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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Political Parties: Donations and Loans

1. What progress she has made on her consultation with the Electoral Commission on the transparency of donations and loans to political parties in Northern Ireland. (907932)

The whole House will have been deeply saddened by the passing of Lord Molyneaux of Killead. James Molyneaux was a distinguished second world war veteran and a fine parliamentarian who served Northern Ireland with great distinction for more than four decades, both in this House and the other place.

We are committed to ensuring the maximum transparency in party funding in Northern Ireland that the prevailing security situation allows, and progress has been made in detailed discussions with the Electoral Commission on finalising the new arrangements. I have spoken with the electoral commissioner, and I am confident that the necessary draft legislation will be ready to lay early in the next Parliament.

I add my condolences and those of my party to those expressed by the Minister to the family, friends and former colleagues of Lord Molyneaux.

During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, an undertaking was given here that last October the security situation would be reviewed again with a view to lifting the secrecy pertaining to party political donations. What progress has been made in that regard?

The hon. Lady is right that during the passage of the Act we discussed a review of the security situation and amending the measure accordingly. It is our aspiration to have full transparency in Northern Ireland, as we do in Great Britain. At the moment, our judgment is that the security situation does not warrant it and that we cannot take that risk, but we will keep the matter under constant review.

While looking at the transparency of donations to political parties, will my hon. Friend ask the National Crime Agency and the Chief Constable, when they are investigating organised crime, especially things such as fuel laundering in the border area, particularly South Armagh, to look carefully at the destination of funds arising from organised crime, given that the people taking part in crime—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. I was indulgent towards him in not taking account of the fact that he has Question 8, but the substance of his question just now has nothing to do with Question 1.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, KBE, who served in this House as the Member for South Antrim from 1970 until 1983 and then from 1983 to 1997 as the Member for the new constituency of Lagan Valley. He is fondly remembered by my constituents. He was the consummate parliamentarian and provided strong leadership in very dark days in Northern Ireland. He will be fondly remembered and missed by many, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

The Secretary of State and the Minister will be aware that Sinn Fein raises millions of pounds by various means each year for its electoral campaigns. There is a clear disparity in political party funding in Northern Ireland, yet Sinn Fein Members continue to draw hundreds of thousands of pounds in allowances from this House, despite not taking their seats. When will the Government address this disparity?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is a matter for the House, not me. It was last determined in 2006, and I would not wish to trespass further on the prerogative of the House.

Government’s Economic Pact

An annual progress report on the economic pact was published last July. The range of items so far delivered include improvements to business access to finance; funding projects secured from the Green Investment Bank; the continuation of 100% assisted area status for Northern Ireland; and a record year for inward investment following the G8 and follow-up investment conference.

With one in six people in Northern Ireland on low pay and intergenerational poverty remaining stubbornly high, should not the Government be getting a move on to raise the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour and get as many people as possible on to the living wage to make this a recovery in living standards for all the people of Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said he would like to see increases in the minimum wage. We are cutting taxes for those on the lowest incomes. We have cut taxes for 670,000 people in Northern Ireland, and those on the minimum wage have had their income tax bills halved. We have also seen unemployment in Northern Ireland fall for the 25th consecutive month—it has fallen by 1,700—giving many more people the security and reassurance of a pay packet.

Will the Secretary of State meet the Northern Ireland union leaders, as I did recently, so that she can understand the frustrations of squeezed teachers, bus drivers and health workers, and praise their vital work rather than condemn them for being forced to vote for industrial action?

I have met trade union groups on various occasions, including in Northern Ireland, and I am of course hugely supportive of the work done by our public servants and our front-line workers. It is important that the whole public sector takes part in the austerity programme, and the Government are doing everything they can to put our public finances right to ensure that we can continue to provide the best possible public services for the country.

What impact does the Secretary of State think another round of stalemate at Stormont will have on measures to attract investment and encourage growth in Northern Ireland?

There is no doubt that the announcement by Sinn Fein on Monday was a significant setback for the Stormont House agreement, but it is inevitable that there will be bumps in the road with agreements of this nature. That has been the case in the past. I will be working hard to get things back on track and to help the parties get this matter resolved. Political stability is, of course, crucial when it comes to attracting inward investment. That is one of the many reasons why we need to press ahead with implementing the Stormont House agreement.

Does the Secretary of State accept that people in Northern Ireland and those who observe the Northern Ireland political scene are stunned, bewildered—and, indeed, angry—at what Sinn Fein has done in reneging on its agreement on welfare reform, without any good reason whatsoever? Does the Secretary of State wish to spell out now from the Dispatch Box the implications for corporation tax and other issues of the Stormont House agreement not proceeding? It is clear that Sinn Fein is putting its own narrow party interests ahead of vulnerable people and the entire community in Northern Ireland.

As I have said, this is a serious setback. I believe that Sinn Fein’s change of mind is unhelpful and hugely disappointing. As I have said, however, the task now is for the Northern Ireland Executive parties to continue their efforts to implement the Stormont House agreement. I hope to get the party leaders together as soon as possible to discuss how to resolve this welfare question, but the Stormont House agreement will not be reopened; we need to press ahead with implementation. The corporation tax question is difficult. It is expressly linked with the resolution of welfare reform. The Bill contains a commencement clause, and there is no question but that this welfare issue must be resolved. The Executive must fulfil their obligations under the Stormont House agreement before the commencement clause can be operated. In the interim, the Government propose to continue with the legislation and to complete its parliamentary progress, because we are determined to implement the agreement fully and fairly. Let me be clear: Northern Ireland will not get these devolved powers until the Stormont House agreement has been implemented.

It is important now that people in Northern Ireland, this House and everybody looking at the political scene are clear that the responsibility for the current crisis lies squarely with Sinn Fein, which is reneging on its commitments clearly made and openly expressed in the Stormont House agreement. Will the Secretary of State be clear that she will not take this blanket condemnation or blame approach, but focus on the problem—Sinn Fein?

I will indeed focus on the problem. The right hon. Gentleman is right that this current setback is the result of the actions of Sinn Fein, which is, as I have said, hugely disappointing and unhelpful. To be honest, it was a significant surprise, too, given the enthusiasm with which the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein were promoting the agreement. Now I think we all need to work together to try to get this sorted, because it would be a huge step backwards if the Stormont House agreement were to be jeopardised. It would potentially plunge us back into the sort of budget and political crisis with which we were grappling last year.

May I, on behalf of my party, associate myself with the tributes paid to Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and convey our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues?

Given the need to create economic and political stability in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State prevail on the Chancellor to reduce VAT on United Kingdom tourism products in next week’s Budget? That would have important financial consequences for the tourism industry in Northern Ireland.

Let me also take the opportunity to associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State about the distinguished record of Lord Molyneaux. He was indeed a very distinguished parliamentarian over many years, and this is a sad loss to Northern Ireland.

The Chancellor is well aware of the campaign for the tax change that the hon. Lady would like to see. Tax reductions are difficult because the imperative must be repairing the public finances, but the Chancellor has relieved tax burdens on business by reducing corporation tax, introducing an employment allowance and, of course, helping people into work.

May I associate my party with the comments that have been made about Lord Molyneaux?

As the Secretary of State has said, economic progress and political stability in Northern Ireland are inextricably linked. Does she agree that the unravelling of the Stormont House agreement would be an unmitigated disaster for economic and political confidence in Northern Ireland, and that now is the time for responsible leadership which accepts the need for a reformed welfare system that mitigates the impact of cuts on the most vulnerable while also being affordable and sustainable?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. Now is the time for level-headed consideration of how we can resolve this matter. In the autumn, Northern Ireland faced a budget crisis that was so serious that the very sustainability and future credibility of the institutions was at stake, and we were looking over a cliff at the possibility that devolution would collapse altogether. Returning to that position would be a huge step backward. The Stormont House agreement was a big step forward, and it is vital for all parties to work to ensure that it is implemented fully and fairly.

Does the Secretary of State intend to convene urgent all-party talks in an effort to put the Welfare Reform Bill back on track? By what date must the Bill be passed, if the Executive rather than civil servants are to set next year’s budget in Northern Ireland?

As I said earlier to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I expect to meet the five party leaders in the coming days. I hope to do so tomorrow, but that will depend on when the First and Deputy First Minister return from New York.

It is vital for progress to be made on welfare reform. That is a key part of the Stormont Castle and the Stormont House agreements. I will press for such progress, not least because without it the Northern Ireland Executive’s budget will become unsustainable, which will hugely impair its ability to function effectively.

Political Situation

The political situation suffered a setback on Monday following Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the Welfare Reform Bill. It is very important for the Stormont House agreement to be implemented fully and fairly, including all the sections on welfare and budgets. I will continue to work intensively with the Northern Ireland parties to resolve the impasse.

What does the Secretary of State consider to be the wider political implications of Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the welfare proposals?

The political implications are very serious. They put in jeopardy corporation tax devolution, a financial package of about £2 billion in extra spending power, and a fresh approach to the past which is designed to produce better outcomes for victims and survivors. All that is under threat as a result of what has happened this week, and I will do all that I can to retrieve the situation so that the Stormont House agreement can go ahead.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Her Majesty’s Government must take resolute action against Sinn Fein over its irresponsible and selfish behaviour, which is jeopardising the Stormont Parliament and everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland so far?

As I said, the approach taken by Sinn Fein is hugely disappointing and dramatically different from everything that it has been saying over the past few months. I am urging Sinn Fein to change its approach. It is vital that we have a responsible and realistic approach to welfare. The welfare reform package agreed under the Stormont House agreement is a good one, a generous one and a fair one, and therefore it is vital that it is implemented.

May I wish all my friends in Northern Ireland the very best for the future? People often take for granted the peace and stability that has been secured in Northern Ireland since the 2007 agreement, but that was won only after conflict, terror and hatred going back centuries, through very difficult negotiations. It took dedicated skill and constant strong leadership by the Labour Government to achieve it. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining that progress requires nurturing by this Government and by any Governments to follow?

I do accept that. This Government will continue to do all they can to support and nurture that political settlement. That is a message that all parties need to hear, including Sinn Fein—that we should not take risks with political stability in Northern Ireland, because the consequences could be very grave.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is not just Sinn Fein, but their lapdogs in the Social Democratic and Labour party who have blocked welfare reform in Northern Ireland and put the Assembly in jeopardy? Will she spell out the consequences for corporation tax, the economic package and the long-term sustainability of the budget in Northern Ireland as a result of that irresponsible behaviour?

If this question is not resolved, if the welfare reform legislation remains permanently stalled, obviously the rest of the Stormont House agreement does not happen. That includes the financial package and the devolution of corporation tax, but we are not at that point yet. It is important to work intensively, and in the meantime the UK Government will do everything we can to continue to implement the agreement.

The Secretary of State will be at pains not to feed the sense of impasse that surrounds the Stormont House agreement. She knows that there were two elements to the understanding on welfare reform—one was the understanding about the amount of money from the Executive’s budget that could mitigate measures; the other was the degree of leeway within the welfare spending. Has anything changed in the lines from the Department for Work and Pensions that have given rise to the allegations that Sinn Fein is making against the Democratic Unionist party?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do all we can to keep the situation as calm as possible. Unfortunately, episodes of this kind are characteristic of the implementation process of agreements. It will be helpful for as many facts as possible to be made clear about how the welfare reform programme will operate in Northern Ireland and how the top-ups will operate. It is a generous package, and once the details are clear I hope everyone will be convinced of that.

At this, the last Northern Ireland questions before the election, there is an air of some melancholy. Who knows where we will meet again or on what side of the Dispatch Box? May I ask the right hon. Lady what, in her three years as Secretary of State, in which she has been unfailingly courteous, she would consider her proudest—her finest—achievement?

Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) asked a question. I want to hear the Secretary of State’s answer, and she is entitled to have her answer heard.

Up until Monday, I would have said the Stormont House agreement. I think that is still the greatest thing that I have contributed to and it is still on the road. We have had a bump on the road, but the Stormont House agreement will carry on. The other thing of which I am proud is the progress that we have made towards devolution of corporation tax. I do not want to see that thrown off course by events that have taken place this week.

Flags and Parades

5. What further steps the Government plan to take to resolve outstanding issues relating to flags and parades. (907936)

9. What further steps the Government plan to take to resolve outstanding issues relating to flags and parades. (907940)

The Stormont House agreement identified a clear way forward on parades and flags. [Interruption.] The Government will continue to work with the five parties in the Executive on the implementation of all the provisions of the agreement, including on these issues. [Interruption.]

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, although I must admit I had trouble hearing it. Unrest around the parades has an unsettling impact on the community, on local businesses and on tourism. What steps are the Government taking this year to try to ensure a peaceful parade season?

I urge everyone involved in parades or parades-related protest to ensure that all activity related to parades and protest is both peaceful and lawful and that the determinations of the Parades Commission, as the lawfully constituted authority, are complied with. I continue to have a series of meetings to try to find a way forward on the parading impasse in north Belfast.

In Belfast, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) recently said that securing the peace process and a strong economy went hand in hand. Does the Secretary of State agree, and will she support the Heenan-Anderson commission to ensure that people at the margins are not drawn to violence on issues such as flags and parades?

I agree that politics and economics are intertwined in Northern Ireland. Political stability is crucial for a successful economy. I note the Labour commission on this, but I think the crucial thing is to stick to the Government’s long-term economic plan, because that is delivering economic recovery in Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the feeling of injustice in the Unionist community on the issue of parades? In my constituency we have waited 16 years to get a return parade—a church parade. When are we going to get a resolution?

I am very conscious of the concern felt in the community in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is crucial that the Parades Commission’s determination needs to be abided by, but it is also important to press ahead with a reformed and devolved system of parades adjudication, as envisaged by the Stormont House agreement.

Cost of Living

Cutting income tax, freezing fuel duty, welfare reform, dealing with the spectacular deficit we inherited and keeping interest rates low are practical examples of how this Government are helping hard-pressed families in Northern Ireland.

Labour has set out clear plans to raise the national minimum wage to at least £8 by 2020. What is the Minister doing to tackle low pay, when one in six people in Northern Ireland are in low pay?

I thought the hon. Gentleman would have started by welcoming the Government’s efforts to reduce unemployment in Northern Ireland—17,000 extra jobs in the private sector over the past year alone. If he was listening, he would have heard the answer to his question from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier

The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action estimates that introducing the living wage would see 173,000 low-paid employees receive an average gross pay rise of £1,300 a year. Will the Government look at strengthening the living wage to help Northern Ireland, which has the lowest private sector pay in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have seen the Institute for Fiscal Studies incomes report published earlier this month. It marked a major milestone, for it is now clear that average incomes in Northern Ireland are back from the pit they were in prior to Labour’s deficit crisis. The IFS further forecasts that incomes will rise above inflation in the year ahead, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Does the Minister recognise that the Democratic Unionist party’s long-term economic plan to see household taxes at their lowest and a freeze on the regional rate on household taxes for five years is working? However, this Government could have a direct impact by reducing energy costs for employers and consumers alike, and they should address that immediately.

The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his characteristically formidable fashion, and I am sure he will welcome the freeze on fuel duty, which will mean that by the end of this Parliament a tank of petrol will cost £10 less. He will also welcome inward investment to Northern Ireland, which I know he feels very strongly about given what has happened in his constituency, with, for example, Kainos, Randox, WhiteHat, Revel and PricewaterhouseCoopers. They will be creating 800 jobs in Northern Ireland—high-quality jobs—in the year ahead.

National Crime Agency

8. What recent progress has been made on the status and operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. (907939)

I welcome the vote in the Assembly that will enable the full operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. This will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are afforded the same protections from serious and organised crime as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

When the NCA is up and running in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend speak via the Chief Constable to ensure that the agency investigates the destination of funds from serious and organised crime? Many of the serious and organised criminals in the border area are the people giving funds to the IRA, and it is important that those funds do not fund political parties.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I know that the full implementation of the NCA in Northern Ireland is a welcome step. I pay tribute to the Justice Minister and others for securing that result, and I know that they will bear down on all the perpetrators of such activities and on any who receive the funds that those activities create.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the National Crime Agency specifically target the organised criminal gangs that are engaging in subterfuge and in the organised criminal activity of fuel laundering along the border areas of Northern Ireland?

That is a significant problem, and the House will have the chance to debate it later. Significant cross-border co-operation is under way, and the authorities in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the police services on both sides of the border are determined to tackle the problem and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Our allies are warning of a dangerous gap between us and America on this, so will the Prime Minister tell us what will be more important to him in the next Parliament: protecting our armed forces or introducing tax cuts?

What is important is combining economic security and national security, and the two go together. We inherited a £38 billion black hole in our defence budget, but because of the excellent stewardship of the economy by this Chancellor and this Government, we have filled that gap. We are investing in defence, our economy is strong and our country is safe.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in connection with the Post Office mediation scheme, the Post Office has just sacked the independent investigator, Second Sight, and told it to destroy all its papers? Does he agree that it is essential that Second Sight’s second report should not be suppressed, but should be supplied to sub-postmasters and MPs, starting with the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he has consistently raised the concerns of some sub-postmasters about the operation of the Post Office IT system and the matter of the Post Office mediation scheme. The Business Committee is currently taking evidence on this issue, and it should be given all the relevant information. The Government should not interfere with the independent mediation process, but I will ask the Business Secretary to write to my right hon. Friend about his concern and to ensure that the Business Committee can do its job properly.

Less than two months ago, the Prime Minister said in this House that he wanted a head-to-head debate between me and him. He said it was game on. When did he lose his nerve?

If the right hon. Gentleman wants a debate, I have offered a date: the week starting 23 March. Why won’t he say yes to it?

I am going to be at the debates set by the broadcasters on 2 and 16 April, but I am asking the Prime Minister about a two-way debate between him and me. The original proposal for the two-way debate did not come from me or from the broadcasters but from him. He said:

“I’ve suggested…we need a debate where the two people who could actually be Prime Minister debate directly with each other.”

It was a good proposal then, and it is a good proposal now. Why does he not just name the day?

The right hon. Gentleman said “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. I have told him: 23 March —let’s hold that debate. But I will tell him what has changed: it is now obvious that Labour cannot win without the Scottish National party. He says we need the two leaders, but we need the two leaders who can call the tune—that is me and Alex Salmond. Let us have the debate.

The Prime Minister says it is all about leadership. He says it is about him and me— [Interruption.]

Order. Nobody in the House of Commons—[Interruption.] The Government Chief Whip should not be smirking about it, as it is not a laughing matter. Nobody in the House of Commons should be shouted down. I have got news for Members: however long it takes, it is not going to happen—Members will be heard.

These are pathetic, feeble excuses. Can we now take it that there are no circumstances in which he will debate with me head to head between now and the general election?

We have had four years of debates and we have found out he has got no policies; he has got no plan; he has got no team; and he has got no clue about running the country. The truth is this: Labour is now saying that it cannot win the election. I have here the leaflet that Labour put out in Scotland—I think the SNP might be interested in this. It says:

“At the General Election we need to stop the Tories being the largest party.”

Labour is not trying to win; it is just trying to crawl through the gates of Downing street on the coat tails of the SNP. The right hon. Gentleman has to prove he is not a chicken and rule that out.

There is only one person preparing for defeat and it is this Prime Minister. He is not going to be able to wriggle out of this. This is what he said before the last general election:

“we have the opportunity to debate…at prime minister’s questions. But that is a very different matter to a proper television debate during a general election campaign…when Parliament is not sitting, and when people will be most receptive to engaging in political discussion.”

We know he lost to the Deputy Prime Minister last time. Why does he not just cut out the feeble excuses and admit the truth: he is worried he might lose again?

Amazing! The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the future of a television programme; I want to talk about the future of the country. Four questions, three weeks to go, and he cannot talk about jobs because we are growing jobs. He cannot talk about unemployment because unemployment is plummeting. He cannot talk about inflation because it is at a record low. The truth is he is weak and despicable and wants to crawl to power in Alex Salmond’s pocket.

If the Prime Minister is so confident, why is he chickening out of the debates with me? Everyone can see it. Mr Speaker, I will tell you why this matters. It matters because it goes to his character. The public will see through his feeble excuses. Instead of these ridiculous tactics, why does he not show a bit more backbone and turn up for the head-to-head debate with me—any time, anywhere, any place?

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what goes to character: someone who is prepared to crawl into Downing street in alliance with people who want to break up our country. What a despicable and weak thing to do, risking our defences, risking our country, risking our United Kingdom. If he had an ounce of courage, he would rule it out.

There is only one person who is a risk to the integrity of the United Kingdom and it is this useless Prime Minister. [Interruption.]

Order. The question will be heard. The noise calculatedly being made by some Members on both sides of the House is a disgrace to the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) will be heard and the Prime Minister will be heard. That is the end of the matter.

There is only one person who is a risk to the integrity of our country, and that is this Prime Minister. On the head-to-head debate, we have learned something about him: like all bullies, when the heat is really on he runs for cover.

The right hon. Gentleman has been offered a debate any time, any place, anywhere, but he will not take it. The truth is that Labour has nothing to say on policy and nothing to say on the economy. Its only way into Downing street is on Alex Salmond’s coat tails. It is an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain, and the British people will never have it.

On 25 March, the Penrose inquiry, which has been looking at the tragedy of contaminated blood in Scotland, will finally report. It is likely to have implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. The time scale means that it is highly unlikely that there will be a full response by this Government before the end of Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend, who has taken a great personal interest in this—as have more than 100 Members of this House—give an assurance that the matter will not slip from his or the Government’s agenda, and that as soon as possible in the new Parliament there will be an attempt at closing this terrible tragedy in our country?

Let me first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for leading on this issue. I suspect that, like me, every Member of Parliament has heard moving stories at their surgeries from constituents who have hepatitis C or HIV because of contaminated blood. It is right to wait for the Penrose inquiry. Let me make it clear that that is not an excuse, because I want us to take action. I am not sure whether that action will ever fully satisfy those who want this wrong to be righted, but as a wealthy and successful country we should be helping these people more. We will help them more, but we need Penrose first, and if I am standing here after the next election it will be done.

Q2. Before the last election, the Prime Minister repeatedly promised to cut immigration. Instead it has gone up. Net immigration is now three times higher than he promised. Why has he failed? (907993)

We have cut net migration from outside the European Union. We have created more jobs than the rest of the European Union put together, so we now need to reform welfare to ensure that people who come from other European countries cannot claim unemployment benefit, leave after six months without a job and have to work for four years before they get tax credits. That is what people will get if a there is a Conservative Government after the next election.

In celebrating international women’s day, the Prime Minister can be congratulated on making it happen for women: we have more women in work than ever before, more female-led businesses than ever before, more females on boards than ever before, and more child care provision than ever before. Given that women are core to the long-term economic plan, will my right hon. Friend support the creation of a women and equalities Select Committee to ensure that future Governments do as much for women as the current Government have?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in agreeing to that. Of course we still have to break down disadvantage and barriers in our country, but there are more women in work than ever before; the pay gap for the under-40s has been eradicated; we are doing more to help with child care and to help people with caring responsibilities; and we have tried to help women around the world, not least by campaigning and working to cut out female genital mutilation and to put an end to the horrors of forced marriage. This Government have a good record on promoting women’s issues and rights, not just in the UK but right around the world.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister share my admiration for The Brick, a Wigan charity that last year gave 6,000 food parcels to local families? Will he tell those families why, 30 years after the miners’ strike, yet again our community is having to compensate for its heartless and hopeless Government? I would be ashamed of that record; is that why he will not go head to head and debate it? (907994)

I shall tell the hon. Lady what we inherited in Wigan: since we came to office, unemployment has come down by 44% in terms of the claimant count. In the north-west, we have seen 124,000 more people in work. Those people are now able to provide for their families. That is what is happening. We have a growing economy because we dealt with the mess left by the hon. Lady and her party.

Q4. We can be rightly proud of our science and technology research base, but there is a danger that Government spending on that important area is falling behind. When my right hon. Friend is returned as Prime Minister in only a few weeks’ time, will he commit to a real-terms increase in the science budget, thus supporting Basildon’s innovative industries, maintaining our world standing in the sciences and helping to create the high-paid jobs that we need to deliver our long-term economic plan? (907995)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention science. Of course, we ring-fenced the science budget during this Parliament because it is absolutely essential to building the modern manufacturing and advanced economy that we want to see. We can also see excellent initiatives such as the Newton fund, the Alan Turing institute and the Sir Henry Royce institute—all big investments in science in the next Parliament.

It has been estimated that entrenching market structures in the NHS, for example through tendering, bidding and contracting to the private sector, costs over £10 billion a year. Why does the Prime Minister not think that that money would be better spent on patient care?

What we have done is save money by cutting out bureaucracy, so we are seeing an extra £4.5 billion go into the NHS. If the hon. Lady is saying that there is no occasion at all when anyone from the independent, charitable or voluntary sectors can help in our NHS, I think that she is wrong. I think of the work that Macmillan cancer nurses and Marie Curie Cancer Care do, helping with the end of life. The idea that there is only one way to deliver health care in our brilliant NHS, which is expanding under this Government, is completely wrong.

Q5. Despite record numbers of new jobs, people with a learning disability can still find it tough to get into work. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the Basingstoke inclusion zone, which will recognise the commitment of local employers to people with a learning disability, whose talents and ability in the workplace are too often hidden? (907996)

I certainly join my right hon. Friend in praising the great work of the inclusion zone, which is launching this Friday. We need to build on the success we have already, with employment of disabled people up by 141,000 over the past year. We need a change not only in action, but in culture, which is why the Disability Confident campaign is so important for encouraging employers to join in and give employment opportunities to disabled people. We now have over 1,000 committing to change their practices with disabled people, and I want to see that go right across the country.

Q6. I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to join me in congratulating Titanic Belfast, which this week beat competition from the London Eye and the Eiffel tower to become the best international group visitor attraction. Does he therefore share my frustration and anger that in the same week the much bigger prize of political stability and economic progress is being jeopardised by Sinn Fein reneging on promises made in the Stormont House agreement? (907997)

First, let me join the hon. Lady in praising the Titanic exhibition, which I have been to see myself. It is an absolutely brilliant visitor attraction and yet another reason to visit Belfast, and not only for people from across our United Kingdom, but for people from across Europe and around the world. I agree that what matters now is implementing the Stormont House agreement. Everyone should do what they signed up to do in that agreement, including Sinn Fein. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working very hard to try to ensure that everyone fulfils their pledges.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the many dedicated health professionals who work at St Ann’s hospice in my constituency, and does he agree that the decision to devolve £6 billion of NHS spending to Greater Manchester presents a tremendous opportunity to integrate health care services better and secure a more positive long-term funding arrangement for our local hospices? (907998)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The hospice movement is another good example of something that provides vital health and social services in our country but is not necessarily owned and operated by the NHS. I am a parent who used a hospice in Oxford regularly, and I was absolutely amazed by the brilliant work they do. We have allocated over £100 million of capital funding to hospices since 2010, and that is in addition to the £10 million for children’s hospices. I would welcome more NHS money being made available to hospices, as he says, and I think that the Greater Manchester decision is a way of ensuring that decisions are made between local authorities and the NHS and are made closer to the patients who they are serving.

A leaked NHS report shows a looming deficit of £200 million in Staffordshire in three years’ time. Last year, 10 more of these reports were commissioned into distressed local health economies around the country, and yet, after repeated stonewalling, health Ministers are now saying:

“Consultancy firms were not commissioned to produce reports on the local health economies, as described in the question”.

May I ask the Prime Minister why, election or no election, the Government are engaged in a cover-up of what lies in store for large parts of the NHS around the country?

There is a pattern, which is that Labour MPs in Staffordshire are determined to try to frighten people about the future of the NHS, and they are the last people who should do that after the appalling mess they made in Mid Staffordshire. We are seeing £12.7 billion more money going into our NHS and a strong future for the NHS in Staffordshire that will be continued as long as I am in this place.

Q8. This is the third time in four months that I have raised at Prime Minister’s questions NHS England letting down the 180 or so people with ultra-rare diseases, some of whom are outside the House today, who have been failed by a flawed process. Some of those children will lose access to their drugs from May, and their conditions will deteriorate irreversibly. We have two sessions of Prime Minister’s questions left. Can he tell me that, in that time, he will announce when we will get interim funding for the drugs that these children and these people need? (907999)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because these are very rare and debilitating conditions, and there are drugs that can help the children who have them. Having looked at this—and I know that the health and science Ministers have looked vary carefully at it and met the families and the drug companies, as well as NHS England—my understanding is that NHS England is holding a review, which will be completed by the end of April, and the companies are currently funding these drugs until the end of May. So I do not see any reason why there should not be continuity of care and continuity of drugs, and that is what I hope we can achieve.

Spending 2% of GDP on defence is not only significant as part of our NATO commitment—it is also a commitment to being a reliable ally. Only last September, the Prime Minister still thought it was important when he lectured other NATO countries on meeting Britain’s commitment. Is he not just a little bit embarrassed that he himself has now reneged on that?

This country has met its NATO commitments, not only for 2% but to spend the money on deployable equipment and forces, which is just as important a commitment. What I would say to the hon. Lady is this: how does she feel about her leader contemplating a deal with the SNP, who want to strip this country of their defences? That is what they are prepared to do. He will not rule it out. It says very clearly in his leaflet: they are only trying to be the largest party; they are not trying to win a majority. That is the risk we face: no Trident, no protection for our country—defence stripped bare by a Labour party in hock to the SNP.

Q9. With unemployment falling in Southend, enterprises expanding and 310 new businesses being created, will my right hon. Friend describe to the House which Government policies will see this recovery continuing so that the irresistible and unstoppable case for Southend to be made a city actually happens? (908000)

May I once again commend my hon. Friend on the consistency of his campaign to see Southend recognised in that way? He asked me what policies will make a difference and continue to bring businesses to Southend. We are cutting the jobs tax for businesses and charities, and that is helping; we have got the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G7, and that is helping; we are abolishing national insurance contributions for under-21s; and we are extending the doubling of the small business rate relief. All of these things, sticking to our long-term economic plan as the OECD, IMF and others have advised us to, can make sure that Southend can continue to grow and perform well.

Q10. In protecting universal benefits, the Prime Minister said that pensioners “deserve dignity” when they retire. Retired constituents in West Lancashire say, “What’s the point of a bus pass when there are no buses?” [Interruption.] There are not even trains, as the Conservative borough council has pocketed the additional money that would have been used to allow pensioners to have access to trains. Will the Prime Minister do the right thing—[Interruption.] (908001)

Order. The hon. Lady needs to bring her question to a close, but that question, notwithstanding a display of very considerable rudeness towards her, will be heard. That is the end of it. It will be heard however long it takes; it does not matter to me.

Will the Prime Minister do the right thing and ensure that concessionary travel for all pensioners is fair and equitable?

Of course, buses are the responsibility of the county council, so I think the point made was a fair one. I have talked about dignity and security in retirement, because we have kept our commitments and upgraded the pension by the triple lock, so pensioners in the hon. Lady’s constituency will have £950 more in terms of the basic state pension than when I become Prime Minister in 2010. We committed to keeping the free bus pass, keeping the free television licence, keeping the freedom from prescription charges. We have kept each and every one of those promises. We have gone beyond that by saying to pensioners that they do not need to buy an annuity: it is their money, their savings, and they can spend it as they choose. This has been a Government who have recognised that people deserve that dignity and security, and we have delivered in full.

Seventy-five per cent. of our schools contain asbestos, more than 20 teachers a year are dying from exposure to asbestos and our children are known to be particularly vulnerable. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government publish their completed policy review on asbestos in schools before Dissolution?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which has been well broadcast and covered in the media in the past couple of days. That is why we are carrying out an asbestos review going through all schools. We will publish it in due course, and action will have to be taken.

Q11. I was thinking of raising with the Prime Minister the Conservatives’ so-called long-term economic plan—like Pinocchio’s nose, it grows longer and less attractive by the day—but with just two Prime Minister’s questions to go, I thought that I would ask the Prime Minister whether he shared my imminent relief that neither he nor I will have to pencil in 12 noon on a Wednesday any longer. (908002)

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, as he will shortly be leaving the House? As a new Back Bencher, I will never forget coming to this place in 2001 and, in the light of the appalling terrorist attacks that had taken place across the world, seeing the strong leadership he gave on the importance of keeping our country safe. He is a remarkable politician, a remarkable man. I remember once in the Home Affairs Committee that, even though he could not see who we all were, he knew exactly who was concentrating and who was not. I do not know how—he has this extraordinary gift—but he is an extraordinary politician. I pay tribute to him, and I know the rest of the House will join me in doing so.

During his conference speech, the Prime Minister rightly warned voters flirting with UKIP that if they went to bed with Nigel Farage on 7 May, they could end up waking up with the Leader of the Opposition on 8 May. May I put it to the Prime Minister that the outcome could actually be a lot more unpleasant? Is it not now the case that if voters go to bed with Nigel Farage on 7 May, they could wake up not only with the Leader of the Opposition, but snuggled up next to Alex Salmond?

That is the point. Who knows who you could wake up in bed with? It might not just be Alex Salmond; it might be Nigel Farage. It could be any number of people. [Hon. Members: “It could be Nick Clegg.”] Yes, of course that is an option too. It all points to the difference between the competence of the Conservatives and the chaos of the alternatives.

Q12. People in Northern Ireland have once more seen the issue of sexual abuse put under the spotlight as members of the IRA stand accused of holding kangaroo courts, re-traumatising victims as a result. Will the Prime Minister help to establish a cross-border inquiry with the power to call key witnesses, to try to bring some form of closure and justice, especially to young people who have been abused and whose abusers have been sheltered by the IRA? (908003)

I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Stormont House agreement includes a set of measures and proposals to try to deal with the issues of the past in a fair and accountable way—perhaps this is one such issue that could be dealt with in that way.

Q13. In Gosport we have a proud history of supporting the armed forces, and the recent £420 million contract to service the Chinook helicopter fleet will help local companies such as Vector Aerospace to preserve those links. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister reassure the House of his commitment to defence spending, the defence industry, defence procurement and defence jobs? (908004)

I can certainly make that commitment. We have said that the £160 billion equipment programme over the next decade is fully protected and will grow in real terms, and I have recently been to Portsmouth to see for myself the new docks that are being put in to welcome the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and the massive investment that will go into Portsmouth for ship servicing. My hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit from the Chinook contract—a new order of Chinooks pumping money into our defence industry and leading to the training of apprentices, jobs and livelihoods for many years to come.

A couple with two children where the man earns £25,000 and the woman earns £10,000 will be £9,417 worse off in tax credits if they stay together, as opposed to if they break up. Is that brutal attack on working families another reason why the Prime Minister will not go head to head in a pre-election debate with the Leader of the Opposition?

This Government have obviously helped all couples by lifting the first £10,600 that someone earns out of tax, and we are the first Government to introduce a married couple’s tax allowance, which I seem to remember the hon. Gentleman voted against. If he cares about couples and commitment, he should be voting with us.

Q14. It has been an honour and a privilege to be the Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire for the past five years, and I am particularly proud that in that time crime in North Warwickshire has fallen. There are more doctors and nurses in the George Eliot hospital, and the number of schools rated as needing improvement has halved. Perhaps most importantly, unemployment in North Warwickshire has fallen to the lowest level since constituency records began in 1983. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that gripping the economy, gripping the deficit, and having an effective long-term economic plan is not just empty rhetoric but makes a real difference to people on the ground? (908005)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he has done. The claimant count in North Warwickshire has come down by 70% since the election, and the long-term youth claimant count has come down by 64%. I know that, working with Craig Tracey, he will work hard to ensure that North Warwickshire continues to benefit from our long-term economic plan.

Q15. The Prime Minister may know that this could be my last Prime Minister’s questions after 20 happy years representing Bradford South. He will be pleased to know that I am making my retirement plans—what are his? (908006)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on his service in this House but on winning a by-election. Any of us who have taken part in by-elections—I remember the Bradford South by-election, not entirely happily from my point of view—knows what daunting prospects they are. We all have plans for after 7 May, and people who we want to spend more time with, and less time with. I have a little list, and I suspect he has one too.

Members of the Scottish National party have been licking their lips in public at the prospect of blackmailing one of the two main parties into delaying or abandoning the replacement of the Trident submarines. Will the Prime Minister confirm that if he is still Prime Minister in 2016, as he should be, he will ensure that the maingate contracts for four successor submarines are signed that year?

I can reassure my hon. Friend. For me, Trident and its replacement are non-negotiable. They are an absolutely vital part of this nation’s security. Let me just remind Labour Members of the leaflet going out across Scotland. It says this:

“At the General Election we need to stop the Tories being the largest party.”

They have given up trying to be the Government and trying to win a majority. They want to crawl into Downing street on the coat tails of the SNP and put our country at risk. The British people will never have it.

Seventeen thousand police officers have gone in this Parliament. Under the Chancellor’s spending plans, another 30,000 would go in the next Parliament. The outgoing president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, has warned that it would no longer be possible adequately to protect the public from criminals or from the growing threat of home-grown terrorists. Is he right?

What we have seen in this Parliament is that, yes, we have made difficult decisions on police spending, but crime is down, including crime in the west midlands.

As for the shadow Chancellor’s dossier this week, he briefed against it before we even had a chance. I have heard of him briefing against the leader, but he has beaten his own records. He now briefs against himself.