Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (903393)

The threat level in Northern Ireland continues to be severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists. Action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners maintains a high level of pressure on those groups, with the aim of preventing attacks and collecting the evidence that is needed for convictions.

Given the recent attempts to attack members of the PSNI—including the events that occurred just this weekend in Larne—is the Secretary of State confident that it has all the resources that it needs in order to respond to such incidents, and does she expect members of police forces from Great Britain to undertake a mutual aid operation in Northern Ireland over the summer?

I wholeheartedly condemn the disgraceful scenes that have been witnessed in Larne over recent days. Such thuggish behaviour is absolutely unacceptable, and I know that the PSNI is taking very seriously the need to bring those responsible to justice. As we have discussed during previous sessions of Northern Ireland questions, there is an ongoing debate about police funding for the year 2015-16. The Government have provided additional funds, but it remains to be seen exactly how much the Department of Finance and Personnel will contribute. Discussions continue, and I strongly support the efforts made by the Chief Constable to resolve this important matter with the DFP.

Given that the security situation in Northern Ireland is still difficult, is my right hon. Friend confident that the police will still be able to recruit enough officers immediately to replace those who are retiring from the force?

The police are currently recruiting. They recognise the importance of maintaining numbers at appropriate levels, particularly in the light of wastage rates. It is important for us to resolve the question of 2015-16. The Chief Constable has said that he needs about 7,000 officers to ensure that he can run matters efficiently, and the level is slightly below that at present, so I hope that the future discussions with the DFP will bear fruit, as they have in relation to the security funding agreed by the United Kingdom Government.

Given the recent revelations about recordings made at Garda stations in the Irish Republic of all telephone calls made to and from those stations over a number of years, and given that information was withheld from the Smithwick tribunal that investigated the deaths of police officers Breen and Buchanan, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of those revelations, and of their impact in revealing the level of collusion that may have existed between police in the Republic and the IRA?

I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the Tánaiste and the Irish Government on Monday, and I was assured that concern about the recording of police conversations, and other matters relating to the Garda, would not undermine the efforts being made in the south to help the PSNI to fight terrorism. A number of inquiries are under way to investigate, in particular, whether the recordings will have any impact on current prosecutions. It is very important that those inquiries establish the facts, and that we ensure that every effort continues to be made to bring terrorists to justice and put them in jail.

In the course of the Secretary of State’s discussions with the authorities in the south, particularly the police, what efforts are being made to step up the battle against fuel launderers? There is grave concern in Northern Ireland, where it is felt—given the number of prosecutions and of people charged—that the battle is not being fought with enough vigour, and that the fact that the National Crime Agency is not operating fully in Northern Ireland is having a detrimental effect.

The National Crime Agency will still be able to be part of the fight against fuel laundering, because it is a reserved matter. The latest development is the announcement of the introduction of a new fuel marker, for which I know the right hon. Gentleman and his DUP colleagues have pressed very strongly, and which is to be produced by the Dow Chemical Company. Work is being done on both sides of the border to strengthen the fight against fuel laundering, and work is also under way on the new marker, which will be much more difficult to remove from fuel.

There were 30 national security attacks in Northern Ireland in 2013. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be a relentless and effective pursuit of the small but violent minority of people in Northern Ireland who prefer terrorism to democracy?

I can certainly give that assurance. The Government remain absolutely committed to combating terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Strong support for the PSNI is vital, which is why we have given it significant extra resources. We also recognise the crucial importance of combating other forms of crime in Northern Ireland, including crime committed by individuals linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

With respect to the latter organisations, does the Secretary of State feel any discomfort about the amount of time that is spent differentiating between parts of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, as though they were respectively a good organisation and an organisation gone bad? Does she agree that they are illegal organisations that should have long since ceased to exist in any structured form?

Both the UDA and UVF are proscribed organisations, but in relation to recent activities in Larne, and criminal activity in the hon. Lady’s constituency, what the individuals involved are undertaking—however they choose to label themselves—is utterly unacceptable criminal behaviour. I am strongly supportive of the extensive efforts being made by the PSNI to put those people in prison and prevent them from exploiting and seeking to control their communities merely to line their own pockets through organised crime.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that there has been some controversy within Belfast city council about inviting Pope Francis to visit the city. Does the Secretary of State believe that the security situation and, indeed, the political situation in Northern Ireland are conducive to a papal visit any time soon?

The papal visit to London was extremely successful, and I have every confidence that the security situation will make a papal visit to Northern Ireland entirely possible. Whether such an invitation is extended is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but I think it would be a very positive step if the Pope were to visit Northern Ireland.

Cost of Living

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903394)

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903398)

I am answering these questions together as, spookily enough, they are identical in every word. The Government continue to take actions to support hard-working households. Following the Budget, 685,000 people in Northern Ireland will have benefited from the personal allowance changes since 2010. Furthermore, drivers, as well as Northern Ireland households using fuel oils for home energy, will benefit from the cancelling of the fuel duty rise planned for September.

Great minds obviously think alike. In North Antrim and South Down 40% of workers are paid less than the living wage, and across the Province the levels of part-time workers, particularly women, on poverty pay are shocking. In fair pay fortnight, can the Minister tell the House whether he will offer incentives for firms to pay the living wage, so that we can tackle one of the major causes of this Government’s cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the greatest reason for the economic crisis in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is the appalling economic legacy left us by the previous Government. I am surprised that he does not welcome, for instance, the recently published Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy spring outlook predicting that the local economy will grow by 2.8% in 2014 and that over 13,000 new jobs will be created this year in Northern Ireland. That is a fantastic thing to welcome. It is through decent employment that people are lifted out of poverty.

Given that getting a job is the most important element in alleviating cost of living problems, will my right hon. Friend elucidate the measures that the Northern Ireland Office has taken to promote private sector investment so that new firms come into Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend will know that last June an economic pact was signed by the Northern Ireland Executive and others that looked forward to a rebalanced economy with more private sector jobs. In the last year some 10,000 jobs have been created in the private sector. As I have said, we are expecting another 13,000 this year, and 23,000 new jobs over the next year.[Official Report, 28 April 2014, Vol. 579, c. 10MC.]

The Minister will be aware that 42% of the households in Northern Ireland suffer from fuel poverty. The most vulnerable are the elderly and cancer patients. Surely more can be done to help those vulnerable in our society?

I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am aware that some 68% of households in Northern Ireland heat their homes with fuel oil, which has gone up dramatically in price in the last few years. Our stop on the fuel escalator will have a decent impact on all those who heat their houses with fuel oil. Of course, we wish to see people doing better and those in poverty helped out of poverty, and that is why we are focusing on economic recovery, as is the hon. Gentleman’s party in the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Minister will know that the Government’s welfare reform proposals, including the caps, will hit hardest of all in Northern Ireland and will cause a severe cost of living crisis for those already struggling most. It is my contention that the universal credit project is unworkable and is falling apart. Does the Minister agree, and should not the project now be abandoned?

If I might say gently to the hon. Lady, no, I do not agree, and nor do the majority of people in the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, agree that we should go on with the hugely increasing burden of benefits on taxpayers. We look forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly making progress on the Welfare Reform Bill in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady might say to her colleagues in the Assembly that we should have some progress, the economy and the people of Northern Ireland would look forward to greater prosperity.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in terms of both output and pay, Northern Ireland has been the region hardest hit by the recession. One in six workers is on low pay, and the average household has seen a 9% drop in income. What are the Government going to do about the cost of living crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland?

I have already responded on this issue. The hon. Gentleman is rather kind to raise it, given that he was a member of the last Government, who led to the economic crisis that we inherited in 2010. We have done an enormous amount—I have mentioned the economic pact—and the investment conference that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hosted in Northern Ireland in October has led to a great deal of further foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive is working hard on this issue, and I congratulate them on the work they have done.

The idea that our Government caused the global banking crisis is complete nonsense, given that the Conservatives were calling for deregulation year after year after year.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer a serious question about Northern Ireland? Political stalemate on welfare reform within Northern Ireland and between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Treasury now poses a real threat to Northern Ireland’s recovery. Is it not time for the Government to take a more active role in seeking an end to this unacceptable stalemate?

I do not think that I blamed the last Government for the international banking crisis; I blamed them for the dire state of the UK economy that we inherited in 2010—quite reasonably, if I might say so.

We are working very hard with the Executive to bring about a better economic situation in Northern Ireland. We want to see the Welfare Reform Bill passed in the Assembly, as indeed do many parties in the Executive. Unfortunately, it is currently bogged down in the Assembly because two parties are unwilling to support it.

Haass Process

I have been working with Northern Ireland’s political leadership to support and encourage progress on flags, parades and the past. It is important to find an agreed way forward on these issues in order to underpin political stability, support economic renewal and overcome community division.

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that she still believes a positive outcome from the ongoing all-party talks will be reached, and is she fully engaged in trying to make that happen?

I am fully engaged in trying to make that happen, and I remain optimistic that an agreed way forward can be found. The party leaders continue to meet. The speeches made by the Deputy First Minister and First Minister in Washington on these matters were very clear that both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party were determined to find a way forward. The on-the-runs crisis has set things back, but I know that the party leaders continue to work. It is a pity that the Ulster Unionist party has pulled out, and I urge it to come back to the table.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if the process begun by Richard Haass is to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, party leaders and parties in Northern Ireland will require the active hands-on support of both the British and Irish Governments—namely, her good self and the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore?

They certainly will need the support and encouragement of both Governments. I can assure the House that they very definitely have that, and that was confirmed in my discussions with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on Monday. We are committed to this process and we want to see it succeed. If we have learned anything from the events of recent days, it is the importance of a balanced, transparent and accountable process to deal with Northern Ireland’s past.

The Secretary of State referred to the party leaders meeting, and of course they are meeting, with the exception of the Ulster Unionist leader. We should encourage progress in those discussions because many people want to see those issues addressed and resolved so that we can get on and deal not just with the past, but with the present and the future.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Resolving these issues or finding an agreed way forward will enable further efforts and energies to be concentrated on pensions, the economy and so on. There is a real opportunity here. A lot of good work was done under the auspices of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, not least by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) as part of the negotiations under Richard Haass.

11. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of any need for legislation to implement any possible agreement on Haass? (903403)

As we are currently advised, structures of the sort proposed by Richard Haass in draft document No. 7 would not need Westminster legislation, apart from a fairly straightforward devolution of responsibilities for parading. Some of the issues are quite complex, and we would work with the Northern Ireland Executive, once there was an agreement, to see whether further legislation might be needed in Westminster.

I call Sammy Wilson. No? Mr Wilson had signalled an interest, but never mind—we will hear from him another day.

Does the Secretary of State agree that following the local and European elections and the conclusion of the judge-led inquiry into on-the-runs at the end of May, all Northern Ireland parties should see it as their top priority to reach a speedy agreement on the issues covered by the Haass talks? Three years of elections in Northern Ireland cannot lead to permanent political logjam.

I certainly agree with the shadow Secretary of State. We have a crucial opportunity, which I hope the party leaders will seize. We are on the eve of a new parading season. The next few weeks will be crucial. I very much welcome the fact that the party leaders are continuing their discussions and will do so throughout most of the election period. It is crucial that we find a way forward on these matters and the crisis surrounding OTRs only makes the case more strongly for a solution on the past.

First World War (Irish Soldiers)

4. What steps her Department is taking to commemorate the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the first world war. (903396)

The Northern Ireland Office is committed to delivering the Government’s programme for the first world war centenary in Northern Ireland in a manner which promotes reconciliation and contributes to a peaceful, shared future. The Department is also co-ordinating closely with the Irish Government on the centenary and the wider decade of commemorations in Ireland.

Enormous numbers of Irish men from both communities willingly volunteered. That is the key: they willingly volunteered for king and country, and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Can the Minister tell the House how he will use the commemorations to bring both communities together in remembrance of their common sacrifice?

My hon. Friend is right. Some 200,000 Irish personnel volunteered to fight in the first world war. It is difficult to tell who was a regular, who was Irish and from the north, or whatever. They were just termed British in those days. Some 49,000 were killed in the first world war and we do commemorate them. As a Government we get on extremely well with the Irish Government. For myself, I laid four wreaths on Armistice day at Islandbridge, Glasnevin and elsewhere—the first time, I think, that a British Minister has done that since partition.

The men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and, indeed, all Irish soldiers were volunteers in the great war. More Victoria Crosses were won by Irish soldiers than by any other section. What will the Secretary of State’s office do to encourage primary schoolchildren in Northern Ireland to learn about the great sacrifice of our volunteers and our soldiers, and the commitment of our men and women in the previous century to our nation?

We are very keen that all children should know of the sacrifice of our forefathers 100 years ago. Education and education policy are devolved, but the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) is leading on commemoration and is doing an extremely good job. The hon. Gentleman mentions VCs. The first Victoria Cross awarded to a British soldier in the first world war was won by Maurice Dease at the battle of Mons. It was posthumous and he was a Catholic Irishman from Coole in County Westmeath.

Many nationalists from the south served and died in the first world war. My grandfather was from Mayo, and he fought on the Somme. Will the Minister be able to send me precise details of the events taking place in the south to commemorate 1914?

There is a programme of events and, as I have said, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is leading on this in Northern Ireland. A ceremony is planned for 4 August in Dublin—probably in St Patrick’s cathedral—which will be followed that evening by a ceremony in St Anne’s cathedral in Belfast. I will send the hon. Gentleman further details.

On Monday, along with other members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I had the honour of visiting the war memorial that commemorates the 49,000 Irish who were killed in the first world war. We were ably led by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). Will the Minister congratulate the BIPA on all the work it does, and will he do all he can to ensure that the commemoration in Flanders later this year is a success?

I certainly congratulate the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who laid a wreath at Islandbridge. Islandbridge is a very fitting memorial, designed by Lutyens, which the Queen also visited recently.

Dealing with the Past

5. What recent discussions she has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on dealing with the past. (903397)

I hold regular discussions with representatives of the Northern Ireland political parties on a range of issues, including dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. I continue to encourage party leaders to work towards an agreement on the past which is balanced and can command public support.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she think it has become harder to reach a deal on the past as a result of the on-the-runs issue, which was effectively an agreement on partial immunity for people who might be required to tell the truth about various incidents?

The concern caused by the on-the-runs issue, and the fact that the scheme was not dealt with transparently, have set back the progress on dealing with the past. However, the proposals set out in the Haass No. 7 document provide a good basis for further discussions and I welcome the fact that many of the parties have said that they can support that kind of architecture, despite the fact that further issues need to be resolved before an agreement is found.

Does the Secretary of State accept that honesty is essential in dealing with the issues of the past? Does she also agree that it is time for Sinn Fein leaders to face up to their past of murder and destruction, and to apologise to the people of Ulster for their bloody campaign of terror?

I do believe that honesty and transparency are an important means of dealing with the legacy of the past. The UK Government have taken a lead in taking responsibility where the actions of the state have been wrong, and we would expect everyone involved in the troubles to account for the role that they have played.

In order to give lasting peace the best chance, there has to be equity and balance when addressing the past. Given the way in which the on-the-run letters contrast with how some ex-soldiers fear they might be treated, will the Secretary of State look at the ongoing peace process in the round to ensure that there is balance?

Of course it is crucial in all matters relating to Northern Ireland to maintain balance and fairness. I reiterate the assurances I have given the House that the letters issued under the on-the-runs scheme did not amount to an amnesty or to immunity; they were merely a statement of fact as to whether the individual concerned was wanted by the police for arrest at a particular time.

I agree with the Secretary of State’s last answer, and I stress that if we are to find a way of bringing closure to the victims of the most difficult cases that haunt us from the past, that has to be done in an even-handed fashion. It would be wrong, for example, if Bloody Sunday soldiers were prosecuted but loyalist or republican paramilitaries were not.

I emphasise again, as the Prime Minister has done at this Dispatch Box, that this Government do not support amnesties from prosecution for anybody. It is crucial that, whatever arrangements are made in relation to the past in Northern Ireland, they should be balanced and fair to all sides in the community.

12. One aspect of how we deal with the past is the continuing support we give to victims. May I thank the Secretary of State for the support she gave in securing the funding for the Peace Centre in Warrington announced in the Budget? May I also ask her to address the issue of European Union funding being ring-fenced for the island of Ireland, which means that victims on the mainland do not have access to it? (903404)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about my role in securing additional funding for the Warrington Peace Centre. The people there do fantastic work and I am keen to continue working with them. I am, of course, aware of the concerns about the fact that they are not able to access funds which are provided solely for people in Northern Ireland, even when, sadly, there are many victims of terrorism in Great Britain. It is vital that those victims have all the support that they need, and this Government believe that any solution on the past in Northern Ireland must have victims at its centre.

May we have a bit of order in the House for the last question so that the questioner can be heard and we can hear the Secretary of State as well?

Beyond her exhortations to the parties, has the Secretary of State actually scoped what legislative measures would be required from her in respect of the Haass proposals on the past? In addition, what authorisations and directions would be needed from ministerial colleagues in Whitehall?

The advice I have been given is that Westminster legislation would not be required if the parties decided to implement the Haass 7 proposals, apart from a devolution of parading. The measures on the past, I am advised, could all be done via legislation in the Assembly, but I am happy to review this matter in discussions with the hon. Gentleman at a later date.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Is the Prime Minister aware that at the current time in England 3,956,000 people are in the private rented sector? Generation Rent finds that two thirds of them feel insecure and half of them feel that they pay far too much in rent. Does he not think it is time to end the social cleansing of inner-city Britain by bringing in proper rent regulation with a fair rent formula and total regulation of the private rented sector to give people security and peace of mind in where they live?

Where I am sure the hon. Gentleman and I would agree is that there is a need to build more houses, including houses in the private rental sector—I would say there is cross-party agreement on that. Where I think he is wrong is on full-on rent control, which has been tried in the past and has tended to destroy the private rented sector, drive everyone back to the state sector and reduce the quality of housing as a result.

In the week when our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken of the importance to the Government of securing full employment, will the Prime Minister confirm that the record shows that no Labour Government in history left office with unemployment lower than when they came to office? Does that not illustrate in this area, as in all others, the importance of the principle that what matters is what works?

My right hon. Friend is factually correct: every Labour Government have left office with unemployment higher than when they came to office. In this Parliament what we have seen is 1.7 million more people employed in the private sector and 1.3 million more people employed as a whole—one of the highest rates of employment in our history. We must keep up the work to offer more hope and more security to more of our people.

What I would say about Royal Mail is that taxpayers benefited from selling the business for £2 billion—that of course is £2 billion that the Labour party never achieved, because it was never able to sell the business.

Here is what the Prime Minister’s own side is saying about this issue. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) said yesterday that it was a “debacle”, “unethical” and “immoral”. The Prime Minister sold the shares for 330p. What are they trading at now?

Order. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition nor any other Member in this House must be shouted down. It is not on.

When the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in the Cabinet, this business lost half a billion pounds. It is now in the private sector. It is making profits, paying taxes and working hard for our country. More to the point, there are more than 140,000 people who work for the Post Office, delivering letters and parcels, who own shares in the business that they work for. They have a stake in the future of Royal Mail. They are collecting dividends as well as pay, and that is something of we should all be proud.

The Prime Minister cannot answer the question because it is such an embarrassment. He sold at 330p, and this morning the price was 563p. It is basic maths. It is not so much “The Wolf of Wall Street” but the dunce of Downing street. Let me ask him this: if Royal Mail was sold at today’s price, how much more would the taxpayer have made?

I will take a lecture from almost anyone in the country about the sale of Royal Mail, but not from the two muppets who advised the last Chancellor on selling the gold. There they sit with not a word of apology for £9 billion wasted. The Royal Mail privatisation has got £2 billion for the taxpayer, 140,000 employees owning shares and 700,000 members of the public who are now shareholders. This is a great success for our country, and something that the right hon. Gentleman should be praising.

Again, the Prime Minister cannot answer the question. The answer is that the taxpayer would have got £1.4 billion less for this valuable asset than it is worth today. Here is the thing, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. When the Prime Minister was speaking I said that he should not be shouted down and nor should anyone else. However hard the effort is made to shout someone down, it will not work because we will just keep going. The sooner the juveniles can grow up and reach adulthood, so much the better.

And here is the thing, Mr Speaker, a third of the shares were sold to just 16 City investors. And get this: there was a gentleman’s agreement that those City investors would not sell the shares. What happened? Within weeks, half of those shares had been sold, and they had made a killing worth hundreds of millions of pounds. In other words, mates rates to the Prime Minister’s friends in the City. Perhaps he can tell us what happened to that gentleman’s agreement on those shares?

We know why the right hon. Gentleman is asking these questions—because he is paid to by the trade unions. He sat in a Cabinet that wanted to privatise Royal Mail. That was its commitment. What happened was this. The general secretary of the Communication Workers Union said that “in terms of the last Labour Government, they tried to privatise the Royal Mail—it was the unions who brought that government to its senses.” Once again, Labour was weak in Government because it could not carry out its policies; it is weak in Opposition because it does not support shareholding by postal workers in Royal Mail; it is weak because it has no economic policy; and it is weak because it has no plan.

He has flogged it off to his friends in the City and he cannot answer the question. I will ask him the question again. There was a gentleman’s agreement that these so-called long-term investors would not sell their shares, but half of them were sold and hundreds of millions of pounds were made. What happened to that agreement? Answer the question.

What happened is that the taxpayer is £2 billion better off. Yes, and anyone who has sold shares has missed out on what is a successful business. The truth is this: the right hon. Gentleman sat in a Cabinet that wanted to privatise Royal Mail. They could not do it—[Interruption.]

They could not do it because the trade unions would not let them. There are now 140,000 shareholders working for Royal Mail and almost three quarters of a million members of the public with shares. Those are signs for celebration in our country, not reasons to talk them down just because the Opposition are anti-market, anti-competitive and anti-business. Nothing has changed in the Labour party. No wonder it has advertised this week for someone to bring some fresh ideas to the leadership. I have the commercial here. It says that they should have

“the ability to manage…different teams across the Labour Party”.

That must be the hardest job in Britain. No wonder Labour is looking for a change, because it has a leader who does not have a clue.

The Prime Minister has gone as red as a postbox, and that is because he knows that he lost £1.4 billion for the taxpayer. This is a sale that nobody wanted and nobody voted for—a national asset sold at a knockdown price to make a fortune for the few. It is a symbol of a Government who stand up for the wrong people, with the British people paying the price.

The right hon. Gentleman just said that it was a sale that nobody wanted. It was in his manifesto—it was a commitment of the last Government. They are shaking—[Interruption.] They worked so hard, but they failed to do it. This coalition Government privatised Royal Mail, created thousands of new shareholders and have a great business working for Britain. We have seen it all from Labour this week. They are advertising for fresh ideas. People around the right hon. Gentleman are fighting like ferrets in a sack. Their top adviser—get this, Mr Speaker—is called Arnie and he has gone to America, but unlike Arnie he has said “I’m not coming back.” They are warring, they are weak and they do not have a plan.

Q2. It is as quick to go 225 miles over land and sea from here to Brussels as it is to go half the distance on the train to Norwich. Does my right hon. Friend agree that East Anglia needs investment in better, faster rail infrastructure and that the Norwich in 90 taskforce will bring benefits to businesses and passengers in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex? (903444)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and others for the work they are doing on the Norwich in 90 taskforce. This is a very important project. I welcome the interest shown by business leaders, local authorities and enterprise partnerships. East Anglia is one of the fastest-growing parts of our country and it has world-class companies and universities. Better transport will support and bolster that growth and I look forward to the taskforce report that I know she is working on. I hope that it will be used to shape the specification for the long rail franchise, which should start in 2016.

Q3. Thirty-five years ago, the Scottish National party and the Tories united to bring down a Labour Government and bring in Margaret Thatcher—[Interruption.] Note, Mr Speaker, that the noise is coming from two sides of the House. Today, the SNP and the Tories are united on the side of tax cuts for big business, united on the side of the energy companies and united against a 50p tax. Does that not demonstrate to the Prime Minister that what people across the UK need is not separation between Scotland and England but liberation from right-wing Tory economics? (903445)

The hon. Gentleman has provided a very useful public service by reminding me of one useful thing that the SNP has done in its history by getting rid of that dreadful Labour Government who nationalised half of British industry and made such a mess. I agree with him on one very important thing, in spite of his views, and that is that the United Kingdom is much better off together, but I do think he is completely wrong about one of the issues he raised. This is the week in which we have cut corporation tax to 21%. That will attract businesses into England, into Wales, into Scotland and into Northern Ireland. He should be standing up and praising this tax-cutting Government, rather than criticising them.

A planning inspector recently told a closed meeting in Gloucestershire that he would give more weight to consultants’ economic models than to “10,000 objections from local people”. Is that what the national planning framework really meant by “empowering” local people?

The national planning framework is very clear about the importance of listening to local people on development. My hon. Friend will have received a letter recently explaining some of the changes in the guidance under the framework to make sure that, for instance, previous housing performance by local councils is taken into account in these very important decisions.

Q4. At a time of unprecedented crisis, the Prime Minister saw at first hand just how good the West Cumberland hospital in my constituency can be. Six years into a rebuilding programme, that hospital has been plunged into crisis, is being starved of staff and faces being stripped of key clinical services. The nearest hospital is not just down the road—it is 42 miles away in Carlisle, and that, too, is struggling. Will the Prime Minister commit today to do everything he can to assist me, local clinicians and my community in retaining consultant-led services at the West Cumberland hospital? (903446)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I saw for myself what an excellent job this hospital does and how important it is. The clinical commissioning group total revenue available this year is an increase of 2.3%—£663 million. That is because this Government decided to protect NHS spending and not cut it, and that is why important hospital developments can go ahead.

Q5. There are record numbers of small businesses and many more people seeking to become self-employed. What steps are the Government taking to support first-time entrepreneurs in becoming first-time employers and helping many more people achieve their ambitions in life? (903447)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make it easier for someone to take on their first employee. That is why, this Saturday, we are bringing in the £2,000 employment allowance, which comes into force on Sunday. It means that every business that employs someone will see a tax reduction of up to £2,000. That means that 55,000 businesses will be taken out of paying national insurance contributions altogether. Whereas the Labour party introduced jobs taxes, we are cutting jobs taxes.

Q6. At the weekend, General Sir Richard Shirreff warned that reducing the Regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020 would weaken the armed forces and was “one hell of a risk” to take. Why does the Prime Minister think that it is not one hell of a risk? (903448)

It is the right thing to do because what is most important is to make sure that our armed forces have the best equipment of any armed forces anywhere in the world. I have been out to Afghanistan every year since 2006, sometimes twice a year, and I always ask the same question: “Do you have the equipment you need? Is there anything else that you want?” It is under this Government that we have seen real improvements in equipment. Yes, we will have an 82,000 Regular Army. We will also have a larger reserve force, and we are recruiting for that actively, and we will have armed forces and defence equipment that this country can be very proud of.

Following last week’s excellent news of the Siemens development in Hull, it is vital that we move quickly with projects planned for the south bank of the Humber. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that all parties must work together to make sure that the Humber does indeed become the green energy capital of the UK?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The announcement by Siemens is a huge step forward, because I think it will bring an enormous amount of industry in its wake in terms of supply and component manufacture. We now need to make sure that the colleges are training up apprentices, and that UK Trade & Investment is working to attract other businesses to the area. As he knows, agreements are still needed in other parts of Humberside to make sure that all the necessary developments go ahead.

Q7. The Prime Minister will know that millions of people across the country value and love their Post Office card account, particularly those who do not have access to banks and do not want a bank, but want to get their cash each week. The contract with the Department for Work and Pensions is now being renegotiated. Will he give a commitment today that whatever happens, pensioners, and indeed everyone on benefits, will be able to access the money that they need through the Post Office? (903449)

I shall look carefully at what the hon. Lady says. It is important for people to be able to use the Post Office in the way that she says. Obviously, there have been changes in the way that the card account works, but I strongly support it and I will look closely at what she says and perhaps write to her.

The Territorial Army won 71 VCs and thousands of other decorations in the first world war. In this 100th anniversary year of that war, does my right hon. Friend accept that learning lessons from our English-speaking cousins in America, particularly the pivotal role the National Guard has played in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the way to ensure that we can afford the equipment our armed forces need for the future?

Let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has campaigned long and hard for our Territorial Army and other reserve forces. The point he makes is a good one. Today in Afghanistan we see our Territorial Army working alongside our Regular Army, fighting with them and being decorated with them for their brave actions. Other countries have shown that it is possible to have a larger reserve force alongside the regular force. That is the way to have a well-equipped and flexible Army, Navy and Air Force for the future.

Q8. The Lanzarote convention sets a Europe-wide standard for the protection of children against sexual exploitation. The UK has signed it but not yet ratified it. Following recent episodes of grooming in the UK, including in my borough of Rochdale, will the Government now consider ratifying that very important convention? (903450)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent crime. We are determined to stamp it out. We have seen some extremely disturbing cases, not just in Rochdale, but in Oxfordshire, the county I represent. As he says, we have signed the convention. I understand that there is a small amount of further assessment to be done before the UK is in a position to ratify it. I will keep in touch with developments for him.

Q9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the doubling of capital allowances to £500,000 provides a welcome boost to manufacturers in Dudley and the black country, such as Miss Daisy’s Manufacturing which I visited recently, and will increase investment in the manufacturing sector, securing more jobs for the British people? (903451)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A key part of our long-term economic plan is to make sure we get our businesses investing. One of the remarkable things about the Budget was all the ways it said we would address some of the perennial weaknesses in the British economy. We need to export more, to invest more and to improve our performance in those regards, and we need to ensure that investment is spread around our country. Unlike the Labour party, we are not going to be satisfied with an unbalanced recovery.

Today the Ford Motor Company agreed a multi-million pound contribution towards the Visteon pension fund for former Ford employees. Will the Prime Minister congratulate Unite the union which, alongside a cross-party group of MPs, has struggled to get a fair deal for former Ford workers? Will he commit to supporting pensioners facing the same plight at the hands of other multinational companies? [Interruption.]

I did not catch the end of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I wholeheartedly agree that this is a good development for pensioners. All those who played a role—I think that colleagues on both sides of the House have been involved—are to be credited for the work they have done with Ford to make sure we get that justice.

Q10. Although I welcome the Government’s intervention on fuel bills, many rural people do not benefit from mains gas and have to depend on more expensive fuels. Will the Government investigate how they can benefit off-grid customers, who often live in fuel poverty? (903452)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are many people who are off mains gas, including in my constituency. I think that there are things we can do, not least encouraging the power of group purchasing by encouraging communities to come together to buy oil and gas so that they can drive down prices. I am sure that he will be looking at the options available in his constituency.

Q11. Three months ago I asked the Prime Minister about his £1,000 bobby tax, which anyone joining the police has to pay. [Interruption.] One thousand pounds may not be much to him, but it is having a huge impact on forces such as the Met, which is 2,000 officers under strength and finding it impossible to recruit. Interruption.] We all know that the bobby tax is wrong— (903453)

Order. This question will be heard. Braying, sneering and making rude remarks are the sort of thing the public despise. The hon. Lady will be heard, and the person sneering, if he has any sense of shame, ought to be ashamed of himself.

This is an important issue for everyone who lives in this country. We all know that the bobby tax is wrong, but will the Prime Minister now accept that it is not working and abolish it so that our police get back to strength to defend the people in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden?

First, it is not a tax; secondly, it is not a barrier to recruitment; and thirdly, recruitment is taking place in the Metropolitan police. Yes of course we have seen reductions in police funding, but we have also seen significant cuts in crime. I am proud to say that the Metropolitan police are recruiting, and they are confident they will be able to get good recruits.

Q12. Bringing superfast broadband to rural areas is vital, and the Government are rightly spending over £1 billion on it, but my constituents are very frustrated that BT cannot tell them when, or even if, their home will be connected, which makes alternative planning impossible. Will the Prime Minister tell BT to produce clear plans for the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money it is getting? (903454)

I have had this discussion with BT, and I am happy to hold it again. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), will take up the specific point, which is that we have asked BT to give more detail in their roll-out plans about which homes and areas will get broadband so that other companies and organisations are then able to see whether there are different ways of filling any gaps. However, I do not agree with some who think that BT has somehow not been putting its shoulder to the wheel. A massive investment is going into broadband: 10,000 homes and businesses are being connected every week. This is a real success story for our country.

Q13. As the Royal Mail share price remains about 70% above the flotation price, will the Prime Minister now rule out paying a £4 million bonus from taxpayers’ money to its Government advisers? (903455)

The taxpayer is £2 billion better off because we were able to put this business into the private sector, whereas previous Governments failed so dismally.

Q14. My constituent Mariana Robinson is seeking the right to be treated by the English-run NHS. Will the Prime Minister investigate what can be done to help her and other NHS refugees who are seeking the higher standards and lower waiting times that are being delivered by this Government? (903456)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this because, frankly, what is happening in our NHS in Wales is a scandal. It is a scandal that is entirely the responsibility of the Labour party running the Welsh Assembly Government, who made the decision to cut NHS spending by 8% in Wales. As a result, they have not met an A and E target since 2009. The last time—[Interruption.] I do not know why the Leader of the Opposition is laughing; the state of the NHS in Wales is not funny. If he had any gumption—any backbone—he would get hold of the First Minister in Wales and tell him to start investing in the NHS in Wales.

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the hated poll tax was imposed on the people of Scotland. That ended with the Prime Minister being kicked out of office by her own party. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to apologise for that imposition?

I am sorry; I did not catch the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Would it be possible for him to ask it again, Mr Speaker? I do not know whether it was the same as the question about the Scottish National party.

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the hated poll tax was imposed on the people of Scotland. That ended with the Prime Minister being kicked out by her own party. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to apologise for that tax?

I have made clear my view about this issue many, many times over many, many years. I think the council tax is a much better replacement. The key now is to keep the levels of council tax down. That is why Government Members support a freeze.

Q15. In 2012, 150,000 people petitioned this House to stop charitable air ambulances having to pay VAT on fuel. May I thank the Prime Minister for his actions in the 2014 Budget which will mean that more missions are flown and more lives are saved? Does he agree that this is possible only because we are using the LIBOR fines for good purposes and because we have a long-term economic plan? (903457)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him because he is the founder and chair of the all-party group on air ambulances. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, and he led a debate in the House in 2012. I am delighted about the result that was achieved in the Budget. As he says, it will lead to an expansion of the service. He is also right that you can only make these decisions if you look after the nation’s resources, control public spending, and get the deficit down—in short, if you have a long-term economic plan.

We support the Troops to Teachers programme. I will look very carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says, because it is a good idea and a good proposal, and I want to make sure it is working.

It appears from my council tax bill that the Labour-led Lancashire county council and the Labour-led Lancaster district council have raised council tax by 2%. [Interruption.] Yes, very shocking. Will the Prime Minister help me to find out what has really gone on—whether it is really 2% or some other erroneous figure—and help me to sort the matter out?

What I would say to my hon. Friend—and he can say this to Lancashire county council, and indeed to his district council—is that this Government are making the money available so that councils can freeze their council tax. There is no excuse for councils that do not want to take that step. They should help people, keep their bills down and make sure that the council tax is frozen.

The Liberton high school community in my constituency was left devastated just before Christmas when 13-year-old pupil Jamie Skinner died while playing football. That heartbreak returned yesterday with the sad death of 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett when a fabricated wall collapsed on her while she was at school. I am sure the Prime Minister and the whole House will wish to send their condolences to the head teacher, Stephen Kelly, the staff, teachers and pupils at the school, her friends and of course her family, who sent her to school yesterday morning, for her never to return home.

The whole House will agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. It was an absolutely shocking accident that people will have seen across the country. Their hearts will go out to the family and all those involved with the school. Clearly the lessons will have to be learned to make sure that tragic accidents like that cannot happen again.

The Chancellor’s cut in beer duty is great news for Britain’s brewers, as it will allow them to invest, but it will do nothing to help the 20,000 pubs tied to large companies. He has got rid of the fuel duty escalator, the beer duty escalator and the alcohol duty escalator; will the Government now tackle the pubco problem by getting rid of the pubco price escalator?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the cut in beer duty, which is the second in a row in the Budget. It is about making sure that the industry creates jobs and about supporting our pub trade. It was noticeable that straight after the Budget Marston’s announced 3,000 additional jobs. We want to look very carefully at what is happening in tied pubs and at the activities of some pub companies. It has been debated in the House. We are looking very closely at what more we can do to make sure there are fair outcomes for Britain’s publicans and Britain’s pub goers.

What plans does the Prime Minister have to reform higher education fees and loans so that the system works for students, works for all universities and works for the country?

The biggest plan we have in this area is to expand the number of people going into higher education by taking the cap off the numbers who can attend. Our plans on fees and repayments are clearly set out. It is encouraging that they have not put people off going to university, nor have they put people from low-income backgrounds off going to university.

I would make this point to the hon. Gentleman. Someone said in June 2010:

“A graduate tax would replace upfront tuition fees…I want to consult widely before publishing detailed plans later this year.”

That was the Leader of the Opposition, in June 2010. I know we are dealing with a blank page and an empty head, but for heaven’s sake, get on with it.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is the skills, enterprise and sheer hard work of all the staff at companies such as Honeytop Speciality Foods, that, in conjunction with our long-term economic plan, are driving the economy forward? That company created 200 full-time jobs last year and another 75 this year. It has exported naan bread to India, has created the fastest burger bun line in the whole of Europe and is making Dunstable the crumpet capital of the United Kingdom.

Very good—I am delighted that Dunstable is taking on that label. It is an important week for British business and for British families. This week, corporation tax has been cut to make our businesses stronger, the £10,000 personal allowance is being introduced to make our families stronger, and we have the £2,000 employment allowance to make small businesses stronger. There are 3 million people who will now have been taken out of income tax all together. That is what is happening in our country. Our economy is getting stronger and everyone can see that Labour’s arguments are getting weaker all the time.