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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (123801)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. Excellent work and co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners has put those involved in terrorism under huge pressure. We continue to be vigilant in our efforts to counter the threat posed by those groupings, whose activities are condemned by the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Security sources tell us that paramilitary involvement was evident in the public disorder around the disputed parades this summer. What is her assessment of loyalist paramilitary involvement in the riots seen in Belfast in July and August?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her congratulations. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), for all the work that he did for Northern Ireland. I also take this opportunity to reflect on the contribution that Sir Stuart Bell made to Northern Ireland as a Front-Bench spokesman. He was a great Member of this House and will be much missed.

In response to the hon. Lady’s question on public disorder, it was deeply regrettable that we saw scenes on our television screens a few weeks ago that many had started to associate with Northern Ireland’s past. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is determined to ensure that those scenes are dealt with, and we are doing everything that we can to support its efforts to crack down on paramilitaries and on rioting of the disgraceful sort that we saw in September.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every measure will be taken to prevent the so-called new IRA from destabilising the political process?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants. A huge amount of effort is being put in by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners. I also commend the contribution of the Garda Siochana in the efforts to counter terrorism. We are determined to defeat the threat of people who continue to have lethal intent and will do everything that we can to prevent them from achieving their aims.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her position, and indeed the Minister of State. I wish them well in their new responsibilities.

The Secretary of State will know that the Home Secretary announced this morning that the threat level from dissident republicans on the mainland has been reduced from “substantial” to “moderate”. Does she share the concern of many people that such an announcement may be premature and somewhat counter-productive? Will she assure the House, given the recent experience of intelligence-level reports, that there will be no reduction in security and no complacency on the part of the security forces?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. We will continue to be vigilant in the face of the continuing threat of Northern Ireland-related terrorism. He will appreciate that the change announced today relates to Great Britain, as he said. The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. In both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Government are focused on defeating terrorism and we will use all the means at our disposal to do that.

I thank the Secretary of State. She referred to the situation in Northern Ireland and said that the threat level remains at “severe”. In the light of that, has she had discussions with the Chief Constable about the threat level from dissident republicans? Will she look positively on any request from the Chief Constable to extend the Treasury reserve funding of £200 million, which was announced in 2010, to help the PSNI deal with the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland?

I had the opportunity to discuss those matters with the Chief Constable in some detail yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the importance of the £200 million of additional funding, which is devoted to countering the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. We will certainly have discussions with the Chief Constable and the Treasury on what might occur after the cessation of that £200 million of funding.

I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady and her colleague to the Northern Ireland Office. I am quite sure that they will enjoy their posting to the mainland in Northern Ireland. Now on to my question—and it is a serious one.

Given that two very brave, young British soldiers were murdered by dissident republicans at Massereene barracks in March 2009 and that, since then, we have lost several of our soldiers in Afghanistan who grew up in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Lady confirm exactly when her colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, will visit Northern Ireland, not to tell the troops that they are to be made redundant, but to boost their morale, beginning with Palace barracks in my constituency of North Down?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and I will certainly pass on her request to the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that a Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence is due to visit Northern Ireland fairly soon.

May I begin by paying tribute to my colleague Sir Stuart Bell? He served as a Front-Bench Northern Ireland spokesman and retained a deep affection and concern for the place throughout his time in the House.

I wish the previous Secretary of State well in his new post and welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. I want to work with her constructively and in a bipartisan way, particularly on issues relating to security.

This morning, the Home Office reduced the threat to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism, but the threat in Northern Ireland itself remains “severe”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no downgrading of the Government’s commitment to combat terrorism anywhere in the United Kingdom?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The change to the threat level does not affect our commitment to bearing down hard on the small minority of people who still seek to use violence and terrorism as a means to achieve political ends.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she agree that we need to confront those who want to destroy peace at both the security and a community level, and that we should not take for granted the progress that has been made?

Young people in socially and economically deprived areas are vulnerable to exploitation by paramilitaries. With one in four out of work, what is the Secretary of State doing to tackle unemployment and ensure that Northern Ireland’s young people get the better future that they were promised and deserve?

I welcome the bipartisan approach that the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue. It is of course vital that we bear down on terrorism using a range of strategies. We have already discussed the £200 million of additional funding that the Government have devoted to countering the security threat and keeping people in Northern Ireland safe and secure. We are doing all we can to boost the economy with our programme to repair the public finances and reduce the deficit. We are reducing corporation tax across the United Kingdom to enhance the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for inward investment, and we are providing tax reliefs for the creative industries, including high-end television. We are determined that Northern Ireland will remain a great place in which to do business.

Economic Development

2. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (123802)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a number of their colleagues, and we have renewed the Government’s commitment to supporting their efforts to promote economic development and help rebuild and rebalance the economy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Financial Times recently described Belfast as the top destination globally for investing in financial services technology. Does she agree that when it comes to attracting and encouraging foreign direct investment, Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer potential investors?

It has indeed, and I had the honour of discussing these matters in a meeting in the city only recently. Northern Ireland has seen some striking success stories, such as the investment by Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange. I praise the role of the universities in Northern Ireland, which have engaged with business, particularly in the financial services technology sector. That is an incredibly important industry for the UK as a whole, and it is a matter of real credit to Northern Ireland that it has successfully obtained so many inward investment jobs in the financial sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their positions.

I understand that in the negotiations on corporation tax, the point at issue is not one of principle but one of cost, with one side estimating the cost to the Northern Ireland block at £300 million and the other estimating it as being in the region of £420 million. What is the Secretary of State’s understanding of that? If the latter is the case, how does she intend to suggest that the gap be met in discussions with the Treasury, and what will her advice to the Prime Minister be?

Real progress has been made on the issue. The working group on corporation tax concluded on Thursday, and we are now proceeding to write up our findings and will report them to the Prime Minister in due course. We have an idea of how devolved corporation tax might work in a way that would not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on business. The hon. Lady is right that there are still important practical issues to resolve and alternatives to consider, and we will continue to work on those matters.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new positions.

When it comes to economic development, the Secretary of State will know that about 70% of employment in Northern Ireland is in the public sector. What will she do to grow the private sector? I hope she will work closely with bodies such as the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses.

I am very happy to work with all business bodies in Northern Ireland, and they do a great job in representing Northern Ireland. Much has already been done to enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland—in particular with the boost for superfast broadband—and Belfast is due to become one of the UK’s first 10 super-connected cities. The United Kingdom Government took the decision to devolve long-haul air passenger duty to conserve vital transatlantic flights, and we are working hard to attract inward investment. It is important to use the UK’s network of embassies around the world to promote the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, as a great place in which to do business.

What support will the Secretary of State give to Northern Ireland when it comes to negotiations with the EU on regional aid?

I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Foster to discuss that matter last week. We decided that we would work together to make representations to Brussels on assisted-area status in Northern Ireland, and together we will make the case for Northern Ireland.

Fuel Laundering and Smuggling

3. What progress she has made on implementing the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s third report of session 2010-12 on Fuel Laundering and Smuggling in Northern Ireland, HC 1504. (123803)

May I, too, pay tribute to Sir Stuart Bell? He served as shadow Northern Ireland Minister and served his country in many different roles. He will be a sad loss to us all.

Fuel fraud is primarily an excise offence and a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and its counterparts, including the Northern Ireland Office. I welcome the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was very useful, and many of the issues and recommendations it contains will be taken forward. Fuel fraud is taken very seriously and remains a high priority.

Following the memorandum of understanding signed by HMRC and Irish revenue commissioners, will the Minister say what progress has been made on putting in place a single tender procedure for the marker for rebated diesel, and will he assure the House that there will be no slippage on the agreed timetable?

Work continues on that agreement, and there is no doubt that dealing with fuel fraud, as well as with tobacco smuggling, is a top priority for the Government in the Province. We know that money from things such as fuel smuggling gets into the wrong hands and jeopardises the peace that we are all looking for.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions.

One recommendation in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was that sentences for such crimes in Northern Ireland should be strengthened because they are far weaker than those in Great Britain. Will the Minister do all he can to help bring about those stronger sentences recommended by the Committee?

I met the Minister for Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we will work together to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. As I said earlier, money made from such crimes often goes to the wrong areas, and we are looking forward to ensuring that it does not.

I add my voice of congratulation to the Secretary of State; I know that the people of Northern Ireland wish her and her colleague well in their new roles.

A recent HMRC report on measuring tax gaps revealed that fuel smuggling over the past year has increased from involving 12% of all diesel sold in Northern Ireland to 25%—a staggering increase. Does the Minister agree that HMRC must be encouraged to find a measure that will allow it to mark properly fuel in Northern Ireland, so that it cannot be stripped of its mark and sold as counterfeit?

This sort of technical work is being looked at carefully, and one element that will help enormously is the lorry road user charging legislation that the Government started to bring forward yesterday. That will create a more level playing field for all hauliers—those who are hit hardest by this problem—across the entire United Kingdom including, quite rightly, in Northern Ireland.

Economic Policies

4. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies in Northern Ireland. (123804)

6. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies in Northern Ireland. (123806)

The Government’s priority is to return the UK economy to sustainable, balanced growth. To achieve that we are tackling the deficit and creating the conditions for private sector investment and growth. Such investment and growth is critically needed to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, and we shall work in close partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Will she reassure the people of Northern Ireland that none of the £40 million that the Government have admitted they wasted on the west coast main line franchise fiasco will come out of the budget of her new Department?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are determined to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland. I noticed that, under Labour, the Northern Ireland economy became more dependent on public spending. The west coast incident has no impact on Northern Ireland—I am happy to assure him of that.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thank her for her contribution to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which she visited on Monday.

Less consensually, the chief economist of the Northern Bank last week said:

“Ed Balls and Vernon Coaker were correct this week in asserting that Northern Ireland requires strong growth initiatives now, not later. As well as government investment on infrastructure, Northern Ireland needs demand stimulating policies such a VAT reduction and tax breaks for local companies taking on more workers. These are the initiatives that are needed to create jobs”.

Does the Secretary of State agree?

When the shadow Chancellor finally got round to visiting Northern Ireland, all he came up with was more tax, more borrowing and more spending. The reality is that that is all Labour has to offer in its economic policy. All hon. Members know that we cannot borrow our way out of a debt crisis. The problems in Northern Ireland and across the UK are to a large extent caused by the significant deficit left to this country by the Labour party.

Last year, Facebook paid £280,000 on tax on UK earnings of £20.4 million, because most of the moneys were transferred and paid through its base in Dublin. Does the Secretary of State agree that Facebook would have paid a substantial amount to the Treasury if it had paid corporation tax in Northern Ireland, and, more importantly, that that would have boosted the Northern Ireland economy?

It is important that all companies pay their fair share of tax. HMRC has devoted very significant resources to cracking down on tax evasion and artificial tax avoidance. The Government are devoting more effort and energy to that task than any previous Government, and we will continue to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the great drawbacks in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, on job-producing economic initiatives is the dead hand of the planning system? What steps will she take to seek to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to hasten the planning system, particularly with regard to large-scale projects?

I agree with my hon. Friend that reforming the planning system is vital to ensuring that a country is a good place in which to do business. He will appreciate that planning is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I very much welcome the Executive’s work on seeing whether the planning system can be reformed to make it more effective and efficient.

May I join the compliments of the occasion to the ministerial team and add to the tributes to Sir Stuart Bell?

The Secretary of State seized on concerns about current banking and business in Northern Ireland, but is she focusing on the future business of banking in Northern Ireland and the implications that arise from UK legislation, such as financial services and banking reform measures, and the shake-up in the Irish banks and moves towards banking union, which has severe implications for our economy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Clearly, Northern Ireland was perhaps more impacted by the property crash and banking crash than many other parts of the UK because of its links with the Republic of Ireland economy. The hangover of negative equity is a serious problem, which is why it is essential that we work to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the most it can out of the recently announced funding for lending scheme to get much-needed business credit flowing back to business.

I feel sure we will have a textbook example of brevity from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain).

I congratulate the Secretary of State on assuming her post. May I probe her on the link between security and her economic policies? It was no coincidence that Labour achieved the 2007 settlement with record jobs and record levels of growth. Now we have the very reverse, with young loyalists and republicans involved in all sorts of civil disturbances. There is a link.

One reason we need to boost the Northern Ireland economy is that we must do all we can to choke off potential support for terrorism. It is also important that the UK Government, the community across Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive work on generating a genuinely shared future and on bringing down sectarian barriers. That, too, is an important part of our strategy to choke off support for terrorism.

Belfast’s glorious maritime history is an essential component of economic growth. In welcoming the Minister of State to his position, may I thank him for the work he has undertaken to ensure that HMS Caroline will for ever nestle within the slightly chilly bosom of Belfast lough? When he draws up the guest list for the re-launch, will he not forget Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, the last instructor on HMS Caroline and now a Doorkeeper in this very House?

I happily praise the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, the shadow Minister, who I know has had a long-standing interest in HMS Caroline. I also thank the National Heritage Memorial Fund for providing £1 million to secure the future of HMS Caroline in Belfast. [Interruption.] I hope that that will be welcomed by Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, who is part of our House of Commons.

I am immensely grateful to the Secretary of State, but we need a bit of order in the House so that we can hear both question and answer alike.

Air Passenger Duty

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of the level of air passenger duty for short-haul flights on the regional economy in Northern Ireland. (123805)

The impact of air passenger duty on Northern Ireland was carefully considered last year, and, in recognition of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agreed to the Northern Ireland Executive’s request for the devolution of APD for all direct long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland airports.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their first Northern Ireland questions, and associate myself with the kind comments about Sir Stuart Bell.

Is the Minister aware that the business community in Northern Ireland is unanimous in its view that the high level of passenger duty is helping to strangle potential economic recovery? Will he tell us more about the unique circumstances that he mentioned?

I just about heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I think he asked about future APD. Interestingly, when I looked into the matter, the Executive did not ask for short-haul powers. If they had, we would have considered it. If they want short-haul powers, therefore, we will consider the matter, although there would, of course, be a cost to their own Exchequer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cut in APD in Northern Ireland will allow airlines to develop further long-haul services and significantly stimulate the Northern Ireland economy, and would that not be true across the whole of the UK?

My hon. Friend draws me into territory that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is sitting to my left, will probably ensure I do not dwell on. There was a sustainable argument for the exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Executive requested long-haul APD, and the Chancellor gave it to them. Should they request something more, we would consider it.

Does the Minister agree that the reduction in APD is a key driver in attracting inward investment? Will he agree to negotiate with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, should it propose that short-haul APD—in other words, at Belfast City and Londonderry airports, as well as for international flights—also be reduced?

I will continue to work as closely as I can with all parts of Northern Ireland, particularly the Department of Finance and Personnel and businesses, but there would be a cost to the Minister for Finance and Personnel, which I know he is aware of, but as yet we have not had a request for short haul. If we do, we will look at it.

Smithwick Tribunal

7. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on extending the deadline for the completion of the Smithwick tribunal. (123807)

As yet, I have not had the opportunity to have introductory discussions with the Irish Government, although I have had discussions with the Irish ambassador in London. Although the sponsorship of the Smithwick tribunal is a matter for the Irish Government, I am aware of the recent intention to extend the deadline for the tribunal to complete its work.

It is absolutely crucial that the tribunal is extended because of the revelations in recent times. We need to get to the truth of the matter. These were the two most senior RUC officers to be murdered by the IRA and there is strong evidence of collusion on the part of Irish state forces, so we need to know precisely what happened.

I think we would all agree that what we require is the truth. The Republic of Ireland Government have been asked for an extension, that is true, and we will give all the assistance we can. In recent weeks we have given more help in the form of the evidence we have discovered in the north and we will continue to do so.

Legacy Issues

8. What further steps she plans to take following the initial round of talks with Northern Ireland party leaders aimed at finding consensus on dealing with the past and its legacy. (123809)

It is important to find a way to deal with the legacy of the past in an inclusive way that recognises the pain caused to victims and survivors while helping everyone in Northern Ireland move forward towards a genuinely shared future. A way forward can be delivered only if a wide range of people and political parties in Northern Ireland work together to build consensus.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new roles. Does she agree that finding an agreed and comprehensive way of addressing the legacy of the past is critical and should be a priority not only because of the current generation, who were impacted on directly by the troubles, but as a means of tackling the deep-seated sectarianism that still exists in Northern Ireland and prevents us from achieving our objectives financially, economically and socially?

I agree that that is an important priority and pay tribute to the work of the hon. Lady and her party on this matter. It is important for us all to work together to see whether we can build consensus and foster mutual understanding of the past, reconciling the different perspectives of the past in the different traditions in Northern Ireland. As she says, our goals should be to bring people together and try to eliminate the sectarian divides that still exist.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the full panoply of Government powers is used to investigate the predatory activities of the late Mr Jimmy Savile?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The allegations and what seems to have happened are completely appalling, and they are shocking the entire country. The allegations leave many institutions, perhaps particularly the BBC, with serious questions to answer. Above all the question is, “How did he get away with this for so long?” The most important thing is that the police investigation is properly resourced and allowed to continue. I do not rule out further steps, but we now have independent investigations by the BBC and into the NHS, and today I can confirm that the Director of Public Prosecutions has confirmed that his principal legal adviser will again review the papers from the time when a case was put to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution. The Director of Public Prosecutions will specifically consider what more can be done to alert relevant authorities when there are concerns but a prosecution is not taken forward. The Government will do everything we can, and other institutions must do what they can, to ensure that we learn the lessons from this and that it can never happen again.

Last week, the Prime Minister told this House that

“we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]

Will he now explain—including to his Energy Secretary—how he will guarantee everybody in the country the lowest tariff?

As I said last week, we are going to use the Energy Bill to ensure that customers get the lowest tariffs. That is what we want to do. There is a real problem here that is worth looking at: last year, there were more than 400 tariffs. That is completely baffling for customers and although encouraging people to switch can help make a difference, we need to go further and we need to use the law. I am in no doubt that we are on the side of people who work hard, pay their bills and want a better deal.

The only people who were baffled last week were all the Prime Minister’s Ministers, who did not know anything about his announcement. Last week, it was a gilt-edged guarantee from the Prime Minister. Of course, now we have read the small print it has totally unravelled—another dodgy offer from this Prime Minister. Why cannot he admit the truth just for once? He does not do the detail, he made up the policy and he got caught out.

We are going to use the Energy Bill to ensure that people get the lowest tariff. The Deputy Prime Minister said exactly the same thing. The right hon. Gentleman wants to look at the detail; let me ask him about this detail—yes, we have his entire energy policy laid out for us. Perhaps he can tell us something. Now he says he wants to scrap Ofgem; in government, he kept Ofgem. Now he says he wants to pool energy supplies; in government Labour scrapped pooling energy supplies. Now he says he wants to refer the big six to the Competition Commission; then he said he would not do it because it would be wrong. I am all in favour of switching, but this is ridiculous.

Let us talk about my record as Energy Secretary. I want to thank the Prime Minister for the Conservative party briefing document issued last Thursday—after the chaos at PMQs. It reveals something very interesting. While I was the Energy Secretary, the average dual fuel bill fell by £110; under him, it has risen by £200, so I will compare my record with his any day. [Interruption.] Look, the part-time Chancellor is giving advice again. I am actually coming on to one of his favourite subjects—the west coast main line.

The former railways Minister, now the Northern Ireland Secretary, told us in August about the franchise process, saying:

“We’ve tested it very robustly”.

The former Secretary of State for Transport, now the Secretary of State for International Development—she does not really want the job, but she is down the Bench over there—said:

“The process is incredibly robust”.

Yet we learn today that concerns about flaws in the process were raised by the bidders as long ago as May 2011. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether any Minister knew about the bidders’ concerns?

First of all, the right hon. Gentleman says he wants to talk about his record as Energy Secretary, so I think we should spend a little bit of time on that. The fact is, under Labour, gas bills doubled and electricity bills were up more than 50%. When he became Energy Secretary, the companies were making a £25 loss per bill; when he left government, they were making £55 profit per bill. He did not stand up to the vested interests; he stuffed their pockets with cash. Right, we have dealt with that—oh, by the way, while we are on his energy record, he put in place in his low-carbon transition plan a policy that would have added £179 to every single person’s bill in the country. Perhaps when he gets up, he can apologise for that.

Order. Perhaps Members on both sides could calm down. Let us now hear from the Leader of the Opposition.

Even the Prime Minister is taking his habit of not answering questions to a new level. I asked him a question—[Interruption.] If he wants to swap places, I am very happy to do so. I asked him a question about the railways. [Interruption.] The Chancellor is shouting from a sedentary position, but it is not the ticket that needs upgrading; in my view, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The mishandling of this process has cost taxpayers up to £100 million, so which of the Prime Minister’s former Transport Ministers who oversaw the bidding is responsible for this multi-million pound fiasco?

There is a proper independent investigation into what happened with the west coast main line. The Secretary of State for Transport has made a full statement to this House and has explained what will be done so that commuters continue to receive a good service and we get to the bottom of what went wrong. What is interesting—and what the country will notice—is that the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the Chancellor because he cannot talk about the economy because he has got no plans to increase the private sector. He cannot talk about the deficit because he has got no plans to cut it. He cannot talk about welfare because he opposes our plans to cap it. He cannot talk about all the issues that matter to this country—and that is why he stands up and just tells a whole lot of rubbish jokes.

I think we can take it from that answer that no one is taking responsibility for what happened on the railways. Ministers did not know the detail, they did not do the work, and they got caught out—but who can blame them? They are just playing follow my leader, after all.

This is what the right hon. Gentleman said before he became Prime Minister:

“We must provide the modern Conservative alternative. Clear. Competent. Inspiring.”

Mr. Speaker, where did it all go wrong?

I will tell you what has happened under this Government in the last week. Inflation: down. Unemployment: down. Crime: down. Waiting lists: down. Borrowing: down. That is what is happening, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot talk about the real issues, because he is not up to the job.

It is good to see the crimson tide back. This is the reality: the Prime Minister is living in a parallel universe. It has been another disastrous week for his Government. Last week he defended the Chief Whip; now the Chief Whip has gone; he made up an energy policy; that has gone too; and he has lost millions of pounds on the railways. Is not the truth that there is no one else left to blame for the shambles of his Government? It goes right to the top.

It is only a bad week if you think it is bad that unemployment is coming down. We think it is good. It is only a bad week if you regret the fact that inflation is coming down. We think it is a good thing for our country. It is only a bad week if you do not think it is a good thing that a million more people are in work. That is what is happening in our country. Every bit of good news sends that team into a complete decline, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the good news will keep coming.

Q2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the good news that there has been a 13% fall in recorded crime in the west midlands over the past 12 months, and congratulating West Midlands police and the Dudley local policing unit on their performance? Robbery is down by 31% and house burglaries are down by 29% in my area. Does not that fall in crime show that police reform is working? (124340)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. Not only has recorded crime fallen by 6%, but the crime survey showed that it had fallen by 6%. This is a time when we are making difficult decisions about police funding, but owing to the combination of that police reform—the changes that we are making—and a tougher approach to criminal justice, crime is falling and public satisfaction with the police is going up.

Q3. Last year the Prime Minister told the House that there was no reason why front-line police officer numbers needed to fall, but my constituents in Harrow tell me that they are seeing fewer police on our streets. Is not the real truth that there are 6,800 fewer police officers since he came to power? (124341)

What is actually happening is that the number of neighbourhood police officers has gone up by 2,360 since 2010.

Q4. Last week planning permission was granted for a large retail leisure park on derelict land at Skew Bridge, between my constituency and the Corby constituency. It will create 2,000 new jobs, and will provide a large branch of Marks and Spencer and a stunning nature reserve. Labour opposes that development. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whom the people of Corby should support—Christine Emmett and the Conservatives, who are campaigning for 2,000 new jobs, or Labour’s Corby luddites? (124342)

My hon. Friend has made the excellent point that it is this party and this Government who are getting behind economic development. As I have just said, every piece of good news is a disaster for Labour Members. They wake up every morning wanting more unemployment, but unemployment is coming down. They wake up wanting inflation to rise, but inflation is coming down. As we can see in Corby, it is the Conservatives who are getting behind growth and jobs in the future.

During the last election, the Prime Minister made many pledges to the electorate. One of those pledges was that he would help to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Given that our economy lags behind the United Kingdom average and, indeed, behind the position in Scotland in terms of key economic indicators, when can we expect an announcement from the Prime Minister on the steps that he will take to help to rebalance our economy?

I do want to see the Northern Irish economy rebalance; it badly needs to, because the size of the state sector is so big and accounts for so much of Northern Ireland GDP. We are continuing to pursue the policy of looking at a lower corporation tax rate for Northern Ireland, because of the land border with the Republic. I do not believe that is the only thing we should look at. We also need to see how we can boost manufacturing and small businesses, increase the rate of business start-up and also do all the things we can to encourage inward investment into Northern Ireland, which I have been doing, including on the trips I have been making to other parts of the globe.

Q5. On Monday I was delighted when the Prime Minister put his personal rocket boosters under payment by results for rehabilitation. Will he, as First Lord of the Treasury, ensure that the Treasury stands four-square behind the Ministry of Justice as it designs and delivers the first generation of payment-by-results programmes, which are radical, globally new and underwrite unquantifiable cash consequences of success for the next spending review period? (124343)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We should be bringing payment by results to all of the criminal justice system. Currently, we spend over £1 billion on probation. I want to see payment by results being the norm rather than the exception. To be fair to the Treasury, when it designed payment by results in the welfare system, it allowed the Department for Work and Pensions to spend the future receipts of lower benefit claims. I am sure the Treasury will be equally inventive and creative when it comes to making sure we get better value for money and better results in our criminal justice system.

Q6. Last week from the Dispatch Box the Prime Minister said that services at Kettering hospital were safe. This week we have learned that the official review’s so-called best option is to get rid of many vital services in our hospital and to reduce the number of beds by 80%. Is it not the truth that you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS? (124344)

What is true is that you can always guarantee that Labour Members of Parliament will get up in Parliament and scaremonger about our NHS. What I said last week is absolutely right.

Q7. With 170,000 fewer people on benefits and 1 million new jobs created, should it not be perfectly clear that this Government’s plan is working? (124345)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The figures showed last week that there are more people in work than at any time in our history. There are more women in work than at any time in our history, and since the election the number of full-time jobs has increased faster than the number of part-time jobs. There is absolutely no complacency on the Government Benches, but we have got to do everything we can to continue the progress—getting people into work, getting the long-term unemployed into work and cracking down on youth unemployment as well.

Q8. Can the Prime Minister explain the relationship between Virgin Care donations to the Tory party, the number of Virgin Care shareholders on clinical commissioning group boards and the number of NHS contracts that have been awarded to Virgin Care? (124346)

All donations to political parties are properly disclosed and properly announced, but the difference, I have to say, between the donations that the Conservative party gets from individuals and businesses, and the trade unions’ donations to the Labour party is that they effectively buy votes at the Labour party’s conference and policies in its manifesto, and they vote for the Labour leader as well. The trade unions pay the money, they get the votes. That is the scandal in funding parties.

Q9. Under the previous Labour Government the national health service lost hundreds of millions of pounds because the cost of treating foreign patients was not properly recovered. Can I get an assurance from my right hon. Friend that both the Department of Health and the Home Office will now work together to resolve this issue? (124347)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. This area—who should pay, how much and when—has become much too complicated, so I have asked that Ministers get together to simplify it. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is going to be leading this process, and I hope we can come up with a simplified system in which the public will have real trust.

Q10. Jimmy Carr avoided £3.3 million of tax last year, and the Prime Minister said that was morally wrong. Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and Starbucks have between them avoided nearly £900 million of tax. Will the Prime Minister now take this opportunity to condemn their behaviour as morally wrong? (124348)

The right hon. Lady makes an important point. This is an international problem that all countries are struggling with: how to make sure that companies pay tax in an appropriate way. I am not happy with the current situation; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs needs to look at it very carefully. We need to make sure that we are encouraging these businesses to invest in our country—as they are doing—but they should be paying fair taxes as well.

May I ask my right hon. Friend why, as he told me on Monday, he thinks that the single currency needs a banking union, as the crisis in the euro has been caused not by the absence of a banking union, but by the absence of a single fiscal policy? Yet, if a fiscal union were introduced, it would certainly be dominated by Germany, and that would lead to the death of democracy throughout most of Europe. So is not the least painful solution the abolition of the euro and the return to national currencies?

What I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I believe that the insecurity in the eurozone is caused in part by both those issues: the lack of a fiscal union, but also the lack of a banking union. One of the problems in the eurozone at the moment is the different level of interest rates in Spain, Italy and Portugal, which is in part because of concerns about the link between weak banks and sovereign Governments. Only when we have a banking union will there be greater security about those weak banks. We have a single currency in the United Kingdom, and we also have a banking union in the United Kingdom; we would not treat banks differently because they are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, rather than in England. I believe a working single currency will need a working banking union; I think that is logically consistent and sensible.

Q11. Last week we had a Government Chief Whip who was educated at Rugby public school, and this week we have one who was educated at Eton. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can give us an update on his campaign to spread privilege. (124349)

I would argue that Members across this House would recognise that the record of my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) stands for itself. [Interruption.]

After the BBC director-general’s appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday, I hope the whole House will agree that it is essential that the two independent inquiries get to the truth. Full details of those inquiries are still sketchy, despite my having sent two letters to the BBC asking for full disclosure. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for full details to be published today, so that both inquiries can have the full confidence of the public and Jimmy Savile’s victims can hear the truth?

First, may I commend my hon. Friend on the good, valuable and dedicated work he has done on this issue of making sure that all these institutions get to the truth? To be fair to the BBC, I believe that the two inquiries it has set up qualify as independent inquiries. The inquiry into the “Newsnight” programme is being carried out by the former head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, and the second—and more important, in many ways—review into the culture and practices of the BBC going back many years is being led by a former Appeal Court judge, Dame Janet Smith. As my hon. Friend says, it is very important that the BBC makes it clear that these inquiries can go where the evidence leads, have access to all the paperwork and be able to be truly independent and get to the truth on behalf of all the victims of Jimmy Savile.

Q12. Caught out, the Prime Minister refused to answer a question last week, so will he now tell us why he will not publish the e-mails, texts and other correspondence between himself, Rebekah Brooks, News International and Andy Coulson, so that we can judge for ourselves? What is he frightened of: scandal, embarrassment—or is there something more damning that he is frightened of? (124350)

I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman but it was this Government who set up the Leveson inquiry, and have co-operated with it and given it all the information it has asked for.

Q13. In March, my constituent Emma Hickman was informed that her fiancé, Private Daniel Wade of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, had died in Afghanistan. Three months later, she gave birth to Daniel’s baby, Lexie-Mai. The Army will not accept paternity without evidence; nor will it release the DNA without a court order. As a consequence, Lexie-Mai receives nothing. Will the Prime Minister help to expedite this case? Will he also require that the Army routinely holds DNA, as happens in other countries, such as the United States? (124351)

On the latter part of my hon. Friend’s question, I will certainly look at that. I was as shocked as he was when I found out about this case. I will do everything I can to try to expedite—as he says—a conclusion to it. I am sure that the sincere condolences of everyone in this House go to Private Wade’s family. This is an absolutely dreadful situation and it cannot be allowed to continue. The Ministry of Defence is aware of it, and it raises some complicated legal issues, but the reaction from colleagues around the House when my hon. Friend said what he said shows that we have to move quickly and get this sorted.

Q14. Does the Prime Minister recall telling the House last year that the UK would lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery? Could he explain to the House why his Whips organised, last Friday, to talk out my Bill that would eradicate that problem in the supply chains of British companies? Will he meet me and the people who support the Bill so that we can move this campaign forward? (124352)

This Government have an excellent record in combating modern-day slavery, not least because we continue to commit, through our international aid programme, to tackle those countries where it still, so regrettably, exists. I will look very carefully at the Bill that the hon. Gentleman mentions and perhaps write to him about the issue.

A number of major employers in my constituency are calling for greater certainty for investors in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, low-carbon energy. Will the Prime Minister respond to their calls—specifically for a 2030 carbon intensity target for the power sector?

I am looking very carefully at these issues, but I have to say that we have already taken the most important step, which is to set the renewables obligation certificates—the ROCs—out into the future, so that investors know that they can invest, for instance in offshore wind, knowing what the return is going to be. There will be more detail, of course, when we produce the Energy Bill later in this year.

Q15. May I refer the Prime Minister to the Hansard record from 23 May 2012? The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) asked him the following:“Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that he will not succumb to the diktat from the European Court of Human Rights in relation to prisoners voting”.His reply was:“The short answer to that is yes.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 1127.]Will he confirm that that is still his position? I hope that it is. Will he tell us how he is going to get around breaking European law? (124353)

I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The House of Commons has voted against prisoners having the vote. I do not want prisoners to have the vote, and they should not get the vote—I am very clear about that. If it helps to have another vote in Parliament on another resolution to make it absolutely clear and help put the legal position beyond doubt, I am happy to do that. But no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government.

Is the Prime Minister aware that last year there was a borough council-run referendum in my constituency about whether to locate an energy-from-waste incinerator on the edge of King’s Lynn? Is he aware that on a 61% turnout, 65,516 of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) voted no? That amounted to a staggering 92.7% voting no. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential for local democracy and for localism that my constituents and these people are listened to?

I think it is very important that the planning system listens to local people and that proper processes are followed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will work very hard in this case to make sure that that happens.

The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very difficult and complex case, and I am not entirely sure which former Prime Minister he is referring to. What I would like to do is look carefully in Hansard at the allegations he has made and the case he has raised, and look carefully at what the Government can do to help give him the assurances he seeks.

My hon. Friend is tempting me into commenting on what Lord Leveson might or might not recommend in his report, but having set up the inquiry on an all-party basis, it is important that we allow him to produce his report. What I would say is that I think one can obsess too much about how exactly such things are done, when what matters most of all is whether we have a regulatory system in which the public have confidence that, if mistakes are made, there are proper corrections; that if newspapers do the wrong thing, they can be fined; and that when things go wrong, there is proper investigation. That seems to me to be the most important question for us all: are we going to put in place a system in which we have confidence and the public will support, but in which we are seen to have a free, independent and very vigorous press?

Is the Prime Minister aware that young people’s unemployment in my constituency has gone up by 1,000%? What is he going to do about this scandal?

What we are doing is putting in place, through the Work programme and the Youth Contract, the biggest ever scheme to help people to get back into work. We have seen success in recent weeks and months, with more people in work than at any time in our history and recent figures showing a decline in the claimant count, a decline in unemployment and a decline in youth unemployment. There is far more to do, but we are at least heading in the right direction.

Will the Prime Minister promise today, that unlike other leaders in other Parliaments in the UK, he will never spend £100,000 fighting the release of legal advice that he does not hold and never asked for?

The hon. Gentleman asks a baffling question about a truly baffling situation. We were told, I believe, by the First Minister in Scotland that he had legal advice on Scotland’s place in the European Union in the event of independence, but it turns out that he did not have any legal advice at all. What that shows is that when the spotlight is shone on the Scottish National party’s case for separation, it completely falls apart.

The Prime Minister has rightly expressed concern about child abuse in our institutions, but last year the Government reduced child protection measures in schools, and changes made to Ofsted will result in some schools never being inspected on their child protection procedures. Will the Prime Minister now meet me and cross-party MPs from the all-party child protection group to protect our children now and in the future?

I am very happy to arrange a meeting between the hon. Lady and the new Minister, who has huge experience in this area and who I know will be delighted to discuss it with her. What we have tried to do is simplify a set of rules and regulations that involved 9 million or 10 million more parents in this sort of thing and concentrate on where the focus is needed, but I am happy to arrange that meeting.