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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (97673)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (97684)

As I stated last week in my first biannual statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland, the threat remains severe. Tackling terrorism in all its forms and within the rule of law remains the highest priority for this Government. We will continue to work as closely as possible with our strategic partners in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to counter this threat.

I welcome the steps being taken to reduce the number of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, but as my right hon. Friend said in his recent written ministerial statement, violent activity is still being undertaken by loyalist organisations. What measures are being taken to address this issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and would immediately like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has done a huge amount of work, talking to a number of loyalist groups. There is absolutely no place for organised crime or violence in Northern Ireland. I would appeal to everybody to work closely with the PSNI and to pursue whatever political aims they have through peaceful, democratic means.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, in what will be a high-profile year for the United Kingdom—and for Harlow, given the number of Olympic events happening in and around my constituency—the security threat in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the Olympics, which present us with a wonderful opportunity to sell this country. Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Great Britain is graded as “substantial”. I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I saw the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland on Monday. Together we are determined to ensure that there should be no threat to a peaceful and successful Olympics.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a murder in Londonderry in recent weeks and the continuing targeting by dissident republicans of a number of people, and not just in the border area, but across Northern Ireland. Is he content in his discussions with the Chief Constable and the Minister for Justice that the necessary resources are in place to deal with the escalating problem?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that disgusting and deplorable murder. I spoke to the Chief Constable this morning, and I would remind the hon. Gentleman that we agreed a special package of £200 million at the request of the Chief Constable, who said in April last year:

“We have the resources, we have the resilience and we have the commitment.”

When he recently acquitted those charged with the murder of Tommy English, Mr Justice Gillen reminded us that the use of accomplice evidence is long established and, in the words of his judgment, is

“a price worth paying in the interest of protecting the public from major criminals”.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the relevant provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 will remain available to the PSNI?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to engage in dialogue with dissident organisations that show no signs at all of renouncing their violent or criminal ways?

My hon. Friend is quite right. As I said a few moments ago, there is absolutely no excuse for pursuing political aims by anything other than peaceful democratic means, through the Assembly and representation in this Parliament. There are small numbers of groups that do not accept the current settlement, and we are determined to bear down on them.

May I say again to the Secretary of State that we will stand with him in tackling any threat to security in Northern Ireland? In tackling terrorism, resources for the police and security services are obviously paramount. Does he also agree, however, that the many community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland contribute hugely to a peaceful and stable society? Can he therefore update the House on progress with the Peace IV funding bid to the European Union, which is so helpful to maintaining security?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continued support on these serious security issues, which must remain a bilateral matter. I entirely agree with him about the community projects and funds. What we are putting into security can only contain the problem; the long-term solution is to get deep into those communities. I called a meeting with Eamon Gilmore and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to look at the Peace IV funds, which we think would come from our existing budgets.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. The financial support for communities, currently almost £300 million, is crucial to combating paramilitarism, maintaining security and ensuring that we continue to build the peaceful future in Northern Ireland that we all want. Will he ensure that he gives this matter the urgent attention that it deserves?

I would genuinely like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we talk about this matter frequently, not only with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister but with the Justice Minister, whom I saw on Monday. A lot of these projects are now in devolved hands—many of them in the hands of the Department of Justice—and we entirely agree that they need to carry on.

United Kingdom

2. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Northern Ireland of remaining part of the UK. (97674)

This Government firmly believe in the United Kingdom. We believe that what we can achieve together will always be much more than we can ever do apart. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we will always back the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am extremely grateful for that reply. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Union ensures that all parts of the UK can be part of a larger and stronger economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having only 2.8% of the UK population, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom. I was interested to see a poll yesterday that had been conducted by Queen’s university, which showed that 82.6% wanted to remain in the UK, and only 17.4% wanted a united Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in addition to there being enormous advantages and benefits for Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom itself has been strengthened and enriched by the contribution of the people of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, of the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom—not least through the willing and voluntary service of many generations of Ulstermen and women in Her Majesty’s forces?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Right across every sphere of national life, there are glorious examples—spectacularly so in golf this week—of individuals from Northern Ireland who have shone.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s endorsement of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. He rightly refers to the great sporting success of our golfers, and let us not forget our snooker player who won the world championship. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the opinion poll conducted in the highly respected Queen’s university survey, which showed that more than 80% of people wanted to stay within the United Kingdom. Will he now confirm to the House that he has no intention whatever of organising any kind of border poll in Northern Ireland, given the settled position of the people there and the levels of satisfaction with the present constitutional settlement?

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that. As Secretary of State, I have the right to call a poll when I feel like it; I have an obligation to call a poll when there is a clear indication that there would be a vote for a united Ireland. Given that only 17.4% were in favour of that option, and the fact that I have received hardly any phone calls, e-mails or letters on the issue, I have no intention of calling a poll at the moment. We should concentrate on the economy and on building a shared future; that is the real priority for the people in Northern Ireland.

In addition to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said about the economy and the many great advantages to all parts of the United Kingdom of being part of the Union, will he confirm that the present level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland could not be sustained under any other constitutional arrangements, regardless of the destination of the Province?

The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a telling point. Public spending per head in Northern Ireland is currently £10,706, which is about 25% higher than it is in England. That is a huge advantage for Northern Ireland. It gives us time to rebalance the economy as well as showing the key role that membership of the UK plays for the people in Northern Ireland.

Further to the words of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), one of the advantages and benefits of the United Kingdom is a common defence policy, to which men and women of Northern Ireland have contributed greatly. How does the Secretary of State feel, on today of all days, about men and women who are military personnel being made compulsorily redundant?

I am a strong supporter of the military in Northern Ireland. I wear the Royal Irish wristband, because that regiment is stationed at Tern Hill in my constituency. [Interruption.] What I feel is that we inherited a complete mess from the last Labour Government. We are currently borrowing £232,000 a minute, so, sadly, the Government have had to take very difficult decisions.

Bill of Rights

3. What meetings he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. (97675)

In September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to party leaders suggesting the possibility of the Assembly taking forward work in this area; we have yet to receive a response. Ministers and officials have continued to discuss this issue with human rights organisations since.

The Minister will know, of course, that the establishment of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was part of the Good Friday agreement, and that it is a matter for all people in Northern Ireland. Will he not accept, however, that both he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have a duty to bring about consensus rather than simply to listen to what people are saying without doing what is right and proper to ensure that we get consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

The House will want to acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s part in the Good Friday agreement in trying to pursue the Bill of Rights. Frankly, however, that was when he should have pursued it, instead of squandering the good will that he and his Government had generated at that time. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a couple of quick examples of our problem. First, the Secretary of State wrote to the First and Deputy First Ministers and all the party leaders back in September, but he has had no reply to his letters. Secondly, the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to the Office of the First Minister, asking it to nominate someone for the commission. It is now March, but no reply has been received. We thus face a problem, as we see no way forward without consensus.

Does the Minister agree that this important work towards a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, human rights more generally there—might have a useful role to play in the Government’s determination to do something about significant reform of the European Court of Human Rights?

As my hon. Friend knows, a UK commission is being set up to look into the matter. We want Northern Ireland to be represented on it. Equally, we believe that this commission could provide the necessary vehicle for the inclusion of rights particular to Northern Ireland.

Has the Secretary of State had any meetings or correspondence with other stakeholder groups that might be interested in or concerned about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland—Churches, advice bureaux or Women’s Aid, for example?

We meet Church leaders frequently, and this is one of the matters we discuss with them. It is fair to say that the Secretary of State and I recently met the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights—and we discussed this matter with her. We cannot get much higher than that.

As well as corresponding with the leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland, will the Minister kindly tell us whether his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General actually believes that Northern Ireland needs a separate Bill of Rights?

My right hon. and learned Friend came to Northern Ireland several times when we were in opposition. He was always of the belief, as we are, that any rights particular to Northern Ireland should be tagged on to any UK Bill of Rights. I alluded earlier to a lack of consensus. The hon. Lady will be aware that in a debate in the Assembly last year, Members voted by 46 to 42 against a motion calling for a robust, enforceable Bill of Rights. As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) earlier, that is a perfect example of the problem we face. We cannot impose; this has to come from within Northern Ireland. When it does, we will respond accordingly.

Pat Finucane Review

4. What representations he has received from the Finucane family since his announcement of the Pat Finucane review. (97676)

I have not received any representations from the Finucane family since the establishment of the Pat Finucane review last October.

The Secretary of State will know that the Finucane family, Madden and Finucane Solicitors, Judge Cory, the Irish Government, the United Nations special rapporteur and the Weston Park agreement have all called for a public inquiry. May I urge him to meet the Finucane family and Madden and Finucane Solicitors, so that the truth of the murder of Pat Finucane can be established and the reconciliation can be completed?

We have gone into the issue in some detail in written statements and in an oral statement made a couple of months ago. I wrote to Mrs Finucane soon after we came to power, and when I met her in November 2010—I was the first Secretary of State to do so for some years—I established with her that we wanted to get to the truth. I think that the method we have chosen, a review of a huge archive that is more extensive than that available to Saville, is a quicker way of getting to the truth, and will deliver satisfaction to the family. I am more than happy to meet them, and I hope that they will work closely with the de Silva review.

When was the Secretary of State made aware that the legal representatives of the Finucane family were indicating that they would accept a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, based on the Baha Mousa standards and principles? Did he inform the Prime Minister, and who decided to head off that credible option at the pass at the Downing street meeting?

We discussed all sorts of options for arriving at the truth as fast as possible. My public statement is on the record, and a judicial review is in progress. I think that the full details will be revealed in that.

In the context of victim issues such as the Finucane murder, is the Secretary of State alarmed by what has happened in relation to other cases, such as the murder of Tommy English? In that case, the police appointed an independent oversight team consisting of a political appointee and an English barrister. It was the first time that such a team had ever been appointed in connection with a British case involving a police investigation. Does the Secretary of State agree that that was a reckless act which must never be repeated in an independent police investigation?

I think that in all these areas we must be very careful to respect the independence of the police in operational matters, the independence of the prosecuting authorities and the independence of the judiciary, and I would apply those principles to the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

The case of Pat Finucane is one of many cases in Northern Ireland that reflect the tragic legacy of our past, and we believe that a comprehensive process is needed to address that. Can the Secretary of State update us on his recent discussions with local parties about how to proceed with that approach?

As the hon. Lady knows, I established that there was no consensus at my meeting with her and other members of her party on Monday. Some parties want to draw a line in the sand and cease all activity, while others favour the establishment of an extensive international legacy commission. We will continue to work, and talk to individuals and local parties, but at the moment I see no consensus.

Inward Investment

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First and Deputy First Ministers and their colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to attract foreign direct investment, and I have just returned from accompanying the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on a trade mission to the Gulf states in support of two Northern Ireland businesses.

On the eve of the Budget, and in the light of the clear need to improve our economy and opportunities for inward investment, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the co-operation between Invest NI and UK Trade and Investment?

I have made a very good assessment. I am a member of the Economic Affairs (Trade and Investment) Cabinet Sub-Committee, and I am glad to say that it is to discuss ways in which UKTI and the devolved Administrations can co-operate better. There will be a meeting later in the year, which I think will benefit both organisations.

Despite the best efforts of the Northern Ireland Executive, rates of business formation in Northern Ireland are lower than in the rest of the UK. What plans do the Government have to make good their fault as identified by the Business Secretary that they lack a compelling vision on the economy?

As this is Northern Ireland questions, I think I should limit myself to Northern Ireland. We have a very clear idea of the economy in Northern Ireland. We want to support it, and we believe it needs to be rebalanced. [Interruption.] This afternoon the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy will meet to examine the possible devolvement of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, which we believe would be a significant move. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. As a matter of courtesy to the people of Northern Ireland, it would be good to have a bit of hush.

I am sure the Minister will agree that inward investment into Northern Ireland is always welcome, but we must not forget small indigenous businesses that have been there for many years. [Interruption.] Will he join me in welcoming the £30-million investment by the Asda group in one site in my constituency, which is in an area that has not had investment for 35 years? [Interruption.]

Of course I welcome that investment. The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of business in his constituency, and I look forward to spending a day with him shortly. He will be aware of the growth fund, which will help small and medium-sized enterprises with strong potential for growth, particularly in the international markets. We believe these moves by the devolved Administration are the right ones.

Has any progress been made on the devolution of corporation tax responsibility? When can we expect something to happen on that front?

As I have said, following the Loyal Address to Her Majesty, there will this afternoon be a joint ministerial working group meeting, at which corporation tax will be discussed.

Economic Development

7. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (97680)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First and Deputy First Ministers and their colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to develop the economy. We also work closely together on the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy, which—I now say for the third time—will meet this afternoon.

Manufacturing exports from Northern Ireland rose in the last quarter, which is great news in respect of the effort to rebalance the economy. What further steps is the Minister taking to ensure our exports increase?

It is good news that Northern Ireland sells £12.4 billion-worth of manufactured goods abroad, and has almost recovered to the pre-recession level in sales to Great Britain—indeed, sales to GB achieved a new record. Those are very positive trends, on which we seek to build.

Investment in research and development is crucial for economic development in Northern Ireland, just as it is in Macclesfield. Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland Executive on the 6% increase in research and development investment over the past year?

Yes, I will. Research and development is crucial to the development of the economy, and investment in it increased by 6% in Northern Ireland last year, to £334 million. The Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is keen to continue with research and development, not least for small and medium-sized enterprises, which both she and I believe are vital.

Given the need to pump-prime the economy in Northern Ireland and given the fact that the Finance Ministers met on Monday, are the disputes about the £18 billion allocation to Northern Ireland as part of the devolution dividend near resolution, and if not, what are the areas of disagreement?

That was not raised officially at the meeting, but later on I had my own bilateral over a cup of coffee with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place. We discussed progress on this matter, and he informed me that it continues, but it is slow. The Chancellor is now in his place, too, and he may be interested to learn of what the hon. Lady has just said. This is still being discussed, and it will take some time.

Economic development in Northern Ireland is being held up by the reluctance of banks to lend to viable businesses and their withdrawing of capital from existing businesses. What discussions has the Minister had about whether banks in Northern Ireland are meeting their Merlin targets? Also, why is it that the Merlin target figures can be published for Scotland, but not for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which he also made in the Finance Ministers quadrilateral last week. We need to get more lending to companies in Northern Ireland, where we are fishing in a smaller pool because we do not have so many banks to lend. We want to see those figures and to work together to see how we can get more lending to smaller companies.

Defence Capability

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the contribution of soldiers from Northern Ireland to UK defence capability; and if he will make a statement. (97681)

I would like to pay tribute to all those from Northern Ireland and, indeed, from all regions of the United Kingdom who serve in our armed forces. I speak regularly with ministerial colleagues across Whitehall on matters relating to Northern Ireland, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much can be learned from the Royal Irish Regiment, which recruits from all sections of the community?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I am very proud to have the Royal Irish stationed in my constituency. I went to the Barossa dinner on Monday, celebrating the capture of the first French eagle with the cry:

“By Jaysus, boys, I have the cuckoo.”

The regiment is a glorious example of an organisation that brings people together from all parts of the community, including from south of the border.

In recognising the tremendous sacrifice of our brave soldiers from Northern Ireland in contributing to the defence of the United Kingdom, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a time bomb of mental health problems facing those who return from the field of conflict? What steps are being taken to assist those people?

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments and I pay tribute to the three rangers of the Royal Irish who sadly lost their lives in the Helmand campaign last year. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the mental health problems that can occur and I discuss this with my right hon. Friends in Cabinet. He should also discuss it with the local Ministers who are responsible for delivering those services in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I hope you will permit me, Mr Speaker, before I answer any questions, to make the following announcement. Yesterday, a Warrior armoured fighting vehicle on patrol near the eastern border of Helmand province was struck by an explosion. It is with very great sadness that I must tell the House that six soldiers are missing, believed killed. Five of them are from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one is from the 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of those brave servicemen. This will be the largest loss of life in a single incident in Afghanistan since 2006. It takes the overall number of casualties that we have suffered in Afghanistan to more than 400. Every death and every injury reminds us of the human cost paid by our armed forces to keep our country safe. I have spoken this morning to the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They each stressed the commitment of our troops to the mission and to getting the job done. I know that everyone will want a message of support and backing for our troops and their families to go out from this House today.

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 echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to the fallen. Their service and their sacrifice humbles us all. With this terrible news in mind, will my right hon. Friend use his meetings next week with President Obama to co-ordinate a prudent draw-down of allied forces in Afghanistan and to ensure that Afghan forces get the training and equipment they need to take over?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Next week is an opportunity to make sure that Britain and America, as the two largest contributors to the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan, are absolutely in lock-step about the importance of training up the Afghan army, training up the Afghan police and making sure that all NATO partners have a properly co-ordinated process for transition in that country, so that the Afghans can take responsibility for the security of their own country, and we can bring our forces home.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing profound sadness at the terrible news of our six soldiers who are missing, feared dead. Today, we are reminded of the ongoing commitment and sacrifice that our service personnel make on our behalf. By putting themselves in harm’s way for our benefit, they demonstrate the utmost service and courage. We owe them and all those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan an immense debt of gratitude, and our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues at this terrible time.

At moments like these, does the Prime Minister agree that we must restate clearly the reasons for our mission in Afghanistan? A more stable, self-governing Afghanistan will produce more stable outcomes in that region and ensure greater safety for our citizens here at home.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words. He is absolutely right. Our mission in Afghanistan remains vital to our national security. We are there to prevent that country from being a safe haven for al-Qaeda, from where they might plan attacks on the UK or our allies. Our task is simple: to equip the Afghan Government and the forces of Afghanistan with the capability and capacity to take care of their own national security without the need for foreign troops on their soil. That is our aim. We are making progress. The Afghan national army stands at 184,000, on target for 195,000 by the end of this year. The Afghan national police, standing at 145,000, are on target for 157,000 at the end of this year. We are making progress. It is absolutely essential for bringing our troops home, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: we need to restate clearly why we are there and why it is in our national interest. The commander of the battalion told me today that his men have high morale, they know they are doing an important mission for the future of this country and the future of the world, and they want our support as they go about it.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. He and I also agree that it is essential that we build now for a political settlement in Afghanistan for when our troops are gone. Can he take this moment to update the House on what diplomatic progress is being made on securing the broader and more inclusive political settlement needed for a stable Afghanistan? Does he further agree that the whole international community must up the pace of progress towards that political settlement, to ensure that we do all we can to make concrete progress between now and the departure of our combat troops at the end of 2014?

We are clearly planning the increase in the army and the police—the physical forces that will take over—but the greatest difference we could make is a stronger political settlement that will ensure that Afghanistan has the chance for real peace, stability, prosperity and security in the future. There are some good signs, in that there are now proper discussions between the Afghan and Pakistan Governments. A clear message is coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to all those who are engaged in violence to give up that violence and join a political process. There is strong support for that across the Arab world, particularly in the middle east. We need to give that process every possible support and send a clear message to the Taliban: whether it is our troops or Afghan troops who are there, the Taliban will not win on the battlefield. They never win on the battlefield, and now it is time for a political settlement to give the country a chance for peaceful progress.

I, too, echo the Prime Minister’s tribute—as do other Members across the House—to our brave men and women who are asked to make sacrifices on a daily basis to keep our country safe and ensure a peaceful Afghanistan. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, despite those tragic events, ISAF will remain in Afghanistan in one form or another for as long as it takes to complete the mission for a safe, secure and stable Afghanistan, with the Afghan people taking responsibility for their own security?

We have a clear timetable, which is all about transitioning parts of Afghanistan to Afghan security control, to allow our troops to move into the background and eventually out of the country. In Helmand itself, where we have been for all these years—one of the toughest parts of Afghanistan—Lashkar Gah, the effective capital, is now controlled by Afghan forces. The process is ongoing. I believe it can be properly completed by the end of 2014, so that we leave in a proper and orderly fashion, handing over to Afghan troops. Let us be clear: the relationship between Britain and other countries and Afghanistan will go on. It will be a relationship of military training, of diplomacy, of support, of aid and help for that country. We must learn the lesson of the past, which is what a mistake it was to turn away from Afghanistan.

Q2. The Prime Minister’s Business Secretary says of the Government’s action on economic growth:“Our actions are, frankly, rather piecemeal.”Does the Prime Minister agree? (98315)

Obviously, I do not agree with that. What this Government are doing is cutting corporation tax, investing in apprenticeships, building enterprise zones, making sure that right across our economy the rebalancing is taking place that is necessary for sustained economic growth.

Q3. My constituents have to wait longer to get a hospital appointment than they would in England, they are five times less likely to get certain cancer drugs than they are in England, and if they get to hospital, they are twice as likely to get an infection as they are in England. Does this prove to the Prime Minister that we cannot trust Labour with the NHS? (98316)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that, if you look at the NHS in Wales, it shows what happens if we do not put in the resources—the money—because the resources are being cut in Wales, and also if we do not reform the NHS to make sure that there is a proper chance for people to get the treatments they need. There is not the cancer drugs fund in Wales, there are much longer waiting times, and there are much longer waiting lists, and that is an example of what happens without the money and without the reform.

Q4. The Prime Minister is proud of his welfare reforms. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Can he look me in the eye and tell me he is proud of the decision to remove all disability benefits from a 10-year-old child who can hardly walk and who cannot toilet herself because she has cerebral palsy? Is he truly proud? (98317)

This Government are not cutting the money that is going into disability benefits. We are replacing disability living allowance with the personal independence payment. As someone who has actually filled out the form for disability allowance and had a child with cerebral palsy, I know how long it takes to fill in that form. We are going to have a proper medical test so that people who are disabled and need that help get it more quickly.

Order. I say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) that he will stay silent. That sort of noise is not acceptable in this forum.

On Friday, PC Trevor Hall and PCSO Claire Miller, two of the best from Warwickshire police, came to see me about the life-threatening effects of a new legal high called black mamba on the life of a 13-year-old in my constituency. I am informed that black mamba is the latest legal high being sold on our streets in the UK. Now that we have regulations that allow us to act swiftly to ban potentially dangerous legal highs, will my right hon. Friend act on this substance immediately and—

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who should resume his seat. The question is too long.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We are determined to stamp out these so-called legal highs. The Home Office is aware of this particular drug. We now have the drugs early warning system which brings these things to our attention, but as he says, a decision needs swiftly to be made and I will make sure that happens.

Tim Howes is a delivery driver from Dartford. He is a married father of three and the sole earner in his family. He currently works 20 hours a week. From next month, under the Prime Minister’s proposals, unless he works 24 hours a week he will lose all his working tax credit, some £60 a week. He says:

“I have approached my employer to possibly increase my hours but I have been told there simply aren’t the hours there. I would love to work full-time.”

What is the Prime Minister’s advice to Tim Howes?

First, let me set the context for this—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I will answer the question very directly, but we need to reform the tax credits system because we have a massive budget deficit. When we came to office, tax credits were going to nine out of 10 families, including people right up the income scale, including Members of Parliament. What our changes do, in terms of this specific case, is deal with the basic unfairness that we ask a single parent to work 16 hours before getting access to the tax credit system, so it is only right to say to couples that between them they should work 24 hours—that is, 12 hours each. If that is the case, and they do that, they will be better off.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that that answer is no use to Mr Howes and his family. He cannot find the extra hours and so will lose his—[Interruption.] The Defence Secretary shouts from a sedentary position, “What about his wife?” Let me tell him that his wife is looking after their three school-age children and cannot find hours that are consistent with that. Tim Howes and 200,000 couples will lose as a result of this. Before the election, the Prime Minister said in the TV debates that for Labour

“to say that actually the changes we’re making would hit low income families is simply not true.”

Why has he broken that promise?

We have increased the child tax credit that goes to the poorest families in our country. To answer the right hon. Gentleman very directly, when we say to a single parent that they have to work 16 hours to get access to the tax credits system, I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask a couple to work an average of 12 hours each. That is what we are asking. In a way, this relates to a bigger picture. We have a massive budget deficit. If he is not going to support the welfare cap, the housing benefit cap, cuts to legal aid or cuts to tax credits, how on earth would he deal with the deficit?

In case the Prime Minister did not realise this, in Dartford, where the Howes family live, five people are chasing every vacancy. It is just not good enough for him to say, “Well, they should go out to work.” If they cannot find the work, they will find that they are better off on benefits than in work because of the Prime Minister’s changes, which is something he said he wanted to avoid. It is also about this matter of trust. He made a clear promise, just like he made a clear promise on child benefit. Before the election, he said:

“I’m not going to flannel you. I’m going to give it to you straight. I like the child benefit. I wouldn’t change child benefit. I wouldn’t means-test it. I don’t think that is a good idea.”

We have already established that he has broken his promise to low-income families. Why has he broken his promise to middle-income families, too?

Here we go: another change the right hon. Gentleman does not support. He seems to think that people on—[Interruption.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that people earning £25,000 should pay for his child benefit? I do not agree with that. We have to make savings, so not giving child benefit to the wealthiest 15% of families in our country—of course it is a difficult decision. Life is about difficult decisions. Government is about difficult decisions. It is a pity that he is just not capable of taking one.

First of all, we are talking about families on £43,000 a year. Secondly, it is no good the Prime Minister saying that he now supports the principle that people on high incomes should not get child benefit, because before the election he supported the opposite principle and said quite clearly to families up and down this country, “I’m not going to take away your child benefit.” In my book there is a very simple word for that: a broken promise—it is a broken promise by this Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “That’s two.”] They are right: there are two broken promises. The reality is that lower-income families are losing their tax credits and middle-income families are losing their child benefit. Does the Prime Minister understand why people just do not believe him when he says, “We’re all in this together”?

I think that it is time the right hon. Gentleman listened to his own shadow Chief Secretary, who said that

“we must ensure we pass the test of fiscal credibility. If we don’t get this right, it doesn’t matter what we say about anything else.”

She is absolutely right. Reducing our deficit takes tough decisions. He has opposed every single cut. He has opposed the welfare cap, the housing benefit cap and legal aid cuts. It is no wonder that when people dial up a radio phone-in and eventually work out who he is, they all say the same thing: he is not remotely up to the job.

Following last week’s statement on the use of wild animals in circuses, can the Prime Minister inform the House whether a ban will be introduced in this Parliament and before the next general election?

I do want to see a ban introduced. It is the overwhelming opinion of Members in this House. We are putting in place a regulatory scheme in the short term, but my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary made it absolutely clear that it is our intention to introduce a ban in full as well.

Q6. Today, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee published a major report on consumer debt. Last November R3 reported that 60% of people were worried about debt and 3.5 million were considering payday loans. In the year since the Government concluded their consultation, no action has been announced. Will the Prime Minister commit to act now to protect vulnerable families, or will he accept that he is simply out of touch with the financial reality facing them as a result of his policies? (98320)

I think, as the last exchange just proved, we are worried about debt. The whole country needs to be worried about debt, and the problem is that the Labour party does not seem to understand that there is a debt problem. There has been a debt problem in our economy, there is also a debt problem for many households, and we do need to make sure that they get help. That is why we are making sure that citizens advice bureaux continue to get help, as they are one of the most important services for helping families in that way.

Q7. The coalition agreement contains many bold and brilliant proposals to give Britain the change that we need: open primaries, a bonfire of the quangos, and radical localism. Sometimes, however, progress has been a little slower than some of us on the Government Benches would have hoped: sometimes the radicalism has been ever so slightly blunted. Is that because of the constraints of coalition, or because of the Whitehall machine? (98321)

It was good to have such a helpful start from my hon. Friend. I think that this Government have done a number of radical things, right across the board, whether it is welfare reform to make sure that it always pays to work, education reform to give greater independence to our schools, or tax reform to give us competitive tax rates. Of course I always want us to go further and faster. I do not blame the Whitehall machine; in the end the politicians must always take responsibility.

My constituent James Toner was arrested in Goa almost three years ago on drugs charges. He was subsequently released when it turned out that the police officers who arrested him were themselves under investigation for corruption. He has spent the past 22 months in legal limbo, his passport has been confiscated, he cannot travel, he cannot work and he does not even know when his case is going to go to court. Does the Prime Minister agree that justice delayed is justice denied, and will he make sure that a Foreign Office Minister meets me urgently to discuss the case of my constituent?

I will certainly do that. It is very important that the hon. Gentleman and others feel that they can stand up for their constituents on the other side of the world who are being treated in this way, and that we can take up these cases. The work of Fair Trials International and other organisations is very important in that respect, and I shall make sure that the Foreign Office meets him soon.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the project that is starting a pilot in my constituency in September, funded by the private sector, the London borough of Redbridge, and various charities, and in congratulating also the co-chairs, Richard and Philippa Mintz, and the inter-faith group on their work to get young people with special needs into employment? (98322)

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in supporting that project. It is important that we help children with special needs through not only their schooling time but that transition after school and into college, and then try to help them to find work. It sounds like this is an excellent project that deserves his support.

Is it true:

“The problem is that policy is being run by two public school boys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care either”?

Those are not my words, but the words of a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries).

I would have thought that, coming from the north-east, the hon. Lady should be celebrating the fact that Nissan is going to build its new car in Britain—instead of whatever nonsense it was that she read out.

Q9. May I add my personal tributes to our fallen? On Monday, Clare’s law came into being. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to meet me and Sergeant Carney-Haworth to learn at first hand how his team’s groundbreaking initiative in Devonport, Operation Encompass, is helping to make sure that children in my Sutton and Devonport constituency grow up in an area where there is no longer any domestic violence? (98323)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this constituency issue and to do so this week, when tomorrow we have international women’s day. The move that has been made on Clare’s law is important; it is a breakthrough to give women this information if they seek it. I want us to follow that by looking into a specific offence of stalking. I want us to continue to support the rape crisis centres, as we are under this Government, and to make sure that we act on domestic violence right across the board.

Visits (Central Ayrshire)

I know that the Prime Minister is coming to my constituency very soon indeed—in fact, later this month to attend his Tory party conference in Troon. However, I want to know whether he agrees that the uncertainty that is being created by the Nats around the separatist idea of a referendum that is being delayed for longer than it should be is leading to uncertainty about inward investment in my constituency and elsewhere. While he is in Troon, will he come with me to see some of the potential for inward investment? That is a promise that he made to me at a meeting a year ago.

When the hon. Gentleman asked me that question a year ago, I did in fact meet a delegation from his constituency. I agree with every word that he said, and I make him this offer: as I am going to be in Troon, he can make the short trip from his constituency and we can share a platform together to point out the dangers of separatism and the nationalist agenda. Are you up for it?


Order. I want the hon. Lady’s question to be heard in full with a bit of quiet and perhaps a bit of respect.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Labour-controlled Corby borough council is trying to suppress a report into the scandal at the Corby Cube. Twenty-six million pounds of Corby people’s money has been wasted, and now councillors are being threatened with disciplinary action if they blow the whistle. Does the Prime Minister agree that the council should come clean with Corby people?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. There are now proposals for total transparency in local government so that expenditure over £500 should be separately documented and so that all the salaries, names, budgets and responsibilities of staff paid over £58,000 should be published, including councillors’ allowances and expenses and all the organisational charts. We want the wind of transparency to go right through local government, Corby included.

Article 16 of the European fiscal compact says very clearly that it will be incorporated into the European treaty in five years’ time. Will the Prime Minister promise to veto that, or does he not expect to be here in five years’ time?

The treaty says very clearly that it can be incorporated only with the permission of all 27 member states of the European Union, and our position on that has not changed.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me, along with the thousands of families with missing loved ones, including the family of missing York woman Claudia Lawrence, in supporting the sensible recommendations in the Justice Committee’s report into missing people’s rights and the presumption of death? (98326)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I pay tribute to Peter Lawrence and his support for the Missing People campaign. The Justice Committee has produced an important report on this issue. We acknowledge that the current law is complicated. I recognise all the emotional and practical difficulties faced by those whose loved ones are missing. We are going to consider the recommendations very carefully, and perhaps I will write to my hon. Friend when we come up with the answer.

Q13. If the Prime Minister manages to persuade his Chancellor to remove some of the anomalies in his child benefit policy to help people earning over £43,000 a year, will he then take action to help the couples on the minimum wage who are set to lose £3,000 from April? (98327)

I think that we dealt with that earlier. Quite apart from the point about the unfairness of a single person having to work 16 hours, we are making a long-term reform with universal credit, which will mean that everyone is always better off in work, no matter how many hours they work. Labour had 13 years to put that in place; we will have it done in 18 months.

On Saturday, 2,000 of us marched through Kendal to present a petition of 11,000 people calling for radiotherapy services at Westmorland general hospital in Kendal. Will my right hon. Friend meet me, the commissioners and cancer campaigners to ensure that we bring cancer treatment to Kendal, so that local lives can be made longer and people’s journeys shorter?

I know from having visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency how important the issue of the hospital is. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is fully engaged in this issue. Perhaps I can fix a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend to ensure that the issue is dealt with.

Q14. The Royal Bank of Scotland recently axed another 300 jobs, mostly in Edinburgh and London. However, the jobs have not gone completely, but have been outsourced to India. The Prime Minister and the Government act on behalf of the biggest shareholder, so when will they stand up to RBS and prevent the needless job losses in the UK? (98328)

We must recognise that the Government put £45 billion into the Royal Bank of Scotland on behalf of the country. That is £2,500 for every working family in the country. The most important thing is that we get that money back. We need RBS to return to health. It has to deal with its bad loans and the trouble that it got into, and it has to grow the rest of its business. We will then be in a position to return to people the money that they put into the bank. That is what matters most.

May I offer my sympathies to the families and friends of the six soldiers who have been killed, five of whom served in 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, the Duke of Wellington’s, with which I had the privilege to serve? I recognise and support the vital role that our troops are endeavouring to undertake, but we need to bring them back in 2015. I ask the Prime Minister to ensure that we do everything that we can to support the families of those who have been lost.

My hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, because of his service in our armed forces. It is important that we have the date for our troops coming home from Afghanistan, which I set. We will not be there in a combat role and will not be there in anything like the current numbers by the end of 2014. It is also important to ensure that, between now and then, our troops have all the equipment that they need to make them as safe as possible. I pay tribute to the previous Government, who started putting extra money into vehicles in 2006. Since then, we have spent about £2 billion on better-protected vehicles and an additional £160 million on counter-IED equipment. He is right that we need to do more for the families of our armed forces at home. That is what the military covenant process and the Cabinet Committee, which I chaired for the first meeting, are all about.

Using Applied Language Solutions was supposed to save West Midlands police £750,000 a year, and yet last week we heard that the shortage of translators leaves the police unable to quiz suspects for weeks. Is that the kind of service we can expect when our police forces tender out services to private security companies?

I do not think that there is anything wrong with the police getting back-office functions carried out by private sector organisations. Indeed, when the shadow policing Minister was asked about that at the Select Committee on Home Affairs, he said that he was quite relaxed about it. I think that that is right. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is considering whether to become a police and crime commissioner. That will be an excellent way of calling the police to account, and I hope that many other hon. Members will consider it as a career change.

Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to support Mayor Boris Johnson in London, who is pleading with the Pru, our biggest insurer, not to leave the City of London because of the attack by the European Union on the competitiveness of the City? I invite my right hon. Friend to block the fiscal union treaty by making an application to the European Court of Justice that it is illegal, until we get the City safeguards that he was demanding in December.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise the case of the Prudential, because it is an example of ill-thought-out EU legislation endangering a great British business, which should have its headquarters here in the UK. I recognise the importance of this matter. We are working extremely hard at the European level and with the Prudential to deal with it. I know that we have the full support of Boris Johnson in doing that.