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The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Decisions on the future of the neighbourhood renewal fund beyond 2008 have yet to be made. Resources beyond that point will be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review 2007.
Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend will know that under the old regime access to neighbourhood funding was used as a barrier to stop certain smaller metropolitan districts accessing other regeneration funding streams. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that in future, regeneration funding will not be used as a barrier in this way?
Mr. Woolas: I am aware of this issue because the hon. Gentleman has, rightly, raised this point on several occasions on behalf of his constituents. I can give him some good news. Given that the Government measure deprivation now by sub-ward geographical areas, we can identify smaller pockets of poverty within better-off areas. This has meant that my hon. Friend's local authority has been allocated £3.8 million from the livability fund for 200609, and £1.6 million for the safer stronger communities fund for 200609.
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Given that many new homes are built near to airports and that millions of residents live under flight paths, Luton Town football club has said that the expansion plans for Luton airport effectively sterilise their plans to move to junction 10 of the M1. Is it correct in that assumption?
Mr. Woolas: I do not have a clue whether it is correct or not. I do know, however, that Luton airport is expanding because of the Government's successful economic policies. The 10-year transport plan ensured that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister put in place Luton airport's rail and road links as part of the largest investment in public transport in this country since the Victorian era. On the specific point raised by the hon. Lady, however, I will ask for a letter to be drafted which I shall read and send to her.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The neighbourhood renewal fund is all about building communities up. How does that fit in with the Department's pathfinder project, which is literally about pulling down communities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, as it gives me an opportunity to put on the record once again the fact that the housing market renewal fund, which addresses the problems of markets for housing in areas suffering from abandonment or poor housing, has enabled us to build new communities in the areas that have benefited from pathfinder schemes.
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The Minister of Communities and Local Government (Mr. David Miliband): The Government set out our commitment to the Thames Gateway in our strategy document earlier this year. A total of £6 billion in the three years to 2006 will contribute towards key transport, education, health and other infrastructure. Both the London and Thurrock urban development corporations received planning powers in October 2005. In addition, Thurrock UDC has now developed a regeneration framework, which will be launched later this month.
Andrew Mackinlay: If I look irritated and disappointed it is not synthetic. We have had the Thurrock Urban Development Corporation for two years but there is very little to show for it. A different Minister answers questions about it every time, and I want to know when we will have housing units and tangible assets to show for our manifesto commitment to create that UDC. It has a lifespan of seven yearstwo years in, there is very little to show for it, so I want some movement now.
Mr. Miliband: I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being synthetic in his questions. I share his frustration that it has taken so long to get the Thurrock UDC up and running, but it is now in place, and we intend to hold it to the highest possible standards.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): With the Minister's enthusiasm for the Thames Gateway in south Essex, will he give us an assurance that that will not be at the expense of the Haven Gateway in north Essex?
Mr. Miliband: The Thames Gateway will not be developed at the expense of one part of Essex or another. It is a coherent plan for the 40-mile stretch of land on both sides of the Thames to Southend, and we intend to drive it forward on both sides.
Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): My constituency has much to thank the Thames Gateway for, including nearly £200 million of inward investment. We have one last piece to put in the jigsawthe Rushington link road. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to tell us when that decision will be made?
7. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough)
(Con): How many professional whole-time firefighters have been in service in (a) England and (b) Northamptonshire in each year since 1997; and if he will make a statement. 
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): Between 1997 and 2004 the number of whole-time firefighters in England has fallen from 32,033 to 31,856. During this period the number of whole-time firefighters in Northamptonshire has risen from 286 to 311. Full details of the numbers in each year have been placed in the Library of the House of Commons.
Mr. Bone: The regional incident response unit which would be deployed in the case of a terrorist attack is based at a fire station in my constituency. The previous Labour administration at county hall proposed to cut the number of firefighters at that station by 40 per cent. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that was a good idea?
Jim Fitzpatrick: If I may answer on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister, what he thinks is a good idea is that the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 placed a responsibility for deployment, the number of fire appliances, resources and staff in the hands of local fire and rescue authorities and the chief fire officer, in consultation with colleagues and with local communities. That Act is clearly having an impact. The public service agreement targets set for the number of deaths and injuries in the UK indicate a successful reduction in 2003 and 2004 in England and in Northamptonshire. The fire service is modernising itself. It is becoming more resilient and repositioning itself to do more by way of prevention, not just responding to 999 calls. That is working.
The Prime Minister: We will carry on with the policies that, in Scotland, have delivered a strong economy, rising employment and falling unemployment, and massive additional investment in the national health service, education and law and orderall policies pursued by this Government and opposed by the Scottish national party.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West)
(Lab/Co-op): Is the Prime Minister aware that for the 11th year in a row, the European Union budget has been found to be riddled with waste, fraud[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Wait for itwaste, fraud and corruption. Given that much of the money that is mis-spent, wasted or
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stolen comes from the British taxpayer, will the Prime Minister ensure that we give no more until these matters are tidied up? And, by the way, would he like to support Japan's bid for the
The Prime Minister: In respect of the EU budget, I know my hon. Friend will be familiar with the conclusions of the ECOFIN Council just a few days ago, when it set out some very interesting and persuasive conclusions as to how we could improve the EU budget. I have no doubt at all that in time to come they will have their effect. When that time is, we cannot yet be sure.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am sure the whole House will be disappointed by the Prime Minister's last answer. Can he tell us when he will publish his Green Paper on incapacity benefit reform?
Mr. Howard: I am very grateful for that answer, but the Prime Minister[Interruption.] Hang on. The Prime Minister will understand if I am just a little sceptical, because in May he promised a Green Paper on incapacity benefit "before the summer recess". Then we were told it would arrive "shortly". In July we were told it was due in September. Last month we were promised it in the autumn. It is now the middle of November, so perhaps he will tell us why it has been delayed.
The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be aware that there has been a change of Minister at the head of the Department for Work and Pensions. It was a relatively well known change at the time. As a result of that, the Green Paper has been delayed and will be published in January. I hope very much that it will command support not just on the Government Benches, but from the Opposition. Action is necessary to cure the situation where, under the previous Government, of whom he was a member[Interruption.] Oh yes, this is why we have the problem. Incapacity benefit was used to shield the true levels of unemployment. That is why the Labour Government believe in helping people off benefit and into work.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister is telling us that every time there is a new Secretary of State, it is back to square one. Since there have been four Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions in just over a year, it is not surprising that the Government are in such a mess.
It is now nearly nine years since the Prime Minister promised that welfare reform would be a "key task" of the Labour Government, and it is six and a half years since he promised to reform incapacity benefit. The Minister for work says that the whole system has left people "languishing on benefit" and that so far the Government have done "sweet nothing" to deal with it. The Prime Minister's first choice as the man to sort out welfare reform says that the Government have "lost the plot" on welfare reform, extended dependency and
The Prime Minister: I will tell him what I agree with: a Government whose welfare reform policy has moved more than 1 million people off benefit and into work. When he was Employment Secretary, he put up unemployment by 1 million, and his Government had 3 million unemployed. As a result of the new deal and welfare reforms, we spend £5 billion a year less on unemployment benefits. That is what I mean by off benefit and into work.
Mr. Howard: I do not know where that answer leaves the Minister for work. The truth is that more people are economically inactive under this Government today than in 1997. While we are waiting for the Green Paper on incapacity benefit, will he tell us when he will publish his education Bill? And will he confirm that the House of Commons will have the opportunity to vote on the provisions outlined in his White Paper to give schools greater control over their admissions policies?
If we can just return for a moment to his point on welfare, I am always delighted to debate unemployment with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is shortly to become unemployed. He is completely wrongfewer people go on to incapacity benefit each year than in 1997. We have managed to do that because of policies such as the new deal and the working families tax credit, which he and his party opposed. Today, we have 2 million more people in work, more than 1 million of whom were specifically helped by the new deal. In the light of the success of the new deal, will he tell us whether he will drop the Tory opposition to it?
Mr. Howard: I understand why the Prime Minister does not want to talk about education. We know what his Back Benchers think of his education policy: the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) has said that he is opposed to the Prime Minister's policies; the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) wants them neutered; and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who is a member of the Education and Skills Committee, has described the plans in the White Paper as "bonkers". The Prime Minister has said that he will give the House of Commons the opportunity to vote on those matters, but will he confirm that he has still got the strength to face down his opponents on his Back Benches and his opponents in No. 11? And will he tell us when he will publish the Bill?
The Prime Minister:
I am delighted to debate education with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Conservative party[Interruption.]or anyone else. In the five years before we came to office, he was part of a Government who cut education funding per pupil. This Government have raised education funding to its highest levelwe have got 30,000 more teachers and 100,000 more classroom assistants, and results at 11, at 16 and at 18 are all up. The education White Paper is important, because it will continue to give opportunities to children who do not currently have them. [Interruption.] It may be tough, but we will see it through, because since 1997 this is the party that has cared about education. [Interruption.]
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The Prime Minister: Since 1997, we have invested in education and reformed education, and the results are there to see in every single constituency. That is the programme that we will continuea programme that has been opposed at every stage by the Conservatives, whose record on education meant that literally millions of children did not get the chance of the education that they deserved. Now, under this Government, they are getting that chance.
Mr. Howard: Let me give the Prime Minister a word of advice. He and I are both on our way out. He does not have much time left, so he should not waste it abusing those who agree with him on this issue. Why does he not understand that he needs to spend every minute that he has got persuading those on his own Benches who disagree with him?
The Prime Minister: First, let me thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his adviceI am sure that it is kindly meant. But let me give him some advice. When he wins an election, then he can give advice to someone who has won three.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is despicable for BAE Systems to close the Royal Ordnance factory in Chorley, with a loss of 200 jobs? That puts at risk British service personnel in the Navy, the RAF and the Army, who require the very best ammunition. The initiators and box caps that are needed for the explosive to work will now have to be supplied from Switzerland and around the world because no one else in the UK is capable of doing so. That is unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to see whether we can get the decision reversed?
The Prime Minister: BAE Systems Land Systems is responsible for the security of the supply of ammunition, and it has provided detailed plans to the Ministry of Defence on how it intends to achieve that if the Bridgwater and Chorley sites are closed. We are confident of its ability to fulfil its obligations. However, I understand my hon. Friend's point and I am happy to see him about it.
was a "mess" and needed "urgent reform"? Today, for every pound that the CSA spends on its own bureaucracy, it gets only £1.85 to the children whom it is supposed to be there to help. How on earth can the Prime Minister defend such an appalling track record?
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The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right that the amount of money that the Child Support Agency gets in is not substantially greater than the amount of money that it costs to administer it. That is different from the situation in 1997, when it was the other way round. However, I make no defence of the current situation. The CSA is in an extremely difficult position for a very simple reason, and it is as well that we are absolutely frank about that. It is the investigating agency, then it is the adjudicating agency, and then it is the enforcement agency. That is an extremely difficult situation, and the staff who have to work in the present system do so in conditions of very great difficulty. The right hon. Gentleman should remember why the CSA[Interruption.] Incidentally, the Conservatives created it, and when we took over its administrative costs outweighed the amount of money that it got in.
Having said that, the truth is that the situation at the CSA is extremely difficult and we are looking urgently at what the solutions might be. The problem is fundamental to the nature of the task that it is called upon to perform.
Mr. Charles Kennedy: The Prime Minister tells the House that he is looking urgently at the situation. However, he was looking urgently at it as Prime Minister seven years ago. What has happened in the intervening period? In the past four years, there have been 35,000 cases of maladministration and there is now a backlog of 350,000 cases. Unpaid maintenance now stands at £1.7 billion. What on earth can the Prime Minister mean by "urgently" in the light of such a disgraceful record?
The Prime Minister: We legislated on this before to simplify the procedure involved, and that has reduced the costs quite considerably. However, the basic problem remains. I am not disputing the difficulties; indeed, I agree that they exist. Let me make a point that emphasises those difficulties. As the figures to which the right hon. Gentleman referred show, the vast majority of the compensation payments33,000 of the 35,000were for amounts less than £1,000
The Prime Minister:
Of course it is, but it is extremely difficult to make this operation cost-effective when the agency is the investigating, adjudicating and enforcing authority. Furthermore, in the majority of cases that the agency deals with, the child concerned is the product neither of a married relationship nor of a stable partnership. All I am saying is that the task that we are asking the agency to perform is an extremely difficult one[Hon. Members: "What are you going to do about it?"] I was about to say that we cannot discuss sensibly the Child Support Agency unless we are prepared to look urgently at the fundamental nature of the task that it performs and at the reasons why it was set up in the first place. For reasons that I understand, the previous Conservative Government established the agency to ensure that parents carried out their obligations to their children. The truth is that the agency is not properly suited to carry out that task.
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Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that some of his recent comments on climate change have led to allegations that his resolve on that subject is weakening. I hope that he will be able to refute those allegations. Does he agree that, as far as our economic future is concerned, we cannot afford not to tackle climate change effectively?
The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I am absolutely in favour not only of the Kyoto treaty, which this Government helped to bring about, but of a framework that includes binding targets. The Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, however, and I am determined to ensure that any future arrangements involve the United States, India and China. Unless all those countries are involved, whatever agreement the rest of the world comes to will not be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Q2.  Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The House knows the burden placed on young soldiers and their commanders when we send them into combat. Will the Prime Minister join Field Marshal Inge in condemning the activities of British lawyers who are hawking no-win, no-fee arrangements around Iraq, and promising taxpayers' money to those who will bear witness against British soldiers? We all accept that prosecutions have always been brought, rightly, against British soldiers when there has been genuine wrongdoing, but will the Prime Minister tell the House why he has refused to give our armed forces the protection that the French and the Americans have given to theirs against the more unreasonable aspects of the new so-called war crimes treaty?
The Prime Minister: First, that is not the basis on which people are being prosecuted, and the Army prosecuting authorityI am pleased to make this very clearhas the sole responsibility to decide on prosecution or otherwise. I understand that one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends was saying the other day that either I or one of the Ministers had something to do with the initiation of particular prosecutions. Let me make it quite clear that that is completely untrue. The prosecutions are initiated by the Army prosecuting authority, not by Ministers.
Secondly, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: I yield to nobody in my support for our armed forces in what they have donein Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Sierra Leone. They have done a magnificent job, and I think that the whole House should be proud, as should the country, of the contribution they made. Any wrongdoing that ever occurs comes, I am quite sure, from a very small minoritytotally unrepresentative of the broad mass of the British armed forces. Time and again, I, like Prime Ministers before me, have had cause to be grateful to them.
Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
(Lab/Co-op): Hackney council has introduced a number of zones in my constituency where street drinking is banned. It has also declared a saturation zone, working with residents and businesses, where licensed premises are not just tolerated, but encouraged. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a good example of good practice, thanks to the local control of licensing hours that the Government have introduced?
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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is indeed an example of how the new licensing laws allow local residents and the local police to take action against the minority who are rowdy or are causing trouble in areas while allowing the majority the freedom that they should have. I was surprised to see Opposition Members all voting against the liberalisation of licensing laws yesterday, when they did not when they had the opportunity to do so on the Bill. A certain Member, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), once wrote:
Q3.  Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): More than 90 community hospitals, including Hornsea and Withernsea hospitals in my constituency, are threatened with cuts or closure. In recognition of that, Members from across the House yesterday became patrons of CHANTCommunity Hospitals Acting Nationally Together. Will the Prime Minister show his commitment to community hospitals by joining them in becoming a patron of CHANT?
The Prime Minister: The configuration of community hospital services is, ultimately, a local decision and a matter for the primary care trust. We have committed about £100 million to build, rebuild and furbish more than 50 such hospitals over the next five years. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and in others, there has been a massive increase in health service spending, but how that is used is best decided by PCTs.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Derbyshire police has been particularly successful in driving down crime in my area this yearby about 10 per cent. What can my right hon. Friend do to reassure me and other residents that proposals to merge Derbyshire police with other police authorities in the east midlands will assist in that endeavour rather than distract the force from further achievement?
The Prime Minister: That is exactly the point that has to be gone into during the consultation. There is no point in carrying out such mergers unless they increase operational efficiency, and that has to be decided case by case. As to the reason we are initiating this, obviously many people believe that such mergers will help operational efficiency, but that has to be tested in the consultation that is conducted in my hon. Friend's area as in others. We will obviously look carefully at the results of that consultation.
Q4.  Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage)
(Con): We have excellent doctors and nurses working in the national health service in Oxfordshire, but they are facing ward closures and redundancies. Everyone in our county agrees that the £35 million deficit has been caused by demonstrably unfair funding for Oxfordshire, health inflation and bureaucratic reorganisation.
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As The Oxford Timesa newspaper I know the Prime Minister read avidly as a studenthas said, "Ministers should not be"
The Prime Minister: It is not only that the nurses and doctors are excellent in the hon. Gentleman's area; there are many more of them under this Government. In fact, to be precise there are 2,700 more nurses, 390 more consultants and 516 more doctors.
Also, the South West Oxfordshire primary care trust has £166 million of funding, which is an increase of 6.5 per cent. on the previous year. It is true that there is a deficit in the South West Oxfordshire PCT. Last year, three organisations, of which it was one, were responsible for the £11.5 million deficit in that area, which was offset against surpluses in the remaining seven organisations. However much money is put into the NHS, there must be proper financial control. With the massive additional sums of money going into our health service, it is important that that money is properly used. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman agreed with that.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): My right hon. Friend might not be aware that Firstbus in South Yorkshire has recently increased fares by more than 15 per cent. in some cases. That is the fourth fare increase in 12 months. Fare increases, together with regular cuts in services, have reduced passenger numbers in South Yorkshire by 30 per cent. over the past 10 years. Does he now agree that it is time to end the deregulation introduced by the Conservative party, and to move to the sort of regulatory regime for public transport that has been so successful in increasing passenger numbers in London?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, we keep the matter under review. As I said earlier, however, whatever system of regulation there is, there will obviously be a limit on the resources available.
Q5.  Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Is the Prime Minister aware that in Somerset the Government are amalgamating our four NHS primary care trusts, regionalising our fire control centre and creating a huge new merged police force? Is not the inescapable conclusion that both in the overall direction of policy and their overall character traits, the Government are now increasingly centralised, less accountable, more remote and more and more out of touch?
The Prime Minister:
I think that the hon. Gentleman could have rehearsed that one a bit longer. There will be, and always have been, reorganisations of services to achieve the best operational efficiency. I cannot comment on the reorganisations in his area, although I am happy to write to him and do so. It is not something that this Government alone have introducedall Governments attempt to achieve the greatest efficiency in the way that services are configured. We should never say that the configuration at one particular time must exist for all time.
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Q6.  Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab):Can I tell the Prime Minister that coal health compensation payments to ex-miners in former coalfields such as north Staffordshire are making a real difference to their quality of life? There is growing anger and impatience, however, because miners who worked for small mines, which were licensed by the Coal Board, are not getting their pay-outs. Will he look into that, and if need be, will he change the rules?
The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on this matter. I agree that there has been positive progress on the coal health schemes. About £1.8 million a day is being paid out, and in her constituency, for example, payments have amounted to almost £12 million. I understand, however, that of the nearly 600,000 lung disease claims, about 2,600 involve small mines, and the Department of Trade and Industry has now agreed with the representatives of both the former British Coal miners and the independent small mines how those claims will be processed. They are now trying to increase the number of offers, which, I think, will run at about 50 a month. Some 760 have already been settled, and I will certainly look into how they can be processed faster.
Q7.  Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Prime Minister will be only too painfully aware that recently in Iraq, 10 British soldiers have been murdered by roadside bombs. Our ambassador to Baghdad suggests that those devices have come from Iran. Our major-general in the Basra area has asked for extra troops to seal the border and save British lives. The Government have refused that request. Given the Prime Minister's earlier comments about supporting our servicemen to the nth degree, how can he make that stand up?
The Prime Minister: Obviously, we want to do, and must do, everything that is necessary to protect our troops in Basra. In our regular discussions with the armed forces about the numbers of troops that we have in Iraq, this issue arises, but it is not one that has led us or, as far as I am aware, the armed forces to believe that we need to increase the numbers of troops there. Of course we keep that constantly under review, but the most important way of protecting people down south and elsewhere is to build up the capability of the Iraqi forces themselves. In many parts of the south they are now in control of the policing of some areas, and ensuring that the security concerns of the local population and our own forces are dealt with.
As for the other things that we need to do, we work closely with the local elected representatives. I do not believe, however, that the need to protect the border would be best met in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton)
(Lab/Co-op): Following the demolition of the former Turner and Newall site, 3,500 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated material is to be transferred from the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) through the length of my constituency, to be dumped in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). Can my right hon. Friend confirm
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that the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive must at all costs protect the people of those three communities?
The Prime Minister:
I am looking around the Chamber, but I am afraid I am not getting a great deal of help. [Laughter.] Thank you very much. I am not getting a great deal of help from the Opposition either.
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Of course the Health and Safety Executive must abide by the rules. I shall have to look into the specific points raised by my hon. Friend, but I am sure that the HSE will act according to the obligations with which it is charged. If I learn anything to the contrary, I will contact my hon. Friend urgently.
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