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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Recent Disturbances

1. What discussions she has had with political leaders about recent disturbances in Northern Ireland. (145437)

I have had regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and other political leaders in Northern Ireland about the disturbances of recent months. The protests should now end. A way forward that commands broadly based support can be found only through dialogue and working together.

In the light of the recent successful interception of four mortar bombs by the police in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps she is taking to counter the work of terrorists whose aim is to kill and maim innocent people?

The attempted terrorist attack this week demonstrates how severe the terrorist threat continues to be in Northern Ireland. It was only through the highly effective action of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners that mass casualties were averted. The Government remain vigilant in the face of the threat and have included it as a tier 1 priority in their national security strategy.

The interception of the mortar bomb attack prevented a devastating attack on Londonderry and saved lives. In the light of the string of attacks and attempted attacks from that particular quarter, will the Secretary of State tell us what extra resources she is going to give to the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland in the coming year to counter the dissident terrorist threat?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that shortly after taking office the coalition devoted an extra £200 million to national security priorities in Northern Ireland, which has been tremendously helpful to the PSNI, not least in enabling it to replace its Land Rover fleet. We will continue our discussions on the successor funding when that £200 million runs out, and we continue to do everything we can to support the PSNI and its partners, and the Northern Ireland Executive, in countering this threat.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some of those involved in the dissident terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland who have been charged with the most serious offences, including murder, have been released on bail in recent days, while others who have been involved in the protests and who are likely to receive a non-custodial sentence have been remanded on bail. Does she understand the bewilderment of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that situation, and the anger that is perpetuated in the community by what is perceived to be this double standard?

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that those are matters for the courts, not for me as Secretary of State and not for the police. I am afraid that the courts make their own decisions on those matters, taking into account the risk of reoffending.

The Secretary of State says that those are matters for the courts, and indeed they are, but the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has referred to the huge challenges now facing Northern Ireland from the so-called new IRA and from the loyalist demonstrations. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now have more than just regular discussions with political parties, and that she really needs a structure for those discussions with the Irish Government and with all the political leaders in Northern Ireland if we are to deal with those serious issues?

Of course it is important that those discussions continue. I had a very helpful meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Tánaiste a few weeks ago, and we hope to put another so-called quad meeting in the diary very shortly. Both Governments believe that it is important for a dialogue to occur on flags and symbols, and for progress to be made towards the shared future in Northern Ireland that everyone in the political leadership wants. It is essential that that should now be delivered.

In view of the current political difficulties and the impasse on some issues, would the Secretary of State consider it useful to convene round-table discussions involving herself, the Irish Government and all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

It is important for Northern Ireland’s political leadership to develop a process so that the leaders of all the political parties can work together on matters such as flags and identity. That is an important way of ensuring that the protests come off the streets and that we find a genuinely inclusive way to decide on these issues. The Belfast agreement gives guarantees on protecting identities of Irishness and Britishness, and it is now time for the political parties to work together to see how we can translate those guarantees into a sensible way of approaching issues around flags and symbols in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments to date. At a time when the PSNI is under extreme pressure and when the rule of law is under threat from loyalists and republicans, does she agree that it is hugely important that all political leaders in Northern Ireland give their unambiguous support to the rule of law and to the PSNI, and that they articulate within their communities the need to support those organisations and principles, rather than simply becoming a voice for dissent?

I agree. I am firmly supportive of the PSNI, which does an outstanding job. It has dealt with these protests in a very sensible way, and it has faced difficult situations. Indeed, almost 150 of its officers have been injured, so it has my firm and unqualified support. I hope that it will enjoy that support from Northern Ireland’s political leadership as well.

In her recent discussions, has the Secretary of State been able to confirm that the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill tabled by the Home Secretary, which would allow her to transfer lead responsibility for counter-terrorism to the National Crime Agency, will not apply in Northern Ireland and that the Chief Constable will remain in overall control of all counter-terrorism investigations and operations?

The Home Secretary certainly agrees that if there were any suggestion of extending the NCA’s remit to national security matters in Northern Ireland, that could happen only with the consent of the Chief Constable of the PSNI. The primacy of the Chief Constable is retained to ensure consistency with the devolution of policing and justice.

Welfare Reforms

2. What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the Government’s proposed welfare reforms. (145438)

4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. (145440)

Earlier this morning, I discussed these matters with the First and Deputy First Ministers at the Joint Ministerial Committee. I am sure that the whole House would say that a simpler benefit system will reward those in work and the vulnerable in our society.

On 27 February, the Minister responsible for social development in Northern Ireland, Mr Nelson McCausland MLA, said:

“I have said many times already that I have concerns about the potential impact of Welfare Reform on local people. I will continue to work with Ministers in Westminster to mitigate against the most negative impacts of these reforms.”

Will the Minister tell us what he thinks the “negative impacts” of welfare reform in Northern Ireland are and what progress he has made in helping the Minister in Northern Ireland to address them?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has been to Northern Ireland on many occasions and is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the particular Minister with whom I have also worked. The measures are going to be difficult, but we face the situation that work needs to pay and that under the present system it does not. In Northern Ireland, of all the areas of the United Kingdom, welfare desperately needs reform.

One effect of the welfare reform changes in Northern Ireland is that, on the most recent figures, 98,000 children in Northern Ireland are now living in poverty. Indeed, the Belfast West constituency is the second highest in the whole of the UK in that respect. Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), will the Minister explain exactly what he is doing about that particular aspect, which does not necessarily have anything to do with people being in or out of work, but is having a distinctly negative impact on many Northern Ireland households?

Child poverty was discussed this morning at the Joint Ministerial Committee, and it has been an aspiration for all of us, over many years, to get rid of it. The situation in Northern Ireland, however, is that too many people and families are completely reliant on welfare, and that unless we reform the system it will not be possible for them to get off benefits and into work, which must be the aspiration for all of us.

I join the Secretary of State and the Minister in praising the bravery and success of the police in preventing a terrorist attack in Londonderry on Sunday night. As the right hon. Lady said, those who seek to destroy peace and progress will not succeed, but we have to remain vigilant to the threat they pose. On welfare reform, will the Minister tell me how many people in Northern Ireland will be adversely affected by the bedroom tax?

That is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we all want to make sure that the people who come to see us at our surgeries on a regular basis who are inappropriately housed or cannot be housed can be put in social housing if they need it. In Northern Ireland, between 2010 and 2012, the budget went up by 10.7%, with more than £500 million spent on housing benefit. We have to do something about that, while mitigating the effects on those in need.

The “not me, guv” attitude will not work. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, 66% of working age social tenants in Northern Ireland will be affected, and 32,000 people will lose out as a result of the bedroom tax. The Government have given no consideration to the specific issues to do with housing in Northern Ireland—from the type and scale of stock to the segregation in and between communities—so will the Minister urgently meet the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the disastrous consequences of this policy?

Well, that is the Labour party’s position. What we want to do is get people into housing that will be beneficial for them. Every week families come to the surgeries of Members throughout the House, and throughout the United Kingdom, and say to us, “I do not want to sleep on the floor any more, and I do not want my kids to sleep on settees.” How can we help them when others are living in one and two-bedroom properties although they do not need that excess capacity? What is the Labour party going to do about that? I expected the shadow Minister to ask about the very difficult security situation in Northern Ireland, but he has not done so today.

Is the Minister aware that there will be a £10 million a year deficit in housing benefit following the implementation of the bedroom tax, which will leave families in the Province in dire straits? Will he review the changes in the Northern Ireland block grant so that smaller homes and apartments can be built?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, has adopted the Labour party “tax” mantra. This is not a tax. What we are trying to do is make the position fairer for all our constituents. It is true that capacity is an issue in Northern Ireland; the problem is that there are too many people in the wrong sort of housing, and we need to help them to get into the right sort.

Is the Minister aware that Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of dependence on benefits in the United Kingdom, that a high proportion of its population have mental and physical disabilities, and that its provision for affordable child care is the lowest in the UK? Will he assist the efforts of the Minister in the devolved Department for Social Development—along with the Department for Work and Pensions—to secure mitigation measures other than those that have already been announced in relation to welfare reform in Northern Ireland?

Of course I will continue to work closely with the Minister in the devolved Administration. However, the best way in which to help those who are receiving welfare benefits is to get them off benefits and into work as soon as possible.

Youth Unemployment

The Government’s efforts to reduce the largest deficit in UK peacetime history and deliver sustainable economic recovery are an important way of dealing with youth unemployment. Further specific measures to help young people in Northern Ireland to find jobs are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, with whom we are happy to work closely.

Given that youth unemployment now stands at over 20%, does the Secretary of State not share Opposition Members’ sense of urgency about the need to get Northern Ireland’s young people back to work? We have proposed a bank bonus tax that would help to create 2,000 jobs for those young people. What specific things are the Government going to do?

I will take no lectures from Labour on youth unemployment. Youth unemployment rose by a third—by 35%—under Labour in Northern Ireland, youth employment fell by nearly 10%, and economic activity among young people fell by 3%. We are determined to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Our deficit reduction plan is keeping interest rates low, which is vital for job creation and investment, and corporation tax is being reduced. We have also recognised the special circumstances of Northern Ireland by providing, on average, a higher block grant per head than is provided anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Since it was established by the British and Irish Governments, the International Fund for Ireland has played an important role in facilitating and encouraging investment in projects that support communities, businesses and young people. What future role does the Secretary of State envisage for the IFI, and how can it help the Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the IFI. It has done tremendous work in the past, and continues to do that work. I shall be happy to meet IFI representatives to discuss how we can work together more closely to address youth unemployment issues. I am sure that they will engage with Northern Ireland politicians who will travel to the United States for the St Patrick’s day commemorations in a week or so.

The Secretary of State referred to corporation tax. Will she update the House on her discussions with the Treasury about the possibility of devolving to the Northern Ireland Assembly the power to set its own rate of corporation tax?

I have had a number of very useful discussions with the Prime Minister and Chancellor on this important matter. The Prime Minister will meet the First and Deputy First Ministers shortly to discuss it further, before deciding on possible next steps.

Youth unemployment in my constituency has increased significantly in the last year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that that figure is not added to by the closure of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office in Coleraine, and will she speak with the relevant Transport Minister to make sure that those 200 jobs and their cost-effectiveness are preserved by bringing employment across to Northern Ireland?

I am very much aware of the importance of this issue. I was in the Coleraine area only last week, and I have discussed this matter with the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). He is aware of the concern felt in Northern Ireland, and he either met Alex Attwood for further discussions yesterday or will meet him today. It is important that he takes into account the views of Northern Ireland before he makes his decision.

Instead of saying, “It’s not me, guv,” and shuffling responsibility for the terrible level of disaffection among unemployed young people in Northern Ireland, why does the Secretary of State not accept that it is her Government’s macro-economic policies that are causing this disaffection? With the marching season coming up and the loyalist disorder just past, this is a very toxic situation and she is just walking away from it and shuffling responsibility on to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Not at all. The Government’s macro-economic policy is focused on dealing with the deficit and creating the right conditions for growth so we can start to resolve problems in relation to youth unemployment. That is why we are focusing on such matters as keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit and reducing corporation tax; why we are investing in broadband capacity—that is why Belfast and Londonderry are going to become part of our super-connected cities programme; why we are offering tax breaks for high-end TV, another growth area of industry in Northern Ireland; and why the Prime Minister is bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland, to showcase it to the world as a great place to do business.

Political Parties (Funding)

In general, UK-wide party funding rules apply to Northern Ireland parties. However, the Electoral Commission cannot disclose information that relates to donations or loans to Northern Ireland parties. The Government are committed to making party funding more transparent, while ensuring donor identities are not released retrospectively.

I am most grateful to the Minister of State for that answer. He will know there is cross-party consensus that political funding in Northern Ireland needs to be more transparent and accountable to the public. Will he therefore engage with all the political parties who choose to take their seats here, to ensure we make progress on this very important issue?

Not only will I engage with all political parties that take their seats here, I will also engage with those that do not, because I think this is a very important issue. In the last couple of weeks, with the shadow Minister for the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), we took through a statutory instrument that puts in place an extension until September next year. We hope to be in a better position next year, but we must protect those who may be vulnerable should they wish to donate to a political party.

For years this House has allowed the disgraceful situation to continue whereby Sinn Fein has been able to draw down tens of thousands of pounds of representative money without providing representation in this House. Discrimination against true democrats must be stopped. When will the Government grasp the nettle and stop this intolerable abuse and inequality of funding?

I recently discussed this matter with the Leader of the House. This is a matter for the House, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will like to raise it with the Leader of the House. He might, perhaps, even get a debate on it.

Notification Requirements (Public Processions)

6. What consideration she is giving to bringing forward an amendment to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 in relation to notification requirements as part of the proposed Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. (145442)

Under the relevant legislation, anyone who is organising a parade must notify the Parades Commission. If they fail to do so, the parade is illegal and those who organise or participate in it are liable to criminal prosecution.

First, as the MP for the city in question, may I join in the Secretary of State’s earlier condemnation of the attempted murder attack and her commendation of the PSNI interception of it, averting devastation and death?

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there was a gap in the understanding of the Parades Commission and the PSNI in relation to unnotified parades, and that that created a situation whereby we were getting dangerous notions, instead of responsible heads? Does she recognise that we, as legislators, may need to clarify the law on parades so that things are not destabilised during the forthcoming parades season?

I am always open to considering ideas for making these decision-making processes work better, but the reality is that the problem over recent weeks has not been how the legislation is structured—the problem has been that people have not been obeying it. So it is vital, as we go into the parading season, that people respect the decisions of the Parades Commission, notifying it when a parade is contemplated.

I also wish to echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments condemning unreservedly the horrific terrorist attack that his constituency was threatened with and that was narrowly averted by the swift action of the PSNI.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to bringing forward an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill to remove the Parades Commission, which is seen by many as part of the problem and not the solution?

It is vital that everyone recognises that the Parades Commission carries out an important function. It is the only lawfully constituted body in relation to parading and its decisions must be obeyed. We have always said that we are open to a reform of the system that would see a devolved solution. If the Northern Ireland political parties wish to put forward such a solution, we will consider it seriously.

Economic Growth

7. What recent assessment she has made of the prospects for economic growth in Northern Ireland. (145443)

The Government are committed to dealing with the deficit to create the right conditions for growth and economic recovery. We are working with the Executive to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost the private sector.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the important thing is to increase our exports for the UK as a whole? What role does she think Northern Ireland can play? What support can she give businesses in Northern Ireland to increase exports?

I am working closely with Northern Ireland Ministers on this matter. There are huge opportunities this year to highlight Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest, not least when the eyes of the world focus on County Fermanagh as the G8 summit comes to Northern Ireland, thanks to the personal decision of the Prime Minister. [Interruption.]

Order. In my experience the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) rarely has difficulty in making himself heard, but there is a lot of noise at the moment and so, just in case, let us have a bit of quiet for Mr Stephen Pound.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am mortally obliged, sir.

Some 111,000 working families receiving tax credits in Northern Ireland will lose out because of the Government’s tax on strivers. At the same time, the Government will give a tax cut for those earning £1 million and above. Does the Secretary of State think that economic growth will be helped or hindered by having Christmas in April for millionaires?

The Government are fully committed to their welfare reform programme. We believe that welfare reform is essential to ensure that work always pays. We believe that it is deeply irresponsible for Her Majesty’s Opposition to continue to oppose all the reforms of welfare, which are designed to get the welfare bill down. That spiralled under their tenure of the economy.

Like many other peripheral regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has suffered most during this recession. We understand that reckless expenditure will damage the economy, but would the Secretary of State support the calls by all the regional administrations in the United Kingdom for a fiscal stimulus for capital expenditure, which will create short-term jobs and increase the economy’s capacity in the long run?

As Finance Minister for the Northern Ireland Executive, the hon. Gentleman has options available to him within the block grant, which he receives under the Barnett arrangements; his grant remains considerably higher than the UK average. We are happy to continue to work with him and his colleagues in the Executive to generate inward investment for Northern Ireland and to ensure that our macro-economic policy, for example, on reducing corporation tax, is delivering the maximum benefits possible to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.

Does the Secretary of State understand the strength of feeling from the political parties and the business community about the case for the reduction of corporation tax in Northern Ireland so that it can better compete with the Republic?

I certainly understand that and I gather that the right hon. Gentleman had some lively discussions on that matter at the Alliance party conference. The Prime Minister is well aware of that perspective on corporation tax and I have discussed it with him and with the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister on a number of occasions.

McGurk’s Bar Bombing

I understand that the most recent public report on that tragic event was published by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in February 2011. I tried to place a copy in the House today but have been told that that is not possible, but it will be on the police ombudsman’s website and it is available now.

I am disappointed that the Minister of State is replying, as I would have thought that the Secretary of State would take the chance to repeat her apology to me to the people affected by the McGurk’s bar bombing, which was the biggest bombing before Omagh. Do the Government accept that they cannot devolve the past and that their response should ensure that the suppression of witnesses that happened and the expert evidence that was given but then supplanted by lies and fabrication from the Northern Ireland police are not allowed to continue, so that we get to the truth about the collusion that took place before and after the bomb?

At the outset, let me pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done over the years. I know I upset him the other week when I was slightly robust, but Mr Speaker has also rebuked me for being too soft and quietly spoken in the past couple of weeks. Let us put it this way: I served in the Province and am very proud to have done so. No bomb is acceptable and we must get to the truth.

Will the Minister of State acknowledge that I am a member of the second largest party of opposition in this House—that is, not the Labour party—and indicate what other reports by the Historical Enquiries Team are pending on other atrocities in Northern Ireland? Will he demonstrate that the HET must do more to reassure the majority community, as republicans murdered Protestants in Northern Ireland in cold blood and the HET should demonstrate that in its publications and findings?

The issue has been raised with me on more than one occasion. I have continually looked into the evidence base and if the hon. Gentleman has evidence that such work is not taking place across the political divide in Northern Ireland, he should come and see me about it. He knows that he will get a welcome response.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

More than 2,500 households in Halton are affected by the bedroom tax. The chief executive of the National Housing Federation said this week:

“The bedroom tax is ill-thought and unfair as thousands of disabled people will have no choice but to cut back further on food and other expenses in order to stay in their…homes.”

Will the Prime Minister now drop this callous policy?

Let us be absolutely clear that this is not a tax. Let me explain to the Labour party that a tax is when someone earns some money and the Government take some of that money away from them—that is a tax. Only Labour could call a benefit reform a tax increase. Let me be clear to the hon. Gentleman: pensioners are exempt, people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt. Those categories of people are all exempt, but there is a basic issue of fairness. How can it be fair that people on housing benefit in private rented accommodation do not get a spare room subsidy, whereas people in social housing do? That is not fair and we are putting that right.

Figures published yesterday show that over the past 20 years there has been a 137% increase in the number of deaths linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to stop that awful condition afflicting more people in the future, we must invest much more in preventing it and on research in particular? Will he outline to the House what the Government are doing to help support those with dementia and those who care for them?

My hon. Friend raises a point of concern to everyone in this House and everyone in this country, because no one knows when a relative could be afflicted by the condition. Her point is absolutely right: this is a disease and we should be thinking about it as a disease, as we do when we try to crack cancer, or heart disease, or strokes. That is why the Government are increasing the amount of money going into medical research so that we can try to prevent dementia in more cases. But there are many other things we need to do to improve the care in care homes and in hospitals and to ensure that we have more dementia-friendly communities so that we all learn how to deal with people who have dementia and how to help them lead lives that are as productive as possible.

I would like to ask the Prime Minister about an individual case that has been raised with me. John works in east London and is worried about what is happening to his living standards. His salary is £1 million and he is worried that under proposed EU regulations, his bonus may be capped at just £2 million. Will the Prime Minister tell us what he is going to do for John?

What I would say to John and everyone like John is that under this Government, bonuses are one quarter of what they were when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury. I will take lots of lectures from lots of people, but I do not have to listen to the croupier in the casino when it all went bust.

I know the Prime Minister does not want to deal with the facts, but he sent his Chancellor to Europe yesterday in order to argue against the bonus cap, he says, presumably because he thinks it will be bad for the City of London, but who led the negotiations on the bonus cap? It was a Conservative Member of the European Parliament. What did she say? She said

“we have managed to produce a deal that will strike the right balance for the majority of bankers who take responsible decisions.”

Why are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor the only people who think it is a priority to fight for bigger bonuses for bankers?

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have some of the toughest rules on bonuses and the toughest rules on transparency of any major financial centre anywhere in the world. When the croupiers were in charge, where was the transparency? There was none. Where were the rules? There were none. We are not going to listen to them, but there is an important issue here. There are some important British national interests. We are responsible for 40% of the EU’s financial services. Those industries are here in our country and we ought to make sure that they go on contributing to our Exchequer. We want to make sure that international banks go on being headquartered here in the UK. We think that matters. The right hon. Gentleman might want to just pose and play politics, but we care about these things. We also want to make sure that we can put in place the very tough ring-fence around our retail banks so that the complete shambles that he presided over can never happen again.

This is the man who in opposition said:

“There will be a day of reckoning”

for the bankers. Now he sends his Chancellor to fight against the bonus cap in Brussels. What did he say? Was he arguing that there should be more regulation of the banks? No. [Interruption.] Oh, he says he was. Let’s see. What did he say? David Cameron, “A Conservative Economic Strategy”, March 2008. I have it here. He said:

“As a free-marketeer by conviction, it will not surprise you to hear me say”

that the problem of the past decade has been

“too much regulation”.

There we have it. I think John the banker will take heart that the Prime Minister is straining every muscle to help him. Now, let me ask the right hon. Gentleman about the cases of the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who will lose an average of £700 a year because of his bedroom tax. Is he going to fight for them, like he is fighting for John the banker?

First of all, let us just remember what happened in 2008, when the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in government—the biggest banking bust in our history, the build-up of the biggest deficit in our history. All the mess that we have to deal with now was delivered by him and his henchmen in 2008. Before we go on to the spare room subsidy, let him get to his feet and apologise for the mess that he left in this country. Apologise!

Order. I know that there are people who do not like it if Question Time runs over. Personally, it does not matter to me at all. The more noise and disruption there is, the longer it will take and the longer we will be here. It is very simple.

I notice that the Prime Minister has a new tactic, which is to ask me questions during our exchanges. All I can say is that it is good to see him preparing for opposition. The Home Secretary shakes her head. I am looking forward to facing her when they are in opposition.

Let me ask the Prime Minister another question, because he did not answer the one about the bedroom tax. He talked earlier about the hardship fund. Let us look at the facts about the fund. Some £25 million of it has been allocated specifically to help disabled people hit by the bedroom tax, but how much do his own figures show he is taking from disabled people? The answer is £306 million. Will he admit that the vast majority of disabled people hit by his bedroom tax will get no help from his hardship fund?

First, the whole House, and the whole country, will note that there was no apology for the mess left by the Labour party.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that his figures on the spare room subsidy are completely wrong. The last thing he said before sitting down was that we are cutting the money going to disabled people. That is simply not the case. In 2009-10 the money spent on disability living allowance was £12.4 billion. By 2015 it will be £13.3 billion. There is no cut in the money going to the disabled. This Government are protecting that money, in spite of the mess he made. On the spare room subsidy, pensioners are exempt, people with disabled children are exempt and anyone who needs help around the clock is also exempt. As he is fond of reading out letters from constituents, let me read from one I got on this issue from a pensioner:

“We are expected to find up to an extra £60 per month out of our pensions for having extra bedrooms.”

Of course, they are not, because they are pensioners and are therefore exempt, but they have been terrified by the right hon. Gentleman’s completely irresponsible campaign.

I think what that means is that there was nothing in the briefing on the question I asked. Let me just make it clear, because the Prime Minister obviously does not understand it. His own impact assessment—he might like to read it, by the way—states that 420,000 disabled people will be hit by the bedroom tax by an average of £700 a year. That is £306 million. The money in the hardship fund allocated to disabled people is just £25 million. It is basic arithmetic. Will he admit that the vast majority of disabled people will get no help from the hardship fund and will be hit by his bedroom tax?

The right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, because anyone with severely disabled children is exempt from the spare room subsidy—[Interruption.]

Order. Members must not shout at the tops of their voices at the Prime Minister. The question has been asked, it was heard and the answer must be heard.

The right hon. Gentleman completely ignores the fact that anyone with severely disabled children and anyone who needs round-the-clock care are exempt from the spare room subsidy. The point he has to address is this: we are spending £23 billion on housing benefit. That is up by 50% over the past decade. That is £1,000 every year for every basic rate taxpayer. We say that it is time to reform housing benefit, and it is only fair that we treat people in social housing in the same way as we treat those in private rented housing. He has no proposals to do anything about welfare, other than to put up borrowing.

I think that we have established today that the Prime Minister does not understand his own policy. It is shameful to do this and not even understand the impact on the people of this country. He pulls out all the stops to defend the bankers and their bonuses, but he has nothing to say to the disabled people being hit by his bedroom tax. He stands up for the wrong people. It is no wonder his Back Benchers and the country think he is totally out of touch.

What we have heard today is what we hear every single Wednesday. The Opposition will not support one single change to welfare. They will not support reforms to housing benefit. They did not even support it when we took housing benefit away from people charging £100,000 a year. They would not support changes to child benefit. They will not support any changes to disability living allowance. They will not support changes to council tax benefit. They have opposed £83 billion of welfare saving. That is the point. They have to admit that their policy is to put up borrowing. They have nothing to offer, only debt, debt and more debt.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Forgive me, Mr Speaker, I was taken by surprise and my question might surprise some Members even more. On 8 March we celebrate international women’s day. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the Indian and Pakistani Governments to do more to uphold the rights of women and to advance the gender agenda?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. There are some particular issues we should really focus on. Female genital mutilation is a completely unacceptable practice that we need to deal with right across the world, but including here in the United Kingdom, and we will be making an announcement about that. We should also do more to crack down on the completely unacceptable practice of forced marriages. Forced marriages are still taking place right here with people involved from the United Kingdom, and we need to do more to put a stop to it.

Q2. I have been asked by the good people of Whitburn to open a food bank for West Lothian. I am very proud of these people who are pulling together as community, but I have to say that I carry a sense of absolute shame that this Government are driving people, even working people, more and more to have to use food banks. I can see people waving this away. It is a question of morality. The Government must surely look after the poor as well as look after the rich. (146192)

I welcome people making this contribution in our country, as the last Labour Government did by giving the organisation that founded food banks a prize and an award for its work. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the use of food banks went up 10 times under Labour, but one thing Labour refused to do, which we have done, is to allow jobcentres to point people towards food banks if they need them. The last Labour Government were worried about the adverse publicity, and they put that worry before the needs of people up and down the country.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that we cannot borrow less by borrowing more, that we cannot deal with the deficit left by the last Labour Government by increasing our debts, and that the shadow Chancellor’s plan for doing so is both financially and morally bankrupt? (146205)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The policy of the official Opposition is to borrow less by borrowing more. It is completely incredible. That is why the Leader of the Opposition comes here week after week and asks all sorts of questions but will never mention his borrowing policy. It is an extraordinary point, but the Leader of the Opposition has a policy he is so embarrassed about that he cannot tell the House of Commons.

Q3. David Nicholson showed wilful and culpable ignorance while more than 1,000 people died needlessly in the NHS. How can the public have any confidence in the administration of the NHS while this man remains? Will the Prime Minister not sack him immediately? (146193)

What I would say about David Nicholson is that he has very frankly and very candidly apologised and acknowledged the mistakes that were made. That is an important point, because everyone has to think of their responsibilities with regard to the dreadful events that happened at the Staffordshire hospital, including the fact that part of the problem was people following a very top-down, target-led agenda which led to patient care being put on the back burner. David Nicholson has made his apology and wants to get on with his job of running an excellent national health service, and other people, frankly, should be thinking of their positions too.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and agree with me that even governing parties can win marginal by-elections if they stick by their leader through thick and thin and campaign hard for a stronger economy and a fairer society? (146194)

I will certainly welcome the new Member of Parliament for Eastleigh—for the period of this Parliament. I am sure that he will enjoy making a contribution to our debates. I note very carefully the rest of my hon. Friend’s question.

Q5. This time last week, the Prime Minister told me that he would not force GP commissioners to put health services out to tender. By the end of last week, doctors, nurses and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, as well as nearly 250,000 members of the public, had said that they did not believe him. Was yesterday’s withdrawal of the NHS competition regulations down to his Government’s incompetence or to the fact that the public and professionals do not trust him and believe that he is about to privatise the NHS? (146195)

With respect to the hon. Lady, there is an attempt to create an entirely false argument. The aim is to ensure that the rules for procurement and diversity in the NHS fully respect the position that was put in place by the last Government and that has been repeated under this Government. We are putting that beyond any doubt. What I would say to her is what I said last week: what are we to be frightened of in making sure that in our brilliant NHS there can be a full contribution from private sector companies and voluntary and charitable bodies?

That position was in the manifesto on which the hon. Lady stood at the last election. In case she has forgotten, I will remind her of what it said: “We will support”—[Interruption.] I thought that Labour Members would like to hear their manifesto. It said:

“We will support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care, particularly where they bring innovation—such as in end-of-life care and cancer services”.

What happens is that when the Labour party goes into opposition, it becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the trade union movement.

A report to Monitor recommends the closure of acute services and most emergency and maternity services at Stafford. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and colleagues to discuss the serious impact that that would have on access to services for people throughout Staffordshire, including the two new Signals regiments that we will be welcoming in 2015?

I have discussed that issue many times with my hon. Friend and am happy to speak to him again. The trust continues to face serious financial challenges that are putting at risk its work to improve services for patients. As is required by the legislation, Monitor will consult the Secretary of State for Health and others before making the final decision to go ahead with the matter that my hon. Friend raises. If he wants to discuss it with me or the Secretary of State for Health, I am very happy to have that conversation.

Q6. This week, the Centre for Economics and Business Research reported that one in 10 people in Newcastle has borrowed money to pay for food. From April, 20,000 of our poorest households will be asked to find up to £125 per month to pay for the council tax benefit cut and the bedroom tax. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether, at the same time, he will benefit personally from the millionaires’ tax cut? (146196)

First, let me address the issue of the spare room subsidy in Newcastle specifically. There are 9,000 people on social housing waiting lists. Across the country, 250,000 people are living in overcrowded accommodation and would love to have access to a house with more rooms, while 386,000 people are living in under-occupied housing. The Labour party does not want to recognise that reality and has absolutely nothing to offer in terms of reform.

Q7. Last year, more than 100 women were killed by men in the United Kingdom. We know that domestic violence happens behind doors across the entire country. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of international women’s day to pay tribute to the outstanding work of Wiltshire police in trialling new ways of reducing this appalling crime and to the victim support centre in Devizes, which provides services for those who suffer in my constituency? (146197)

I am happy to do that. Fighting domestic violence is an important part of international women’s day, as my hon. Friend says. I commend not only the police in Wiltshire, but the local authority because it has done very good work to bring all the agencies together to ensure that there is a joined-up approach to cracking this difficult problem which, as she says, has often been hidden from view.

Q8. A recent report by the TUC suggested that wages in this country have been depressed by 3% since you came to power. Sorry, I meant the Tories, not you, Mr Speaker. Given that fact and the cuts to welfare, why is it that bankers, spivs and speculators can get away with stuffing their pockets with £50 notes under the guise of bonuses? When will the Prime Minister get a grip of the fat cats? If he is not going to get a grip, he should let my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) into his seat and he will get a grip. (146198)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that when his hon. Friends were in charge, the bonuses were higher, the banks were going bust and there was no proper regulation. That is why we are dealing with the mess—[Interruption.] He can try and wave it away, but the right hon. Members for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) were sitting in the casino when the wheels stopped spinning and the country nearly went bust.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister welcome the action taken today by the Office of Fair Trading to ensure that payday lenders behave responsibly and fairly? (146199)

My hon. Friend raises an important case because a number of payday lenders have been behaving in a completely irresponsible way. The OFT is putting 50 firms on notice over their behaviour, and requiring them to take specific actions or face fines or have their licences revoked. The OFT is also consulting on referring the entire sector to the Competition Commission. Action is being taken and I commend the OFT for what it has done.

Q10. Rotherham college of arts and technology has just had a cut of 280 places for 16 to 18-year-olds. That is a 10% cut, despite Rotherham being a youth unemployment hot spot. With rising youth unemployment and a flatlining economy, why is the Prime Minister denying the young people of Rotherham an education? Will he explain why he is cutting taxes for millionaires while young people have no future? (146200)

Let me just tell the hon. Lady that in her region, employment is up by 21,000 this quarter, and by 74,000 since the election. We have taken 192,000 people in her region out of tax altogether, and youth unemployment has fallen since the election.

Q11. Like many others I welcome last week’s figure showing that annual net migration has fallen by a third since the general election. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that the Government are ending uncontrolled immigration while the Labour party has opposed every single step we are taking to bring it down? (146201)

My hon. Friend makes a worthwhile point and we have taken action right across the board to deal with the completely unacceptable situation we inherited. Under the last Government, net migration ran at more than 200,000 people a year, which meant 2 million over a decade. That is two cities the size of Birmingham coming and staying in our country under their completely busted and bankrupt system. We have cut that net migration by a third by taking a series of steps, none of which the Opposition have supported. We hear that tonight we are going to get one of those fake apologies from the Leader of the Opposition. I suspect it will be every bit as real as his completely fake apology for the mess he left the economy in.

Q12. After the riots the Prime Minister offered people in Croydon reassurances about public safety. Under the latest Tory proposals, however, every police station in Croydon North will close down and there will be fewer police officers than the wholly inadequate number that existed immediately after the riots. Is that another broken promise? (146202)

First, the hon. Gentleman’s figures are wrong. The number of neighbourhood police officers in London is up from 895 to 3,418. Crime is down in the Met, and he should welcome that rather than criticise it.

The Lord said, “Go forth” and in Eastleigh Labour came fourth. The Prime Minister has observed that UKIP is a party of

“nutcases, fruitcakes and closet racists”

yet his Deputy Chairman says that the Conservatives should form an electoral pact with UKIP. How are the talks going?

First, I commend my hon. Friend on his splendid waistcoat. I am sure that if he reveals it a little further we will see that—yes, all right; enough already. It was a good, honest and fair fight in Eastleigh, but I want to be absolutely clear that the party that is meant to challenge as the Opposition in our country went precisely nowhere.

Q13. My constituents in Dumfries and Galloway are demanding that big businesses pay their full taxes. Likewise, they are determined that individuals should pay all their taxes. The Prime Minister has said that he will pay all taxes due in the proper way. Next month, will that include any tax at the new 45p rate, which he has cut from 50p? (146203)

First, I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government’s G8 initiative on tax transparency, on which we are going to make some real progress. The reason for replacing the 50p rate with the 45p rate is that the 50p rate was not raising proper money. Indeed, it raised £7 billion less. That is probably why for 10 years in office the Labour party never put it in place. That is also why under this Government the 45p rate will be a higher rate than ever it was when the two croupiers were sitting in the casino.

Q14. The widely disputed economic benefits of HS2 may or may not be realised in 20 years’ time. However, the blight, fear and anxiety the project generates hit my constituency on 28 January with the announcement of the extended route. I now have constituents who cannot sell their houses, businesses uncertain about their future and the potential loss of a £500 million private sector investment set to generate 7,000 jobs in 2016. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that representatives of HS2 visit my constituency to address the real concerns of my constituents about this project? (146204)

I am very happy to make sure that what my hon. Friend asks for happens. I quite understand that the launch of a project such as HS2 causes a lot of local concern and unease. That is why we are putting in place such a large national consultation and will put in place a very generous compensation scheme. If we are to win in the global race economically, we must ensure that we invest in new infrastructure, whether roads and bypasses, bridges, tunnels or, indeed, railways including high-speed rail. The rest of the world is getting on board the high-speed rail revolution and it is right that we should too.

Giving an extra £150 million to local authorities to streamline adoption services and taking the exact sum out of the care sector’s early intervention grant seems to be a classic example of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. In adopting that approach, is not the Prime Minister acting in a manner more usually associated with his coalition partners?

I do not accept that. It is important that we make progress with rates of adoption in our country. Far too many children are left for far too long in care when we know that they could be adopted into loving homes. Taking some of that money, and really encouraging local authorities to raise their game and improve what they do, can transform the life chances of other people who would be stuck in care. We all know that the state is not a good parent, and we want to see more children adopted more quickly, so more can grow up in a loving home.

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in that. The fact is that the economy is rebalancing. We are seeing that in the export figures to some of the fastest growing countries in the world. We see it in the fact that 1 million more people are in private sector jobs. We see it in the fact that the rate of new business creation is the fastest now that it has ever been in our history. We see it in the fact that our economy employs more people now than it has ever done in our history. There is still a long and difficult road to travel, but the deficit is down by a quarter and we are taking the steps we need to take to get the economy moving. But as ever, we have nothing constructive from the Opposition.

I am delighted to hear the Prime Minister say that he agrees that the payday loan industry is irresponsible. Will he now therefore commit to doing the one thing we know would make a difference and cap the charges of legal loan sharks—yes or no?

As I have said, the most important thing to do today is to welcome what the Office of Fair Trading is doing, which is putting those companies on notice. It is worth making the point that without an effective regulated sector, there are far more dangers from loan sharks, which is the point that the hon. Lady makes.

This week, the 45 million people of Kenya, one of the fastest emerging markets in which the UK is the biggest trade partner, went to the polls to elect a new Government under a new constitution. Yesterday I came back from the funeral in Kenya of Dr Anthony King, the young, British conservationist, world-renowned in the fight against poaching, who was tragically killed last week. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to join me in sending our condolences to Dr King’s family and our support to the people of Kenya in showing the power of democracy, justice and the rule of law?

I commend my hon. Friend on raising this issue and I join him in paying tribute to Anthony King. I know that my hon. Friend travelled to Kenya to speak at his funeral, and it is right that he did so. We all want to see proper, free and fair elections completed, counted and finished in Kenya and a proper democratically elected Government in that country, and to make sure that there is justice when dreadful events such as this take place.