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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 563: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2013

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy

1. What steps she is taking to promote co-operation in the development of renewable energy between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. (157233)

Both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to encouraging a clean and diverse portfolio of domestic energy supply which includes renewable energy sources to meet economic, social and environmental needs.

As the Minister knows, the seas around the west coast of Scotland and the shores of Ireland have immense potential for renewable energy. What assessment has been made of how that potential can be maximised by new and upgraded interconnectors?

A huge amount of work is going on. Indeed, I was at Belfast docks recently observing the fabrication of new types of offshore wind farm technology. I should add, however—wearing my former Shipping Minister’s hat—that while of course we need offshore technology and connectivity, we must ensure that, as we introduce it throughout the United Kingdom, we protect our shipping lanes.

One of Northern Ireland’s attributes is its beautiful countryside and rural setting. As we pursue renewable energy sources, it is important for us not to end up with the blight of windmills throughout our countryside. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind as he co-operates with our neighbours in the Republic.

Absolutely. The Northern Ireland Executive are committed to protecting the environment and countryside, although they want 40% of Northern Ireland’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.

I am curious to know—as, I am sure, is the whole House—whether the Northern Ireland Office has had any discussions with the Irish Government about the possibility of fracking in Northern Ireland, and the use of shale gas. Please do not tell me that this is a devolved issue; I want a response from the Northern Ireland Office.

Neither the Secretary of State nor I have engaged in such discussions. I will find out whether our officials have done so, and will write to the hon. Lady if they have.

Fuel Fraud

There is no evidence that fuel fraud is rising in Northern Ireland. Published tax-gap figures show a long-term downward trend. Tackling fraud is a joint priority for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Northern Ireland Executive, along with tobacco smuggling.

I am surprised by the Minister’s response, because that is not the information that we are being given in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is a huge issue involving not just the breaking of tax laws, but the criminal activities that lie behind it, and the potential support for terrorism. Will the Minister look into the situation? Does he accept that as long as two separate types of diesel are being sold the potential for fraud will continue, and will he consider an arrangement whereby those who use straightforward white diesel are given a rebate and those who do not are subject to sanctions?

I hope that I did not mislead the House by suggesting that there was any complacency about fuel smuggling, which is a serious matter. However, the original question related specifically to whether it was increasing. We are very conscious—as are the Treasury and HMRC—of the need to establish where the profits from fuel smuggling go, but the taxation issue is clearly a matter for a different Department, and I shall ensure that the relevant Minister is made aware of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

It is well over a year since the Select Committee recommended that HMRC should, as a matter of urgency, introduce a new marker in order to prevent fuel smuggling and laundering. Will the Minister meet representatives of HMRC and demand why it is saying that the marker cannot be introduced for at least another 18 months, and will he make it very clear that such a time scale is unacceptable?

I have had meetings about the matter, and I have been pushing for the introduction of such a marker. Believe it or not, criminals have technology that enables them to remove new markers very quickly, so we must ensure that whatever new marker replaces those that we have at present does the job that it is intended to do. However, I will press my colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that we introduce it as soon as possible.

I pay tribute to members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and their colleagues for the excellent co-operation that has taken place between police forces throughout the United Kingdom in relation to security arrangements for the G8 summit. Another issue that we need to tackle together is serious and organised crime—including, of course, fuel fraud—but, alarmingly, that cannot be done on a UK-wide basis, because the National Crime Agency will not operate in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister explain how we have arrived at this point, and what the consequences will be for Northern Ireland?

I completely agree. I, too, pay tribute to the mutual aid that is coming into Northern Ireland for the first time in such quantities, with almost 3,800 British policemen volunteering to come to Northern Ireland to assist with G8 security. That sends an important message to the rest of the world about the normalisation of policing in Northern Ireland.

I completely agree not only that the National Crime Agency is an issue, but that the profits from crime must be dealt with. This is a matter for the devolved Assembly, however. The Government would like to see the same approach apply across these matters, but that has to be decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. We will continue to push them so that we can clamp down on the sorts of crime to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The point is that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that they reach an agreement on the NCA with the Northern Ireland Executive. Worryingly, the Serious Organised Crime Agency has been abolished, yet the Government have utterly failed to get agreement for the NCA to operate in Northern Ireland. What exactly are the Minister and Secretary of State doing to resolve this situation, so that we can tackle fuel fraud and serious and organised crime across the UK as a whole?

I know the hon. Gentleman very well and he, like me, is very proud of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. We must do everything we can to help them, but at the end of the day these decisions have to be made by them. Fuel smuggling is a matter for HMRC and the police, but the NCA issue has to be agreed by all the political parties in the five-party coalition. We are pushing as hard as we can, but we cannot and will not take away the devolved Administration’s powers, because we want to move forward, not backwards.

May I follow on from earlier questions and ask whether the Secretary of State is fully aware of the seriously high level of fuel fraud? There are some estimates that up to one third of diesel is laundered diesel. Is he aware that at least £70 million of illicit profit is being made from fuel laundering across Ireland? The estimate is that that is split half and half between north and south; it used to be nearly all northern. There is also £100 million-worth of tobacco fraud. Can the Secretary of State give us any words of comfort, because the level of corruption is frightening?

The Secretary of State and I are very aware of that, and we have regular ongoing discussions about it. This is, of course, a criminality issue for the police to address, but where the profits go is also an issue, and we all know that some of the profits go into terrorist organisations. We must do everything we possibly can to clamp down on this, to stop that money getting into those organisations.

Further to the question from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Minister will know that a decision with regard to HMRC has been delayed yet again. The Committee understands that there is a marker out there that can do the job, resolve the issue and save the general taxpayer millions of pounds. Someone somewhere is dragging their heels. We need the Minister to intervene and get this resolved quickly.

I will again intervene on this matter and speak with my colleagues in HMRC. At the last meeting I had, which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland also attended, we understood that the marker was imminent. What those involved are worried about is introducing a marker that is not sufficiently robust. There are also dangers with regard not only to money getting into the wrong hands, but to the chemicals going into the environment after the markers are removed in the laundering process. That is very dangerous to both individuals and the environment in Northern Ireland.

Ministerial Meetings

I last met the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on 29 April in Belfast at an event to mark the progress made in Northern Ireland in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement. At that event we set out our views on the importance of addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and building a shared society.

Given the importance of cross-border co-operation for security, particularly in the light of the upcoming G8 summit at Lough Erne, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the people across the whole of the island, as well as for people in the United Kingdom, that we have closer relationships with Ireland?

I entirely agree. The working relationships between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana have never been closer. This highly effective co-operation has been saving lives in Northern Ireland and combating terrorism and organised crime, and it is also playing a significant part in our plans to deliver a safe and secure G8 summit.

Further to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made, is the Secretary of State able to give a date by which she can assure the Irish Foreign Minister that the National Crime Agency and the asset recovery scheme will operate in Northern Ireland, because this affects both sides of the border dramatically?

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has emphasised, a legislative consent motion on the NCA is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are disappointed that they have not taken up our offer for the NCA to operate in devolved spheres. I can reassure the House that the NCA will be able to operate in relation to matters that are not devolved, including HMRC matters and fuel fraud.

Further to the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), can the Secretary of State tell us how many Army personnel, if any, are going to be deployed for the G8 summit, in addition to the 3,800 volunteers from other police services in the United Kingdom? How are the security costs being met, in terms of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly?

The vast majority of the costs of the G8 summit will be met by the Government, although a small amount may fall to the Executive to meet. We are doing our very best to ensure that that is kept as low as possible, and we believe that the G8 summit will have a very significant positive economic benefit for Northern Ireland. The military are providing a number of specialist services to support the security effort. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am unable to give details of operational matters of that nature, but these services are routine for events on this scale and previous G8-type events.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer.

On her discussions with the Irish Foreign Minister more generally, she will be aware, as will the House, of the serious attacks mounted against Police Service of Northern Ireland officers recently in Dunmurry and in my constituency, where police officers came within inches of death at the hands of republicans. What is her assessment of the current strength of these republican groups now operating against the police? What numbers are involved? What steps will she take further to strengthen the PSNI in its battle against them?

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the seriousness of the terrorist threat from dissident republicans. There have been eight national security attacks this year, but the better news is that there have also been 68 arrests and 32 charges for terrorist-related offences and DR-related crime. We are doing everything we can to support the PSNI with the £200 million we added to its settlement in this comprehensive spending review. We continue discussions with the Treasury on adding to that funding in the next CSR period. The threat continues to be severe, but the UK Government are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to counter terrorism, both domestic and international.

Child Poverty

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of likely tax and benefit changes on child poverty in Northern Ireland during this Parliament. (157238)

This Government are reforming the welfare system to ensure that work always pays, in order to help lift people out of poverty. About 2.8 million low-income to middle-income households will be better off through the introduction of universal credit.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the relative rate of child poverty, taking into account all of this Government’s tax and benefit changes, will be 6% higher in 2015 than the rate this Government inherited in 2010. Does that not demonstrate that the communities that suffered the most during the troubles are being the hardest hit by this Government’s indifference to poverty now?

The whole scheme of our efforts to reform welfare is about lifting people out of poverty to get them into work and end a cycle of people spending a lifetime in dependency. We are fixing welfare to ensure that work always pays. Unbelievably, the Labour party chose to vote against our benefit cap; the Opposition think that non-working households should be able to get more than £26,000 a year on welfare benefits; someone would have to earn £35,000 to get that if they went out to work.

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Social Development has managed to get some flexibility to mitigate against the worst circumstances of welfare reform as it affects child poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that what would help even more is if we could maximise inward investment as a result of the G8 summit, to ensure that children are lifted out of poverty across Northern Ireland because of private sector investment there?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that some very important flexibilities have been secured by Minister Nelson McCausland, and I know that some good discussions are continuing about further assistance that could be given to Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that a key way to lift children out of poverty is economic prosperity, which is one reason why the G8 coming to Northern Ireland is very great news indeed. We are looking forward to the event.

Peace Process (EU Contribution)

6. What assessment she has made of the contribution of the European Union to Northern Ireland’s peace process. (157240)

Many around the world, including in Europe, have played a valuable role in supporting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Successive PEACE programmes, part-funded by the European Union, have directed funding to worthwhile projects aimed at community reconciliation.

Almost €330 million in funding through the PEACE III programme helped more than 450 projects across Northern Ireland. Those projects help to build a shared future and break down barriers between communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she and the Government are giving full support to the implementation of a PEACE IV programme so that such good work can continue?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are very supportive of a PEACE IV programme and were delighted that funding for it was included in the multi-annual financial framework to the tune of €150 million. We hope that we might be able to provide a top-up for that fund from our territorial cohesion allocation and we hope that it will focus on those key shared society projects that are so important in Northern Ireland.

That was rather a strange question and I would have hoped that the Secretary of State would have said very little in reply, as surely the people who have helped the peace process are the people of Northern Ireland themselves led by courageous politicians from Northern Ireland, many of whom are sitting in this Chamber today.

My hon. Friend is right; the real credit for the huge achievements in the political settlement in Northern Ireland goes to the political leadership of Northern Ireland and the courage its members showed. They received welcome support from around the world, but it was their achievement and we should give them the credit for it.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that as well as the positive effects of EU funding programmes, including the PEACE programmes, the common experience of Britain and Ireland as members of the European Union brought British-Irish relations on to a new plain and created the context for the peace process? It has also delivered a situation in which the border is less intrusive in the economic and social life of the island, and those are positive factors that need to be weighed up in any consideration of the UK’s future in the EU.

There are many reasons why the relationship between the UK and Ireland has improved so dramatically over recent years, but certainly the background of the European Union has provided some assistance. Of course, that matter will be weighed up carefully in the ongoing debate about the future of our relationship with Europe, but it is important for everyone to recognise that if people want a say on the future of Europe and a referendum on it, they need to elect a Conservative Government.

The Secretary of State has already said that the peace process in Northern Ireland was helped immensely by our membership of the European Union, through the PEACE money and in other ways as well. Does she not agree that our continued membership of the European Union, reformed as it would be, is vital for the people of Northern Ireland and in the continuation of the peace process?

I believe that it is vital that we should seek to reform and renegotiate our relationship with Europe so that it is focused on the trade, investment and commerce that is good for the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. I believe it would then be right to put that new deal to the British people in a referendum.

Sometimes the mention of Europe in this Chamber engenders the same reaction as occurred this morning at a magnificent Ulster fry breakfast when somebody asked for the vegetarian alternative. From the perspective of a former very distinguished Member of the European Parliament, the Secretary of State must recognise that Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the UK’s membership of the EU. Will she outline briefly how she sees that relationship developing in coming years?

As I have said, I think it is crucial that our relationship with Europe changes so that it is no longer focused on ever-closer political union, which is something that the people of this country never have wanted and never will want, but focuses on the commercial and trade opportunities that people thought they were voting for last time we had a referendum on the EU.

Territorial Army (Recruitment)

7. What steps she is taking to ensure that recruitment for the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland meets recruitment targets. (157241)

Naturally, this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I take a keen interest in the military across the board in Northern Ireland. We meet regularly our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and with 38 Brigade, as well as talking to the reserve forces and the cadets.

They never had to conscript the people in Northern Ireland to join the Army; they were volunteers, in both the British Army and the Territorial Army. Numbers of recruits to the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland are at their highest ever. It is important that the numbers are maintained so that others continue to have the opportunity. What steps is the Minister taking to work with employers and employees to ensure that that happens?

Encouraging employers and employees to join the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland has never been really difficult, to be fair, and individuals from Northern Ireland disproportionately represent themselves, proudly, across the United Kingdom armed forces. Nearly 20% of deployments come from Northern Ireland, and on Sunday I will be at the medals parade for 204 Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Army, when they return from Northern Ireland.

I have done my bit in the past couple of weeks by becoming honorary colonel of 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Cadets—something I was very proud to take on.

Security Situation

10. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (157244)

While the threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, progress has been made. Excellent co-operation between the PSNI and other agencies has resulted in a number of arrests and charges over recent months.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She has spoken about the security issues in her interview in The Independent this morning, and she knows that when the G8 comes to County Fermanagh later this month, there will be significant security implications. In response to the question from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), she said that the vast majority of those costs would be picked up by the UK Government. Will she reassure and confirm to the House that if there are any unforeseen additional costs at the end of the process, those will be picked up by the UK Government and not left for the PSNI? [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy conversations. Ministers on the Treasury Bench can scarcely hear the questions. I remind the House that we are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland. Some basic manners and displays of respect would, I think, be appreciated, not least in Northern Ireland.

I can confirm and reiterate that we will ensure that the PSNI is not disadvantaged in resource terms as a result of the G8 summit. We are committed to ensuring that it has the resources it needs, and that we minimise any potential burden on the Northern Ireland Executive.

The preparation for the G8 summit is going well. Around 3,600 police officers from England, Scotland and Wales are now in the course of arriving to assist with venue security and public order. G8 events inevitably come with certain security risks. We will be vigilant on the terrorist threat and we will, of course, make appropriate preparations to handle public order issues as they arise.

As well as the G8 summit, Northern Ireland will be hosting the world police and fire games in August. Can my right hon. Friend say something about the extra policing for that event and the extra training that will have to take place? Will her office be involving the Garda Siochana in the policing of those two events?

The relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Siochana is an important part of keeping both those events safe. Planning is at an advanced stage on the world police and fire games. It will not require a similar effort to the G8 in terms of mutual aid officers, but I can assure my hon. Friend that all mutual aid officers operating in Northern Ireland will have appropriate training in the special procedures and approaches used by the PSNI.

The Secretary of State recently forecast that the dissident republican threat

“is severe and…likely to continue”

for some

“years to come.”

Such a bleak assessment is totally unacceptable to my constituents. Therefore, what urgent additional security measures can be taken to defeat this republican conspiracy and rid our Province of the curse of terrorism?

We will continue to bear down on the terrorist threat. We are determined to defeat terrorism, whether domestic or international. We will be doing all we can to support the PSNI and its partner agencies in defeating these evil terrorists.

Organised Crime

9. What assessment she has made of the co-operation between the UK and Irish Governments on tackling organised crime. (157243)

Organised crime in Northern Ireland is naturally devolved, but we work very closely with the Irish Government, and so do the devolved Assembly and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Organised criminals account for 10% of the cigarettes imported into the UK from the island of Ireland. What discussions has the Minister had with Departments here in the UK and with his counterparts in the island of Ireland, and what impact, if any, would plain packaging have on the illicit trade?

Like fuel smuggling, cigarette smuggling is a serious problem, not least because of where the profits go—we know that some go into terrorist activities. I work closely and meet regularly with HMRC and we will meet again soon, but at the end of the day we must make sure that when we get the smugglers, they are prosecuted correctly and get the right sort of sentence.

Is the Secretary of State telling the House today that she is content with the delay in the implementation of the invitations to make submissions procedure between Customs and Excise in the Republic and HMRC in Northern Ireland? The delay is frustrating the security services, putting billions of pounds into the hands of criminals and, importantly, assisting organised crime. What is she going to do about it?

Speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State in answering this question, let me say that we are doing everything we possibly can. Are we frustrated? Yes, we are. Are the police frustrated? Yes, they are. But we have to make sure that the system is robust and legal, and we will get there.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

Three years ago, the Prime Minister promised that borrowing would fall to £18 billion in 2015. Will he confirm that the failure to get growth going means that he will now borrow £96 billion instead—yes or no?

Three years ago, we said that we would cut the deficit and we have cut the deficit by a third—that is what has happened. On the subject of what people said a few years ago, the very first time the Leader of the Opposition came to that Dispatch Box, he attacked me for taking child benefit away from higher earners, yet today we learn it is now Labour’s official policy to take child benefit away from higher earners—total and utter confusion. Perhaps he can explain himself when he gets to his feet.

I am thrilled and delighted that the Government have revived plans for a right of recall. Instead of a proposal that would mean politicians sitting in judgment on politicians, can my right hon. Friend make it clear that a recall mechanism will include a recall ballot—a yes/no chance for constituents to make the final decision before an MP is removed?

First, let me say that I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on issues of direct democracy and has considerable expertise in such matters. I think that the right approach, and the one we put forward before, is to say yes, of course there should be a constituency mechanism, but before that, there ought to be an act of censure by a Committee of this House for wrongdoing. I think that is the right approach. I know we will not necessarily agree on this, but we will make our proposals.

On the subject of recall, I hope the Leader of the Opposition will recall his attack on child benefit when he gets to his feet.

Two years ago, during the Prime Minister’s listening exercise on the health service, he said:

“I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A and E…so let me be absolutely clear—we won’t.”

What has gone wrong?

Not a word about what the right hon. Gentleman said two years ago, the very first time he stood at that Dispatch Box, totally condemning and attacking in the strongest possible terms what now turns out to be Labour policy. What complete confusion and weakness from the Leader of the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about accident and emergency and I will deal with the question very directly. The fact that people need to know is that we are now meeting our targets for accident and emergency. There was a problem in the first quarter of this year, which is why Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS, is to hold an investigation, but the crucial fact is this: 1 million more people are walking into our accident and emergency units every year than were doing so three years ago. We must work hard to get waiting times down and keep them down, but we will not do it by following Labour’s policy of cutting the NHS.

What a complacent answer from an out-of-touch Prime Minister. The independent King’s Fund says that the number of people waiting more than four hours in A and E is higher than at any time for nine years. Can he explain to the country why A and E waiting times fell under Labour and have gone up on his watch?

The fact is we are now meeting our targets on A and E, but the right hon. Gentleman has to answer this question. In England, where this Government are responsible, we are meeting our waiting times; in Wales, where Labour is responsible, it is not meeting its waiting times. Perhaps he can tell us, when he gets to his feet, the last year in which the Welsh met their waiting times under a Labour Government.

The Prime Minister may have had six weeks away, but he has got no better at answering the question. He has got to do better than this on the A and E crisis. The College of Emergency Medicine says there is “gridlock” in emergency departments, the Patients Association says that we are “reaching crisis point”, and we have a Prime Minister who says, “Crisis? What crisis?” It is not good enough. As well as the nine-year high, the number of people held in the back of ambulances has doubled since he took office. The number of people waiting on trolleys for more than four hours has doubled, and there are now more cancelled operations than for a decade. Does not the scale of those problems show that, on his watch, there is a crisis in A and E?

The answer to the question is that the last time Labour met its targets in Wales on accident and emergency was 2009. It has not met a target for four years, under Labour. Under this Government, we are meeting targets. The right hon. Gentleman asks what is happening in our national health service; let me tell him what is happening in our national health service. Under this Government, in-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, out-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, and the rate of hospital-acquired infections is at a record low. On the number of mixed-sex wards, they have almost been abolished under this Government. There are 400,000 more operations being carried out every year and, crucially, there are 5,700 more doctors. Let me tell him what would happen if we followed Labour’s spending plans on the NHS—there are new figures out today. There would be 43,000 fewer nurses and 11,000 fewer doctors. We decided, because we value the NHS, to spend more. That man there, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said it was “irresponsible”; he is wrong.

There are people all round this country waiting for hours and hours in A and E, and all they see is a complacent, out-of-touch Prime Minister reading out a list of statistics not about A and E. People want to know about the crisis in A and E happening on his watch. Now let us talk about the causes of this. In the Government’s first two years in office, more than a quarter of NHS walk-in centres were closed. If you close NHS walk-in centres, you pile pressure on A and E departments. That is obvious to everyone else; why is it not obvious to him?

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the causes of the problems in A and E; I accept that in the first quarter of the year, there were problems, and we need to get to grips with them. One of the problems is the GPs’ contract that was signed by the last Labour Government. They signed a contract that basically let GPs get out of out-of-hours. If he wants evidence of that, perhaps he will listen to the Labour Minister for the NHS at the time. Fortunately, he lost his seat in North Warwickshire to a Conservative, but this is what he says:

“In many ways, GPs got the best deal they ever had from that 2004 contract and since then we have, in a sense, been recovering.”

That is what happened. There are a million more people coming through our doors. There has been an excellent performance by doctors and nurses, but they were let down by the last Labour Government.

The Prime Minister has been peddling this line about the GP contract for some months now, but let us just understand this. What happened to A and E waits between 2004 and 2010? They fell dramatically. That was after the GP contract. Clare Gerada, the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is absolutely clear. She said:

“I think it’s lazy to blame the 2004 GP contract. They’re blaming a contract that’s nearly 10 years old for an issue that’s become a problem recently.”

That is the reality about the GP contract.

Now let us turn to a problem that even the Prime Minister cannot deny. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation recently said that these A and E

“pressures have been compounded by three years of…structural reforms”.

In other words, the top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for. Why does the Prime Minister not admit what everyone in the health service knows—that that top-down reorganisation diverted resources away from patient care and betrayed the NHS?

What the right hon. Gentleman has to realise is that I am not peddling a line about the GP contract—I am quoting the Labour Minister responsible for this, who pointed out that this was part of the problem. If people want to know what went wrong with the NHS under Labour they have only to look at the Mid Staffordshire hospital. If they want to know what is going wrong with the NHS under Labour now they need only look at Wales, where they have not met any of their targets, and where they cut the NHS by 8%. That is the effect of Labour in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about reorganisation. The fact is, we have been scrapping bureaucracy and putting that money into the front line. That is why there are 18,000 fewer administrative staff, but there are almost 6,000 more doctors. That is what the Government have a record on—he would cut the NHS.

Everyone will see a Prime Minister who cannot defend what is happening on his watch—that is the reality. Patients waiting on trolleys; operations cancelled; a crisis in A and E; history repeating itself. Our NHS is not safe in their hands.

It is under this Government that the number of doctors has gone up; the number of operations is up; waiting times are down; waiting lists are down—that is what is happening under this Government. Is it not interesting that in the week that was meant to be all about Labour’s economic relaunch they cannot talk about their economic policy? They told us that they wanted to keep winter fuel payments; now they want to scrap winter fuel payments. They told us that they wanted to keep child benefit; now they want to scrap child benefit. They told us that they were going to be men of iron discipline, yet they said:

“Do I think the last Labour government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.”

On the economy, they are weak and divided, and they are the same old Labour.

Q15. The people of Epping Forest want to have a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), which would require a referendum by 2017? Will he enthusiastically encourage members on both sides of the House to vote for it when it is debated on 5 July? (157115)

I certainly welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I think that it is absolutely right to hold that in/out referendum before the end of 2017. The interesting thing about today’s newspapers is that we read that half the members of the shadow Cabinet now want a referendum too. Hands up, who wants a referendum? Come on, don’t be shy—why do you not want to let the people choose? Ah, the people’s party does not trust the people.

Q2. Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was new Labour. Given the treacherous decision to commit to Tory spending plans, is the Prime Minister’s greatest achievement one-nation Labour? (157102)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will recall Parliament before any action is taken to arm the Syrian opposition during the recess?

I have never been someone who wants to stand against the House having a say on any of these issues, and I have always been early on making sure that Parliament is recalled to discuss important issues. Let me stress, as I did on Monday, that no decision has been taken to arm the rebels, so I do not think that this issue arises. However, as I said, I supported holding the vote on Iraq. In my premiership, on the issue of Libya, I recalled the House as soon as I possibly could and allowed the House to have a vote. As I said, this issue does not arise at present because we have made no decision to arm the rebels.

Q3. Yet again we have no answers from the Prime Minister, who blames everyone but himself and denies that there is a crisis in A and E. Let me give him one more chance to try to give an answer. Why does he not admit what everyone in the health service knows—his £3 billion reorganisation has diverted attention and resources from patient care and he has betrayed his promises? May we now have an answer? (157103)

The abolition of the bureaucracy that this Government have brought about will put billions of pounds extra into the NHS, but the point that the hon. Gentleman has to take on is that this Government made a decision, which was not to cut the NHS. We are putting £12.7 billion extra into the NHS. That decision was described as irresponsible by his own shadow Secretary of State. If Labour were in power, it would be cutting the NHS. How do we know that? Because that is exactly what it is doing in Wales, where it cut the NHS by 8%. The hon. Gentleman may not like his own policy, but that is what it is.

Q4. Beyond those on child benefit, has the Prime Minister received any consistent representations on welfare reform from the Opposition? (157104)

I know that I have been the one on holiday in Ibiza, but the Opposition have been the ones taking—how can I put it?—policy-altering substances. Last week they were in favour of child benefit; now they are against child benefit. They were in favour of winter fuel allowance; now they want to abolish winter fuel allowance. Only this morning we find out that they may not go ahead with this policy of scrapping child benefit. I think the truth is that the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to make coffee for the shadow Chancellor, but he cannot tell him what the policy is.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the prospective Bill on lobbying will include a ban on people paying £50,000 to dine in Downing street? (157105)

What the Bill on lobbying will do is introduce a register for lobbyists, which has been promised and should be delivered. What the Bill on lobbying will also do is make sure that we look at the impact of all third parties, including the trade unions, on our politics.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the actions of the European Court of Human Rights in seeking to frustrate the will of the British people to rid ourselves of terrorists illustrate the extent to which that Court has betrayed its original principles? Will he update the House on what actions he proposes the Government will take? Has he read the comments of the president of that Court, who said that if we were to secede, it would put our credibility in doubt? In fact, it is the credibility of the Court that is in doubt because of the way it is treating the British people and this Parliament.

I completely understand and share much of my hon. Friend’s frustration. We should remember that Britain helped to found the European Court of Human Rights and it has played an important role in making sure that Europe never again suffered the abuses that we saw in the first half of the 20th century, but 50 years on it is clear that that Court needs reform. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the former Justice Secretary and now Minister without Portfolio, led that process of reform and we have achieved some changes, but it is quite clear to me that we need further changes and we need the Court to focus on real human rights abuses, not on overruling Parliaments.

Q6. The north-east has renewable energy industries ready to invest, but they need certainty. Yesterday MPs from all parts of the House voted for a decarbonisation target. Given that the Prime Minister’s majority was slashed to just 23, will he show some leadership, think again and back British industry and green jobs? (157106)

I understand completely the point that the hon. Lady makes and I agree that businesses need certainty. That is why we have given them the certainty of a levy control framework of over £7 billion. That is why we have given them the certainty that if they sign contracts now, they get the renewables obligation for 20 years. We have given them the certainty of a green investment bank, but does it make sense to fix a decarbonisation target now, before we have agreed the carbon budget and before we even know whether carbon capture and storage works properly? It does not work and the businesses that I talk to say that it is not their priority.

People convicted of sex offences against children are supposed to face a prison sentence. Will the Prime Minister retire judges who fail to imprison convicted paedophiles?

There is obviously in our country a very important separation of powers, and politicians are not allowed to comment on individual judges, although sometimes we might like to. We should not—it would be a very dangerous road down which to go—but we have clear laws in this country about how serious Parliament thinks offences are, and judges should pay heed to those laws.

Q7. I am going to give the Prime Minister another chance to answer on recall. Does he seriously plan to give a parliamentary Committee the right to block the public’s chance to vote on recalling a convicted MP? (157107)

That is not the thinking. Of course we want a process whereby constituents, through a petition, can call for the recall of their MP. But because the main way that we throw MPs out of Parliament is at an election, there should be a cause for the recall to take place. That is why we have a Standards and Privileges Committee. That is why it now has outside members and why it has the power to suspend Members of Parliament and to expel them. I believe, but we can debate and discuss this across the House, that before we trigger a recall there should be some sort of censure by the House of Commons to avoid vexatious attempts to get rid of Members of Parliament who are doing a perfectly reasonable job.

Q8. Some of us on the Government Benches believe that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with 30,000 reservists will prove a false economy. The present Territorial Army mobilisation rate of 40% suggests instead that we need 50,000 reservists, and financial incentives will mean that an ex-regular reservist will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier. Given that we have already raised this matter with the Secretary of State, and further to our letter to the Prime Minister on 9 April, will my right hon. Friend meet us to discuss this and other concerns, including the wisdom of this policy in this increasingly uncertain world? (157108)

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these and other issues. In the spending review, we produced £1.5 billion to provide the uplift for the Territorial Army that it requires. I am absolutely convinced that it is right to have a different balance between regulars and reserves, as other countries have done, but obviously it is absolutely vital that we get that new recruitment of our reserve forces. That is why the money is there.

On the wider issues of defence that I know my hon. Friend cares about, we will have some of the best equipped forces anywhere in the world. We will have the new aircraft carriers for our Navy, the hunter killer submarines, the joint strike fighter and the excellent Typhoon aircraft, and the A400M will soon be coming into service. Our troops in Afghanistan now say that they are better equipped, better protected and better provided for than they have ever been in our history.

Q9. The Prime Minister’s pledge to lead against hunger at the G8 and in the UN is welcome. Will it also extend to EU negotiations on the future of the misdirected 10% directive on biofuels, which basically burns as fuel for Europe what should be food for the poor? Does the Prime Minister recognise that that mandate is driving land grabs and rising food prices, compounding hunger and adding to carbon emissions? (157109)

I am delighted that we are bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland. I hope that it will provide a boost for the Northern Irish economy, and we can discuss some of these issues at that meeting. I agree that we should not allow the production of biofuels to undermine food security. We want to go further than the European Commission’s proposed cap of 5% on crop-based biofuels, so there is considerable merit in what the hon. Gentleman says.

The weekend before last, there was a community swim off the coast of Southwold, which could have become a tragedy were it not for the brave efforts of our emergency services, and in particular the volunteer coastguards and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking our volunteer coastguards, in particular helmsman Paul Callaghan and crewmen Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey, for pulling 56 people from the water and averting a tragedy?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. The Royal National Lifeboat Association does an extraordinary job for our country. It is really one of our emergency services and should be treated as such. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case, and I join her in paying tribute to those brave people.

Q10. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can assist me with a question that the Treasury has been unable to answer for the past two months. Will British taxpayers’ money be used to guarantee the mortgages of foreign citizens who buy property here? (157110)

The Chancellor will set out details of this in the announcements that he plans to make. [Interruption.]

Q11. I recently visited my brother in hospital in Doncaster only to find that using the television stationed above his bed would cost him £6 a day. Can the Prime Minister justify why it costs hospital patients £42 a week to watch the television when it costs prisoners only £1 a week to do so? If he cannot justify it, can he tell us what he is going to do about it? (157111)

As someone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals, I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s frustrations. It was the last Government who introduced these charges on televisions in hospital in the year 2000. I have spent many an hour battling with that very complicated telephone and credit card system that people have to try and make work. I am afraid, though, that these are devolved decisions that local hospitals can now make for themselves.

In terms of prisons, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing something. He is taking the unacceptable situation that he inherited from the Labour party, whereby people could take out a Sky subscription when they were in prison, and saying that they cannot do that any more. He is also making sure that prisoners pay if they use the television.

The Justice Secretary’s slashing of the legal aid budget is inevitably going to lead to quality advice being the exclusive preserve of the rich and the privileged. Is this by design or accident?

First, everyone in the House has to recognise that we need to grapple with the legal aid bill. Even the Labour party, in its manifesto at the last election, said that it was going to look at the cost of legal aid. The fact is that we spend £39 per head of the population, whereas New Zealand, for instance, with its common law system, spends £8 per head.

The total cost to the taxpayer of the top three criminal cases in 2011-12 was £21 million. At a time when we are having to make difficult spending decisions, it is absolutely right to look at legal aid. We put out a consultation and the responses have now been received. We can consider those responses carefully, but we need to make reductions in legal aid.

Q12. A loan of £50,000 from the regional growth fund through the mutual Black Country Reinvestment Society, of which I am a member, has helped create 12 jobs in just six months in manufacturing start-up Lordswood Architectural in Stafford. With the manufacturing purchasing managers index at a 14-month high, can I encourage my right hon. Friend in his determination to restore the UK as a manufacturing powerhouse? (157112)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. There has been some more welcome news about the economy continuing to heal. We saw the services figures out today, the construction figures out yesterday and the growth figures in the economy. We are making progress, but we have to stick to the plan and the difficult decisions that we are taking and avoid the complete chaos and confusion being offered by the Labour party.

Q13. We know that before the election, the Prime Minister said that there would be no more top-down reorganisations in the NHS and that he later went on to say that he would not lose control of waiting times in A and E departments. Why does he keep making promises that he just cannot keep? (157113)

What we promised was that we would not cut the NHS—we would put extra money in. We are putting in £12.7 billion extra. Let me say it one more time: Labour’s official policy is to cut the NHS. They said that our policy—

Oh, it’s not? That has changed as well? We have got a new health policy! Honestly, there are so many U-turns, they should be having a grand prix.

A and E staff shortages do not develop in just three years. Will the Prime Minister look into why the downgrade of Cheltenham A and E is going ahead without the outcome of the public consultation being considered in public by either the clinical commissioning group or the health and wellbeing board?

Of course, any reorganisation or reconfiguration of a hospital has to meet the tests that the Health Secretary very carefully set out, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no one, single cause of the difficulties that we faced in A and E. Clearly, 1 million extra patients is a huge amount over the past three years. We have increased the funds going into our NHS, but there are big challenges to meet. The questions are: will we meet them by cutting the NHS, which was Labour’s policy? Will we meet them by another reorganisation, which is Labour’s policy? No, we will not. We will deal with this problem by making sure that we manage the NHS effectively, and continuing to put the money in.

Q14. Was it when a journalist, masquerading as a lobbyist, entrapped a Tory MP, that the Prime Minister decided it was time to launch an all-out attack on the trade unions? (157114)

The hon. Gentleman conveniently forgets to mention the Labour peers. We do have a problem in Parliament with the influence of third parties, and we need to deal with that. Clearly, all-party parliamentary groups, which are a matter for the House and for Mr Speaker, need to be looked at. As we promised in the coalition agreement, we will be bringing forward a lobbying register, and also some measures to make sure that the trade unions behave properly too.

May I commend my right hon. Friend’s strong, unambiguous support for the continuation of the British nuclear deterrent? Now that the alternatives to Trident study has concluded that there are no alternatives cheaper or more effective than Trident, what are the reasons for delaying a maingate decision so that the matter can be settled in this Parliament?

We have set out clearly the steps that need to be taken before the maingate decision is made, but my hon. Friend knows that I am strongly committed to the renewal of our deterrent on a like-for-like basis. I think that that is right for Britain. Obviously, in the coalition a study has been carried out. My view is very clear, and I looked at the evidence again on becoming Prime Minister. I believe that if we want to have a credible deterrent, we need that continuous at-sea posture, and a submarine-based deterrent that is based not on cruise missiles but on intercontinental ballistic missiles. I believe that is the right answer, and I think all the evidence points in that direction.

The family of Drummer Lee Rigby live on the Langley estate in my constituency. I visited the parents last week, and they were very appreciative of everything that has been said in support of the family, particularly by the local estate residents. A memorial service was held in the town centre. It was greatly attended, and local Middleton people were able to pay their respects. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending the people of Middleton for their very strong but sensitive support for the family during this very sad time?

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in what he says about the people of Middleton and the great respect, support and solidarity they have shown for the family of Lee Rigby. His death was an absolute tragedy and there are many lessons we must learn from it, as we discussed in the House on Monday. I think it is another moment for everyone in this House, and this country, to reflect again on the magnificent services that the men and women of our armed forces give to our country.

Today my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) was awarded a World Health Organisation medal to mark World No Tobacco Day. Will the Prime Minister congratulate him on that great achievement and his work on that issue, and support his campaign for the plain packaging of cigarettes?

I am afraid I missed the beginning of the question, so I did not quite hear who got the medal—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman who gave a magnificent introduction to the Queen’s Speech, and I commend him for his medal. On the policy, we know that issue.