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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Executive (Financial Position)

1. What steps she is taking to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive’s financial position is sustainable. (902242)

9. What steps she is taking to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive’s financial position is sustainable. (902250)

It is for the Executive to deliver a balanced budget and sustainable finances. The Stormont House agreement and last week’s fresh start agreement set out a range of measures to help them deliver that. These include implementation of welfare reform, measures to improve efficiency in the public sector and a new independent fiscal council for Northern Ireland.

Following the welcome agreement between Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish Governments last week, how confident is the Secretary of State that the Executive’s budget can be put on a sustainable footing, allowing a greater focus on value for money and public service delivery?

I am confident about those matters. Earlier this week, the House passed the welfare reform proposals needed to apply welfare reform in Northern Ireland, which will make a huge difference to financial sustainability, and which also made progress in the House of Lords yesterday.

Given that the Conservative party has come late in the day to the merits of devolution, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of devolving income tax to the Northern Ireland Executive as a means of putting them on a sure financial footing?

The Conservative party is a strong supporter of devolution. Previous agreements with the Northern Ireland Executive make it clear that we are open to considering the devolution of further tax powers, but the Executive’s highest priority is the devolution of corporation tax, which we hope to press ahead with as soon as the Stormont House agreement conditions on financial sustainability are met.

The petition of concern advice in the fresh start agreement is not compulsory or binding on all parties, but does the Secretary of State agree that adherence to it will be important in enabling the Assembly to function properly and set a budget in a timely manner next year?

My hon. Friend puts his points well. I agree that it is important that petitions of concern are focused on those matters for which they were devised—where individual parts of the community need to be protected on equalities issues—and I believe that the protocol agreed under the fresh start agreement will help to focus them on matters for which they were always intended.

It is important that the agreement puts Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing. What steps will the Secretary of State take to make sure it lasts over the longer term?

One of the most important things that the UK Government are doing to ensure sustainable public finances for the Northern Ireland Executive is implementing our long-term economic plan to deliver economic stability and prosperity. The Northern Ireland economy is growing, and these measures will help to support the Executive in their efforts to ensure that there are sustainable public finances.

Does the Secretary of State agree that without the fresh start agreement there would be no prospect whatsoever of a sustainable budget for the Northern Ireland Executive, which would lead inexorably to the return of direct rule, which would be bad for Northern Ireland and all its people? Does she also agree that the agreement provides for the most generous welfare system in the UK, provides help for hard-working families and sets a date for lowering corporation tax, which will help to create jobs and boost employment?

I can agree with all of that. I have made it clear that without the successful outcome of the talks and the fresh start agreement, we would have been on an inexorable path to the collapse of the institutions and a return to direct rule. I wholeheartedly agree that that would have been a major setback, and one that everyone in the House has striven to avoid.

Following the fresh start agreement, will the Secretary of State now talk to her Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Chancellor, about how, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, we can link Northern Ireland in with the northern powerhouse, to our mutual benefit?

That is a very good idea to consider, and I will certainly raise it with the Chancellor. The proposals in the economic pact agreed between the Executive and the Government a couple of years ago demonstrate that the two Administrations are working more closely together than ever before, but including a northern powerhouse element is a good idea.

Once again, I commend the Secretary of State for her work over the past few months, ensuring with all the parties that Stormont continues. As she knows, the bedroom tax and various other sanctions will not be imposed in Northern Ireland, which, for historical reasons, has a higher welfare spend than elsewhere in the UK. This will place a heavier burden on Northern Ireland than elsewhere. What plans do the Government have in place to back up the Northern Ireland Government should they struggle to fulfil these commitments?

A reasonable compromise was reached in the two agreements between the parties and the UK and the Irish Governments that welfare reform would be implemented with certain top-ups agreed. As we have heard this morning, that gives Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom. Although we will not pay for a more expensive welfare system in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, the block grant gives a public spending per head rate in Northern Ireland that is higher than anywhere else in the UK. That provides support for Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that Northern Ireland’s financial position cannot ever be sustainable or confident without a major prosperity strategy and an economic development plan that deal with the low skills, low pay and low productivity levels that we have?

I agree that a strategy on prosperity is crucial in Northern Ireland just as it is everywhere else. That is why we are pursuing our long-term economic plan and why the Executive are working hard to make Northern Ireland a fantastic place in which to do business. Recent examples of new jobs announcements are 800 jobs in Enniskillen from Teleperformance; 250 in Belfast from Intelling; and 87 in Ballymoney from McAuley Precision and McAuley Fabrication. The Northern Ireland economy is a great success story, and I think the Executive should take pride in the role they have played in that.

Economic Development

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (902243)

The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development issues. Indeed, I met Jonathan Bell, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment last Thursday on such issues. The fresh start agreement, signed only last week, reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to devolving corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This measure has the potential to have a truly transformative impact on the Northern Irish economy.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he join me in welcoming the rise in visitor numbers to Northern Ireland and the economic benefits that it brings, and will he support stronger economic links between Hampshire and Northern Ireland?

The one thing that Hampshire and Belfast have in common is the cruise ships in Southampton. I am delighted to say that there has been an increase in cruise ships using Belfast as a gateway to Ireland, where people can visit the fantastic Giant’s Causeway, the golf clubs and enjoy the Titanic Experience.

There has been no movement in Northern Ireland on an enterprise zone. Will the Secretary of State consider helping Belfast international airport to achieve an enterprise zone in my constituency?

During the original Stormont House agreement, the Government committed themselves to supporting an enterprise zone and indeed a city deal, should one come forward. It is for the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward that city deal. My right hon. Friend and I are here to support that and make sure it happens.

What benefits does the Minister think the hosting of the 2019 open championship at Royal Portrush will have on the Northern Ireland economy?

It will showcase the fantastic golf courses outside Belfast and around the rest of Northern Ireland. It is important to get tourists not just into Belfast but further afield. Golf is one of Northern Ireland’s great offerings.

Will the Secretary of State and the Minister have immediate discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to reinstate the renewables obligation so that the contacts that people already have can be facilitated and so that we can underpin the local rural economy in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is sitting here and will have heard her question. I will certainly be happy to discuss it with my right hon. Friend.

Wherever I go in Northern Ireland, one of the major concerns that business raises with me is the need for improved access to broadband. According to a House of Commons Library research paper, as part of the Government’s £530 million investment over the past five years in the UK’s broadband network, English counties have received £294.8 million, Scotland has received £100.8 million, and Wales has received £56.9 million, whereas Northern Ireland received just £4.4 million. Will the Minister explain why that figure is so low?

I cannot answer exactly why the figure is so low other than to say that some of the responsibility lies with the Northern Ireland Executive and some obviously with the Government. I am happy to take up the low amount for broadband with the relevant Minister. It is important for Northern Ireland that that is improved.

My constituency has taken a real kicking from the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent days, and, indeed, in the past 12 months. In a recent statement, the business Minister promised that the Government would go the extra mile. Can the Minister give me any hope or encouragement this morning at Question Time for manufacturing jobs in North Antrim?

As I have always said to the hon. Gentleman, who is a doughty champion of his constituents and always campaigns to increase manufacturing in his constituency, I will try to help him. This morning and last week, I spoke to the Mayor of London, and I hope that there will be some good news very soon about Wrightbus and more orders to come.

National Procurement Contracts

3. What discussions she has had with her Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that Northern Ireland benefits from national procurement contracts. (902244)

Northern Ireland firms, like those in the rest of the UK, can apply for large public sector contracts through the Official Journal of the European Union. The Government have also set a target that one third of central public procurement spend is delivered by small and medium-sized enterprises. Government Departments and their Northern Ireland Executive counterparts are here to help companies benefit from improved access to public sector contracts, and that includes companies in Northern Ireland.

I know that the Minister, like me, is proud of the contribution that Thales, Bombardier and Harland and Wolff, which are in my constituency, make. However, following Monday’s strategic defence and security review, will the Minister, alongside the aerospace, defence and security group, undertake to organise a round table, where companies in east Belfast and across Northern Ireland can ensure that they avail themselves of the opportunities in forthcoming procurement contracts?

The hon. Gentleman is right that Northern Ireland’s skill base is perfect for increasing and exploiting its aerospace companies. I was delighted to visit Thales not long ago—it recently won another order in Malaysia. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise agrees that the hon. Gentleman has put forward a good idea, and I will be delighted to arrange that round table with him and my right hon. Friend.

With 90% of firms in Northern Ireland being SMEs, what support is being put in place to safeguard their interests when collaborative procurement is promoted?

My hon. Friend is correct that SMEs suffer when bureaucracy is too great, and that is why the Cabinet Office has been leading the red tape challenge, which is designed to reduce red tape for small business. If we continue to progress on those lines, small business will have an opportunity to thrive and take advantage of the low corporation tax that will hopefully be delivered in 2018. [Interruption.]

Order. I can scarcely hear the Minister’s mellifluous tones, partly because there is too much noise and partly because the Minister understandably looked back at the person whom he was answering. His full visage should face the House—I feel sure that the House will benefit.

Will the Minister commit to meeting senior representatives of Northern Ireland companies who have serious concerns about delays and waste in the UK’s defence procurement procedures?

As a former aerospace worker, I know the extent to which delay can damage the supply chain. Under the leadership of our Defence Procurement Minister, we have improved defence procurement since I was working in aerospace and the previous Government were awarding contracts. I would be delighted to meet the heads of the hon. Lady’s businesses, and to ensure that they are getting an efficient service from the contracting Departments and that more business is done in Northern Ireland.

Stormont House Agreement

The fresh start agreement reached last Tuesday opens the way for implementation of a range of provisions in the Stormont House agreement on welfare and sustainable public finances, flags, parades and reform of the devolved institutions, including establishing an official Opposition, reducing the size of the Assembly and cutting the number of Executive Ministers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the progress that she has made on implementing the agreement. However, there are many other aspects still to be implemented. Will she update the House on what action she is taking to ensure that the entire agreement is implemented forthwith?

I think that the fresh start agreement is a good deal for Northern Ireland. It is vital that we put the implementation of the Stormont House agreement back on track. It is, of course, a matter of regret that we were unable to agree on enough points on the legacy of the past to introduce legislation, as we had hoped to do, but we will be working hard on this matter, and I shall be meeting the victims commissioner and the Justice Minister next week to consider a way forward.

Will the Secretary of State work with members of my party to ensure that we continue to address the issues relating to the legacy of our troubled past? It is crucial that we do our best to provide support and care for the innocent victims, and that we find a way of enabling them to have access to truth and justice.

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on these important matters. I believe it is very important for the institutions envisaged under the Stormont House agreement to be set up, because the current institutions are not providing good enough outcomes for victims and survivors. We need to do something about the current situation, and that is why we need to make progress.

13. As we all know, politics is not an easy business, but what lessons can be learnt from the recent events, so that we can do everything possible to ensure that they do not happen again?


That is a very good question, but I think we have already learnt from the problems relating to the Stormont House agreement, whose implementation was stalled a few months after it was established. Both the Northern Ireland Executive and United Kingdom Government have moved swiftly on the fresh start agreement. The Assembly has passed a legislative consent motion agreeing to a balanced budget in the Executive, and we in the House of Commons have pressed ahead with legislation on welfare reform.

Despite the best efforts of the parties and the Irish Government, and despite the welcome deal that was done last week, the victims, survivors and their families will be both frustrated and disheartened by the fact that measures dealing with the past could not be agreed. However, I am told that progress was made on the issue. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what the problem was, who disagreed, and whether any of the documents that were discussed can be published?

We will certainly reflect on whether it might be appropriate, in the coming months, to publish a draft Bill for consideration, but we would take no such steps without engaging in extensive discussions with the First and Deputy First Minister and with victims.

We made considerable progress on the issues of how the Historical Investigations Unit would work in practice and what sort of reflection in statute would be needed for the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. A number of issues were more or less resolved, although a key problem was establishing a mutually agreeable arrangement when it came to matters relating to national security. The Government made it very clear that we would provide the fullest possible disclosure for the HIU, but we have to ensure that documents that go from the HIU into the public domain do not jeopardise national security.

I thank the Secretary of State for what I thought was a helpful answer. As I have said, the planned Stormont House agreement Bill was supposed to include new mechanisms to deal with the past so that victims and their families could find out more about what happened during the conflict, to ensure that justice was done, and to provide better help and support for those who were affected. Is it not critical that that work is not lost or forgotten, and that we take it forward? How do the Government propose to do that, and will the families be included in the process?

As I have said, I think it important for discussions to take place with victims’ groups on charting a way forward. I also think it important for the issue not to be parked by the Northern Ireland parties pending the Assembly elections. We cannot let it rest for another year without taking action. We need to find a way to make progress, and we should try to retain the progress made in the Stormont House talks, which, as I have said, involved broad agreement on a number of important issues.

Legacy Issues

The recent political talks established significant common ground between the parties on dealing with the past, but, sadly, not enough to allow us to legislate at this point. We will keep working to achieve the necessary consensus to allow new structures for dealing with the past to be established.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key ways of moving away from the past, and from the lure of paramilitary activity, is to improve the economy of Northern Ireland, which currently has a higher level of working-age inactivity than any other region in the United Kingdom? What measures are the UK Government taking to help the Assembly to improve employment opportunities for young people in particular?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a strong economy is key to more or less every other goal in government. Unless we have a strong economy, we cannot deliver the effective mechanisms for dealing with the past. The Government will continue to pursue their long-term economic plan to deliver opportunities for people young and old in Northern Ireland by creating new jobs: 33,000 more people are in work in Northern Ireland than in 2010. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand the sense of anticipation in the Chamber at this time on a Wednesday, but I point out that we are talking about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. Out of respect for the people of Northern Ireland, if for no other reason, a seemly atmosphere would be appreciated. Let us hear Mr David Simpson and the Minister’s reply.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that, whatever settlement is agreed on the legacy of Northern Ireland, the victims are paramount in this, as has already been mentioned. Does she agree that no one, but no one, should be allowed to rewrite the history of Northern Ireland when we make that settlement?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It would be unacceptable to set up institutions that facilitated attempts to rewrite history. That is why the Stormont House agreement has written very clearly into it that new bodies must be objective, fair and impartial in all the work they do.

My right hon. Friend was not here in the House last week when I pressed my urgent question about the arrest of Soldier J, formerly of the Parachute Regiment. In answer, her excellent and gallant Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the Secretary of State and the Irish Government had decided, on legacy issues, that the best future is to move forward and not back. Does she agree that to prosecute, nearly 50 years later, former British soldiers now in their late 60s and 70s who have done their best to serve their country would be an injustice?

I am of course very much aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing concern about that case. He will appreciate that decisions on policing and prosecution are rightly matters for the police and prosecuting authorities entirely independent of Ministers, but I reassure him that I am absolutely confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will approach that sensitive case with all the principles of objectivity, fairness, impartiality and respect for human rights that it displays in all its work.

Does the Secretary of State recognise not just that dealing with the past is what we owe to victims, but that people want to know that we have not simply replaced the years of dirty war with a dirty peace? Does she recognise that, in the light of the serious questions raised by the “Spotlight” programme last night, the strictures she is placing on national security could suppress the truth not just about what state forces and state actors did, but about what paramilitary forces and paramilitary actors did during the troubles?

The UK Government are committed to the Stormont House agreement provisions on the past. We do think that they need to be set up, that it is important to give clearer answers to victims who suffered as a result of the troubles and to do all we can to pursue evidence of wrong-doing. However, I emphasise that I believe the vast majority of the police and armed forces in Northern Ireland during the troubles carried out their duties with exceptional courage, bravery, integrity and professionalism, so I wholly dissociate myself from the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of this as a “dirty war”.

Security Situation

10. What recent discussions she has had on the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (902251)

The terrorist threat in Northern Ireland continues to be severe. It is being suppressed through effective and dedicated work by the PSNI and MI5, but the need for a high state of vigilance remains.

So that paramilitary organisations no longer have a place in Northern Ireland, it is important to deter people from joining them in the first place. What measures are being taken to prevent vulnerable young people from joining paramilitary organisations?

There are already a number of excellent programmes run by charities such as Co-operation Ireland to deter young people in Northern Ireland from a life of crime or association with paramilitary organisations. The fresh start agreement makes a stronger commitment to increase these programmes, so that young people are shown an alternative path and not drawn into association with terrorism, paramilitary organisations or crime.

Last week’s agreement contained welcome measures to tackle dissident republican groups. What is the Minister’s assessment of the threat that is still posed by those terrorist groups?

Those groups have lethal intent and lethal capability. They have been responsible for 150 national security attacks over the past five years. The threat from those groups is being suppressed by highly effective activity in the PSNI, aided in many instances by the Garda Síochána in cross-border activities.

How concerned is the Secretary of State that the IRA army council is still in place and that IRA members are still murdering citizens on our streets?

It is entirely unacceptable that any paramilitary organisations continue to exist in Northern Ireland. I believe that the fresh start agreement will mark a turning point and put us on the path to a day when those organisations are consigned once and for all to Northern Ireland’s past and have nothing to do with its present or its future.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I start, I would like to say something. Everyone in this House and many people watching at home will know from “Yes, Prime Minister” the central role that Bernard, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, plays in the life of the Prime Minister and of No. 10 Downing Street. This morning, my Bernard, my principal private secretary, Chris Martin, died of cancer. Chris Martin was only 42. He was one of the most loyal, hard-working, dedicated public servants that I have ever come across. I have no idea what his politics were, but he would go to the ends of the earth and back again for his Prime Minister, for No. 10 and for the team he worked for. Today, we are leaving the seat in the officials’ box, where he used to sit, empty as a mark of respect to him. We think of his wife, Zoe, his family and the wider No. 10 family—because it is a bit like a family and we feel we have lost someone between a father and brother to all of us. Whatever happens, we will never forget him.

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.

May I first echo the Prime Minister’s sentiments regarding the passing of Chris Martin? I am sure that all Members will send their heartfelt thoughts and prayers today, and we would be grateful if they could be conveyed to his family at this time.

Visyon, the excellent children’s mental health charity in Congleton, tells me that the lack of a secure family life is a root cause of many of the problems experienced by the children it helps. The Prime Minister is a champion of family life, so will he confirm that announcements to be made later today will pass his family test by providing security for family relationships and opportunities for vulnerable children?

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. There will be condolence books in No. 10, and in the Treasury and the Security Service, where Chris Martin also worked. She is absolutely right to say that families are the best welfare state that we have. They bring up our children, they teach us the right values and they care for us when we are sick and unwell. We want to help families, and the Chancellor will have something to say about that later as we boost the national living wage, as we deliver tax cuts for working people and, crucially, as we help with childcare. As I have said before, all these policies should pass the test of helping Britain’s families.

On behalf of the Opposition, may I also express my condolences to the family of Chris Martin on his death? The Prime Minister told me how ill he was on Remembrance Sunday, and I am pleased that he was able to visit him at that time. Also, on behalf of the many Members who worked with Chris Martin when we were in government, I would like to say how much we appreciate the professional work that he did in the very highest and best traditions of the civil service in this country. It would be very helpful if our condolences could be passed on.

This week, 55 Labour councils have made a commitment for their areas to be run entirely on green energy by 2050. With the Paris climate talks just days away, will the Prime Minister join me in commending those councils, and will he call on all Conservative councils to do the same?

I certainly commend all councils for wanting to promote green energy, and we have made that easier in our country by having the feed-in tariffs and the other measures, particularly solar power and wind power. We will be taking part in the Paris talks because it is absolutely vital to get that global deal, but we have to make sure that we take action locally as well as globally. I would make the point that if you compare the last Parliament with the previous Parliament, we saw something like a trebling of the installation of renewable electricity.

The commitment of those Labour councils is a bit of a contrast with the Prime Minister’s performance, because he used to tell us that his Government were the greenest Government ever. Does he remember those days? Does he agree with the Energy Secretary that Britain is likely to miss its target of getting 15% of our energy from renewables by 2020?

First of all, I believe that the previous Government does rightly claim that record: the world’s first green investment bank pioneered in Britain; a trebling of renewable energy; a meeting of all our climate change targets; contributing to an EU deal that means we go to the climate change conference in Paris with a very strong European record; and the ability to say to other countries that they should step up to the plate. Also, in the previous Parliament we spent record sums helping developing countries to go green. In the next five years, we will be spending $9 billion on helping other countries, which will be crucial in building the Paris deal next week.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s answer is that the gap between Britain’s 2020 target and our current share of renewable energy is the biggest in the European Union. Some of the decisions he has made recently include cutting support for solar panels on home and industrial projects, scrapping the green deal, cutting support for wind turbines, putting a new tax on renewable energy, increasing subsidy for diesel generators. Is it any wonder that the chief scientist of the United Nations environment programme has criticised Britain for going backwards on renewable energy?

The facts paint a different picture. As I said, the trebling of wind power in the previous Parliament is an enormous investment. The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about solar panels. Of course, when the cost of manufacturing solar panels plummets, as it has, it is right to reduce the subsidy. If we do not reduce the subsidy, we ask people to pay higher energy bills, something I seem to remember the Labour party in the previous Parliament making rather a lot of. If you look at the speech by the Secretary of State for Climate Change, you can see the right balance between affordable energy and making sure we meet our green targets. That is what we are committed to. In addition, we are building the first nuclear power station in our country for decades, something that the Labour party talked about a lot in government but which we are putting into action now that we are in government.

In the past few weeks, 1,000 jobs have been lost in solar companies in Britain as they have gone bust. I have a question from some apprentice solar fitters at Banister House, a large community energy project. Ziggy, Israel and Jay say that cutting feed-in tariffs means stopping solar projects that are needed to help our environment and to give us jobs. They asked the Prime Minister this: “Why do you want to throw all this away?”

We are doubling investment in renewable energy in this Parliament. As for solar panels, I think I am right in saying that in the previous Parliament over 1 million homes were fitted with solar panels. It is right that we go on supporting that industry, but we should do it recognising that the cost of manufacturing solar panels has plummeted. Therefore the subsidy should be what is necessary to deliver solar power, not what is necessary to pump up the bills of hardworking families.

That is not much help to those who are losing their jobs in the solar industry at the present time.

I would like to ask the Prime Minister something else. Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner, and domestic violence accounts for up to a quarter of all violent crime. Will the Prime Minister please explain why one third of those referred to women’s refuges in England are now being turned away?

We have put more money into refuges and the Chancellor will have something to say in his autumn statement about funding women’s charities. The fact is that when it comes to rape crisis centres, which we have protected, or domestic violence centres that we help to fund, the Government have a good record on helping women and making sure that the crime of domestic violence is properly investigated by the police and prosecuted in our courts.

The late Denise Marshall, who was chief executive of the domestic violence charity Eaves, put this very well when she said:

“If you are a woman who has experienced some form of violence, I believe you have the right to the very best service and the community owes you an opportunity to recover”.

In 2012, the Prime Minister’s Government signed the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. This would make women’s support services statutory and would have stopped the closure of Eaves. Can the Prime Minister please tell the House when he will ratify the Istanbul convention?

We are going one further than that, and in the autumn statement the right hon. Gentleman will hear in a minute that we are actually going to be putting more money into women’s charities, including charities that fight domestic violence, that fight rape and that make sure that we cut out these appalling crimes in our country. In addition to that, we have done more than any previous Government to help prevent forced marriage and prevent the horrors of female genital mutilation, which do not just happen in Nigeria and countries in north Africa—they happen here in our country, too. I do not think any Government before this one have got a stronger record on those grounds.

Q4. Many of my constituents come to my surgery desperate to be able to own their home. Many of them are on a low income and they recognise that a monthly mortgage payment will be significantly lower than their current monthly rental payments—sometimes it will be up to 50% lower. Does my right hon. Friend therefore share the excitement of many of my constituents about the starter homes initiative contained in the Housing and Planning Bill, which will see affordable housing lower the monthly outgoings of many people in this country? (902330)

I do share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for that. Clearly, there are lots of individual interventions we can make, such as Help to Buy, which has put buying homes within the reach of many more people by reducing the deposits they need. We can help people to save, which we do with our Help to Buy ISA, whereby we are contributing every time people make a saving. But the biggest contribution we can make is building more houses, which we are going to be doing during this Parliament, and, crucially, by maintaining a strong, secure and stable economy with low interest rates, so that people can afford to take out a mortgage.

May I begin by associating the Scottish National party with the condolences sent by the Prime Minister? Having spoken to him last week, I am aware of how much of a personal loss this is to him, as of course it is to Chris Martin’s family and friends.

The fatal dangers of unintended consequences and escalation in Syria are clear for everybody to see in these days. All serious observers agree that an air campaign alone will not lead to the ultimate defeat of Daesh on the ground and that ground forces will be needed. How many troops, and from which countries, does the Prime Minister have in his plan for Syria?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about Chris Martin, whom I know helped all parties in this House when they had inquiries.

Let me deal very directly with the Syria issue and the question the right hon. Gentleman asked, because this is so crucial. I am not for one minute arguing that action from the air alone can solve the very serious problem we have with ISIL. Clearly, we need a political settlement in Syria and a Government in Syria who can act comprehensively with us against ISIL. The question for the House, which we need to address tomorrow and in the days to come, is: should we wait—can we afford to wait—for that political settlement before we act? My view is: no, we cannot wait for that political settlement. We should work as hard as we can for it, but we should be acting now, with allies, because this is about keeping our own people and our own country safe. He asked specifically about ground troops. The fact is that there are troops in Syria—the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces—who would work with us to help eliminate ISIL, but of course the full range of ground troops will be available only when there is a political settlement in Syria. But the question is simple: can we afford to wait for that political settlement before taking action to keep us safe here at home? My answer to that is: no, we cannot afford to wait.

The United Kingdom spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on investing in its reconstruction after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. Reconstructing Syria will be essential to securing stability and allowing refugees to return. How much does the Prime Minister estimate this will cost? How much has he allocated from the UK?

Obviously, we have one of the largest development budgets anywhere in the world, as the support that we have given to the Syrian refugees, which stands at £1.2 billion, demonstrates. Clearly, part of our plan, which I will set out tomorrow in a statement in this House, will be to help fund the reconstruction and rebuilding of Syria alongside the political deal that we believe is necessary. I would far rather spend the money on reconstructing Syria than on supporting people who are kept away from their homes and their country and who dearly want to return.

Q6. I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the growing chorus of concern surrounding the conviction of Alexander Blackman, the former Royal Marine non-commissioned officer who shot a fatally wounded insurgent in Afghanistan in 2011. If there is indeed new evidence and if, as many feel, there has been a miscarriage of justice, does my right hon. Friend agree it is right that this matter should be looked into again? (902332)

This is exactly why the Criminal Cases Review Commission exists—to look at where there is or may have been a miscarriage of justice. As my hon. Friend knows, we gave the internal report of the naval services to Sergeant Blackman’s legal advisers, so there is proper disclosure in this case. The legal team says that it is looking at the option of applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. While we are on this point, let me say that our Royal Marines have a worldwide reputation as one of the world’s elite fighting forces. They have made an incredible contribution to our country, and we should pay tribute to them.

Q2. The Government’s handling of child sexual abuse inquiries has done little to instil public confidence so far. Last month, the Goddard inquiry announced that it had accidentally and permanently deleted all the victim testimonies submitted through its website over an 18-day period without anyone from the inquiry ever reading them. These victims deserve justice and for their voices to be heard. Will the Prime Minister please tell the House what independent investigation has taken place to establish the cause of the data loss, and whether or not there was any criminality behind it? (902328)

I am sure the whole House will welcome the fact that the Goddard inquiry is now up and running. The best way to get justice for these victims is to make sure that we have the full and independent inquiry that we have spoken about. As for the specific issue that the hon. Lady raises, it is a matter for the inquiry. If there is further detail that I can give her, I will certainly write to her. What matters is that this inquiry is now up and running.

Q8. Three thousand jobs in Newark were lost under Labour. This month, we celebrate the creation of the 10,000th new job in Newark since 2010. Does the Prime Minister agree that, once again, Newark leads the way to a strong economy, high employment, higher wages and lower welfare? (902334)

I am delighted to hear that Newark has met that landmark. It is worth remembering that this figure of 10,000 represents 10,000 people, each with a job and livelihood and a chance to support their families. I well remember visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency. I cannot promise to visit it as many times in this Parliament as I did in the previous one, but I know that a business we visited called Knowhow last week announced the creation of more than 800 jobs. As ever, where Newark leads, I am sure that others will follow.

Q3. Has the Prime Minister ever heard of Shaquan Sammy-Plummer, Alan Cartwright, Stefan Appleton, or Vaso Kakko? They are all teenagers stabbed to death on the streets of Islington in the past year. Vaso was murdered just two days ago. Given the growing culture of drugs, gangs and violence in my borough and many boroughs like it, does the Prime Minister really think it is in the interests of the safety and security of my constituents to cut the Metropolitan police? (902329)

First, every life lost in the way that the hon. Lady talks about is of course a tragedy, and many of these lives have been lost because of drugs, gangs and knife crime. Overall, knife crime has come down over the past few years, which is welcome, but there are still too many people carrying a knife and not recognising that it is not only against the law but an enormous danger to themselves as well as to others. We will continue with our tough approach on knife crime and with the work that we are doing to disband and break up gangs and to try to deal with the problems of drugs. In London we have actually seen an increase in neighbourhood policing, and the Metropolitan police have done a good job of cutting back-office costs and putting police on our streets.

Q10. After many years of neglect under Labour, Cornwall is once again seeing investment in our roads, railways, airport and tourism. Cornwall is ambitious to diversify its economy and become a centre for the UK aerospace industry; indeed, Newquay airport is the frontrunner to be the location of the UK spaceport. Will the Prime Minister please provide an update on the decision for the spaceport, and does he agree that Newquay would be the perfect place for it? (902336)

It is good that this Parliament contains such strong voices for Cornwall, speaking up for that county and ensuring that it gets the assistance, resources and help that it needs. I am a strong supporter of Newquay airport, not just as a user but because it provides the opportunity for a hub of great businesses in Cornwall. We want to become the European hub for space flight, which will help to attract further investment in the UK and create jobs. A number of other airports are in the running, and I wish them all well. We aim to launch the selection process next year.

Q5. The Government and I disagree about much of what constitutes progress on gender equality, but I agreed with the Prime Minister last year when he pledged to change the law to include mothers on marriage certificates. I have heard nothing since. With the fast-approaching birth of my daughter, I would like to be valued equally in her life with my husband, so will the Prime Minister take the important and symbolic step of ensuring that mothers are not written out of history? (902331)

This is an area on which the hon. Lady and I agree. My understanding is that proposals for that legislation have gone to the relevant committee in Government, and she has made an articulate case for why such a Bill should be included in the next Session.

Q13. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending the French Government for facing down terror and continuing with the climate summit in Paris next week? Will he acknowledge the important role of legislators such as those at the GLOBE summit on 4 and 5 December, and does he agree that his personal presence in Paris sends a message to the world about our continuing commitment to a lasting climate deal? (902339)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I will be going to Paris for the start of this vital conference to set out what Britain and the European Union will be doing to bring about that deal. As I have said, what we put on the table in terms of climate finance—nearly $9 billion over the next five years—is one of the most generous offers made by any country anywhere in the world. The good news about the Paris conference is that, unlike with the Kyoto deal, China and America will be signatories to the deal, which means that many more of the world’s emissions will be covered by it. We must work hard to ensure that it is a good deal with proper review clauses, and we need a way of tightening any deal to ensure that we keep to the 2° target. That is the task, but nobody should be in any doubt that Britain is playing a leading role, and has led by example and with money.

Q7. There will never be a future where we do not need steel, but the Government are spending millions of pounds to compensate for the loss of UK steelmaking. Will the Prime Minister send a clear signal today to potential investors in our UK steel industry that he will do whatever it takes to back a sustainable, cutting-edge UK steel industry in the future? We want more steel that is used in the UK and across the world to be stamped “Made in Britain”. (902333)

I completely agree with the right hon. Lady. We want to support our steel industry, which is why we are taking action on procurement. If we consider what we have done through our Royal Navy, and what we can do through Railtrack and other organisations, we should back British Steel. We will also exempt heavy energy users such as British Steel from the higher electricity charges, and that rather goes to the questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition. If we endlessly push up bills for everybody else, it costs even more to exempt the high energy users, and that is why we need a balanced programme. Everything that we can do to help British Steel— including a clear infrastructure plan that the House will hear a bit more about in a moment—is all to the good.

Q14. In 2010, unemployment in Wyre Forest stood at around 5% of the working population, but it has now dropped to just 1.6%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to help those who are still unemployed, and to boost productivity and wages in places such as Wyre Forest, we should offer more opportunities for skills and training? What more can the Government offer to help places such as Wyre Forest? (902340)

Our vision is that all young people aged 18 should have a real choice of either being able to take up an apprenticeship—we are planning for 3 million in this Parliament—or being able to go to one of our universities. We do not want anybody left behind; everyone should have that choice. My hon. Friend is right that unemployment has fallen in his constituency, as around the country. We will hear from the Chancellor in a minute about what has happened over the past five years, but the fact is that Britain, over those five years, has grown as fast as any other G7 country in terms of our economic performance. We can now look back and see that the decisions made in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were difficult decisions but they laid the platform for sustained economic growth and jobs.

Q9. Education in Bradford is facing a funding and school places crisis, and we remain at the bottom of the league tables. Bradford’s children cannot be failed any longer, so will the Prime Minister support my call for a Bradford challenge based on the highly successful London challenge, and will he stop the dangerous changes to the schools funding formula that will drag the children of Bradford further into the land of inequality, despair and neglect? (902335)

We made commitments at the last election about funding our schools and funding school places, and we will be keeping to all those commitments, not just in the revenue that we provide to schools, where we will not be reducing the amount that goes in per pupil, but also in spending much more on new school places in this Parliament than in the Parliament that preceded my becoming Prime Minister. We are also helping with building new academy chains and new free schools, and they are available for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as for others.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the turmoil in northern Iraq and Syria gives opportunities to resolve long-standing international disputes, not least with Russia? Does he agree that the attack on the Russian bomber, something that never happened in the whole of the duration of the cold war, was disproportionate, and will he make absolutely sure that we do not get into a conflict with Russia over Syria?

There are opportunities for sensible discussions with Russia about the agenda in Syria, which is about a political transition so there can be a Government who represent all the people of Syria. I had that conversation with President Putin last week. My hon. Friend mentions the downed Russian jet. The facts of this are not yet clear. I think we should respect Turkey’s right to protect its airspace, just as we defend our own, but it is very important that we get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

Q11. The Prime Minister very often tells us that the first duty of any Government is to protect the public. Will he give an undertaking to restore the cuts to the police and the emergency services to ensure that the public in this country are protected? (902337)

This Government have a good record of protecting the public, not least because we protected counter-terrorism policing and we gave funding to the police that enabled them to help with the cut in crime of 31% since I became Prime Minister.

Jon Morton, a drink-driver, destroyed the lives of Amy Baxter and Hayley Jones, with Miss Baxter being so severely injured that she is paralysed from the neck down and still in hospital 16 months later. He was sentenced to just a three-year driving ban, a fine and a 20-week tag. Weeks later, he successfully applied to Bolton magistrates court for his tag to be removed so that he could go on holiday to a stag party. Will my right hon. Friend look to issue guidance to magistrates that a tag, when part of a sentence, should never be removed to allow criminals to go on holiday?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and I will look at this very carefully. Let me first express my sympathy to the victim and her family in what is undoubtedly an incredibly distressing case. It is always very difficult to comment on individual cases, because I was not sitting in the courthouse and I did not hear all the points that were made, but the point he makes does seem to be very powerful. A punishment is a punishment, a tag is a tag, and I think he is making a strong case.

Q12. Today’s middle east is increasingly resembling the central Europe of a century ago. Minorities, be they linguistic, religious or sexual, find themselves under more pressure than ever. My constituents, the Scottish National party and I understand the threat posed to these groups by Daesh, but how is the Prime Minister planning to prosecute a bombing campaign that does not alter the demographic map of the middle east, prevent Aleppo from becoming the new Lublin and Mosul the new Budapest? (902338)

We will set out the arguments clearly tomorrow, but there is a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom from ISIL, based in Iraq and Syria, planning attacks against our country today. We do not live in a perfect world and we cannot deliver a perfect strategy, but we can deliver a clear, long-term strategy that will work. The hon. Gentleman talks about the lessons we learned from the last century. One of the lessons I would say we should learn from the last century is that when your country is under threat, and when you face aggression against your country, you cannot endlessly sit around and dream about a perfect world—you need to act in the world we are in.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all the staff at the Crowborough birthing unit, including the midwives and the matron Emma Chambers, and local activist Richard Hallett, on scoring 100% on their friends and family survey on satisfaction and care? The commitment of the midwives is matched only by the Conservatives’ commitment to the NHS, given the fact that for two elections in a row we have promised and delivered greater investment than Labour in our national health service.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the friends and family test. It is a simple way of measuring whether our hospitals are giving great care, and I think it has been a real advance in our NHS to have that. As well as a good scheme to make sure that you want your friends and family to be treated in a hospital, we need to provide the resources for that hospital, and that is exactly what we are doing with the spending figures announced today. Crucially on childbirth, it is not often that I stand here and cite the Daily Mirror, but it is worth looking at what it is saying about the importance of a seven-day NHS and making sure that we have high standards across our NHS every day of the week. As well as the extra money this Government are putting into the NHS, the seven-day NHS will also mean a much stronger NHS.

Q15. The Big Lottery Fund supports important local projects in my constituency, including the Gate in Clackmannanshire, a small children’s playground in Auchterarder, and Perthshire Women’s Aid—projects that play an essential role in their communities, supporting the vulnerable people this Government have left behind. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating those local projects on their work and reassure the House that this Government will protect the current level of national lottery funding earmarked for charities and community projects? (902341)

I can certainly tell the hon. Lady that we will protect the Big Lottery Fund. It does an absolutely excellent job, but I am afraid I cannot resist making the point that one of the things that the United Kingdom brings is a bigger national lottery—a bigger pot—that can support Scottish charities. Following what has happened to the oil price, if there were a Scottish November autumn statement, it would be about cuts, cuts, cuts and taxes, taxes, taxes, with no relief from the national lottery. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, calm yourself. You may be a cheeky chappie, but you are also an exceptionally noisy one.