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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 582: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2014

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shared Future

1. What assessment she has made of progress made by the Northern Ireland Executive on building a shared future in Northern Ireland. (904128)

In May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive published their strategy, “Together: Building a United Community”, which contained a number of key actions to help build a shared future for Northern Ireland. The Government support efforts to embed the political settlement through the delivery of those commitments. Additional borrowing powers have been granted to the Northern Ireland Executive by the Government to support those programmes.

Like my right hon. Friend, I welcome the publication last year of “Together: Building a United Community” by the Northern Ireland Executive. Does she agree that addressing community divisions is absolutely key if Northern Ireland is to gain the full benefits of the peace process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Apart from anything else, it is crucial to address those issues to embed political stability, because that is key in attracting inward investment and boosting Northern Ireland’s prosperity. The Government, including the Prime Minister, have pushed the Northern Ireland Executive on these matters and very much welcome the progress that is now being made.

As we move into the parading season, I wonder whether the Secretary of State will comment on what she thinks the contribution of Sinn Fein is when it objects and protests, for instance, against a parade in Dungiven, where there are no flags, bands or anything of that sort that could cause offence to anyone, and against the sharing of a main arterial route in north Belfast? Where is the shared future in that?

I believe that all parties who are involved in or affected by parading have a responsibility to engage constructively to find local solutions and build local relationships and trust, which are essential to a peaceful parading season. That goes for Sinn Fein, as it does for all other groupings that are involved in such matters.

Will the Secretary of State also comment on what contribution is made to a shared future by people who go out, as Sinn Fein has done, to glorify and revel in the murderous past of the IRA and to cause great offence to victims—for instance, by refusing to go to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee sitting on Monday and refusing to be open and transparent about the on-the-runs scheme? What sort of contribution is that to a shared future? Would the Secretary of State care to comment on that?

As I have said many times, it is important for all political leaders in Northern Ireland to express themselves in temperate terms and to bear in mind the impact of their statements on members of the community who come from different traditions. The way forward for Northern Ireland is to build mutual respect, rather than to focus on division and disunity with inflammatory statements.

Can my right hon. Friend explain how that division is to be addressed when the state continues to fund segregated education to the extent that it does?

There is a live debate in Northern Ireland about such matters. I believe that it is possible to ensure that the education system plays its part in building a shared future, without undermining parental choice. That is why I welcome the proposals in “Together: Building a United Community” that provide for far more opportunities for children and young people to learn alongside others from different traditions through the promotion of shared education. In addition, much work is under way on integrated education.

12. A shared future in Northern Ireland must be for everyone, regardless of race. I am sure that the Secretary of State will deplore the despicable attacks against Anna Lo, a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address hate crime in Northern Ireland? (904139)

I share the hon. Lady’s concern about hate crimes in Northern Ireland. There has been a distressing number of such incidents over recent months. I strongly condemned those incidents in a speech that I made to the Police Federation for Northern Ireland. I have, of course, discussed these matters with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including with the Chief Constable and Assistant Chief Constable Finlay. Such attacks are unacceptable and incompatible with a civilised society, and I totally condemn the attacks that have taken place.

Further to the last question, there is a small but significant number of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. What more needs to be done by the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that those minorities can play a full part in a shared future for the Province?

In reflecting on how to build a shared society, it is important for the Northern Ireland Executive to look not just at the traditional divisions in Northern Ireland’s society, but at how more can be done to integrate and support minority communities in Northern Ireland. One way in which they can do that is by providing leadership and condemning the attacks that have taken place.

There has been a recent announcement about the resumption of inter-party talks, which will deal with issues that are a barrier to building a shared future: flags, parades and dealing with the past. Will the Secretary of State outline what she and the British Government will do to ensure that those talks are brought to a successful conclusion and what her exact role will be?

I will continue to urge all the parties in Northern Ireland to engage in the discussions on flags, parading and the past. The Prime Minister is also taking a close interest in that, with his article in the Belfast Telegraph making a strong argument for pressing ahead with an agreement for the sake of the future of Northern Ireland. Both he and I have had several conversations with Northern Ireland’s leaders in recent days. We will continue to encourage, support and facilitate the discussions between party leaders and work in a co-ordinated way with colleagues in Dublin and Washington, who are of course also interested in these matters.

The Secretary of State will agree that a successful shared future largely depends on the younger generation. A recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph suggested that two thirds of young people want to leave Northern Ireland for good, with many citing sectarianism as one of the reasons. Does she agree that a summit of politicians, business people, civil society and representatives of young people should be convened urgently to begin to address that crucial issue?

I am sure that such a summit would be helpful in looking at those matters. It is key to make progress on addressing sectarianism, but rebuilding and rebalancing the economy is also crucial to addressing the grave concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. I hope that this morning’s positive announcement on jobs for Northern Ireland will start to resolve these matters, not least the news that the claimant count in Northern Ireland has fallen again today for the 17th month in succession.

Now that the local and European elections are over, there is a window of opportunity for the Northern Ireland all-party talks to reach an agreement on parades and the past before the summer recess at Stormont. That is an important milestone on the way to achieving a shared future. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are willing to play a far more proactive role than they have done in the past in facilitating the all-party talks? Will she clarify the level of financial support that the UK Government will make available to support any agreement?

We are playing a proactive role and will continue to do so. I made the point strongly to party leaders over recent days that the process needs to be more intensive to take advantage of the coming weeks. I welcome the fact that the party leaders are now addressing the intensity of the process by setting up longer meetings, with a secretariat. The Prime Minister and I will continue to do all we can to support this process, but ultimately the answer has to come from Northern Ireland’s political leaders. It is not within our gift to impose a solution from outside and we will not do that.

National Crime Agency

Although the National Crime Agency currently operates in Northern Ireland in relation to non-devolved matters, and in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, its important work is restricted by the lack of agreement among the Northern Ireland parties on the agency’s remit there. Discussions between them are proceeding and very early resolution is essential.

On 23 April 2013, Royal Assent was given to the Crime and Courts Act, which established the National Crime Agency. We spent many months in Committee discussing the agency. We were given assurances by Ministers that this matter would be resolved by last October or November. Will the Minister tell me, 14 months later, when he intends to ensure that the National Crime Agency operates in Northern Ireland?

If I may digress slightly, I pay tribute to the retiring Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, who was previously chief constable of Leicestershire, and wish him well in his retirement. I also wish his successor, George Hamilton, well in his post.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is complicated. I do not think that we disagree about it at all. There are political parties in Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party—that refuse to sign up to the National Crime Agency. We want the National Crime Agency to move forward in Northern Ireland and the serious gaps that are emerging in crime prevention and pursuit to be closed, but he will understand from his past that we have devolved policing and justice and that, unless we wish to break the Sewel convention, we will have to work with the parties in Northern Ireland to get some agreement.

The Minister will be aware that there have been numerous incidents in Northern Ireland in the past two or three years involving organised criminal gangs on the border, particularly fuel smuggling, fuel laundering, and money laundering, and that has escalated over the past two years. Will he outline the consequences of a failure to have the National Crime Agency fully operational in Northern Ireland?

It has been said that serious gaps are emerging. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, these are devolved matters, but we are keen that the National Crime Agency should be able to pursue organised and serious crime in Northern Ireland, and there is no difference between us on that at all. Two parties in the Executive are holding things up, however, and I ask why they are doing that and why we do not all want to pursue serious criminality in the Province.

On-the-runs: Inquiry

3. When she plans to report to the House on her Department’s inquiry into the administrative scheme for on-the-runs. (904130)

While Lady Justice Hallett is making progress on her report, she has informed me that it will not be ready for publication until shortly after the 30 June deadline.

The Secretary of State will be aware of deep concern in Northern Ireland about revelations that a number of terrorist suspects were granted the royal prerogative of mercy—in other words, pardons— for serious terrorist crimes. Will the report on the on-the-runs include information about those who have been granted such so-called pardons?

It is an independent report so I do not know what it will contain, but given the concerns raised about the use of the royal prerogative of mercy, I expect that aspects of that issue will be covered in Lady Justice Hallett’s report. I emphasise that this Government have not used the RPM in Northern Ireland, and it was used by the previous Government on only 18 occasions. Sixteen of those involved terrorism, but in all cases it was used to shorten sentences, not to cancel the offence.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has spent two days in Belfast taking evidence for our on-the-runs inquiry, including from victims and relatives of victims who gave the most harrowing accounts of what had happened to their loved ones. Does the Secretary of State agree that whenever we decide about writing letters to suspects or issuing royal pardons, the views and needs of victims should be at the heart of those considerations? Does she further agree that that has not always been the case?

I agree on both those points. I know that many victims of terrorism would have been deeply hurt by the OTR issue, which is why I apologise to them on behalf of the Government. Future reports and investigations on such matters should put victims at their centre, as should any broader solution looking at the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.

In the past, security forces have used informers to help defeat terrorists. Does my right hon. Friend agree that issuing royal pardons to on-the-runs is a world apart from using royal pardons as a way of encouraging and using informers? Will she give an undertaking that the Government will not do anything to put at risk the use of informers in Northern Ireland?

It is not generally Government practice to comment on sensitive operational matters such as those, but I acknowledge that the use of informers is an important means of combating crime and terrorism.

Film Industry

4. What steps she has taken in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to attract jobs to Northern Ireland by promoting its film industry. (904131)

Economic rebalancing is essential and we fully support it through our economic pact with the Executive. Creative industries are an essential element worth half a billion pounds annually, and Invest NI and UKTI both strongly promote them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met HBO—Home Box Office—at Hillsborough and in America to promote Northern Ireland as a destination of choice.

The popular TV series “Game of Thrones” was filmed in my constituency and is watched by more than 2 million people—there is no better place to have a film made than Strangford. The Northern Ireland screen budget has recently been raised by £43 million, which will raise a further £194 million for the local economy. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the local South Eastern Regional College, based in Newtownards, will have the skills and training to increase the economy even more?

The skills are best dealt with by the people of Northern Ireland and the college. I visited “Game of Thrones” in Paint Hall in Belfast and was very impressed. Carla Stronge, of Extras NI, is quoted in the Belfast Telegraph today:

“When I started up in 2007 there were just two people working in my company. Since Game of Thrones started, I have had to take on more people and now there are 11 people working for me”.

We fully support that. I saw the castle in Strangford that is used in “Game of Thrones” only last week.

I find myself, oddly enough, in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That may disturb him more than it disturbs me. The Northern Irish film and television industry now has a global reputation for excellence. He referred to “Game of Thrones”. There is also Ridley Scott’s “Halo”, “The Fall” and many other productions. However, they tend to utilise talent from within the Belfast area. With youth unemployment still far higher outside Belfast than in the rest of Great Britain, what is the Minister doing to work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and other agencies to extend the benefits throughout the north?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. At its height, “Game of Thrones” has employed up to 800 people. As we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), it employs people from around the Province—Antrim, Strangford and elsewhere. The Government have introduced high-end television tax relief that has brought very real benefits to the creative industries in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We are bringing down unemployment and strengthening the economy. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman would be well advised to remember the state of the economy when he left office in 2010.

The Past

5. What role she plans to play in advancing a comprehensive process for dealing with the past and its legacy. (904132)

The Prime Minister and I have been engaged with Northern Ireland’s political leaders in recent weeks to urge them to make progress on finding an agreed way forward on the past. The Prime Minister’s article in the Belfast Telegraph made the case strongly for an agreement on all three Haass issues. We both welcome the fact that party leaders are meeting again and are planning to step up their engagement on these matters with a more intensive process. [Interruption.]

Order. The House can scarcely hear the Secretary of State. That is not her fault, but the fault of Members. We are discussing extremely serious matters. Let us have a bit of order.

At the evidence sessions for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we heard directly from victims sector individuals who expressed their disappointment and distrust—indeed, their profound upset—at what had happened with the on-the-runs, and their need to see closure on this issue. What can the UK Government bring to the table as part of the talks that are about to start to ensure a fully comprehensive deal on the past that is transparent and respects the sensitivities of victims?

As I have said already, I believe that a way forward on the past has to put victims at its heart. I also agree with the hon. Lady that a new process needs to be transparent, balanced and accountable. As the OTRs issue has demonstrated, it is vital that we put any side deals behind us and that the way we approach the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is balanced, transparent and accountable. We have said that we will work with the kind of institutions set out in Haass 7 if they are formally agreed by the parties.

11. The Secretary of State will be aware that many people in Northern Ireland are living in dread of the potential for another summer of disruption and distress. So that people are not held to ransom through another summer of protests, intimidation and violence, does the Secretary of State agree that there is now a compelling need for both the British and Irish Governments to become fully engaged in bringing the Haass discussions, and the discussions that have flowed from them, to a productive conclusion? (904138)

Both the UK and Irish Governments will continue to support the efforts of party leaders to reach a conclusion on the Haass issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I urge everyone, as we approach the height of the parading season, to comply with the rule of law to ensure that all protests and all parades are both peaceful and lawful, and that the Parades Commission’s determinations are complied with.

Does the Secretary of State agree that getting Sinn Fein to tell the truth about the past is like hoping that Nick Clegg will be the Deputy Prime Minister after the 2015 election? Does she agree that the best way to deal with the past at this precise time is for her Government to annul the letters to the on-the-runs?

As I have said many times in relation to those letters, they did not confer an amnesty; they were merely a statement of fact about an individual’s status with regard to the police and prosecuting authorities at a particular point in time, and that was confirmed by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday.

There should be no amnesty or “get out of jail free” card for troubles-related crimes, but does the Secretary of State agree that in 90% of cases, according to experts, victims will not get justice by pursuing prosecutions alone, because the evidence is simply not available to bring those cases to trial and get a conclusion?

What came across clearly was that many victims wanted the possibility of justice. I think they would accept that in many cases that is going to be difficult to achieve, but it would be unacceptable to introduce an amnesty and deprive victims of any hope of receiving justice.

Security Situation

6. What assessment she has made of the current security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (904133)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists. However, action by the PSNI and its partners continues to keep the pressure on these terrorist groups, greatly constraining their ability to carry out their lethal objectives.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that those terrorists who received a royal pardon, including Liam Averill, did so as a reward for giving vital information to the security forces? As well as other, overt activity to defeat the threat of terrorism, will she confirm that the security services have infiltrated, and will infiltrate, dissident republican terrorist cells, as they successfully did to defeat the Provisional IRA, using high-profile informants without royal pardons?

As I said in response to the earlier question on the use of agents and informants, it is not the Government’s practice to comment on such operational matters. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that the PSNI and its partners in the Security Service are working incredibly hard to do everything they can to combat these terrorists and have had a number of successes, not least with recent arrests of leading figures in the dissident republican groupings.

13. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the recent attack in the name of the IRA on a hotel in my constituency was an attack not just on that business, but on the city? Does she support the city in having a strong, resilient response that says, “We are not going to be a place of cold security; we are going to be a place of warmth, welcome and safety”? (904140)

Youth Unemployment

7. What assessment she has made of the social and economic effects of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland. (904134)

Youth unemployment is a critical issue. Specific measures to address it in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Executive, but the Government’s efforts to reduce the largest structural deficit in UK peacetime history are now bearing fruit. This, more than anything, will help to deliver a sustainable economic recovery and so directly assist young people to get into employment.

Despite the 2.6% reduction in youth unemployment, it still stands at an alarming 18.6%. Can the Minister say what measures the Government are putting in place to allow young people to access and progress into employment?

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter of employment today of all days, as we bring the rate of unemployment across the UK down to 6.6%—which is pretty good, I would say—and in the 17th consecutive month in Northern Ireland when the claimant count has been down. Youth unemployment is down over the quarter by 2.4%. All youth unemployment is unfortunate, but we are working at it and achieving our aims, and I hope he would congratulate us on that.

8. Does the Minister of State agree that today’s employment figures prove that the long-term economic plan is working in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, demonstrating that the Conservative party has won the economic argument? (904135)

My hon. Friend may not be surprised to know that I do agree with him that the long-term economic plan is indeed working. I hope that Opposition Members will congratulate the Government on reducing the unemployment rate both in Northern Ireland and across the country, to the benefit of all the people of this United Kingdom.

9. Will the Minister update the House on what action UK Trade & Investment has taken with the participants in last year’s economic investment conference to increase much needed inward investment into Northern Ireland? (904136)

The investment conference was a great success, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree. Out of that came further inward investment through Fujitsu and others, and we reckon that some 300 jobs were created just from the investment conference.

10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Invest NI on an excellent year for attracting investment into Northern Ireland, and does he agree that the Prime Minister’s decision to take the G8 to Northern Ireland in June and to attend the international investment conference in October has played a key role in helping that objective? (904137)

I do of course. I welcome my hon. Friend back from his recent illness; I am delighted to see him and pay tribute to his work on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. We can all see that the Government’s and the Prime Minister’s engagement in investment in Northern Ireland has been hugely successful. I hope that everyone in the House would congratulate us on that.

Today’s unemployment statistics show that the work of the Northern Ireland Executive in reducing youth unemployment is succeeding, but what specific measures are there in the Queen’s Speech to indicate a way of reducing youth unemployment at a national level for all regions across the United Kingdom?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Queen’s Speech is dedicated to pursuing this long-term economic plan, and it is working. There are no specific measures that immediately spring to mind for Northern Ireland, but we all wish to see the economy grow and people in Northern Ireland prospering as in the rest of the United Kingdom, and I think that is happening. I am currently visiting a lot of places in Northern Ireland and find people buoyant and optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland and its economy.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in wishing the England football team the very best of British before their first World cup game this Saturday in Brazil.

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

I wish good luck to every football team in the World cup.

Less than a quarter of people who have applied for the new personal independence payment have received a decision. If we continue at this rate, it will take more than 40 years to get to the point where everyone has been assessed. Does the Prime Minister think that that is acceptable, and what is he going to do about it?

It is extremely important when we introduce these new benefits that we make sure it is done in a way that works well. I would say it is very important not to have an artificial deadline of replacing one benefit with another. The whole point about the personal independence payment is that it is more accurate and more targeted than disability living allowance. It will mean more help for those with the greatest disabilities, and I am determined we get it right.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Foreign Secretary on organising this week’s important global summit to end sexual violence, and does he agree that it is indeed time to act?

I give huge credit to the Foreign Secretary for the work he has done, but I would also like to pay tribute to all the non-governmental organisations across various countries of the world, which have all come together for this extraordinary summit in London. It is absolutely vital that we never forget about the victims of sexual violence in conflict. This is something that is still far too prevalent in our world, but real advances have been made by having a declaration which countries are signing up to and, even more importantly, by having an action plan of how to gather evidence, prosecute the wrongdoers and make sure that they are properly punished, while helping the survivors. Listening to the testimony of survivors yesterday in Downing street was immensely powerful.

Let me first join the Prime Minister in wishing the England team the best of luck in the World cup. The whole country will, I am sure, be behind it.

Everyone will have been concerned by what has been happening at certain schools in Birmingham—including girls being forced to sit at the back of the class and the forced removal of head teachers. At the heart of this story is a failure of accountability—locally and nationally—but the key question for parents is this: if there is a serious problem at their children’s school, where do they go to get it sorted out?

Let me echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about how important it is to get a grip on this issue. The problem of Islamist extremism in our schools is serious—the situation, not just in Birmingham but elsewhere, is extremely serious—and I am absolutely determined, as are the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary and, indeed, the whole Government, to ensure that it is unacceptable in our country. People should be being taught in our schools in a way that ensures that they can play a full part in the life of our country. As for where people should go if they are concerned about what is happening in their schools, they should go first to the head teacher and the chair of governors.

While I hope that we can forge real unity across the House of Commons on the issue of combating Islamist extremism in our schools, I hope that that will not be used as an agenda to try to knock down successful school formats, whether they are academies created under the last Government or free schools created under this Government.

There is certainly a degree of common ground on what our kids are taught in schools and on the need for a proper upholding of values, but the Prime Minister said that people should go to the head teacher or the chair of governors. In certain cases, the head teacher was removed and the governing body was part of the problem. The truth is that the question of who parents can go to is a very hard question to answer, because we have an incredibly fragmented school system in which no one is properly responsible. Some of the schools involved were local authority schools and some were academies, but what parents want is for someone who is responsible on a day-to-day basis to be able to intervene quickly when things go wrong. Does there not need to be one system of accountability for all schools to safeguard the education of our children?

As I said, the first port of call is the head teacher and the chair of governors. However, if people believe that there is a real problem, there is one organisation that has responsibility for checking standards in all these schools, and that, of course, is Ofsted. That is why what the Education Secretary has said about no-notice inspections is so important. The Leader of the Opposition asked how intervention could happen quickly; well, it will happen quickly if we have the no-notice inspections.

What I would say to the Leader of the Opposition, because this is an important debate, is that if we are saying that there is only one model of accountability that will work—and some Members believe that the only model of accountability is local government accountability—it is worth making the point that Birmingham city council failed in its duty to these parents. Indeed, when we look at what caused action to happen, we see that it was only when the Department for Education was contacted that proper action was taken. So yes, let us learn the lessons, and let us listen to the permanent secretary to the Education Department when he reports, but let us learn the right lessons.

It is definitely worth making the point about local authorities and academies, and that is why I made the point. Ofsted inspections may happen only once every five years, and that is not the kind of system of accountability that we need.

Here is the thing on which I think we should be able to agree. No one, surely, believes that the Department for Education can run 20,000 schools from Whitehall. Perhaps the Secretary of State believes that, but I do not think that anyone can possibly really believe it. However, no one is arguing that we should go back to the old local authority system either. Is it not time—[Interruption.] Will Government Members just listen to the question? Is it not time that we had a proper system of local oversight, separate from councils and responsible for standards in all schools, to prevent what happened in Birmingham from happening elsewhere?

I always listen very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals, but I have to say that that sounds like creating a new local bureaucracy at a time when we need to ensure that resources are going into schools for the teachers, the computers, the books and the equipment.

The right hon. Gentleman says that an Ofsted inspection can take place only every five years. The point about the no-notice inspections, if we are going to give this issue the attention that it deserves, is that a report and a suspicion expressed to Ofsted about these problems could result in an instant inspection and instant action.

Let me make just one more point. It is often said that some of the schools with new formats, namely free schools or academies, which I thought that Labour Members supported—well, they used to when they were still sensible—do not act as fast as local authority schools. In fact, completely the opposite is the case. When there has been a problem in free schools or converter academies, they have taken far faster action than many of the local authority schools that have been left in a state of failure for far too long.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that he has no answer on the question of accountability because it is not realistic to do it centrally and Ofsted inspections are not going to do the job. Everyone knows that.

I want to turn from the failures in the Department for Education to the failures in the Home Office. Can the Prime Minister update the House on his latest estimate of the backlog of people waiting for their passport applications to be processed?

It is extremely important that we get the situation with the passport agency right. I understand people are anxious. They want to get their passport. They want to be able to go on holiday. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the facts. We have 300,000 more applications than is normal at this time of year. We have massively increased the staff. The level of applications outside the normal three-week limit is less than 10% of that 300,000.

The truth is that tens of thousands of people are finding that their holidays are being cancelled because they are not getting a passport. The Prime Minister says that the Government have increased the resources of the passport agency. That is not the case. Since 2010, there have been greater responsibilities for the passport agency and fewer resources. When did the Government first know about the problem and how has it been allowed to develop?

The Government have taken action to deal with this problem not today but in weeks gone past. We have 250 staff already redeployed to the front line, prioritising all outstanding applications. That will allow for an extra 25,000 examinations weekly. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked the questions. People will be concerned about this. They will want to hear the answers. [Interruption.]

Order. That is certainly true. Mr Robertson, you do have something of a lion’s roar and it rather lets you down because I can hear clearly that it is you. As for you, Mr Lucas, I have told you that you need to go on some sort of therapeutic training course if you are to attain the level of statesmanship to which you aspire. Let us hear the answer.

The Government have made sure, as I said, that 250 extra staff have been deployed, that there are longer opening hours at the Passport Office—and it is now working seven days a week—and that there are 650 extra staff on the helplines to support customers. The Home Secretary has announced today that new offices will be opened in Liverpool next week, with an additional 100 staff. The Home Office has been on this from the very start, but it all begins with 300,000 extra people applying for passports compared with this time last year. Those are the actions that are being taken. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be careful not to try to frighten people in the way he did in his opening question.

The Prime Minister says that the Government are sorting out the problem, but tens of thousands of people, we understand, are waiting for their applications to be processed and are finding that their holidays are being cancelled. The truth of the picture of this Government is that we have the Home Secretary fighting with the Education Secretary but not paying attention to the business of government. Here is the thing. To add insult to injury, people are being told that, if they want their applications to be processed within the three-week target, they will have to pay £55 extra. Can the Prime Minister get a grip on this situation and tell families when the backlog will be cleared?

We will be clearing the backlog not least because we are not wasting time with the national identity card scheme that we inherited from the Labour party. Is it not interesting that there was not a word about the unemployment figures? The right hon. Gentleman simply cannot bear the fact that in our country we now have 2 million more people in work in the private sector. He cannot stand the fact that unemployment has fallen yet again. The claimant count has come down. He is absolutely allergic to good news because he knows that as our economy gets stronger he gets weaker.

It is now 28 years since the devastating accident in Chernobyl and the effects are still being felt, particularly by children. Last year, while many were dying, we ceased to supply gratis visas to children from the affected regions to come to the UK for respite care. Will the Prime Minister look again at our policy because, since charging for those visas, we have seen a 50% reduction in the number of young people being able to come to the UK for respite?

I am very happy to look at the case my hon. Friend raises—we all remember the appalling incident at Chernobyl and the long-term effects it had on people. We charge for visas because we have to cover the cost of visa operations to make sure we are protecting ourselves from people who should not come here but do come here, and that is important, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend said, and perhaps I will write to him.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree that now more than ever we need to bend our efforts to build a strong, robust civil society? One hundred years ago this August a war broke out that killed 16 million people, mainly young men, and devastated communities. Active participation in politics is declining rapidly. Only 34% of people voted in the recent Euro elections. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet on a cross-party basis to look seriously at citizenship in this country and at how we build a society that encourages active citizenship? (904144)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: turnout at some of these elections is very depressing. I think people feel that the European institutions are rather distant from them and do not see the relevance of them. Of course I am happy to look at what he says about citizenship, but I would prefer that we put our resources and effort into practical programmes such as the National Citizen Service, which is now a superb service that many young people are taking part in, so they can see the importance of engaging in their communities and in the world. I think that will lead, among other things, to greater political participation.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the 2 million new private sector jobs that have been created since 2010, and will he continue with the long-term economic plan, to make sure the figure goes up? (904145)

This is an important milestone that we have reached: there are now 2 million more private sector jobs than when this Government came to office. That is 2 million reasons for sticking to the long-term economic plan we have set out. May I thank the hon. Gentleman particularly for the work he has done for his constituents in Weaver Vale, in running job club after job club, to help make sure the businesses that need more workers are put in touch with the people looking for a job? That is a vital service that Members of Parliament are delivering, and he is leading the way.

Given the revelation that the royal prerogative of mercy was granted in at least 16 cases relating to terrorism in the days and weeks immediately following the Belfast agreement, and, indeed, in cases stretching back to the 1980s, will the Prime Minister agree, in the interests of openness, transparency and, not least, justice for the victims in Northern Ireland—and here in Britain itself—that he should be intervening to make sure the names and circumstances in these exercises of the royal prerogative of mercy are revealed, as happens in the rest of the United Kingdom, so people know the facts of these cases?

I will look very carefully, as I always do, at what the right hon. Gentleman says about this, but what I would say is that the last Government had to make very difficult decisions to try to get the peace process started by John Major on track and working. I do not want to unpick all those difficult decisions or second-guess them, because, yes, we have frustrations and difficulties and many other issues that still need to be settled in Northern Ireland, but we have the basic architecture of devolution and parties working together across historical divides, and I do not want to put that at risk.

Q4. Today’s employment figures show that unemployment in Kingswood is down by 37% since May 2010 and, as the MP for Kingswood, since 2012 I have held eight jobs fairs advertising hundreds of local jobs—just some of the 2 million private sector jobs created since this Government came to office—but there is still more to do. Together with the Kingswood job centre, I am launching the Kingswood challenge today, a mentoring or job fostering scheme where local business leaders will be paired with local people looking for work, helping to provide them with one-to-one support. (904146)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing with these job fairs to put people who want work in touch with businesses, and this is absolutely key, because there is no complacency on this side of the House about unemployment whatsoever. Youth unemployment, long-term unemployment: we still need to remove these scourges from our country. We have a goal of full employment and the way we will achieve that goal is not simply through a growing economy—now growing faster than those of other countries in the G7—but by making sure we help people and train people and give them all that is necessary to get on and get a job and have that security and stability in their lives.

Q5. Shockingly, one in three children in the north-east are now living in poverty—the highest rate in the UK. Significantly, two out of three young people living in poverty are now from working households. Does the Prime Minister agree that something has gone badly wrong in regard to child poverty? Will he please, please tell me where it all went wrong in the first place? (904147)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that the best route out of poverty is work. If we look at the north-east, we see that the number of people employed there is up by 47,000 over the last year. That is what is happening in the north-east. I know that Labour Members want to have this narrative in our country, but let me give them some facts. Inequality is at its lowest since 1986. There are 300,000 fewer children living in poverty than there were when I became Prime Minister, and there are 500,000 fewer people in relative poverty than at the election. Above all—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Campbell, when you are eating curry in the Kennington Tandoori, you do not yell across the restaurant: don’t yell across the Floor of this House.

What we need to do is tackle the causes of poverty: underachievement at school, homelessness, lack of work, drug addiction. That is what drives this Government, and that is what we are dealing with. There are 250,000 fewer children in failing schools than when this Government took office.

Atos is taking even longer to carry out medical assessments of applicants for disability benefits who live in Argyll and Bute than it is taking elsewhere, because it is reluctant to send assessors all the way to my constituency. I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that that is unacceptable. Will he tell Atos that it must not discriminate against people living in Argyll and Bute in that way, and that people there should receive their assessments as quickly as people living in the rest of the country?

Obviously there are challenges in particularly far-flung rural constituencies such as that of the hon. Gentleman, which has many islands in it, but we have to make sure that people’s assessments are properly carried out. Those assessments are important. The whole point about this Government’s programme is that we do not want to leave people on unemployment or other benefits year after year. We want these tests and assessments to be properly carried out so that we can see whether people are eligible for benefits and what help they need to get work.

Q6. Did the Prime Minister’s intention to legislate to help people with the costs and insecurity of renting their homes lose its slot in a packed Queen’s Speech legislative programme to the plan to ban plastic bags, or did he perhaps not have any such proposals in the first place? (904148)

What this Government are doing is ensuring that we build more houses. That is what we absolutely need to do to help those who are renting or buying. Yes, we need greater transparency in regard to what letting agencies do, and we are delivering that as part of our programme, but I do not believe that a policy of rent controls—which the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the letting agents themselves have said would put up rents—is the answer.

Q7. Metal fabricators, hydraulic fitters, computer numerically controlled machine turners, mechanical engineers and vehicle maintenance apprenticeships are just some of the real jobs for local people that are on offer at my jobs fair in Holmfirth. Following the news that 2 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010, will the Prime Minister continue to support the small and medium-sized enterprises in Yorkshire that are creating real jobs and quality apprenticeships? (904149)

Absolutely I will. My hon. Friend makes a good point; we are seeing a rebalancing of our economy. Just this week we have seen a growth in manufacturing and all the elements of GDP, such as construction and manufacturing, growing. We want to see a recovery that is broadly based across the different sectors and in every part of the country. When it comes to today’s figures, we can see that pay levels in industries such as manufacturing and services, rather than financial services, are on the rise.

Q8. Last week, the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), said that people in the UK had“not yet felt any sense of recovery.”The Office for National Statistics has confirmed today that full-time workers in the north-east are £36 a week worse off than they were last year. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Cabinet colleague? (904150)

The point I make to the hon. Lady is that, as I have just said, there are 47,000 more people in work in the north-east than there were a year ago. The best route out of poverty is work, and what that needs to be followed by are the tax reductions this Government are bringing in to make sure that people are in work and better off in work—that is going to make a difference.

Q9. Pentland, a company based in my constituency, increased its turnover by 10% to more than £2 billion last year and increased its work force significantly, contributing to the 2 million private sector jobs created under this Government. In addition, the company has just been voted European family business of the year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Pentland and agree to visit this British success story? (904151)

I am sure I will be visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency before long, but I join him in congratulating this great British company. I believe it came with me on my visit to China, where we were pushing Speedos as hard as we could, including getting them on the vital Chinese equivalent to Amazon to make sure they could be sold. I am very happy to make such a visit; this is part of the economic success story and export success story of our country.

On Monday, I am going to the United Nations to address a number of member states and to present a cross-party petition in support of the inclusion of the right to healthy early childhood in the new, post-2015 millennium development goals. The petition has been signed by people from 170 countries around the world. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister to support, with his advocacy and the support of his Government, this leadership by the United Nations to create benefit for at least 200 million of the world’s poorest children?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady and what she is doing in this area. Britain has tried to play a leading role in making sure that the world has a good replacement for the millennium development goals; I co-authored a report about what should be put in their place. At the heart of that was the idea of better maternal health and better health services, particularly for women in childbirth. I am very happy to look at the proposal she makes and make sure that we put the full weight of the British Government behind it.

Q10. Could I join my right hon. Friend in wishing the England football team every success in the World cup, but may I also raise one of the darker aspects of the beautiful game? Recently, my constituent Donald Distin was seriously assaulted by one of the players while refereeing a local football game and was very seriously injured. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister what steps the Government are taking to ensure that violence is treated with equal seriousness whether it occurs on the field or off it and is never tolerated? (904152)

My hon. Friend makes an important point: of course we all support the England football team—it is good to say that again—but it is really important that we crack down on all forms of bad behaviour, whether on or off the football pitch. Referees should have the full protection of the law to ensure that community football is safe and enjoyable. I pay tribute to the Football Association for all the work it has done on not only training but explaining the importance of respect and good behaviour in our game—but we need more of that in the years to come.

I am afraid I might have nightmares this evening about the Prime Minister modelling Speedos on his world tour—I thank him for sharing that image with us. On a much more serious note, since this Prime Minister took office the number of people in Scotland alone reporting to have been forced into using loan sharks has increased by 57%—it is estimated that a total of 85,000 people in Scotland are in this predicament. What are his Government going to do about this? Or does he think it is acceptable?

First, let me reassure the hon. Lady that Speedo makes shorts as well as Speedos, so I hope I can clear that picture out of her mind. Hon. Members rightly raise a series of issues that we need properly to tackle to make sure that we help everyone in our country benefit from economic recovery. The minimum wage was declining when I became Prime Minister, but it is now increasing. Nothing was done under the last Government on zero-hours contracts, but now we have legislation to get rid of exclusivity. Nothing was done about payday lending in the last 13 years, but now it is being properly regulated, with a cap on payday lending. We have also made sure that the penalties for not paying the minimum wage have been quadrupled under this Government. I am absolutely determined to make sure that everyone who wants to work hard and do the right thing can benefit from the economic recovery now under way.

Q11. The Prime Minister must know that every Member of this House shares a total and collective repugnance that a young woman has been sentenced to 100 lashes and the death penalty for simply wanting to practise her faith. Will my right hon. Friend request that the UK delegation to the UN Human Rights Council press the case that the concept of apostasy is in direct and total conflict with article 18 of the United Nations Convention on Human Rights, and will he reassure the House that the Sudanese Government will be left in no doubt of the abhorrence with which this sentence is held? (904153)

My right hon. Friend speaks for the whole House on that issue. I completely share his abhorrence at the way in which this case has been treated; it has been absolutely barbaric, and it has no place in this world. I can confirm that we will be raising this case at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council. Sudan is firmly on the agenda at that council, and we should bring the full weight of everything that Britain can do to make it clear to that country that the way this woman is being treated is totally unacceptable.

Q12. It was good of the Prime Minister to wish the England team every success in the forthcoming World cup, but with his Cabinet split and his coalition fractured should he not be picking up the phone to Roy Hodgson and asking for some tips on team discipline? (904154)

I would not want to offer Roy too much advice. What I say about this Government is that we have had the same Chancellor for four years and we have record growth in our country; we have had the same Home Secretary for four years and we have had record falls in crime; and we have had the same Education Secretary and we have 250,000 fewer children in failing schools. If you have a strong team with a strong plan, stick with them, and keep on putting it in the back of the net.

The Prime Minister will have heard calls from all parts of this House for an independent inquiry on the Hillsborough model into organised child sexual abuse in this country. Can he truly be satisfied that current police investigations are sufficient for the public to have confidence that we are both willing and able to get to the truth?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I have looked carefully at the matter with ministerial colleagues, because we have a series of inquiries taking place into what happened in various hospitals, care homes and media organisations. It is important that the Government keep a clear view about how those are being co-ordinated and how the lessons are being learned. If there is a need for any more overarching process to be put in place, I am happy to look at it. At the moment, thanks to the Home Secretary and her colleagues, we have a proper view of what is happening in all those organisations.

Q13. Recent analysis has shown that Labour’s policy to allocate NHS funding based on health need actually reduced health inequalities by 85%. Why did the Government scrap it? (904155)

This Government have ensured that public health budgets are properly ring-fenced and that money has been delivered, according to need, to the various areas of the country. I think the only part of the country in which Labour policy is put in place is Wales, which has not hit a health target since about 1989. It is also where experts say people are dying because of the length of time they spend on waiting lists, so if the hon. Lady is concerned about Labour health policy, Cardiff would be a good place to start.

Q15. Youth unemployment in Harrogate and Knaresborough today stands at 50— that is not a percentage, but the total, and it is down 83% since 2010. That clearly reflects the 2 million new private sector jobs created since then. Will my right hon. Friend be building on that success by providing more opportunities and skills for the young people in our area through more traineeships and apprenticeships? (904157)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that even though 50 is a small number of young people to be unemployed in Harrogate, it is still 50 too many. Our ambition in the next Parliament should be to ensure that everybody has the chance either to go to university or to take on an apprenticeship and that we leave absolutely no one behind as they leave school and look for the stability and security that a future in work provides.

Q14. This Government said they were going to recruit 11,000 new reserves, to make up for the cuts to the Regular Army. In fact, what has happened, according to today’s National Audit Office report, is that the number has actually declined since 2012. Is the Prime Minister content to continue to preside over not only a debacle in passports, but this further example of his Government’s incompetence and, frankly, buck-passing? (904156)

I am afraid to tell the hon. Lady that what we inherited in defence was not only a £38 billion black hole, but a situation where the military reserves had been under-resourced and undervalued for years. We now have a five-year programme for building them up; that programme is under way and it is gathering pace. What we are going to see is the strongest possible professional Army, with all the best equipment it could have, and a very strong reserve force backing it up, making sure that we can meet all the obligations we set out in the strategic defence review.

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Robert Jenrick, for Newark.