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Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2015

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 echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the Prime Minister and all in this place in relation to Her Majesty the Queen.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating parents of children who will attend the newly announced Solihull alternative provision academy, which will provide vital places for those with complex behavioural needs? Does he agree that Opposition Members who would scrap free schools would deny parents choice and children opportunity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The free schools movement is bringing what we need in this country, which is more good and outstanding school places. More than 250 such schools are already in existence and we want to see 500 set up over this Parliament. So far a quarter of free schools are classed as outstanding. [Interruption.] We have heard Labour’s Education spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), speak out today. Perhaps he should praise the fact that a quarter of free schools are outstanding schools. They are not just what he has called, rather condescendingly, schools for “yummy mummies”; they are providing special schools and alternative provision schools. They are enhancing education provision in our country and we should be proud of the people who set them up.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the refugee crisis? This is the largest movement of people across Europe since the second world war with, in just one month, more than 50,000 refugees arriving in Greece and thousands more setting off on foot to go from Hungary to Austria. The Prime Minister committed on Monday that we would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, but for these people 2020 must seem a lifetime away. Can he tell the House how many will be allowed to come to the UK by the end of this year?

First, before I answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s question, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to her 28 years of Front Bench service as it potentially comes to an end this week. She has served with distinction in both Opposition and Government. Twice she has stepped into the breach as her party’s acting leader, which is never an easy job, but she has carried it out with total assurance. She has always been a robust adversary across these Dispatch Boxes and a fierce champion for a range of issues, most notably women’s rights, where she has often led the way in changing attitudes in our country for the better. Although we have not always seen eye to eye, she has served her constituents, her party and this House with distinction from the Front Bench, and I wish her well as she continues to serve this House and our country from the Back Benches.

Turning to the specific issue the right hon. and learned Lady has raised, she is absolutely right: this is the biggest crisis facing Europe. We have to act on all of the areas she mentions. We have to use our head and our heart. We have committed to taking 20,000 people. I want us to get on with that. There is no limit on the number of people who could come in the first year. Let us get on with it, but let us recognise that we have to go to the camps, find the people, make sure they can be housed, find schools for their children, and work with local councils and local voluntary bodies to make sure that when these people come they get a warm welcome from Britain.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous words about my time on the Front Bench. It has been an absolute honour and a privilege to play my part in leading this great party.

We have to do all those things the Prime Minister has set out in relation to the refugees, but we still need to know, and we need a commitment, about the number we will take this year. This is an urgent crisis. If he cannot give us a number today, can he at least commit to go away and consult local authorities and throughout Government, and voluntary organisations and charities, and come back in a month and say how many this country will take this year?

It is welcome that the Prime Minister has said that we will take in Syrian refugees from the camps in the region, but he has ruled out taking in those who have made it to southern Europe. We understand his argument is that he does not want more people to put themselves in danger, but we have to deal with the reality. The reality is that thousands of people, including thousands of children without their parents, have already arrived in Europe. Save the Children has proposed that we take 3,000 of them into this country. Surely we should be playing our part to help those most vulnerable of children, even if they are already in Europe. Will he reconsider this?

On the number that we can achieve over the coming year, we have the first meeting on Friday of the committee that will be chaired jointly by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We will invite representatives of the Local Government Association and possibly some voluntary bodies to that meeting to make sure that we can plan. It is one thing to give a commitment to a number, whether it is the 20,000 that I think is right or something else; it is another thing to make sure that we can find these people, get them here and give them a warm welcome. I hope that the whole country can now come together in making sure that we deliver this effort properly.

The second point that the right hon. and learned Lady raised was about Europe. She talked about the reality in Europe. There is also a bigger reality, which is that 11 million Syrians have been pushed out of their homes and only 3% of them have so far decided to come to Europe. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and, indeed, all of us that we do everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible stay in the neighbouring countries and the refugee camps in preparation for one day returning to Syria. That is why Britain has led the way in funding the refugee camps, funding Lebanon and funding Jordan, and we will continue to do just that.

To answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s point about children, we will go on listening to Save the Children, which has done excellent work. A number of other expert organisations warn about the dangers of taking children further from their parents. The overall point I would make is that those who have already arrived in Europe are at least safe. If we can help the ones in the refugee camps—the ones in Lebanon and Jordan—it will discourage more people from making the perilous journey. All I can say is that from the conversations I have had so far with the leaders of, for instance, France and Germany, it is clear that they can see Britain playing her role, funding the refugee camps, meeting the target of 0.7% of GDP and welcoming 20,000 Syrians into our homes.

All that is very important indeed and we support it, but what about the thousands of children who are already many, many miles from their homes—those who are already in Europe but who have no home? Surely we can play our part in helping some of those children too. I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider.

Of course planning has to be done for receiving refugees from the camps. It is right that the Prime Minister should meet local government, but when he has developed the plans, he should come back to the House. A month is enough time to be able to come back to the House and say how many we will take this year. This is urgent.

May I ask about the situation of the child refugees from the camps who the Prime Minister has said will be allowed to come here? They need sanctuary and security. We must not leave them living with the threat of deportation hanging over them. Will he assure us that they will not automatically be liable for deportation when they turn 18?

I can absolutely give that assurance. The reason for resettling people with the five-year humanitarian visas is that it means we do not have to go through the normal asylum process. At the end of that, if people want to stay, they can make an application to do so and the assumption is that they will be able to stay. Some may want to go back to Syria, particularly if there is a settlement in Syria between now and then.

Let me answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s other questions. Obviously I will come back to the House on a weekly basis to answer questions, as well as making statements and appearing in front of the Liaison Committee. I will commit to ensuring that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government regularly update the House, because this is an enormous national exercise to ensure that we give a warm welcome to these 20,000 people. I am happy for them to do that. I know that Members of the House want to feed into the process with offers and ideas from their local councils.

Coming back to the point about children, yes we will be taking vulnerable children, including orphans, from camps in the region, as we have already. All the while, we will listen to the advice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who advises caution on relocating unaccompanied children and applies that to the children who have already come to Europe as well.

But the UNHCR does not tell us not to take children who are in those camps in Europe without their parents. I do welcome what the Prime Minister has said about not having a threat of deportation for those Syrian children who do come here. As the number of those fleeing to Europe via Turkey and Greece grows, it is right that we do not lose sight of those who are still making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya. Our Navy has rescued thousands of them already, and it is important that this level of search and rescue is maintained. Can he update the House on that?

The update I can give is that so far, I believe, we have rescued 6,700 children. First it was done with HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, which was then replaced by HMS Enterprise, which has continued this very good work. We will continue doing this work with allies and others as long as is necessary; we are also using the two Border Force cutters. But I think we should all be honest with ourselves and recognise that, particularly in the case of economic migrants leaving on the African route, we have to break the link between those people getting on a boat and getting settlement in Europe. All the evidence from these sorts of migration crises in the past, particularly the example of Spain and the Canary Islands, shows that you do need a way of returning to Africa people who are not fleeing for their lives but are leaving for a better life, because if you cannot break that link, an increasing number of people will still want to make that perilous journey.

Of course, we do need to find ways of returning people where that is right, but we also have to make sure that we stop them drowning at sea when they are fleeing as refugees—I know the Prime Minister agrees with that. The EU must have a robust and realistic plan, and today the European Commission has announced further steps. The Prime Minister said he would look at whether there was a need for a special summit of EU leaders. We know there is one scheduled for October, but if there ever was a need for a summit of EU leaders that time is now. Will he call for one?

I am happy to keep this under review, and I discussed it with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande in the last couple of days. The meeting of the Home Affairs and Justice Ministers will be taking place in just a couple of days’ time. The British approach will be very clear: this must be a comprehensive approach. If all the focus is on redistributing quotas of refugees around Europe, that will not solve the problem; it actually sends a message to people that it is a good idea to get on a boat and make that perilous journey. That is not just my view; the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who is absolutely right about this, has said:

“The answer is not quotas. All quotas will do is play into the hands of those who exploit vulnerable refugees.”—[Official Report, 1 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 332.]

Of course Europe has to reach its own answers for those countries that are part of Schengen. Britain has its own borders and we have the ability to make our own sovereign decisions about this, and our approach is to say, “Yes, we are a humanitarian nation with a moral conscience, we will take 20,000 Syrians. But we want a comprehensive approach that puts money into the camps, that meets our aid commitments, that solves the problems in Syria, that has a return path to Africa and that sees a new Government in Libya.” We have to address all those issues, and Britain, as a sovereign nation with its own borders, will do just that.

But this is not about Schengen and it is not just about us as a sovereign nation doing what we can and should; it is about us working together with other countries. The refugee crisis presents a daunting problem that we are all striving to tackle, but we also have to address the underlying causes, which are conflict, global inequality and poverty. There are no simple answers, but we can address those only by working with other countries. The responsibilities we share, as well as the threats that we face, reach across borders in this globalised age. To be British is not to be narrow, inward-looking and fearful of the outside world, but to be strong, confident and proud to reach out and engage with the rest of the world. The Government should rise to this challenge of our time, and I urge the Prime Minister to do so.

I agree with every word that the right hon. and learned Lady has just said. I would say that Britain, uniquely among countries in the world, meets its 2% NATO spending target—so we can play a role in terms of defence and helping to secure these countries—and reaches its target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. No other major country in the world meets those two targets, and I am proud that we do.

The right hon. and learned Lady talks about going to the causes of these crises, and she is absolutely right about that. We have to be frank: the eastern Mediterranean crisis, in particular, is because Assad has butchered his own people and because ISIL has, in its own way, butchered others, and millions have fled Syria. We can do all we can, as a moral, humanitarian nation, to take people, spend money on aid and help in refugee camps, but we have to be part of the international alliance that says, “We need an approach in Syria that will mean we have a Government that can look after their people.” Assad has to go, ISIL has to go, and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy—it will, on occasion, require hard military force.

Q2. The last exchange is the most important: with other countries, we have moral and practical responsibilities. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that we are presently the only country meeting the commitment to the world’s poorest and on military spending, and it would be helpful if he could explain how each helps us to deal with the situation in Syria and the surrounding areas. (901197)

The point I would make to my hon. Friend is that the spending on aid is vital, because 11 million people have been forced out of their homes. Some of them remain in Syria and they need support, and some of them are in refugee camps and they need support. Many are being looked after in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and those countries need our help. The aid budget has always been a controversial issue in our country, but people can now see the connection between the money we spend, the lives we save and the national security that we help to enforce back in the UK. The point I am making is not to change the debate now about what happens next in Syria, but we have to keep thinking about the fact that in the end nothing will make ISIL go away other than a confrontation, which we are seeing in Iraq and in Syria. We should be clear that ISIL being degraded, destroyed and ultimately defeated is in not just this country’s interests, but the interests of civilisation more broadly.

The threat level from terrorism is listed as “severe” in the UK, and there are many challenging decisions for the Prime Minister to take in protecting public safety and for Parliament to consider. It has taken four months to re-establish the Intelligence and Security Committee. Can the Prime Minister explain what role he hopes that Committee will fulfil?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the current level of threat is “severe”; that means that we believe that an attack is highly likely. These levels are set independently of Government. The Intelligence and Security Committee does very important work and there is a motion on the Order Paper today to see its re-establishment. I very much hope that he will be part of that Committee and will be able to be briefed in the way that other members of that Committee are briefed.

Is there a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee, which we have already expanded, to do even more to scrutinise the actions of the intelligence services and the Government? That may well be the case. As I announced on Monday, what we have done in terms of the strike against a British citizen in a country against which we are not currently at war is a new departure, and it is important that these things are properly scrutinised. I would argue that the first way to scrutinise them is for the Prime Minister to come to the House and for the House to question him—that is accountability. But is there a role for the ISC to look at these things—although not current operations? I am happy to discuss that with the new Chair of the ISC, who I hope will be appointed in the coming days.

The Prime Minister talked about the importance of the Intelligence and Security Committee and parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. We learnt this week of a new UK policy of drone strikes against terrorist suspects in regions where there is not parliamentary approval for general military action. Will the Prime Minister provide all relevant information to the Intelligence and Security Committee, so that it can conduct a review?

As I have just said, I am happy to discuss that with the Chairman of the Committee when they are elected—I said appointed, but I meant to say elected by the members of that Committee, because that is what rightly happens. I am happy to do that, with the only proviso that the Intelligence and Security Committee cannot be responsible for overseeing current operations. The responsibility for current operations must lie with the Government, who have to come to the House of Commons to explain that. I am not going to contract out our counter-terrorism policy to someone else: I take responsibility for it. But it is important that after these events have taken place, the ISC is able to make investigations.

Q3. A slight change of tack. Over past weeks, I have met farmers across Taunton Deane facing severe difficulties owing to falling commodity prices in many sectors—lamb, beef, arable and dairy. These industries are the lifeblood of my constituency. Will the Prime Minister please give assurances that all efforts are being made to help these industries through this particularly tricky time? Farmers have campaigned on the streets recently to highlight their straits. (901198)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, because low commodity prices are causing problems for farmers not only here in the UK but also right across the European Union. Yesterday, in the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels, we led calls for urgent action, and there will be a €500 million package of measures to help farmers. Here in the UK, we have obviously taken steps to help, which include introducing the Groceries Code Adjudicator to make sure we get a fair deal with the supermarkets; steps to make sure we do more on public procurement, to make sure that, where possible, public authorities are buying British food, because it is of such high quality; and also, as the Chancellor said in the Budget, to make sure we look at the tax treatment of farmers to try to give them a better deal at this difficult time.

Q4. Two weeks ago, the Work and Pensions Secretary’s Department not only admitted to falsifying testimonies in leaflets, but published data on the deaths of people on sickness benefit, which showed that they are four times more likely to die than the general population. That was after the Secretary of State told the House that these data did not exist. Given that, and his offensive remarks earlier this week —referring to people without disabilities as “normal” —when will the Prime Minister take control and respond to my call for the Work and Pensions Secretary to be investigated for breaching the ministerial code? (901199)

First, let me deal very directly with the publication of this data. This data was published because I promised at this Dispatch Box that it would be published, in a way that it was never published under any Labour Government. That is the first point.

I also think we should be clear about what this data shows. It does not show people being wrongly assessed as fit to work. It does not show people dying as a result of their benefits being taken away. If you listen to the organisation Full Fact, it has said—[Interruption.] I have to say to hon. Gentlemen shouting that two newspapers have printed that and had to retract it, so I think that people should actually look at the facts. A fact-checking organisation says:

“It was widely reported that thousands of people died within weeks of being found ‘fit for work’ and losing their benefits. This is wrong.”

Perhaps the hon. Lady should read that before asking her next question.

In 2011, the Prime Minister quite rightly confirmed to the House that the Wilson doctrine, the prohibition on the electronic monitoring of Members of Parliament, was still in force. Unfortunately, on 24 July this year, the Government’s own lawyer, Mr James Eadie, QC, stated in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, in answer to a complaint from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), that the Wilson doctrine is not legally binding, cannot work properly and accordingly places no obligations on the intelligence agencies. This is clearly inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s previous statement. Can he clarify the status of the doctrine for the House today and confirm that it has real meaning?

I have got nothing to add to comments I have made about this issue before, but I am very happy to write to my right hon. Friend and set out the position.

Q5. The ongoing harrowing refugee crisis is fuelled by conflict, which in turn is powered in part by the global arms trade. The UK has supplied the weapons being used in many areas from which people are now fleeing, including Yemen and Libya. In the week that London will once again host the largest arms fair in the world, is it not time for the Government to recognise the link between arms sales and the terrible tragedy that we see unfolding around us? (901200)

First, we have some of the strictest rules anywhere in the world for selling arms to other countries. If the hon. Lady thinks that the reason why so many people are fleeing Syria is something to do with the arms trade, the fact is that it is because Assad is butchering his own people and because we have an Islamist extremist, terrorist organisation running a large part of two countries—Iraq and Syria. Those are the problems that we have to confront, rather than pretending it is about something else.

Q6. TopicUK is a social enterprise in my constituency that is expanding into South Yorkshire and London. The northern powerhouse and devolution should be about developing growth and prosperity right across the north of England. When does the Prime Minister hope to see a metro mayor in our area, and how will devolution stimulate growth for businesses like this in the region? (901201)

There is a real opportunity in this Parliament to make some decisive steps towards rebalancing our economy and building the northern powerhouse that we have spoken about. A big part of that is devolving power to local government and, specifically, to mayors who can be accountable to their local communities and have new powers and new resources to drive economic growth in their areas. We have already had over 30 areas, as well as city regions, making proposals. This is a very exciting development for genuine decentralisation in our country. I very much hope West Yorkshire will be in the vanguard.

Q7. I am sure the Prime Minister will be aware that more than 900 people at the Young’s fish processing factory in my constituency in Fraserburgh currently face the threat of redundancy. There is a perception across the industry that the UK Government have been encouraging and supporting the company to relocate many of those jobs to Grimsby. What is the Prime Minister going to do to support the workers in Fraserburgh? (901202)

I am aware of this issue, not least because the local Members of Parliament in the Grimsby area have come to see me to talk about this industry. What matters is that we go on being an economy that wants to attract businesses, growth and jobs. That means keeping our inflation down, keeping our taxes down, keeping our corporate taxes down and, I would also argue, keeping our country together.

Q8. As MP for the faithful city, may I associate my constituents with the tributes paid earlier to Her Majesty the Queen? Worcester’s guildhall, which she visited on her diamond jubilee, will next week be hosting a jobs fair at which over 130 employers will be recruiting. In Worcester, we have seen unemployment at its lowest level ever and youth unemployment down by two thirds. Will my right hon. Friend update us on his plans and his determination to finish the job by eliminating youth unemployment? (901203)

I am very grateful for what my hon. Friend is doing and for what is happening in Worcester. We have seen employment rise by nearly 2 million and the unemployment rate fall for 25 consecutive months. But we have to be frank: the job is now going to get harder as we dig down into those people who have been out of the labour market for a long time and who have challenges in getting jobs. We need to work really hard to make sure the apprenticeships, training and help is there, and that is why what is happening in Worcester is so important.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether he thinks he has led public opinion on the refugee crisis or followed it? (901204)

I would simply argue that this Government are doing the right thing, and that we have done it consistently. To be frank, public opinion has not always supported the 0.7% of GDP that we give to aid. Even in the most difficult of economic circumstances, it was this Government, led by a Conservative Prime Minister, that kept the promises we made to the world’s poorest.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the Chancellor’s announcement of funding to kick-start improvements to the north Devon link road, and does he agree with me that this is a vital project if we are to continue with the economic growth and jobs that his economic policies are already delivering? (901205)

One of the things that struck me on the many visits I made to my hon. Friend’s constituency in the run-up to the last election is that the communities and coastal towns in North Devon are completely reliant on the north Devon link road. It is an absolutely vital artery and that is why it is so good that there is this £3 million of funding to develop the business case for improvements. We will keep on this, because we know just how vital this road is.

Q11. Every year, thousands of people have medical emergencies outside of hospitals. When it is a cardiac arrest, every minute without CPR—cardiopulmonary resuscitation—or defibrillation reduces survival chances by 7% to 10%. First aid is a true life skill. The majority of teachers and parents support the teaching of emergency first aid in schools. Will the Prime Minister look closely at my private Member’s Bill, which aims to do that and make every child a lifesaver? (901206)

I will certainly look closely at the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, because this is a real lifesaver. The availability of CPR equipment, whether in village halls, pubs, schools or sports clubs, can save many, many lives. That is why there was £1 million in the Budget for buying defibrillators for public spaces and schools and for training. I am sure that many schools will want to take advantage of this.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the new owners of Eggborough power station in my constituency are consulting on the closure of a station that provides 4% of the country’s electricity. This comes on top of the announcement that Ferrybridge power station, adjacent to my constituency, is to close, as well as Longannet in Scotland. Drax power station is taking legal action against the Government over changes to the tax regime. These power stations are being taxed out of existence, and we are potentially walking into power capacity issues next year. Will he meet me to discuss a way forward for the station and the industry and for the hundreds of people in my constituency whose jobs are under threat?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I have discussed this issue with him before. I believe we have sufficient capacity in our energy market, but I have regular meetings with Ofgem and Energy Ministers to make sure that is still the case. We have this difficult situation of wanting to see, over time, a phasing out of unabated coal, which needs to happen if we are to meet our carbon emissions targets, and when it comes to replacing coal in these power stations with renewable technologies, of needing to make it affordable. We have to make a judgment about how much we are prepared to add to consumers’ bills, because, in the end, this has to be paid for.

Q12. The UK steel industry is currently facing huge challenges. In Scunthorpe, 25,000 people rely on steel. Will the Prime Minister call a steel summit to show that his Government will stand up for steel and take the action necessary to secure its future? (901207)

I have discussed this issue with the hon. Gentleman before, and I am sure we will meet and discuss it again. The Government can help the energy-intensive industries with their energy bills, and we have put £35 million towards that. We have also set out, in our infrastructure plan, the infrastructure needs of the country so that steel producers can plan how much needs to be produced. We will go on doing everything we can to support this vital industry.

Q13. The rail stations of Glossop and Hadfield in my constituency are the third and fifth busiest in Derbyshire. The constituents who use those stations have just been advised of a change in the available rolling stock. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the successful bidders for the new franchise can continue to offer as good a service as is available now, and perhaps even better? (901208)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. The whole point about the process for the new northern franchise is to see an improvement in services. We have already spoken about getting rid of the Pacer trains, which I know will be very popular in the north of England, and we will be adding an extra 1,500 services a day. We want to increase the morning peak capacity by one third and, as I said, see those outdated Pacer trains retired. That is a good programme and one we hope to secure through this franchise.

Q14. Experts say that delivery of the electrification of the main line between Paddington and Swansea is slipping. How will the Prime Minister get this project back on track and budget by the delivery date of 2018? (901209)

We are committed to this electrification all the way to Swansea, and we are making record investments in our railway line. Many of us, including Opposition Members, were privileged to be at Newton Aycliffe for the opening of the Hitachi factory that will be providing the state-of-the-art trains—trains built not in Japan, but here in Britain, bringing 700 new jobs to the north-east of England.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the debate about Syria two years ago there were voices around this Chamber arguing that the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere were nothing to do with us and should not involve us? Is it not clear that the failure of western security strategy in the middle east and elsewhere is the main driver of this migration crisis, and may I endorse his requirement for a full-spectrum response to ISIS? Will he consider setting that out in a comprehensive White Paper in order to lead world opinion?

First, we should be very clear about who is responsible for the refugee crisis in Syria. I would lay it firmly at the door of Bashar al-Assad, who assaulted his own people, and ISIL, who, even today, are throwing gay people off buildings, raping women, terrorising communities and driving people to take to the road and leave their country. They are the ones responsible. But my hon. Friend makes an important point: when we do not involve ourselves in these issues and take difficult decisions, that is a decision in itself, and it has consequences. That is what I hope we can debate and discuss in the coming months. He talked about White Papers and so on. There are many different ways of presenting this information. I think we need to look at all the arguments for what he and I would call a comprehensive approach to these issues.

Q15. Our sixth-form colleges do a great job, but they are not protected by the education ring fence. That means a sixth-former in my constituency has lost almost 20% of their funding over the last five years—in some places, almost 30%. What has the Prime Minister got against sixth-form colleges? (901210)

I am fully in favour of sixth-form colleges. That is why actually, unlike previous Governments, we have gone quite a long way to equalise the funding between sixth forms in secondary schools and sixth forms in colleges. We have made a lot of progress.

We are just days away from the start in England of the world’s third largest sporting event—the rugby world cup. In addition to wishing luck to all the home nations, will the Prime Minister agree that this represents a great economic opportunity to my town, as we welcome visitors from around the world to the birthplace of the game?

I certainly look forward to the warm welcome that Britain will give to rugby fans from around the world, and I am happy to wish luck to all the home nations in what is going to be a compelling contest. It is always worth noting that this Dispatch Box was the gift to the House of Commons of the people of New Zealand. While we are very grateful for their gift, we want one of the home nations to win this tournament.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the situation in Northern Ireland, already grave, following the IRA murder in August in Belfast, has escalated to new heights, with the arrest today of the chairman of Sinn Féin in connection with that incident—and, indeed, other leading members of Sinn Féin. We warned about this earlier this week. We have now reached the tipping point. Indeed, in my view, we have gone beyond the tipping point. The Prime Minister is aware that the First Minister has met the Secretary of State this morning. He has put a proposal to her. Does the Prime Minister now accept that unless he and others take action, we are in a very grave state as far as devolution is concerned? We want to see government, but only those committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means can be in government. The people of Northern Ireland cannot be punished; it is Sinn Féin who should be dealt with. Does the Prime Minister agree?

First, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we are in a very difficult phase of these discussions in Northern Ireland. I obviously cannot comment on the police operations that have taken place, but let me say this. There is no justification for paramilitary organisations and structures in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, anywhere else in our country. They are a blight on our society; they are not wanted; they should be disbanded on every occasion and on every side.

I would, however, make an appeal in this respect to Democratic Unionist Members, Ulster Unionist Members, Social and Democratic Labour Party Members and the Sinn Féin Members, who do not take their seats in this House. As someone who sat on the Opposition Benches and watched while the peace process was put together and the power-sharing arrangements were put in place, it was one of the most inspiring things that I have seen as a human being and a politician to see politicians put aside their differences, put aside concerns about appalling things that had happened in the past, and decide to work together. The appeal I would make to all of you is, please have that spirit in mind. It was an amazing thing you all did in Northern Ireland when you formed that Administration and that Assembly. We will do everything we can to help you, but let us think of the nobler processes and the great noble principles that were put in place in the past—and let’s do it again.