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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2012

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Reform

I regularly discuss the benefits of our reform agenda with Executive Ministers and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I spoke yesterday to the Minister for Social Development, who will shortly introduce a welfare reform Bill to the Assembly. Lord Freud, the Minister responsible for welfare reform, will visit Northern Ireland again tomorrow and Friday to continue the discussions.

As my right hon. Friend will know, many aspects of social welfare are already devolved to Northern Ireland. Does he agree that it is very important that parity with Great Britain is not broken on this issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would be very damaging to Northern Ireland if parity were broken, because these reforms will bring tremendous benefit to many of the most disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland. At the same time, this very much has to be a Northern Ireland Bill. I am working very closely with the local Minister, to whom I spoke yesterday, to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility so that when the measure comes to the Assembly, it conforms to the needs of local communities.

I say to the Secretary of State, SUFTUM, and I am sure he will on Saturday.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that the welfare reform flexibilities that our Northern Ireland Minister is seeking will be accommodated at a policy level, but also at a practical level within the universal credit IT system? It will be vital to have those flexibilities in place next year.

For those who are not enlightened, “SUFTUM” is “Stand up for the Ulster men”. We all heartily congratulate the team on having got to where they will be on Saturday, and we wish them all the best.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that flexibility means that the detailed welfare reform measures must be adapted to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The most obvious one is that there is no council tax in Northern Ireland. I am working closely with the local Minister, and Lord Freud, who has been a frequent visitor and will be in Northern Ireland for two days at the end of the week.

Is the Secretary of State aware that conservative estimates indicate that when welfare reform is implemented in Northern Ireland, it will remove about half a billion pounds from the pockets and purses of low-income households? Apart from the social consequences, will he give his assessment of the macro-economic effects of that significant cash withdrawal from the Northern Ireland economy?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, but I have to remind her that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, does not agree with her. He has said:

“The claim that welfare spend will fall in Northern Ireland and will lose £500 million is clearly not true. All that will happen is that welfare spending will still be increasing but at a slower rate than if no reform agenda is pursued.”

National Crime Agency

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the implications for Northern Ireland of the replacement of the Serious Organised Crime Agency by the National Crime Agency. (106610)

I am in regular discussion with both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Minister of Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I believe that the plans for a National Crime Agency should be welcomed in Northern Ireland as a significant step forward in tackling the threat from serious, organised and complex crime in a way that respects the accountability mechanisms in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State, but does he agree that notwithstanding the views on the National Crime Agency, there are specific issues to consider in Northern Ireland about the direction and control of police officers? Will he say more about how he intends to address those issues?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the chance to clarify that I have worked very closely with the Justice Minister David Ford and the Home Secretary here to ensure that the NCA’s systems and methods of direction are totally compatible with the arrangements in Northern Ireland, which provide strong local accountability. In effect, no direction will go forward without the compliance of the Chief Constable. I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that horrendous crimes such as trafficking need an overarching authority working in close liaison and co-operation with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and, through the PSNI, with the Garda in Dublin.

In a recent report, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlighted the importance of the work of the Organised Crime Task Force in the fight against fuel and tobacco smuggling, and laundering and counterfeiting. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the National Crime Agency will play a similar role in the Organised Crime Task Force to that played by the Serious Organised Crime Agency?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and his Committee for their interesting report, which showed significant progress in bearing down on fuel smuggling. I absolutely reassure him that the intention of the National Crime Agency is to work on the success of SOCA and beef it up, and to bear down on many such crimes, which have an international nature.

Does the Secretary of State accept that role definition and delineation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the National Crime Agency is important? Does he envisage a memorandum of understanding in that regard, and if so, would it be published?

I entirely agree that the arrangements between the new agency and the devolved police in Northern Ireland must be absolutely clear. There has been an exchange of letters between me, the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland and the Home Secretary here, with an absolutely clear statement that there can be no direction from the NCA, only co-operation with the approval of the Chief Constable.

Will the National Crime Agency have more resources than its predecessor to tackle cross-border criminal activity?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the proposed changes will have no detrimental effect on the fight against terrorism and organised crime?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely the reverse: the proposal is for a stronger agency, with a clear remit to co-operate in a vigorous manner with the PSNI. As I have said, the PSNI works closely with the Garda—I saw Martin Callinan, the Garda Commissioner, in Dublin on Monday. We should never forget the extraordinarily high level of co-operation we have with the Garda. On very serious crime such as terrorism, that co-operation is saving lives as we speak.


3. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106611)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106612)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106615)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106618)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Those who remain intent on committing violence are defying the will of the overwhelming majority of people, who want to go about their lives without fear and intimidation. This Government remain fully committed to countering terrorism in all its forms.

Newry has unfortunately had three significant bomb threats in as many weeks. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to encourage those who have information about those involved in dissident activities to come forward to the police and stop those who are intent on driving Northern Ireland backwards?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right on how to defeat the small minority of people who are defying the overwhelming majority of people of Northern Ireland, who support the PSNI and co-operation with the Garda and who want to make Northern Ireland a peaceful, prosperous place. The former are completely unrepresentative, but we do not underestimate the fact that they are dangerous. My hon. Friend cited the Newry bomb. Had that not been disrupted by police activity, it could have caused very severe danger. We are not complacent, but the key is co-operation between the communities, the people and the police.

Given the danger that former prisoners will re-engage in paramilitary activities, will my right hon. Friend inform the House what steps are being taken to monitor prisoners released on licence, and under what circumstances those licences may be revoked?

If you do not mind, Mr Speaker, I should like to take a few moments to answer this question, which is a matter of huge consequence and debate in Northern Ireland.

The parole commissioners are an independent body appointed by the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland. The commissioners’ role is to make decisions on the release and recall of life-sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland. If information is brought to my attention, I share it with the commissioners and seek a recommendation from them regarding whether to revoke a licence. If they recommend that I do so, I will revoke, because I have a duty to protect the public. The commissioners then arrange a full hearing at which the prisoner can present his or her case and challenge the evidence against them. The commissioners make their decision on whether to release the prisoner because they are no longer a risk to the public, or whether the prisoner should stay in custody. The commissioners’ decision is binding. For those who remain in custody, cases are reviewed every one to two years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the term “alternative policing” is not only a disgrace but a worrying development that needs to be stopped?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I discussed recent events involving Republican Action Against Drugs with the Chief Constable this morning, and he described some of those activities as an obscenity in a modern democracy. There is absolutely no place in Northern Ireland for any alternative authority. The duly constituted authority, responsible to the democratically elected Assembly and Policing Board, is the PSNI, which needs to work with the full co-operation of the public. The situation is frustrating. As the Chief Superintendent said on television yesterday, the PSNI needs information from the public, so I appeal publicly to all those with any details. Some of these events are horrific and the police need the public’s help to bring the perpetrators to justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I remind the House that we are discussing the extremely serious matter of the security situation in Northern Ireland.

Given that the bomb in Newry was twice the size of the one responsible for the atrocity in Omagh, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the police and other services have all the resources necessary to maintain safety and security in Northern Ireland?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. Shortly after we came to power, we reviewed the security position in Northern Ireland and recognised that, sadly, a small number of people were flouting the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland and trying to pursue their aims through violence. Working closely with the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, we have worked out a programme, costing £200 million over the next four years, and I am pleased to say that the Chief Constable himself says we have the resources, the resilience and the commitment to meet the threat.

In dealing with security, the Secretary of State will be aware that yesterday evening the PSNI revealed that, alongside other police forces in England, it had retained body parts and human tissue in 67 cases of suspicious and unexplained deaths without notifying the families of those possibly murdered. He will no doubt share my shock and will have sympathy with the relatives being told this terrible news today and in the coming days. What action does he now advocate taking, in co-operation with those in Northern Ireland, to deal with this serious issue?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I entirely endorse his views and sympathise with those families who have heard this news. These are matters of the greatest sensitivity, and they must be very difficult for families to handle. I think we were all unaware that this material existed. It is most unfortunate that the news came out as it did. The Human Tissue Authority issued a direction to all state agencies, and the Association of Chief Police Officers advised chief constables. I talked to the Chief Constable about the matter this morning. As I understand it, the report was due to be published in good order on Monday, and he had prepared a careful plan to address the matter with each individual family in a most sensitive manner. We await the details of the report on Monday, but in the meantime the Chief Constable has assured me that he will have to accelerate his proposals to talk to the families.[Official Report, 16 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 12MC.]

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. Given that this practice apparently occurred between 1960 and as late as 2005—it is now illegal, of course, under new legislation—will he and direct-rule Administrations of the past give full co-operation to any independent review or inquiry that might be set up?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had all better wait to see what the report says, and then I will obviously discuss its implications with the Justice Minister David Ford and the Chief Constable. I suspect that most of the detail might be devolved, but I take onboard what the right hon. Gentleman says. This is a most difficult revelation, and we have to handle it with great sensitivity.

We know how much the security situation in Northern Ireland has improved—we are all thankful for that—but, as we have seen with the recent escalation in the number of attempted bombings and hoaxes, there remains a severe threat from those who wish to take us back to the past. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Army bomb disposal teams do tremendously courageous and vital work, and will he assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that they will receive whatever resources they need to do their important job?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I also thank him, on the record, for his great support in our teamwork with the devolved Ministers in bearing down on criminals in Northern Ireland. Let me reassure him that support for the ATOs—ammunition technical officers—is very much a feature of the £200 million programme that we put together two years ago.

I thank the Secretary of State for his remarks. He will be aware that this week is community relations week and I am sure that he will join me in paying tribute to all those involved in trying to create a shared future in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that legitimate grass-roots community organisations across Northern Ireland do hugely effective work in maintaining security and combating paramilitary activity? For those who rely on financial support from the European Union, will he tell the House what support we can expect from the new Peace IV funding initiative?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we will not bear down on the number of delinquents purely by a security effort. We must give credit to the efforts of the PSNI to penetrate communities and to work on the ground in places where the police have not been seen for many years. This week, we have seen an announcement showing the lowest level of crime for 14 years and the highest level of confidence in policing for a very long time. At the same time, in parallel, there has been success against the terrorists in terms of arrests. However, he is absolutely right that we need to promote the programmes he mentioned, and I have discussed this issue with the Tanaiste, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and together we will come up with a new programme.

The dissident terror threat increases in Northern Ireland, but is the Secretary of State aware that supporters of dissident terror are using illegal fundraising activities here in mainland GB, such as fuel smuggling and so on, to fund the campaign in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are aware that such individuals fund their activities by a number of illegal means, and there has to be a question mark over them, whether they are used by criminal organisations or by paramilitary organisations. All such activities are totally and absolutely unsupportable. We have the full backing of the communities. We are talking about a tiny number of people who are not widely supported, and the way to beat them is for the people in the communities on the ground to work with the police.

Creative Industries

11. What assessment he has made of future opportunities for creative industries in Northern Ireland. (106619)

The creative industries in Northern Ireland are worth £500 million a year and employ more than the agriculture sector. The new relief announced in the Budget will assist the industry directly and help to attract further blockbuster productions such as “Game of Thrones”, which was—indeed, is—filmed in Northern Ireland, creating 800 jobs.

After the Oscar win for the excellent Northern Irish film “The Shore” and the financial boost given to the film industry by the Chancellor, does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland has a creative industry to be proud of, bringing in investment in skills and jobs?

I certainly do agree, and we should not forget that for every £1 spent on the arts, the economy benefits to the tune of £3. There is absolutely no reason why the Cathedral quarter in Belfast cannot rival Temple Bar in Dublin or Covent Garden in London in terms of new creative industries and technologies, and we are very excited by that prospect.

Following the sell-out success of Belfast fashion week, what support can the Minister give to high-quality local designers and niche manufacturers to ensure that local retailers buy quality local goods and do not buy from abroad?

My hon. Friend is right, and of course it is not just about those designers and textile manufacturers in Northern Ireland; it is about those around the world. I refer him to Patrick Grant, the Savile Row tailor of E. Tautz—judging by the look of my hon. Friend, he has been to visit him on a number of occasions—as well as Jonathan Anderson and others. There are a huge number of people, both in Northern Ireland and outside, in the industry, and we are—to repeat myself—very excited by the prospects for the industry. [Interruption.]

Order. There are some very noisy private conversations taking place. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Alok Sharma.

Does the Minister agree that the announcement in this year’s Budget to introduce corporation tax reliefs for film and television production will bring even more value to Northern Ireland’s proposition as a world-class production location?

For my hon. Friend I repeat above the hullabaloo that Northern Ireland is a world-class destination for film and TV production. I welcome the moves taken in the Budget to encourage further investment there. The Paint Hall studio in the Titanic Quarter has recently been used for “City of Ember”, the mediaeval comedy “Your Highness”, and, of course, the first two series of the European “Game of Thrones”, which has so far brought about £43 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Yes, we are open for business, and if anyone out there is watching—I am sure there are many—come to see us in Northern Ireland and we will assure you of an excellent service.

Will the Minister encourage the British film industry to make more use of the facilities available to it in Northern Ireland?

I rather hoped that was what I had just done, but I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s question so that I can repeat again that Northern Ireland is a great location, providing a great landscape, very willing people, a hard-working work force, financial incentives and great studio production facilities. More than that I cannot say.

Although it is well and good to encourage the creative industries in Northern Ireland to create short-term employment on some occasions, what can the Minister do to encourage the small to medium-sized companies in Northern Ireland that are currently on their knees? [Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. It is difficult even for the Minister to hear the question. Let us hear the reply.

The Budget provided a number of measures and most of them apply, of course, to Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to visiting a number of these companies with the hon. Gentleman in the forthcoming days or weeks. The Budget was designed for the United Kingdom as a whole to retain the fiscal responsibility that is the signature of this Government. Everyone benefits from low interest rates and from taking lower-paid people out of taxation altogether. This is not just for small companies in Northern Ireland; it is for small companies the length and breadth of the kingdom. It was a good Budget to help this country on the road to economic recovery, which it deserves.

Air Passenger Duty

The Government have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this matter and have reduced air passenger duty on all direct long-haul flights from Northern Ireland from 1 November 2011. Provisions to devolve APD are set out in part 3 of schedule 23 to the Finance Bill, which is awaiting its Committee stage.

I thank the Minister for his response. The Secretary of State recently had a meeting with Willie Walsh of BAA and was assured that the Belfast city airport flight routes were safe. The staff at bmibaby are on a 90-day protective notice, as flight routes are due to finish. At that meeting, air passenger duty was also discussed. If there is one initiative that can retain flights, it is the reduction of APD for Northern Ireland. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce APD and to secure jobs?

It is very important to make this situation clear. Northern Ireland Ministers asked for APD to be devolved only for bands B, C and D, and we were able to meet that request, thanks to our all-listening Chancellor. We have not been asked to devolve band A flights, which would reduce the block grant by a substantial amount. The hon. Gentleman’s question allows me the opportunity to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been very proactive on this matter, working with the local Minister of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment, Arlene Foster. As the hon. Gentleman says, my right hon. Friend has spoken to Willie Walsh a number of times. Keeping those routes open from Belfast to Heathrow is very good news.

Order. I ask the Minister to shorten his answers, as other Members wish to participate in the debate.

13. Further to the question on air passenger duty, should the Government not be doing much more to expand Belfast airport, particularly the air links, especially if we are to promote more public sector jobs in Northern Ireland? (106621)

I hope my hon. Friend meant more private sector jobs in Northern Ireland, but more jobs there is great news. The employment figures for Northern Ireland are better today—better than in other parts of the United Kingdom. We are not on the back foot on this one: we want more traffic and more flights to and from Northern Ireland; that is what we are working towards.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with many members of the business community in Northern Ireland, that air passenger duty charges are inhibiting business access and activity, and making it even more difficult to achieve growth and business development?

I think that this is an opportunity for the Chancellor to be given some credit for responding to what the Executive wanted and having air passenger duty devolved, which is good news for Northern Ireland. We want more flights into and out of Belfast, and we are on the right road towards achieving that. We have also saved the flights to Heathrow, which is good news for the businesses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Corporation Tax

8. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential effect on the Northern Ireland economy of changing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland to that obtaining in the Republic of Ireland. (106616)

The low corporation tax rate in Ireland has been a key factor in attracting investment. The ministerial working group chaired by my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary is considering the potential impact of devolving the power to vary the corporation tax rate to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I know that the Secretary of State is, like me, a great believer in low taxes to stimulate the economy. What discussions has he had with the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and with the Treasury, to try to lower the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear—and the Leader of the Opposition will be delighted to hear—that, thanks to the reductions in corporation tax introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, 57,000 more people are in jobs in Northern Ireland than were in jobs before the election. The ministerial group is working closely with Ministers in the devolved Administration, the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury to establish whether further steps could be taken to reduce corporation tax and devolve it to Northern Ireland, and we will report later in the summer.[Official Report, 21 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 13MC.]

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two servicemen who were killed in Afghanistan on Saturday, Corporal Brent McCarthy of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Lee Davies of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. Our deepest condolences are with their families and their loved ones. They were both courageous and highly respected men who were engaged in the vitally important work of training and mentoring the Afghan police, and their service to our nation must never be forgotten.

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

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s correct tribute to our fallen servicemen? It is the right thing to do.

I welcome the fall in unemployment of which we have learnt today, and, perhaps more important, the rise in employment. Can the Prime Minister assure me that he will continue to invest in the apprenticeships, the Work programme, and the other schemes that get my constituents, and all our constituents, back to work?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said about the schemes that we are introducing. It is welcome that we have seen the largest rise in employment for over a year, that the number of people in work has risen by 370,000 since the last election, and that the number of private sector jobs has increased by more than 600,000. However, we are not remotely complacent. Although there is good news about youth unemployment and the fall in the claimant count, there are still too many people in part-time work who want full-time work, and we still face the challenge of tackling long-term unemployment. We are not complacent, but whereas the flexible new deal took four years to put in place, the Work programme has been put in place within 12 months, and is targeted at helping the difficult to help and the long-term unemployed whom we want to help back to work.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Brent McCarthy of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Lee Davies of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. They both showed the utmost bravery and courage, and our thoughts are with their families and friends.

We need to ensure that the welcome reduction in unemployment that has been announced today is sustained by economic growth. Can the Prime Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the new President of France about a growth plan for Europe?

First, let me welcome the fact that, on this occasion, the right hon. Gentleman has welcomed the fall in unemployment. Unemployment has come down and the claimant count has come down, and I think it is worth making the point that the number of people on out-of-work benefits has fallen by 70,000 since the election. However, there are still challenges, and we must go on investing in apprenticeships and in the Work programme.

I had a brief discussion with the President of France after his victory, and I look forward to having a longer bilateral with him before the G8 starts this weekend. I look forward specifically to discussing what more we can do to help in terms of European growth. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, together with the Italian Prime Minister and many other Prime Ministers, we have put forward a whole series of steps that can help the European economy to move. Let us complete the energy single market; let us complete the digital single market; let us complete the services single market. These things could seriously add to growth in Europe. That is what we should be focused on in Europe, and I look forward to discussing that, and more, with the French President.

If I may say so, it is a shame the right hon. Gentleman did not see the French President three months ago, when he was in the United Kingdom. But I am sure that a text message and “LOL” will go down very well.

Europe needs a proper growth plan, which this Prime Minister has failed to argue for, and Britain needs a proper growth plan, which he has failed to come up with. Business is pleading with the Government for a growth plan. Does he really agree with the Foreign Secretary that the problem with our economy is that British business is not working hard enough?

I have to admit that perhaps I have been overusing my mobile phone—but at least, as Prime Minister, I know how to use a mobile phone, rather than just throw it at the people who work for me. You can probably still see the dents!

I do think there will be common ground between the British view of what needs to happen in Europe and the French view. I note that the French President, when asked how he would stimulate growth, said:

“The means cannot be extra public spending, since we want to rein it in”.

It is interesting that the French President does not back the Labour view that the way out of a debt crisis is to borrow more, spend more and add to the debt. But I do think that what we need in Britain—absolutely vital—are the low interest rates that we have, because when this Government came to power, we had the same interest rates as Spain. Today, ours are below 2%, whereas Spanish rates are over 6%. The shadow Chancellor was saying from a sedentary position that somehow this was delusional. Let me remind him that he said:

“the simplest measure of monetary and fiscal policy credibility”

is long-term low interest rates. Those were his words. That is what Britain has got, and that is what we must not lose.

The right hon. Gentleman totally failed to answer the question about the Foreign Secretary, who is saying that the problem in our economy is that British business is somehow not working hard enough. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman is now trying to claim the President of France as an ally—what is he on? But there is one group of people whom we know are losing their jobs, and that is the police, 30,000 of whom marched on the streets last week. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many front-line police officers have been lost since he came to power?

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to rush off the economy after his first few questions. Let me just remind him what this Government are doing to boost our economy. We have cut corporation tax; we have boosted enterprise zones; we are investing in apprenticeships; we are investing in housing; we are making sure we put money into infrastructure. But above all, because we have a plan to deal with our deficit, we have the lowest interest rates, whereas he would give us the highest interest rates.

On policing, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has actually found that police forces are planning to increase the proportion of police officers and staff working on the front line, so they are taking people out of the back office and putting them on the front line. But let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman: both parties are committed to making cuts to the police budget. He is committed to £1 billion of cuts, but the point is this: we are reforming allowances, we are cutting paperwork, we are freezing pay, we are reforming pensions. He would not do any of those things, so his cuts would be deeper, because he does not have the courage to do the right thing.

First, on the economy, we are in a double-dip recession—a recession made in Downing street by the two of them—him and the Chancellor. That is the reality. On policing, everybody will have noticed the Prime Minister’s answer. It was about the proportion of front-line officers—that is because he is sacking so many police officers from the back office. But what is actually happening to the number of front-line police officers? We have 5,000 fewer front-line officers. We have fewer 999 responders, fewer neighbourhood police and fewer traffic police. What was his sales pitch—[Interruption.] They were elected on a promise of more police officers—no wonder they are losing the elections.

What was the right hon. Gentleman’s sales pitch just before the election? This is what he said—[Interruption.] They do not want to hear about what he said before the election. He said:

“any Cabinet Minister…who comes to me and says, ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve front-line reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their Department to go away and think again.”

Is it any wonder that the police are absolutely furious about his broken promise?

Oh dear, he is having a bad day. Let me try to explain. Whoever was standing here right now would have to cut police budgets—they accept that, we accept that. But if you did not have the courage to deal with allowances, to deal with paperwork and to deal with pay, you would have to make deeper cuts. This is what—

I am extremely calm. This is what the Leader of the Opposition’s own police spokesman said. He was asked, “Aren’t you accepting the need for a freeze on police pay? That is what Yvette Cooper has said recently.” “No”, he replied. So that is it: they do not accept the freeze on pay, they do not accept the pension reform, they would not do the paperwork cuts; they would be cutting the police more deeply. That is their position—they have absolutely no policy ideas at all.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is going to have extensive training before he goes before Leveson, and I have a suggestion: I think it should include anger management. I think it would be very good for him.

It is not just on policing that the right hon. Gentleman has broken his promises. We all remember his promises three years ago to the nurses. He told their conference:

“there will be no top-down reorganisation”.

I notice that he did not go back to the Royal College of Nursing conference this year. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many fewer nurses there are since he came to power?

The number of clinical staff in the NHS has gone up, and the reason it has gone up is that this Government have put more money into the NHS every year. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment? His commitment is that spending on the NHS is irresponsible. That is his commitment—to cut spending on the NHS. What is actually happening is that we have the lowest number of people waiting for 18 weeks in our NHS, and that is because we have got more doctors, more clinical staff and fewer bureaucrats working in the NHS.

I am afraid it is back to the bunker with that answer. There are 3,500 fewer nurses since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister. The Health Ministers could not even get the figure right on the radio; they could not even tell us how many nurses in training cannot find jobs. This is all because he has diverted billions of pounds from patient care to a top-down reorganisation that nobody voted for and nobody wanted. I know that he does not like being reminded of his words, but that is because he broke his promise. That is the problem with this Government: they cut taxes for millionaires and cut services for the rest of us. [Interruption.] I know they do not like hearing about it. What did the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) say? He said:

“We can’t convince voters that we are ‘on their side’ when we give top-earners a tax cut leaving Mr & Mrs Average reeling”.

That is the truth of this Government. They are unfair and out of touch, and they stand up for the wrong people.

What this Government have done is delivered a tax cut for every single working person in the country. We froze the council tax for every household in the country. We have taken 2 million people out of tax in our country.

But what is the big decision that the Leader of the Opposition has taken this week? He took the person in charge of his policy review, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne)—the person who said that they had to be serious about the deficit, who said that they had to be serious about welfare reform, the person who told us that they had run out of money—and replaced him with a policy chief who thinks that Labour’s problem is that it is not close enough to the trade unions. That is the Leader of the Opposition’s big decision. I often wonder whether his problem is that he is weak or that he is left-wing—his problem is that he is both.

Does my right hon. Friend suppose that Chancellor Merkel now regrets that she did not take the advice he gave her last October about the big bazooka? If she had fired it then, that would have spared the European Union from its present crisis.

I cannot give a direct answer to that, but I can say that the eurozone has to make a choice. If it wants to continue as it is then it has to build a proper firewall and take steps to secure the weakest members of the eurozone, or it will have to work out that it has to go in a different direction. It either has to make up or it is looking at a potential break-up. That is the choice that has to be made, and it cannot long be put off.

Q2. If Andy Coulson was not vetted, why did he attend secret briefings, and what documents did he see? Is not this a mess? (106921)

I know the hon. Lady is desperate to find a smoking gun but I tell her that this is absolutely not it. We took a view, on coming to office, that in the past there were too—[Interruption.]

We took a view that too many people had been cleared at the highest level and that that had led to some of the problems in terms of Alastair Campbell. Actually, when it came to it, Andy Coulson was in the process of being development-vetted, so there is absolutely no mystery about this at all. The hon. Lady should go and look somewhere else.

Q3. Britain has just posted its first quarterly trade surplus in cars since the 1975 nationalisation of British Leyland by one of the previous Labour Governments. Will the Prime Minister welcome the news that Britain has not only cut its deficit by 25% over the last two years but is once again a net car exporter? (106922)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point; the Labour party does not want to hear good news. He is absolutely right that although we have had to take difficult decisions, the deficit has now been reduced by one quarter, so we are on our way to balancing our budget and dealing with our problems. It is encouraging that for the first time since 1976 we have a surplus in motor car manufacturing. That is because of the hard work that people have put in at Nissan, at Honda, at Jaguar Land Rover. It is extremely good news that, although it has taken this long to get back to a trade surplus in cars, Britain is once again a real home for manufacturing.

Q4. Two years ago, during the general election, The Press in York reported the Prime Minister as promising, “We won’t bring in VAT increase”. Has he considered that if he were to honour that pledge and reverse the VAT increase, that would put money in people’s pockets, stimulate the economy and get Britain out of a double-dip recession made in Downing street? (106923)

The reason we had to put up VAT is that we were left the biggest budget deficit anywhere in Europe. It was bigger than Greece’s, bigger than Spain’s, bigger than Portugal’s—the complete mess left by Labour. We now know from reading the former Chancellor’s memoirs that he was going to put up VAT too.

Q5. You may be aware that this is adult learners week, Mr Speaker, and Gosport’s inspirational Read and Grow charity has just received lottery funds to support the innovative work it is doing with adult literacy. May I invite the Prime Minister and the education team to visit Gosport and see for themselves how this work could be rolled out across the country to benefit people? (106924)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue. It is a tragedy that too many adults in our country do not have proper literacy and reading skills, because of not being taught properly at school. It is vital that we put that right through initiatives such as adult learners week, as she recommends, but we have to do better in our schools in the first place, to make sure that no child is left behind. We know that through the phonics scheme that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is leading on that we can teach reading so that no child is left behind, and we must make sure it is available for every child in every school.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has revealed that between 1960 and 2005 it kept body parts and tissue samples in 64 cases of suspicious death, without notifying the families and loved ones of those concerned, many of them in my constituency. Police forces in England have done the same. The Prime Minister and the whole House will sympathise with the families; obviously, shock has been felt throughout Northern Ireland as the families have been visited. Will the Prime Minister join me in demanding the fullest and speediest answers about what happened in those cases so that families can know as soon as possible? Does he have sympathy with the idea of holding an independent review in order to explain how that practice could go on for so long right across the United Kingdom?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I am sure I speak for everyone in the House in expressing sympathy for the families who found out that terrible news about their loved ones; it must be a time of huge anguish for them. I am extremely sorry that the report was leaked, because it was going to be announced properly on Monday, when there could be a proper statement and explanation of what has gone on. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the form of inquiry that needs to be held, but let us first publish the information on Monday, so that everyone can see what went wrong and why it happened.

Q6. From growing up in a council house, I remember well how proud people in my community were to be the first in their family to own their home. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to give the same opportunity to a new generation of families? (106925)

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. The right to buy their council house was a hugely important social and economic change that gave people a stake in their society, a stake in their community and led to a huge improvement in many housing estates up and down the country. It is sad that under the last Government discounts were allowed to go—[Hon. Members: “What are you going to do?”] We are going to increase the discount right away to £75,000, which in some cases will mean a quadrupling of the available discount. There were years of Labour neglect, but two years of a coalition Government and we can get council house tenants buying their homes again.

Q7. In recent weeks, Britain has gone back into recession, we have had a botched Budget and crazy advice from the Cabinet Office to stockpile petrol at home. Which of those does the Prime Minister think has caused the calamitous collapse in his reputation for competence? (106926)

What the hon. Gentleman should be recognising is that today unemployment has fallen, the claimant count has come down and more people are in work. Yes, we have a difficult economic situation, but if he listened to the Governor of the Bank of England this morning, he will have heard him say that we are coming up with a textbook response to what needs to be done to clear up the mess made by people like the hon. Gentleman.

Q8. Businesses and home owners in my constituency are having a tough time at the moment, but it would be worse if it were not for consistently low interest rates. Under Labour, our long-term interest rates were the same as Spain’s; this week our rates are under 2%—a record low—while Spain’s are 6%. Will the Prime Minister assure the people of Mid Derbyshire that he will do nothing to put that situation into jeopardy? (106927)

My hon. Friend makes an important point: every increase in interest rates of 1% will add £1,000 to the typical family mortgage. The fact is that today British interest rates are below 2% because the world has confidence that in spite of our economic difficulties we have a plan to deal with our debt and our deficit. We can see from looking around Europe what happens when there is no plan. Interest rates go up, which is bad for business, bad for home owners and bad for the economy. That is what we would get if we listened to the Opposition.

Q9. Many agencies let down the children involved in the Rochdale sex abuse cases, and the whole House must agree that offering our looked-after children a safe and secure place to live is paramount. In that context, given that there are wide concerns about the operation of private children’s homes in the area, will the Prime Minister do two things? Will he look at holding an inquiry into whether they are properly funded and have properly trained staff, and will he make sure that monitoring now works effectively? Clearly it has not done so. (106928)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises this issue. It is a truly shocking case and we need to look very carefully at what went wrong. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to do this. He, in turn, has asked the Children’s Commissioner to do a piece of work on it. We need to look at why information was not passed more rapidly from children’s homes to police, and why action was not taken more rapidly. There are obviously issues about inspection, which the hon. Gentleman mentions, but there are also issues about why action was not taken. It is very important that we get to the bottom of a truly, truly dreadful case.

Q15. Huddersfield Town fans are celebrating today, having won a place in the league 1 play-off final at Wembley. Also winning in my constituency are local manufacturing businesses, which are winning new orders, creating new jobs and creating apprenticeships. Does the Prime Minister agree that the record number of apprenticeships in the UK is a clear sign that this Government are committed to getting Britain working? (106934)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Through him, I wish Huddersfield Town all the best, although that might be a prime ministerial curse.

We achieved 457,000 apprenticeship starts last year. We are hoping to achieve over 400,000 more this year. The budget has been increased by more than £1.5 billion. This should deliver 250,000 more apprenticeships across this Parliament than were planned by the Opposition. There is a lot more to do also to make sure that these are high-quality apprenticeships, and we are targeting them on the young people who need help most.

Q10. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) referred to the case and the situation in Rochdale. I want to speak about the girls in that case—the vulnerable girls who went to hell and back through what they experienced. I pay tribute to their bravery in coming forward and standing up to their abusers. They did it to get justice and to stop it happening to others. Vulnerable girls like that do not usually get heard by politicians. They do not get easy access to power or influence. How will the Government respond to these terrible crimes, and will the Prime Minister support a serious case review? (106929)

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right to say that these girls have been brave to come forward and tell their stories, with all the difficulties that that involved. He has talked about people who have come to his constituency surgeries. Of course this is a problem across communities, but there are particular problems in particular communities and he has been brave to say that, because we need to face up to these problems if we are to deal with them. He asks about a review. I will have a look at that. As I said, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner will—hopefully—come up with recommendations within a month, and I understand that Rochdale borough safeguarding children board has conducted a review of child sex exploitation which will be published, but I am prepared to look at the issue of a serious case review as well.

Q11. Next year Camborne Science and International academy will become the first ever British school to host the international student science fair, welcoming schools from around the world. Does the Prime Minister agree that if Britain is to prosper in the future we need to lead the world in science and technology, and that we should support the efforts of schools such as Camborne, which are leading the way? (106930)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the issue and to highlight the school in his constituency that is clearly doing a good job. If we want to compete in a very competitive global market, we need more science teaching, we need more science graduates, and we need also to encourage those science graduates back into the classroom to train up the next generation of scientists and engineers. The good news is that there has been an 80% increase in the number of students taking science GCSEs since 2010, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has put in place some generous bursary schemes to encourage some of our top maths and science graduates back into the classroom, to make sure that they are teaching the next generation.

Q12. It is now clear that the Government do not have a comprehensive long-term strategy for care, so does the Prime Minister agree that the sharp increase in home care charges revealed by figures released today is the result of his cut of £1 billion from local council budgets for older people? (106931)

I am afraid I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s figures are right. In the spending review we put £2 billion extra into adult social care, but we have inherited a situation where there is not a clear strategy or pathway for social care. We need to deliver one. That is why there will be a White Paper this year which has to look at all—

The hon. Gentleman asks when. The Opposition had 13 years. They just ducked decision after decision. Royal commissions were held. Absolutely nothing was done. Within two years we have done far more than they did in 13.

Q13. Some 2,000 highly paid public servants have been exposed for avoiding paying their fair share of tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that whenever someone is paid a salary using taxpayers’ money, the Government should insist that they are on the payroll and pay full pay-as-you-earn income tax and national insurance contributions? (106932)

The hon. Lady is right to raise that and I agree with what she says. We have been shocked by the level of this problem and the Treasury is looking at it closely, but the principle she announces—those paid by the public should pay tax properly—is absolutely spot on.

Will the Prime Minister meet to take forward the Severn barrage project, which is entirely privately financed and could be the biggest source of renewable generation in Europe, generating 5% of Britain’s electricity needs? Does he accept that, with a flat economy in Britain and Europe, this £30 billion of private investment in growth and jobs is a no-brainer?

I heard the right hon. Gentleman on “Farming Today” waxing eloquent on this project. I think that it has many advantages. A huge amount of renewable energy could be delivered through a barrage of this kind. He knows that there are lots of problems and that the environmental groups have been divided over it, but I am very happy to listen to his views as he takes forward this important piece of work. I think that there are many opportunities in a challenging European economy, as he says, to look at energy connectors and energy co-operation, particularly between England, France and other northern European countries.

Q14. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have praised the Work programme for getting off the ground in under a year, which is in stark contrast to the four wasted years it took to get Labour’s programme off the ground. What further help can the Prime Minister give my striving jobseekers in Tamworth, where unemployment figures monthly are falling, to find the work they want? (106933)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because not only did the Work programme get up and running quickly, but it is already helping 519,000 people. It will help over 3 million in total. The key difference between it and previous programmes is payment by results, so we are paying providers more money for the more difficult people who have been out of work for a long time and have serious challenges in getting back into the workplace. I think that we can use this programme to help not only people who have fallen out of work recently, but people who have totally lost connection with the labour market. Those are the people we want to help most, and the Work programme is a very innovative way of doing that.

In April last year the Government announced the successful bids in round 1 of the regional growth fund. Hull was very pleased to be included, because it means 500 jobs and rescuing people from some of the poorest housing conditions in the country. However, 13 months later, not a penny of that regional growth fund money has materialised. Will the Prime Minister tell me why and, if he cannot, will he undertake to find out and ensure that that money flows before the summer recess?

I will certainly look at the case the right hon. Gentleman raises. With the regional growth fund as a whole, around half of the projects are now under way and serious amounts of money are being disbursed. By way of comparison with the regional development agencies, the overhead costs are £3 million, compared with £240 million, so we are able to put a lot more money into these projects, but I will certainly look at his specific project and write to him shortly.