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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadband

Scotland and the UK are ahead of most of Europe on broadband availability. However, we recognise that some people still have problems accessing broadband, and that is being addressed through the “Digital Britain” White Paper.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Is he aware of the particular difficulties in rural areas? I carried out a survey in my constituency recently, and on average 11 per cent. of those who responded said that they had difficulty receiving broadband. In Millport, the figure was 30 per cent. What can the Government do to intervene and ensure that the problem is addressed quickly?

My hon. Friend has raised these issues regularly and campaigned on them, and she is right to draw out the point about people who are locked out of digital broadband for reasons of geography or income—whether in Millport, which I regularly enjoy visiting, or anywhere else throughout Scotland. We are determined that at least 90 per cent. of the country should have access to super-fast broadband, and I am happy to have more discussions with my hon. Friend about how we can ensure that that target is hit in her constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that Ofcom is perceived as a toothless tiger that requires more powers? I have campaigned on this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark). In a letter I received from Ofcom, the regulator states:

“Ofcom does not have the power to mandate ISPs”—

internet service providers. Surely that power is overdue, because otherwise, many of my constituents, along with those of my colleagues, will continue to receive a poor broadband service.

My hon. Friend makes some very important points about the decision-making powers and architecture that will ensure we achieve 90 per cent. broadband penetration. We are trying to ensure that the market provides most of that, and we expect that up to two thirds—60 to 70 per cent.—of homes will be able to access super-fast broadband through the market. However, the Government will have to do additional things, and my hon. Friend can make the case for giving Ofcom additional powers; but, again, we are absolutely determined that no one be excluded for reasons of geography or income.

Is the Secretary of State aware of The Press and Journal report today that, according to the Top 10 Broadband website, broadband speeds in Aberdeen and Inverness are running at about half the rate of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and that BT does not know why? Will he undertake to find out why, and recognise that high-tech global industries operate out of Aberdeen and need to have the same access as the best in the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman, also, makes a really important point, and the issue of access to broadband for business and domestic users is crucial. The figures that I have show, however, that despite that worrying report in the newspaper, Aberdeen is ahead of most Scottish cities. The fact is that less than half of people in Dundee and Edinburgh have access to super-fast broadband, and less than one third have access in Glasgow. Aberdeen is in a much stronger position, but we are determined to ensure that there is universal access in Aberdeen and beyond.

What can the Government do to help or compel BT to upgrade exchanges, especially in rural areas, to ensure greater broadband penetration for the islands of Scotland in particular?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, and the people there raised those issues with me. It is important that there be an upgrade for copper and wire networks, but the Government are also committed to a 50 per cent. levy on those with BT lines—[Interruption.] I mean a 50p levy. [Interruption.] That is the tax at some point in the future. There will be a 50p levy on those throughout the United Kingdom with a BT fixed line, and rural areas and island communities will benefit from that.

I wish to take the positive message from the Secretary of State today. I had an open meeting in Lanark last week with voluntary organisations and small businesses in my constituency, particularly those in the Clyde valley, so his statement today will be good news, but we should roll out the programme as quickly as we can.

My hon. Friend makes the point that, for many people throughout Scotland and the UK, access to super-fast broadband is about a way of life. A decade or so ago, such infrastructure and technology was a luxury; today, it is increasingly a necessity. It is crucial that no one, for reasons of geography or income, be locked out of those changes.

People Trafficking

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent to which people are trafficked between Scotland and England. (300125)

That is rather disappointing. The Barnardo’s report, published last week, highlights the number of young people who are trafficked within the United Kingdom for sexual exploitation. Will the Minister urge a further review, so that more can be done to protect those vulnerable people?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises a subject of great concern across the United Kingdom. I can assure him that there is close co-operation between all the police forces, including those in Scotland; of course, this is a devolved function of the Scottish Government. There is a national referral mechanism that is tracking child trafficking. Glasgow is one of the 13 pilot areas that have been taking part in that project, and we will have further information on its success later next year. The Government give the highest priority to tackling this invidious crime and to ensuring that we arrest the perpetrators as soon as we possibly can.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the TARA—trafficking awareness-raising alliance—project in Glasgow, which so far this year has taken 44 women trafficked for prostitution into care and is looking after them with the support of the Government and the Scottish Administration? Will she ask the police forces of Scotland to act on the Bill passed just two weeks ago, which makes it a crime to demand, ask for or seek to pay for sex with any woman who has been trafficked or coerced? In other words, it is now the male punters who are responsible, and they must be brought before the courts and named and shamed to slow down this disgraceful traffic.

My right hon. Friend rightly refers to the very good work carried out by the TARA project over several years. The law on prostitution is different in Scotland, but that does not mean that colleagues in Scotland are not deeply concerned about the issues surrounding prostitution, particularly trafficking. I can assure him that local authorities and the police in Scotland are working very hard on that matter.

TARA in Scotland has seen a dramatic rise in the number of sex-trafficked women seeking its help. Sadly, the experience of large sporting events shows that the 2014 Commonwealth games could bring many more. Will the Minister ensure that her Government work closely with the Holyrood Government to share the experiences of and lessons from tackling this problem at the Olympics, to ensure that we minimise this horrible crime during the Commonwealth games?

The hon. Lady raises a genuine issue of concern which I share. There is already close co-operation between those organising the Commonwealth games to be held in Glasgow and the Olympic games to be held in London, and I am sure that the lessons learned about how we tackle this problem will be followed by colleagues in Scotland.

Nuclear Waste

4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and Ministry of Defence officials on the storage of nuclear waste from the decommissioned nuclear submarines moored at Rosyth; and if he will make a statement. (300127)

Our Office is in frequent contact with the Ministry of Defence, and the MOD is in regular contact with Scottish Government officials regarding this issue. No decisions on siting have yet been taken either for submarine dismantling or for waste storage.

The hazardous life of some forms of plutonium exceeds a quarter of a million years, so thousands of generations of people in Ayrshire, Fife and Caithness may have to live with the presence of a toxic nuclear dump on their doorstep. Do these intolerable risks not show that the Trident programme should be abandoned, not salami-sliced, and the £100 billion saved invested in more socially useful projects in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the MOD is committed to a safe, secure and cost-effective solution regarding dismantling submarines. The radiological risk to the general public is assessed as extremely low and it will remain so—but we are committed to ensuring that there is a full public consultation at national level with all areas that may be identified as potential sites.

The patience of people in West Fife is wearing thin, because we have had these submarines for 25 years and we lost the Trident refuelling contract in the ’90s. We want rid of these submarines, and we want rid of them now. Will the Minister tell the Defence Secretary that when she next meets him?

I think it important to say to the hon. Gentleman that we must take care to have a full assessment of and full consultation on the various options for dismantling and storage. We are committed to carrying this out during 2010, and the MOD will take notice of any concerns raised by local communities.

In advance of the Scottish National party’s publication of its independence White Paper next week, we should acknowledge the contribution to the Scottish economy made by the British submarine base at Faslane. Does the Minister agree that an independent Scotland would have a minimal defence capability and that the 3,000 jobs linked to that base would be put immediately at risk?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have heard the recent comments of Mr. Jim Sillars regarding current SNP defence policy. It is clear that the cost of independence to Scotland in jobs would be extremely high, and that many skills would be lost as a result.

Employment

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the level of employment in Scotland. (300128)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about employment in Scotland and will be co-hosting Scotland’s first ever jobs summit on 11 January in Easterhouse in Glasgow.

What proportion of those in employment in Scotland are paid out of the public purse, either through local, devolved or national Government? Are there any implications in that for a vibrant and dynamic Scottish economy?

The hon. Gentleman is of course welcome to attend the jobs summit in Easterhouse in Glasgow. I am sure he would be like a fish in water there.

The Scottish and UK Governments employ a substantial number of the work force in Scotland, who do a remarkable job, particularly at a time of recession, when they provide support to those who are vulnerable. I pay particular tribute to the staff of Jobcentre Plus, who at a very difficult time are providing real support to those who need it during the recession.

When my right hon. Friend speaks to his ministerial colleagues, will he ask them whether they will apply to the European Union globalisation fund, which is now being provided just to respond to the current economic downturn? For example, Ireland has just had £36 million, and it is about to move 500 jobs at Bausch and Lomb from West Lothian to Waterford in Ireland. Surely when we are losing jobs, we can also apply to that fund for money for Scotland to support employment there in the face of the economic recession.

Order. We really must have questions that are questions rather than the pursuit of Adjournment debates.

My hon. Friend raises some big issues. Of course it is essential that we do all we can to support people through this recession, and our tax system remains internationally competitive. Although we can learn individual lessons from other countries, I do not think the UK or Scotland would be well suited to following exactly the economic model of Ireland—or Iceland.

My right hon. Friend might be aware that Prudential has regrettably announced this week 60 job losses at its site in Stirling. However, Capita and Prudential still contribute approximately 2,500 private sector financial jobs to the Stirling area. In his discussions at Scottish, UK and international level, will he highlight the fact that the city of Stirling has a lot to offer the financial services industry, as we seek to re-establish credibility in that marketplace?

My right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that amidst all the understandable talk about an impending recovery, the recession is just starting for many people who have perhaps lost their jobs over recent weeks, or for small businesses that continue to struggle. That is why we are determined to do more. I know she is a doughty fighter for the city of Stirling, and there is a huge amount to be optimistic about there, as there is across the whole of Scotland. Although of course Scotland faces real difficulties at the moment, I remain entirely optimistic that we will get through this recession strongly.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent Fraser of Allander Institute report that estimates that over the course of this year there will be 130,000 net job losses in Scotland, and which warns that the Scottish economy may not even come out of recession in the final quarter of this year? In those circumstances, does he believe that his colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was right to describe last month’s job figures as “welcome news”?

It is always welcome news when people get back into work, and that is the point my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made. As people in Scotland and across the UK look towards Christmas and are increasingly concerned about how they will pay their bills or afford a good Christmas for their family, it is essential that we continue to do everything we can, aside from party politics, to get those folk back into work. That is what the Labour Government are determined to do.

Complacency is bad enough from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; from the Secretary of State for Scotland it is unforgivable. That same report points to the role of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS in bringing Scotland’s economy out of recession and states that as taxpayer-funded banks, they have to be prepared to lend more to small and medium-sized enterprises. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to ensure that the taxpayer, having paid the piper, is now going to get to call the tune?

I suspect that that supplementary question sounded better in front of the mirror this morning than it did in the Chamber.

We are doing everything we possibly can to get Scotland and the United Kingdom through this global recession. We want to ensure that the newly unemployed do not become the long-term unemployed, which is why the new investment in Jobcentre Plus, the support for the long-term unemployed and the targeted measures in the parts of Scotland that are suffering most are the right things to do.

May I be the first to congratulate the Secretary of State on being named best Scot at Westminster? I am sure the Prime Minister is delighted.

Month after month, Scottish unemployment rises; month after month, the Scotland Office issues a statement distancing the Government from responsibility, invoking global factors; and month after month, that looks less credible. If the Government’s economic policies have been right for Scotland, can the Secretary of State explain to us why the US, France and Germany have all returned to growth, but over the same period Scottish gross domestic product has continued to fall? Given that unemployment lags behind growth, are we to assume that Scotland will suffer further from Labour’s legacy of rising unemployment for many months to come?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his best wishes on my award. It was a very long shortlist, but I noticed he was not on it. I would nevertheless like to welcome the newest Member to the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain).

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, there are a quarter of a million more people in work in Scotland today than when his party left power, but we are determined to do an awful lot more. The worst thing we could do is follow the prognosis of Conservative economics in the midst of this recession.

The Secretary of State’s monologues about history are almost as predictable as those press releases on unemployment from the Scotland Office. We want to talk about the present. There are 270,000 people in Scotland on incapacity benefit under this Government. That cannot be justified—when will he take steps to get these people re-tested? All those found to be either ready to work or ready to prepare for work should be given support by specialist organisations; instead, they are ignored by his Government. When will he put that right?

We introduced the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which ensures that we provide new support to those on incapacity benefit, particularly those who experience fluctuating mental health conditions, and especially women in their 30s and 40s, in respect of whom there is an additional trend that is worrying for us all.

However, it is nauseating to listen to the hon. Gentleman lecture us on incapacity benefit. We are doing everything we can to support those people in getting off that benefit. The fact is that when his Government were in power, they manufactured the unemployment figures by deliberately taking people off unemployment and sticking them on to a life of dependency on incapacity benefit, for which they will never be forgiven.

Future Jobs Fund

Future jobs fund vacancies are available in every local authority area in Scotland. To date, 44 bids have been approved in Scotland, offering almost 7,000 jobs.

Between them, North Ayrshire and East Ayrshire councils have secured more than 500 jobs for young people over the next 18 months through the future jobs fund. The Tory-nationalist coalition in South Ayrshire council, on the other hand, has secured none at all. What can the Secretary of State do to put the maximum pressure on councils such as South Ayrshire to allow young people to participate?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point, because we need to support young people who have recently lost their jobs so that they do not spend six months or a year out of work. It would be unforgivable if local authorities did not provide that degree of support, so I will find ways to raise her concerns with South Ayrshire council. However, it is important that we provide that support for the long-term young unemployed and those who are middle-aged in particular problem areas across Scotland.

Given the Secretary of State’s recent decision to reject the QinetiQ proposals for upgrading the Ministry of Defence ranges on Benbecula, is he confident that there will be no job losses on the Hebrides ranges for the next three years? [Interruption.] If he cannot be confident of that, will he ensure that the future jobs fund will be applied to the islanders of North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist? [Interruption.]

Order. Just before the Secretary of State answers that question, may I reiterate the appeal that I make every week for a decline in the number of private conversations? I say this to the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns): every week he indulges in these conversations, every week it is very tedious and every week it is not necessary. Let us have an end to it.

I am aware that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) does not have much interest in Scotland or Scottish questions, but the decision that was taken about saving the ranges on the Uists was very important. Again, it shows the benefit of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom. We remain committed to those firing ranges on the Uists, but we have to ensure that they attract new business and that we achieve diversity in the economy in the Western Isles, which is important to their future.

Tourism

7. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effect on the tourism industry in Scotland of proposed changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules. (300130)

The Minister will be aware that many groups, including the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers and the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, have raised concern about the impact of the proposed abolition of furnished holiday letting relief. Alternative solutions have been proposed that would be tax-neutral and support the industry. Will she urge the Treasury to look again at this matter to avoid serious damage to the economy in many areas of rural Scotland, including mine?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the current rules were understood not to comply with EU law, nor were they fair to other residential landlords. It is also likely that if we had kept the rules as they stood, it would have had a negative impact on tourism, both in Scotland and the UK. There are only 60,000 individuals in the UK claiming this benefit, but there were 15 million overnight tourist visits in Scotland last year, so we consider that the change will not have any major impact on tourism.

The biggest barrier to tourists visiting holiday homes in Scotland is the lack of a proper transport infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend join the Scottish trade unions and business leaders in calling on the SNP Administration at Holyrood to reverse the decision to cancel the Glasgow airport rail link?

As my hon. Friend might suspect, there is only one Glasgow MP who does not support the rail link to the airport, the creation of 1,300 jobs or the ambitions of the city for the future. I deeply regret the decision and I hope that it will now be reconsidered.

Economic Inactivity

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Scotland. (300131)

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Scotland.

Office for National Statistics figures show that the number of people in Scotland becoming economically inactive rose by 20 per cent. more than the UK average. Why is Scotland so much worse?

Scotland is better off because it is part of the United Kingdom. The four nations of the UK are stronger together during this recession than would otherwise be the case, and most people in Scotland now accept that. There are 250,000 more people in work in Scotland than when the hon. Gentleman’s party left power, and his party has not been listened to on this recession in Scotland because of how it behaved while in government during the last recession in Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend share my anger at the Opposition for refusing to vote for any support that we give to the unemployed in Scotland, and for the abandonment of people in the 1980s and 1990s that this Government reversed in 1997?

It is clear that the Labour Government are doing everything that we can to get people through this recession. It is also clear that we cannot stop every job being lost—that is the unavoidable and harsh reality of the world economy these days—but we can do everything possible to get people back into work so that they never suffer from long-term unemployment. That is why the measures we have taken are so important, and the blocking of those measures by the Opposition has been so unforgivable.

Rail Services (Economic Impact)

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the effect on the Glasgow and Lanarkshire economy of future provision of rail services to the west of Scotland operated by East Coast. (300133)

Does the Minister agree that the airport rail link, while desirable, is a luxury at present, but the East Coast link is essential to Glasgow’s economy?

The hon. Gentleman might wish to follow the example of the newest Member of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-East (Mr. Bain), in agreeing with the business community in Scotland that the Glasgow airport rail link project is not only desirable but affordable and will create 1,300 jobs. The hon. Gentleman seems to have no interest in that whatsoever.

Devolution

10. What discussions he intends to have with ministerial colleagues on the recommendations of the Commission on Scottish Devolution. (300134)

I have had many discussions with Cabinet colleagues during preparation for the Government’s proposals for the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on that this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend is about to make a statement to the House and I do not wish to steal his thunder, so I merely ask whether the commission’s report is the outcome of diverse national conversations.

The commission’s report is the work of months of research and evidence and is based on the support of the Scottish Parliament. The process is supported by the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. Only one party stands outside the consensus, and unfortunately the Scottish National party Government continue to boycott the entire process.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before listing my engagements this week, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson from the 4th Regiment Royal Military Police who has died in Afghanistan. The debt of gratitude that we owe to him is permanent, and we send our sincere condolences to his family and friends. He, and the sacrifice he has made, will not be forgotten.

All of us will also want to pay tribute to Police Constable Bill Barker, who tragically died in Cumbria in the course of duty, serving the community to which he was so committed. We remember those individuals who lost their lives during the recent floods. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and all those affected by the serious flooding. They will have our support now and into the future. Let us as a House also pay tribute to the emergency services, armed forces and all organisations doing an outstanding job working round the clock to help those areas of our country affected by the floods.

May I begin by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about the death of Sergeant Loughran-Dickson in Afghanistan?

As the Prime Minister said, in the past week we have witnessed appalling flooding in Cumbria and near-misses in many other places, including in my constituency. We know that the emergency services are providing excellent support now, but will he reassure the House that help will be available for as long as needed to get people back on their feet and to help prevent flooding in the future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken an interest in such matters over many years. The floods were the worst that we have seen. It was a terrible time, as I found out, and as many others in the House also found out when they visited the area. I pay tribute to the local MP who has done so much to comfort and help people.

It might be helpful if I update the House on what is happening and assure people that our support will continue right throughout the troubles facing the area. Some 39 bridges remain closed. We are examining the possibility of a temporary bridge and temporary station, and this morning, a team of military engineers is assessing the possibility of a temporary pedestrian bridge across the River Derwent. The Department for Transport will fund bridge and road repairs. I believe that 40 people are still in rest centres. Consultations with the insurance industry are taking place to ensure that people can return to their homes or have, as a result of action by the council, alternative accommodation. The Flood and Water Management Bill, which deals with some of those issues in the longer term, will come before the House before Christmas. Let me praise all the emergency services that have done so much to help people in this time of need.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson, who was killed in Afghanistan last week? As the Prime Minister said, our thoughts should be with his family. I also join him in paying tribute to PC Bill Barker, who died in the line of duty protecting the lives of others from those dreadful floods in Cumbria. As the Prime Minister also said, PC Bill Barker was part of an extraordinary effort by emergency services and voluntary groups such as Mountain Rescue, which worked day and night to keep people safe. As the Prime Minister and I have seen, the community spirit shown by residents in dealing with the floods is a real inspiration.

As has been said, one of the biggest issues is the state of the bridges in Cumbria. Communities have been cut in half and trips to school that used to take five minutes now take an hour and a half. The Prime Minister spoke about what is being done on a national basis, including mobilising Army resources, and about plans for a temporary bridge. How quickly could that temporary bridge be put up to help families come together?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for all that he has said about the whole range of emergency services on which we depend. It is at times like these that we realise the importance of all the public and voluntary services that help our country. As I said, we are examining whether a temporary bridge could be put across the River Derwent. As he knows, we are also looking at how we can fund and finance the construction of a temporary rail station that will allow transport in the area. I believe from the information that I have had that that could be done fairly quickly, but we await the report of the military engineers who are working with the local authorities as we speak this morning. I hope that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be able to give further information this afternoon. Let me say absolutely that the costs of those repairs will be met by the Department for Transport.

People will be very grateful for that answer and that assurance about the funding. With Christmas coming, it will be incredibly hard on those families who cannot get back into their homes. Whether it is contacting the insurance companies so that they pay out quickly, contributing to the community fund, which is set up in cases of hardship, or contacting public and private landlords so that empty homes are made available, can the Prime Minister assure us that everything that can be done will be done to help those families in the run-up to Christmas?

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination met the Association of British Insurers yesterday. She received a full assurance that insurers would act quickly on all claims that were being made to them, particularly those claims that required the provision of emergency accommodation during a period when people are out of their homes. Obviously we hope that people will get back to their homes as quickly as possible.

We know that the insurance industry will act for those people who have claims that allow the payment of money for temporary accommodation, but in those circumstances where the local authority has to act to provide accommodation for people, it will do so. The right hon. Gentleman will recall from being there yesterday that a large number of the people affected were very elderly people who live in accommodation for the elderly. We are determined to ensure that the provision of alternative accommodation is up and running and able to meet their needs as soon as possible. It is true that it takes time when houses are flooded for people to get back into them, but we are doing everything in our power to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible. I have also talked to the leader of the council, Councillor Jim Buchanan, who has satisfied himself that we are doing what we can.

I am very grateful for those answers, and people in Cumbria will be too.

Let me turn to a completely different subject, one that I raised two years ago. I asked the Prime Minister about the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and why, despite an explicit promise by Tony Blair that it would be banned, it still has not been banned. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s constitution states that non-Muslims are “combatants in the battlefield” and that their

“blood is…lawful…as is their property”.

Although he has not been able to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, can the Prime Minister at least assure me that this extremist group has not received any public money?

I am not aware of Hizb ut-Tahrir receiving any public money. If the right hon. Gentleman has evidence of that, perhaps he will give it to me.

Well, I will not only give it to the Prime Minister, but my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] What is extraordinary is that my hon. Friend the shadow schools Secretary wrote to the Prime Minister’s right hon. Friend the schools Secretary a week ago about the issue. Let me draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the fact that two schools have been established by an extremist Islamist foundation, the ISF or Islamic Shaksiyah Foundation, which is a front organisation for Hizb ut-Tahrir. The ISF has secured a total of £113,000 of Government money, some of which was from the pathfinder scheme, whose objective is meant to be preventing violent extremism. Can the Prime Minister explain how that completely unacceptable situation came about?

I am happy to say that this will be looked into in every detail. I am told that the two schools that the right hon. Gentleman referred to have been inspected. I will look at the results of those inspections and write to him. We are dealing with grants of £113,000 of public money, as he said, and two schools that I do not know the names of, and I shall look at this matter very carefully.

I am grateful for that, but there can be no doubt that the organisation that I mentioned is a front organisation for Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two of its four trustees are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the head teacher and proprietor of one of the schools—a school in Slough—are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. I find it hard to understand why the Prime Minister does not know about that, given that we were asking—[Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers are becoming far too excitable today. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard.

Given that the Opposition have been asking questions about this issue in Parliament for almost a month and that the shadow schools Secretary wrote to his opposite number a week ago, how can the Government have an anti-extremist fund that results in a Labour local authority handing out money to extremists? This is a school set up by extremists, passed by Ofsted and approved by the Charity Commission, but in receipt of public money. Does not that prove that we need a much bigger inquiry into how things like this can happen?

Let me say that everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said will be investigated in great detail. Let me also say that the letter written by the shadow schools Secretary a few days ago will be replied to. Let me also say—let us be clear about this—that the vast majority of Muslims in our country are part of the law-abiding majority of this country. I do not want it to be said that those people who are citizens of our country who hold the Muslim faith are to be held responsible for acts of terrorism. Where there is abuse, it will be investigated. In the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir, we have investigated and looked at it. It is not a proscribed organisation and if the right hon. Gentleman has new evidence that should make us proscribe it, we shall look at it again. As far as the two schools are concerned, they will be properly inspected and every argument the right hon. Gentleman has made will be looked at closely, but he would not expect me, without looking at the evidence, to draw early conclusions.

The Prime Minister talks about investigating Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an organisation that said Jews should be killed “wherever you find them”. That is what that organisation says. Let me ask the Prime Minister about another organisation because there is a sense that this Government have just not got a grip on the issue of Islamic extremism. Take the group Islam for the UK. The leader of this group, Anjum Chaudri, claims that the 9/11 bombers were “magnificent” people

“carrying out their Islamic responsibility”.

The group has apparently called for

“blood on the streets of London and New York”.

When the Prime Minister replies for the last time, perhaps he can tell us why this group has not been banned as well?

Is it not the case that people will see that we have a Government who say they want to prevent extremism, yet their money is funding extremists; that we have a Government who say we should not have extremist-led schools, yet we have those schools? Above all, when is the Prime Minister going to tell us how he is going to get a grip on this issue?

To proscribe an organisation, we need full evidence and that evidence needs to be looked at in detail in the cold light of day, and I think the right hon. Gentleman may regret some of the remarks he has made this morning. As to our activities against terrorism in this country, we have doubled the security staff available to deal with terrorism; we have doubled the number of police who are dealing with potential terrorist incidents; we have put 100 people into prison since 2001 as a result of terrorist acts; we are monitoring very closely people who enter this country, including through the use of the identity card that foreign people coming to this country have to hold; and we are using the DNA database to check up on people, much against the advice of other parties. We are doing everything in our power to deal with the terrorist threat in this country and I thought it was a matter of all-party consensus that proscription should be on the basis of evidence, which was clearly proven, of advocating violence. That is the position that both parties accepted; that is the position that we will continue to follow.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments of the chief inspector of constabulary today that it is time to reassert the principles of the traditional British model of approachable, impartial and accountable policing based on minimum force for major public order events such as the G20?

I absolutely agree that it is important that policing is of the best. Where mistakes are made or where there are question marks, they have got to be answered. We have procedures for doing so. I know that the events at the G20 caused a great deal of anger and sadness for people when we had the casualty. It is very important that we take the action that reassures people that policing will always be fair.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Sergeant Robert Loughran-Dickson of the Royal Military Police, who tragically died serving in Afghanistan last week. I also add my tribute to PC Bill Barker, who lost his life in the line of duty dealing with the terrible floods in Cumbria. Our hearts go out to his wife and four children. At such times we all remember that it is the brave men and women of our emergency services who keep us safe when it really counts. We thank them for it.

It is vital that the Iraq inquiry, which started its work this week, is able to reveal the full truth about the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Will the Prime Minister therefore confirm that when Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues come to publish their final report, they will able to publish all information available to them, with the sole exception of information essential to national security?

I have set out a remit and brought it to the House of Commons. Sir John Chilcot has been given the freedom to conduct his inquiry as he wants. He has chosen to invite people to give evidence, and he will choose how to bring his final report to the public. That is a matter for the inquiry.

As I think the Prime Minister must know, the matter is not just for the inquiry, because his Government have just issued a protocol—I have it here—to members of the inquiry, governing the publication of material in the final report. If he reads it, he will see that it includes nine separate reasons why information can be suppressed, most of which have nothing to do with national security. Outrageously, it gives Whitehall Departments individual rights of veto over the information in the final report. Why did the Prime Minister not tell us about that before? How on earth will we, and the whole country, hear the full truth of the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq if the inquiry is suffocated on day one by his Government’s shameful culture of secrecy?

That is not what Sir John Chilcot has said. The issues affecting the inquiry that would cause people to be careful are national security and international relations. As I understand it, those are the issues referred to in the protocol. I believe that Sir John Chilcot and his team are happy with how they are being asked to conduct the inquiry.

Q2. Britain’s top bankers rewarded their own financial greed and incompetence with large bonuses, while imposing huge banking charges on those who, because of need not greed, often went into the red. I am sure that many Members were dismayed at today’s Supreme Court judgment. What will the Government do to ensure fairness for ordinary people—ordinary customers—within the banking system? (301118)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the anxieties that people have had about the system of bank charges in our country. Although the court judgment has not upheld the case of the Office of Fair Trading, it is right that we examine how fairness can be applied in all cases to people who are banking customers in this country. As far as the banks that we are responsible for at this moment are concerned—Northern Rock, HBOS Lloyds and RBS—we have asked them to review their overdraft charges over the past few weeks in order to be fairer to their customers, and they have done so. Under the Financial Services Bill, which is now before the House, a damages fund will have to be set up by banks to deal with complaints by customers of overcharging. There is now the possibility for class actions to be taken in court, which could not happen before, so that a group of customers can take banks to court. There is now power given to the Financial Services Authority, for the first time, to impose settlements on banks to repay customers they have overcharged. The proposed legislation will strengthen the rights of customers, as we have sought to do over the past two years, so that they get a fairer deal from the banking system, as they should, in this country.

I deal with the issues as they arise, and I do so as best I can. I believe that, over the recession, we have dealt with the issues in a far better way than we would have done had we followed the advice received from the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Q3. How important is the work of the North-west Regional Development Agency in delivering investment to business, science to Daresbury, and the successful “capital of culture” year to Liverpool as part of the city’s ongoing regeneration? One of the biggest mistakes that could be made would be the abolition of the regional development agencies in our country. In every region of the country the business organisations, the small business organisations, the engineering employees and the local authorities say that the RDAs are doing a job that helps their businesses through a recession and creates new job opportunities for people. I think that the Conservative party would make a terrible mistake if they decided, in an act of vindictive ideology, to abolish development agencies.Q4. The Government have compiled a secret list of sites in Argyll and Bute where they are thinking of dumping nuclear waste from old submarines. There is widespread opposition to the proposal in Argyll and Bute, and many communities fear that they are on the secret list. Will the Government publish that list of secret sites today, so that a public debate can take place? I have followed this issue over the 26 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, and it has been an issue for all those years. The question is where nuclear dismantling should happen, and where the nuclear waste from submarines should be placed in this country. It is right to consult MPs—as the hon. Gentleman has been consulted—and local representatives on the issue, and I understand that the Ministry of Defence is talking to MPs and elected representatives in the areas where there are potential sites. This is not happening behind closed doors. Members of Parliament are being asked for their views on these very matters. On the subject of tackling radicalisation, does the Prime Minister agree that in all such cases it is important that we listen to the Association of Chief Police Officers? If an organisation is proscribed, however much we may abhor its views—and we do—it will stay on the right side of the law, because such organisations are quite clever in that way. The danger is that proscription will merely create a recruiting sergeant, and possibly also lead to a judicial review. Should we not listen to ACPO before deciding whether to proscribe organisations of this kind, and should not the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) do likewise? My hon. Friend brings a great deal of experience to the issue, and he is absolutely right. Any decisions about proscription should be made on the basis not of a few exchanges in the House of Commons but of a detailed assessment of what is right and what is wrong, and part of that involves taking police evidence into account. As my hon. Friend says, we must not get into a position in which the decisions that we make act as a recruiting sergeant for militants in this country. We are taking every action that we can to deal with the terrorist threat in this country, and I think that, on an all-party basis, we should be united in saying that we are doing what we can to ensure that the al-Qaeda threat—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is saying something about money. We have doubled the amount of money being spent on security. That would not happen under a Conservative Government, because they would not be prepared to make the funds available. Why, when we are dealing with the issue of spending, do they persist in their policy on inheritance tax—[Interruption]—whose beneficiaries resemble the Leader of the Opposition’s Christmas card list? Q5. Unlock Democracy has proposed the establishment of a citizens’ convention to consider a renewal of faith in the House and in Parliament. Is the Prime Minister willing to support that, and if a private Member presents a Bill to that effect following tomorrow’s ballot, will he give it Government time? I welcome the report from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on the reform of this Parliament. It is right for us to consider how our Select Committee system can be reformed so that it is better in the future. It is also right for us to consider how non-Government business is dealt with, and how we can improve the workings of the House. I believe that there will be a warm welcome for some of the proposals in the report.As for the question of our House becoming more open to the views of people outside, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that we need to consult widely. The Youth Parliament met here only a few weeks ago, and we will continue to have an outreach to members of the community. That is essential in a modern-day participatory democracy.Q6. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of comfort and encouragement to the people of Cumbria today, following last week’s devastating floods. In 2005 my constituency was flooded, and the Government were very generous in providing resources for flood defences. It will cost £40 million just to rebuild the bridges in west Cumbria, and probably the same amount to rebuild the roads. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he and the Government will be able to help? The people of Cumbria cannot afford to pay that bill. (301119)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—100 flood protection schemes have recently been brought in. One of them is for Carlisle, where £40 million is being spent to make sure there is proper protection against the floods that did so much damage the last time, and I understand that in the recent times about 3,000 properties were prevented from being flooded as a result of those new flood defence arrangements. We will look at what we have done. I have said already that the Environment Agency budget and the other budgets for dealing with flood defences will rise to £800 million in 2010-11. That is a sign of our commitment to making sure the whole country is best protected against flooding.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware of his schools Secretary’s pre-Budget statement to the annual Youth Justice convention two weeks ago protecting the youth justice budget for the next two years? If that is true, what cuts will be made to accommodate that cross-departmental commitment? (301123)

It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that wants to cut massively public spending, and it wants to cut it this year and next year. In fact, it is the only major party in Europe that wants to withdraw the fiscal stimulus now when it is absolutely necessary to keep the economy moving forward. If I were him, I would be asking the Leader of the Opposition why his policy is so designed to cut money from policing, education and all the services that the public depend upon now.

Q8. May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his early decision to attend at Copenhagen, a lead that has now been followed by 60 Prime Ministers and Presidents from around the world? When he is in Copenhagen, will he seek to harness that high-level attendance to ensure that the best possible package of clean development funding is on the table in order to secure the sign-up of developing countries to a workable climate change agreement? (301124)

I praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done in promoting a climate change agreement, and the work of Members of all parties who want to see success at Copenhagen. I will go to the Commonwealth conference this week to try to build a consensus between richer countries such as Australia and ourselves and some of the poorest countries in the world on how we can finance climate change for developing countries as well as developed countries. If we are to get an agreement to cut emissions in some of the poorest countries in the world, it is absolutely essential that we get an agreement on finance. I hope all parties here will support the British proposal for $100 billion of funding for climate change in 2020 as a result of the contributions of the European Union, America and some of the other richest countries in the world. We will do everything in our power to secure a climate change agreement in Copenhagen.

Whatever our individual positions on Afghanistan, it is very important that there is clarity regarding the mission. The Prime Minister has said we are in Afghanistan to protect British people against terrorism, yet, almost in the same breath, he threatens to pull out of the country if President Karzai cannot clean up his corrupt Government. These are contradictory messages that are sending out mixed signals. Can the Prime Minister now square that circle?

We are in the country because of the threat to Britain. It is a threat that has been seen over eight years as a result of projected and actual terrorist offences in our country, three quarters of which come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mainly the borders of Pakistan. That is why we are there—to protect the streets of Britain. I was right to ask President Karzai to give us assurances about how, in his second term, he would tackle corruption. He has now announced an anti-corruption taskforce. I gather that 12 people were arrested yesterday from within the core administration. At the same time, I have asked him to appoint district and regional governors who are free of corruption and who will deal with the problems in hand, as Governor Mangal is doing in Helmand province, and President Karzai has agreed to do so. By his speeches, President Karzai has met the tests I have set him, and we have now got to see them being met in the delivery. I believe that next week we will see the American Government and the rest of NATO coming together in a strategy that will mean that we have sufficient forces to create the space for a political solution in Afghanistan that will make our streets safer. It is as clear as that.

Q9. The Prime Minister will be aware of the warning from Sir Hugh Orde, the top cop’s top cop, of the dangers of and widespread unease about the investments in police commissioners. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether this Labour Government will ever allow the police to be politicised, as the Conservatives propose? (301125)

The operational independence of chief police officers is and has been, and should continue to be, an important constitutional principle. It must be clear that chief officers—and chief officers alone—are responsible for running their force. I believe that the Leader of the Opposition should immediately withdraw his proposal, which would mean the politicisation of the police and which has been criticised by the chairman of Association of Chief Police Officers in the past few days.

In March, when the Lord Chancellor talked out my private Member’s Bill to end the discrimination against Catholics in royal marriages and against women in the line of succession, he said that the Government recognised that this discrimination should end. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is, as the Lord Chancellor said, ready to consult the relevant Commonwealth Heads of Government this week and that he is confident that we will then be able to sort this out, so that the all-party—

The Act of Settlement is outdated, and I think that most people recognise the need for change. Change can be brought about only when all realms where Her Majesty is Queen make a decision to change, not just by the United Kingdom. That is why it is important to discuss this with all members of the Commonwealth, including countries such as Australia and Canada. That is the process that will be undertaken in due course.

Q10. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing evidence, including in the recent report “Northampton Families and the Recession”, to show that as a result of the recession, women are doing more of the breadwinning and men are doing more of the caring? What further measures will his Government take to support the flexible working arrangements needed for today’s working families? (301126)

There are about 500,000 more families receiving working tax or child tax credit as a result of the help we are giving in a recession. People in this country have to make a choice: do we want to help families and help children through these difficult times or do we want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest people in this country? I think I know what choice the people of this country are going to make.