Cairns was a fine colleague and I join all those who have paid tribute to him this morning.

The recent detention of three terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland for periods of 13 and 14 days indicates that the Government are right to bring in arrangements to extend the maximum period of detention beyond 14 days in exceptional circumstances. Given the likely pressures of those circumstances, does the Minister agree that the mechanism for implementing those arrangements needs to be both swift and straightforward?

The Minister does very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said in his usual responsible manner. The right hon. Gentleman is on the Joint Committee that is scrutinising the draft emergency legislation. I agree with everything he has said and I urge him to make his point very forcefully. The principle is right and we must make certain that, if necessary, we can enforce that principle swiftly whether Parliament is sitting or not.

I welcome the decision by the Secretary of State to revoke the licence of Marian Price. Is he as concerned as I am that the courts would have granted bail to the Old Bailey bomber on charges of support for an illegal organisation? What sort of message do our courts send out if they seem to take a softly, softly approach to confronting dissident republican terrorists?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that justice is a devolved matter. I believe that my right hon. Friend acted extremely swiftly and that he was right to do what he did. The legal process will take its usual course.


Like many in Northern Ireland, I believe that we need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost private sector growth and investment. The Government will work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to help make Northern Ireland a beacon for foreign investment and growth.

Enterprise zones in England are an exciting opportunity to grow the private sector, and I hope they will be delivered in my constituency by the Welsh Assembly Government. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress is being made in Northern Ireland to deliver such an innovative opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I have been travelling to Northern Ireland for nearly four years and wanting to turn the whole of Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone, making it an attractive place for investment and building on all the advantages that it now has. On my hon. Friend’s specific question, enterprise zones as described in the Budget are now in devolved hands and I hope the devolved Ministers grasp the opportunity with both hands. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must hear Mr Sammy Wilson.

Recently the Irish Republic abolished air passenger duty, which has put at risk cross-Atlantic flights from Northern Ireland and had an impact on the tourist and investment strategy of the Executive. Ironically, that was done as a result of loans facilitated by the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in the renegotiation of those loans or any further loans, conditions are attached that stop the Irish Republic gaining such competitive advantage?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election, and re-election to his Ministry. He is right that maintaining good, cheap and quick transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world is vital. I have discussed APD with Treasury colleagues. A consultation is going on and I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how we work together on the matter. In meetings with the Government in Dublin, I will also raise the issue.

West Lothian Question

8. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the establishment of a commission to examine the West Lothian question. (55386)

I discussed the matter recently with the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). The Government will establish a commission this year to consider the West Lothian question.

Does the Minister agree that, given the complexity of the West Lothian question, no time should be lost in establishing the commission?

The programme for government promised to establish it in this Parliament, so the answer is yes.

Security Threat

9. What assessment he has made of the security threat from dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (55387)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Despite the overwhelming community rejection of their murderous strategy following the despicable murder of Ronan Kerr last month, the terrorist groups continue to pose an indiscriminate threat to the lives of police officers and the general public, who just want to go about their lives without fear, disruption or intimidation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments, but may I have a reassurance that everything possible is being done to make sure that those people are apprehended as quickly as possible?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we take the threat extremely seriously. We do not underestimate it. As I said earlier, we endorsed an extra £50 million package last year for the PSNI and we have negotiated an exceptional four-year plan of £200 million over the coming years. I know that Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, to whom I spoke this morning, is already putting those funds to very good use. We are determined to bear down on that small number of wholly unrepresentative, dangerous people.

Legacy Issues

10. Whether he plans to provide further direct funding for projects to deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. (55388)

This Government funded the four public inquiries into legacy cases, which were set up under the previous Government, so that they could be completed as soon as possible. I am currently considering what, if any, further role the Government can play in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

A successful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland requires the Government to deal responsibly with all outstanding issues related to the peace process. Does the Secretary of State intend to honour all those outstanding issues?

Yes, I understand the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We endorse the agreements. We made that clear, as our record over the past year shows, but we also recognise that the past continues to be an issue. That is why I am continuing to talk to a wide range of groups, as is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to see whether we can find a way forward on which we can work with the Executive.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with legacy issues is vital if we are to build a stable future for the people of Northern Ireland?

I could not quite hear the hon. Lady’s question, but I think I got the gist of it. As she knows, it is not easy to achieve consensus on this issue, which is why we are carrying on this listening exercise and talking with a wide range of groups, and I am very happy to talk and listen to her.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sunday. He was a selfless, enthusiastic and committed Marine who has made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. Our thoughts must be with his family, his friends and his colleagues.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, this afternoon I will be travelling to Dublin as part of this week’s historic state visit by Her Majesty the Queen.

May I associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s words of condolence?

Under rules introduced in 2003, illegal migrants who manage to avoid the authorities for 14 years can apply for permanent stay, have full access to the welfare system and even obtain a British passport. Given that in the past eight years nearly 10,000 such migrants have won such rights, and with an estimated half a million illegal immigrants in Britain today, will the Prime Minister seek to change those rules and restore some sanity to Britain’s border controls?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have pledged to break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement in the UK because we believe that settling in Britain should be a privilege, rather than an automatic right for those who have evaded the authorities for a certain amount of time. We are going to consult on further measures, including the future of the 14-year rule he mentioned, and make announcements later this year. We have already announced that there will be tighter rules for those wanting to settle here, and have already implemented a new income and English language requirement for skilled workers who have been here for more than five years.

May I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines? He showed exceptional bravery and courage, like all our troops in Afghanistan, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

The role of the Justice Secretary is to speak for the nation on matters of justice and crime. This morning he was on the radio suggesting that there were “serious” rapes and other categories of rapes. Would the Prime Minister like to take this opportunity to distance himself from the Justice Secretary’s comments?

First of all, let me say that rape is one of the most serious crimes there is, and it should be met with proper punishment. Anyone who has ever met a rape victim and talked with them about what that experience means to them and how it stays with them for the rest of their life could only want it to have the most serious punishment possible. The real disgrace in our country is that only 6% of rapes reported to a police station end in a conviction. That is what we have to sort out. I have not heard the Justice Secretary’s interview, but the position of the Government is very clear: there is an offence called rape and anyone who commits it should be prosecuted, convicted and punished very severely.

Let me tell the Prime Minister what the Justice Secretary said this morning. He was asked about the average sentence a rapist gets. The interviewer said, “A rapist gets five years,” and then the Justice Secretary said in reply, “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”. He went on to say that there were categories of “forcible rape” and “serious rape”. The Justice Secretary cannot speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that.

As I said, I have not heard the interview, but the point is this: it should be a matter for the court to decide the seriousness of the offence and the sentence that ought to be passed. I served on the Sexual Offences Bill under the last Government, and we looked at all the issues about whether we should try to differentiate between different categories of rape—and I seem to remember that one of the right hon. Gentlemen now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench was leading the debate for the Government. We decided, as a House of Commons, not to make that distinction. What matters is this: do we get more cases to court, do we get more cases convicted, and do we get more cases sent down for decent sentences? That is the concern we should have.

When the Prime Minister leaves the Chamber, he should go and look at the comments of the Justice Secretary—and let me just say to him very clearly: the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today. That is the first thing the Prime Minister should do. The second thing he should do is to drop this policy, because this policy, which they are defending, is the idea that if you plead guilty to rape you get your sentence halved. That could mean that rapists spend as little as 15 months in prison. That is not an acceptable policy, and the Prime Minister should drop it.

I think that what the Leader of the Opposition might be doing is jumping to conclusions on this issue. The point is this: there is already a plea bargaining system in Britain, for one third, and we are consulting on whether to extend the system to make it even more powerful. We have not yet decided which offences it should apply to, or how it should be brought in, because there is a consultation, but the aim of plea bargaining—it is worth remembering this, because plea bargaining is used in very tough criminal justice systems, such as America’s—is to ensure that more people get prosecuted, more people get convicted, and it actually saves the victim from having to go through a court process and find out at the end that the culprit is going to submit a guilty plea at the last minute. That is what the Government are looking at, and when we have listened to the consultation we will announce our conclusions—but he needs to be patient until we do that.

We are getting used to this. As we saw on health, when there is a terrible policy the Prime Minister just hides behind the consultation. Frankly, it is just not good enough. Let me tell him what people think of this policy. The judges are saying the policy is wrong, End Violence Against Women is saying that it is the wrong policy, and his own Victims Commissioner says that the policy is “bonkers”. I know that he is in the middle of a consultation, but I would like to hear his view on this policy, which he should drop.

The terrible fact that the right hon. Gentleman refers to is that only 6% of rape cases are prosecuted and end in a conviction. That is after 13 years of the Labour party running the criminal justice system, so that is the improvement we want to see. He wants to know my view: my view is get out there, convict, prosecute and send these people down for a decent period of time. That is what we should be doing. Rape is such a serious offence, so he should wait for the outcome of the consultation, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon.

This is about the way the Prime Minister runs his Government, because yesterday the Justice Secretary said that this

“proposal is likely to survive”—[Official Report, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 150]

the consultation, and the prisons Minister was defending the policy. People are rightly angry about this policy; they think that it is the wrong policy. All I am asking is something very simple: why does not the Prime Minister give us his view?

I have given you my view, and I will give you my—[Interruption.] I have. I want to see more people prosecuted and convicted for rape, and we are going to take steps to make sure that happens. But I will give you my view on something else—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, which is this: I think there is merit in having a plea bargaining system, which we have already—and which should be discretionary, to try to make sure that we convict more. What we had under the previous Government was a mandatory release of all prisoners, irrespective of what they had done. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman sat in the Cabinet that let 80,000 criminals out of prison. That was not a discretionary policy; it was a mandatory policy—and it was a disgraceful policy.

Does the Prime Minister not realise what people are thinking of him on crime? Before the election he made a whole series of promises, and now he is breaking them one by one. He was out of touch on anonymity for rape victims, and now he is out of touch on sentencing for rape. He is cutting the number of police officers—cutting 12,000 police officers. Why does he not go back to the drawing board on crime, and get rid of his Justice Secretary?

Talking of broken promises, I remember the Leader of the Opposition saying at his party conference, about Ken Clarke:

“I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.”

Well, that pledge did not last very long. One of these days the Labour party is going to realise that opposition is about more than just jumping on a bandwagon and picking up an issue; it is about putting forward a serious alternative and making some serious points. [Interruption.]

This question is by way of contrast, Mr Speaker. In harmony with the priority being given by the Government to strengthening relations with the Commonwealth, does my right hon. Friend attach importance to the particular role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and will he do his best to find a way of marking that when the centennial conference of the CPA takes place in London in July?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an important part of the Commonwealth. For the celebration of that anniversary I have had an extremely attractive invitation to go along and say a few words, and I will certainly see whether I can.

Q2. Why is the Prime Minister giving private and confidential NHS prescription records of 9 million British citizens to multinational private companies that will no doubt show no mercy with that information? (55954)

What we are trying to do is clean up the mess of Labour’s NHS IT programme, which cost billions of pounds and is still struggling. We are desperately trying to get it under control and make sure we can save money to put into health care.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a message of support to Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Peter Hyman, who is seeking to set up one of the coalition’s excellent new free schools in east London? [Interruption.] (55955)

It is funny that Labour Members do not want to listen to Tony Blair’s speechwriter, as they listened with such rapt attention for so many years to what he said. I welcome the free schools policy, and I very much welcome what Peter Hyman is doing in trying to establish a free school. I think this is an excellent policy. Yesterday we had a new policy from Labour when the shadow Education Secretary said that just because he is opposed to the free schools policy, that does not mean he is opposed to every free school. We are back to the days of John Prescott, being told that we cannot have new good schools because everyone might want to go to them. We are back to old Labour.

Does not the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the Irish Republic this week demonstrate not just her own personal courage in carrying out such a visit in the face of severe dissident terrorist threats, but also, whatever reservations some of us may have about one particular aspect of her visit, the extent of the improvement in relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a proud part, as well as a recognition of Northern Ireland’s status? Is it not also an opportunity to build on co-operation to fight the dissident terrorists who still plague us in Northern Ireland and in the Republic?

The right hon. Gentleman is right in every respect. This is a remarkable visit that demonstrates that the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland is strong, and has probably never been stronger, with the successful devolution of policing and justice that made the visit possible. The scenes on our television screens last night of the visits that Her Majesty made to heal the wounds of the past, but also to look to a very bright future between our two countries, are remarkable and hugely welcome.

Q4. Since it is the people of this country who have paid the enormous bills for bank failures, should not they get some reward for their sacrifice by being given shares when the banks are eventually denationalised? Will the Prime Minister look at the imaginative scheme put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), which is now backed by The Sun newspaper, to do that? (55956)

I will certainly look at all the possible ways of putting the nationalised banks back into the private sector. I personally strongly support the idea of widening share ownership, so we will look carefully at the scheme that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. We also have to make sure that we secure value for money for the taxpayer as we try to fill in the great deep pit of debt that we were left by Labour.

Today hundreds of women in their 50s, supported by Age UK, have come to Parliament to protest against unfair changes to their pensions. The coalition agreement says that there will be no increase in women’s state pension age before 2020, yet under the Pensions Bill that increase will start in 2018. Why the U-turn?

Yet again, here is another reform important for making sure that our pensions system is affordable and sustainable that Labour has completely given up on. What we are doing with pensions is linking them back to earnings—something that was promised repeatedly but never done—and making sure that our pensions system is sustainable for the long term. That is what we are delivering—something never done by Labour.

Q5. The people of England have almost as much to lose from any move towards Scottish independence and the break-up of the Union as the people of Scotland. Will the Prime Minister therefore give us all a vote in a referendum on the subject? (55957)

I have made my views clear: if the Scottish Parliament wanted to hold a referendum, although I think that that would be a retrograde step, we would have to grant it. I would then join with everyone in this House and beyond who supports our United Kingdom to ensure that we keep it together. That is the process that we should go through, and it would involve a vote for people in Scotland, not for those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Q6. I am a very generous person, so I compliment the Government on eventually deciding to sign up to the EU human trafficking directive. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland said that he could identify 200 children trafficked into Scotland, and ECPAT UK has stated that 1,000 children have been trafficked into the rest of the UK. Both bodies recommend that the Government appoint an independent human trafficking rapporteur and strengthen the guardianship system for children. Given that the Government have cut specialist teams in the Home Office and the police in this area, how can they assure the House that the UK is prepared for the responsibility that comes with signing up to the EU directive? (55958)

I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says, because I know that he has a deep concern about trafficking, as do many Members of our House. Frankly, the fact that children and young adults are trafficked for sex and other purposes in our world is completely disgraceful, and we have to stamp it out. We have signed up to the directive, as he said, and we were already complying with the terms of the directive. We must do everything we can to stamp out this repulsive practice.

Nuclear Deterrent

Q7. What recent discussions he has had with the Leader of the Opposition on the future of the nuclear deterrent. (55959)

Although I have discussions on many issues with the Leader of the Opposition, the nuclear deterrent has not recently been one of them. That is partly because the Government’s policy is absolutely clear: we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent based on Trident. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will make a statement to Parliament today announcing our decision to proceed with initial gate.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for repeating our commitment to the future of Trident, its renewal and a continuous at-sea deterrent. Would he give his blessing to hon. Members in the Conservative party and on the Labour Benches who, like him, think that the nuclear deterrent should be above party politics, if they formed an alliance on this important issue, just as we did so successfully on the alternative vote?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be better if we could elevate this issue above party politics. Indeed, when we voted to go ahead with Trident it was on the basis of a Labour motion that was supported by most Labour MPs and almost all Conservative MPs. However, I have a feeling that my hon. Friend would never be satisfied, even if I placed a Trident submarine in the Solent, opposite his constituency, and handed him the codes—something, I am afraid, that I am simply not prepared to do.

Why continue to waste billions on a national virility symbol that has played no part in any of the military operations that we have taken part in over the last seven years, and is unlikely to play any part in the future? Does it not give justification and encouragement to other countries in acquiring their own nuclear weapons?

I do not accept either part of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. First, we are signatories to the non-proliferation agreement and are strong supporters of it. Secondly, the point of our nuclear deterrent is just that—deterrence. It is the ultimate insurance policy against blackmail or attack by other countries. That is why I believe it is right to maintain and replace it.


Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no case for giving the EU powers over taxation, least of all in the present circumstances? Will he assure me that the Government will simply say no to the proposed EU directive for a common corporate tax base? (55960)

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend. Those in the EU who want to see further tax harmonisation usually make one of two arguments: either they want to raise more money for the EU, which I do not agree with, or they are trying to reduce tax competition within the EU, which I also do not agree with. It is important that we keep our competitive tax rates and do not give the EU further coverage over our tax base.

Q9. The ministerial code is extensive in its guidelines and rules governing Ministers. What is the policy of the Prime Minister and his Government on Ministers who break the ministerial code? (55961)

Obviously, breaking the ministerial code is an extremely serious offence. I know that the hon. Gentleman has asked questions before about the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and let me be clear that the Employment Minister played no part in the decision-making process to award Work programme contracts. I want to make that point clear to the hon. Gentleman, as he has asked me the question.

Q10. May I echo the tribute that my right hon. Friend paid to Nigel Mead, the young Royal Marine who was serving with 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency?Given the recent inflation figures and the loose monetary conditions that contributed to the causes of the credit crunch, should my right hon. Friend now lead a fundamental debate reviewing the inflation target, and the operation and workings of the Monetary Policy Committee? (55962)

The point that I would make to my hon. Friend is that one of the fundamental causes of the problems during the credit crunch was the poor regulation of our banking system and credit. We have taken steps to put that right by putting the Bank of England back at the pinnacle of that system, after the failure of the system put in place by the Labour party. On inflation, I strongly support monetary policy being independent and established by the Bank of England. I do not want to go back to the bad old days of the Treasury setting interest rates. I think it is better to have that power vested in the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.

Q11. A number of my constituents with very serious health conditions are being declared fit for work under the Department for Work and Pensions work capability assessment. Can the Prime Minister give me a guarantee that the assessment will be fit for purpose by the time of the big move from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, especially in the light of cuts at the DWP? (55963)

Of course we want to get the tests right, but I believe that the tests are showing that it has been wrong to leave so many people on benefits for so long without proper assessment. Of course, we can always improve the processes, and we will ensure that we do that as we go along, but I think it is absolutely right to go through people on all benefits and ask whether they can work, and what help they need to work. Then if they are offered work that they do not take, frankly, they should not go on getting benefits.

Now that there is to be a full investigation into the abduction or murder of Madeleine McCann, is there not a much stronger case for a full investigation into the suicide or murder of Dr David Kelly?

My hon. Friend is raising two issues. First, on the issue of Madeleine McCann, it is welcome that the Metropolitan police have decided to review the case and the paperwork. On the issue of Dr David Kelly, I thought the results of the inquest that was carried out and the report into it were fairly clear, and I do not think it is necessary to take that case forward.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware that the most revealing statistic in recent days has been the fact that in recession-hit Britain, the billionaires have gone up by 20—an increase of 37%—in the first year of this Tory rule, while in the real world inflation is going through the roof and thousands of blind people are having to march through the streets of London to hang on to their disability living allowance? What a savage indictment of this lousy, rotten Tory Government, propped up by these pathetic Liberals—[Interruption.] (55964)

I think that the most revealing statistics today are the unemployment figures, which show that employment in our country is up by 118,000, that unemployment is down by 36,000, and that youth unemployment fell by 30,000. Those are the statistics of what is happening in the real world, rather than in the dinosaur land that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) still inhabits.

Q13. Hard-working families in Broxtowe want a cap on benefits, but the Labour party will vote against such a cap. Would the Prime Minister help us in this way: who is living in the real world and who is representing real families—us or them? (55965)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are proposing a cap of £26,000 on the benefits that a family can receive. People would have to earn something like £40,000 to get that level of income. Frankly, some people will be watching this and thinking, “I’m earning £15,000”—or £16,000, or £17,000—“Why am I paying my taxes to go to families that are getting more than £26,000 in benefits?” To answer my hon. Friend’s question, the Government are in touch with what people want, and the Labour party seems to have gone to sleep.

What can the Prime Minister say to the people of Sunderland, the largest city in the north-east, and to my constituents, about the news that the Olympic torch is not stopping in the city?

I have to say that I was not aware of that. Perhaps I can look into the route that the Olympic torch will take—and if it is possible to divert it via Sunderland, I will certainly do my best.

Q14. An increasing number of European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice judgments are deeply unpopular in our country, and intrude on what should be the preserve of member states. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that he will use every ounce of his considerable personal authority to support efforts to push back those overbearing institutions? (55966)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are leading the process of trying to reform the ECHR so that it pays more attention to the decisions of national Parliaments and, crucially, national courts. As for the ECJ, one thing that we must do is stop the transfer of further powers from Westminster to Brussels. That is why we are putting in place the referendum lock.

Does the Prime Minister think that the power and influence of this House of Commons will be diminished or increased by the reforms to the House of Lords that were announced yesterday?

I think that Parliament as a whole will be increased in terms of authority and respect. It is right to insert into the House of Lords some elected peers, so that we recognise that in the modern world, it is right to have two Chambers that are predominantly elected. That is the policy of the Government. It is clear to me that there are massive divisions on both sides of the House about that policy. However, this is an opportunity for the House of Commons to try to find a path through those, which we must do to achieve what was in every manifesto: elections to the House of Lords.

Q15. An independent investigation is due to report on allegations that Reading borough council, when last under Labour control, diverted section 106 moneys to plug gaps in the general budget, and also to fund unrelated projects. Can the Prime Minister offer any advice on how residents can make use of the Localism Bill to ensure that section 106 money is spent correctly? (55967)

I would make two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Localism Bill gives local people a greater ability to influence what happens to section 106 money. Secondly, because of the new homes bonus, councils that go ahead with building homes will get more money, so they need not feel that they must go for one huge development in order to draw in the section 106 money. It could be that a different pattern of development—one more in tune with what local people want—would deliver some of the benefits that local people want to see.

May I return the Prime Minister to his earlier remarks on rape? We all support moves to make the justice system easier for women, but many people out there—victims and non-victims alike—find his proposals to reduce sentences by up to 50% abhorrent and frightening. The only responsible thing for him to do is to take that out of any consultation now.

The point is that what the hon. Lady says is not what we are proposing—[Hon. Members: “Yes it is!”] Let me make this point as well: because this Government take the crime of rape so seriously, we have boosted the funding for rape crisis centres. The real need—frankly, the whole House should unite on this—is to change the fact that 94% of rapists are walking the streets free because they have not been convicted. That is what we have got to change.

There are currently 2,500 trade union representatives across the public sector paid not to provide the service that they represent but to carry out campaigning activities that should be funded by the unions—and because the unions do not pay their salaries, they can spend their subs on other things, such as subsidising that lot over there. Does the Prime Minister not think it time that that was reformed?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. [Hon. Members: “No he doesn’t!”] It is interesting that whenever someone raises a point about union funding they get shouted down by the Labour party, because Labour Members do not want any examination of what trade unions do, or how much money they give to the Labour party. [Interruption.] I think that they protest a little too much.

I am absolutely delighted to be supported by the trade union movement. May I ask the Prime Minister why he has not sacked his NHS adviser, Mark Britnell, who said that the NHS would be shown “no mercy”, and that the reforms would be a “big opportunity” for private profit and would transform the NHS into an

“insurance provider, not a state deliverer"?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clear this up. When I read about Mr Britnell being my adviser, I was slightly puzzled, because I have never heard of this person in my life, and he is not my adviser. However, I did a little research, and it turned out that he was an adviser to the previous Government. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Oh, don’t worry, there is plenty more. He helped to develop Labour’s NHS plan in 2000, which increased the role of the private sector, he was appointed by Labour as chief executive of one of the 10 strategic health authorities set up by Labour, and when the Leader of the Opposition was in the Cabinet, Mark Britnell was director general for NHS commissioning. Although I do not know him, therefore, I suspect that Labour Members know him rather well.

I was rather impressed by that last answer, but I will draw the Prime Minister on to something else. Yesterday the Government announced plans to reform the second Chamber. Can he tell the House whether he will use all means necessary, including the Parliament Acts, to protect the coalition’s legislative programme?

The short answer is yes. This is Government legislation, like any other piece of Government legislation, and will be scrutinised, carried through, debated and discussed, and then passed in the same way.