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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): The past 12 months have seen an increase in the stability of the devolved institutions, all of which are now operating fully. We will continue to work closely with those involved to ensure that devolution delivers the best results possible for the people of Northern Ireland.
Andy King: Will my hon. Friend cast his mind back just a few short years to when there was stalemate in the political process in Northern Ireland and no dialogue between parties and communities? Does he, unlike Opposition Members, agree with me that we have come a long way in two short years and that it is vital that the political devolved institutions in Northern Ireland succeed in order to give the people of Northern Ireland a future in which they can live in peace and be free from terror?
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend does well to remind us of the progress that has been made. I need remind nobody in the House of my personal commitment to devolution, and the Government's record in this area stands for itself. We will do everything in our power to sustain devolution because it is what the parties and people of Northern Ireland want and it is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. It is delivering, in particular, significant reform and additional investment in jobs and services and in public administration. [Interruption.] Although it is not easy, in devolved terms, to do that in Scotland or Wales, it is a sign of the maturity of the politics of Northern Ireland that these questions are being faced up to by local politicians. [Interruption.]
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): We will, of course, do what we can in the devolved Administration to make progress. We acknowledge in particular the assistance from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to our reinvestment and reform initiative. None the less, does the Minister not realise that it will not be possible to sustain the institutions without popular confidence, and that that popular confidence is at a low ebb? The main reason for that is the popular belief, reinforced by action after action by the Government, that no matter how badly republicans behave, the Government will do nothing to constrain them and that they have, literally, allowed them to get away with murder.
Mr. Browne: The right hon. Gentleman properly reminds the House of the special support that has been given to devolution in Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in the form of the economic package and I do not propose to go through the details. He also makes the very good point that devolution
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): Does the Minister agree that it would be a fundamental error to judge the success of the institutions in terms of either sectarian violence or the paramilitary stirring up of violence? Does he further agree that all the institutions that were created under the Good Friday agreement are working well and that for people in Northern Irelandbe it in the Short Strand, north Belfast, south Armagh or anywhere elsethe choice is between those institutions and the sectarianism and violence that the thugs are bringing to us on our streets? I believe that the Secretary of State, the Minister and everyone here should support those institutions so that they can provide the only alternative to the men behind the masks.
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the only way forward for the people of Northern Ireland is in the context of the agreement and the institutions that flow from itnot only the institutions of devolution, but the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Policing Board, all of which have shown local people that working together can solve local problems. The only test that I apply to the institutions of devolution is whether local people are taking decisions about improving lives locally. In Northern Ireland, they are doing so. The system may not be working perfectly, but it would have seemed astonishing five years ago that it should work as it hasor at all. Northern Ireland people can be proud of the progress that they have made. They are an example to the world of civilised conflict resolution.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): In the Government's view, is it acceptable that the Executive in Northern Ireland should contain members of a party that is not only hostile to the police but directly responsible for creating a climate in the republican community that has directly led to the attempted murder of a Catholic recruit to the policean attempted murder that the chairman of Sinn Fein has singularly failed to condemn?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that has already been made today. While it may be clear to him who was responsible for, or started, individual incidents, to those of us who have ministerial responsibility in Northern Ireland it is far from clear who is responsible, from the information that we get. What is clearI admit this to the hon. Gentleman as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State didis that once they started, paramilitaries on both sides were involved. I unequivocally deplore and condemn that behaviour, as does my right hon. Friend, and I call on all community leaders, including the people who lead those organisations, to work for its cessation.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Approximately 3,300 parades were held in 2001 and the vast majority passed off peacefully with only minor incidents occurring at a small number. We hope that that trend continues throughout the marching season. In the event of public disorder, this year as every year, the security forces have appropriate contingency measures in place to ensure that the determinations of the Parades Commission are upheld.
Helen Jackson: Is it not the case that in the past few weeks in this country there have been not thousands or hundreds but millions of people on the streets parading and celebrating the Queen's golden jubilee and the World Cup football results in Dublin and England? Is it not the case, therefore, that there is no need for a parade or street celebration to disintegrate into sectarianism or violence? Does the Minister agree that the essential components are good planning and organisation and consultation?
Jane Kennedy: I could just say yes, but my hon. Friend mentioned football, so may I take this opportunity to say how delighted I am that two football teams from the British Isles are doing well in the World cup? As for the rest of her question, my answer is yes.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morningI suspect, in common with millions of othersI watched the England match, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to send our congratulations to the English team on reaching the next stage of the finals. Indeed, my next meeting was with the Prime Minister of Denmarkto discuss the next match, of course. This evening, I shall meet the President of Nigeriaof course, to discuss the last match. In addition, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.
David Taylor: Given that German jobless figures are soaring to 4 million and French voters are veering sharply to the right, should not my right hon. Friend be discouraging some of his Ministers from their over- zealous promotion of the euro, which is partly responsible? Are not the Chancellor, as ever, and Mr. Rupert Murdoch, for once, absolutely right to urge great British caution towards that fundamentally flawed folly?
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the England team? Like him and many others, I watched the match, but I did not watch it with him, which is probably a blessing for my side. May I suggest, however, that of all the people whom he is planning to advise and discuss in the next 20 minutes, given his record, he does not give advice to Sven-Goran Eriksson on who to pick for the next game?
The Prime Minister: I endorse entirely what the Department for Transport said last week about that. I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says because there was never any attempt to discredit Pam Warren or anyone else. However, I stand entirely by the apology given by the Department for Transport at the time.
Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister is very careful with his words, but what he has said is very clear. [Interruption.] Oh no, he is very careful with his words because, when referring to the same set of words used before, Pam Warren said that they were totally inadequate. She went on to say that the actions of his Government were
The Prime Minister: I entirely understand why Pam Warren said that, because she had been told that there had been an attempt to find out or dig up dirt, as it was said, on her. That is simply not the case. Indeed, no inquiry was ever made about Pam Warren, but the Department of Transport said at the timeI endorse this and concur with it entirelythat it apologised for any distress caused to Pam Warren by a story about her that was actually false.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Weasel words. This is the same man who promised to bring in a new politics of honesty and trust, yet when any member of the publicRose Addis, Pam Warren or anyone elsecriticises the Prime Minister, his Government throw the weight of their machine at investigating their private lives and crushing them. I give him one last chance. He has the opportunity to get up and apologise now, without equivocation and without qualification, to Pam Warren for trying to discredit her.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Is the Prime Minister aware that since the introduction of the softly, softly approach to cannabis in my constituency and the borough of Lambeth, there are more drug dealers on the streets than ever, many young children are going to school in the morning zonked out on a very hard kind of cannabis, and more and more residents are being harassed and almost attacked by drug dealers on their way home from work? That approach has released 1.8 extra police officers. Will the Prime Minister do something about cleaning up these gangs of criminals and stick up for decent law-abiding citizens and residents who are fed up with being experimented on?
The Prime Minister: I would point out to my hon. Friend that serious crime has fallen in Lambeth. It is important, however, to give careful consideration to the results of the experiment that was carried out. If we do not do so, and if we had refused to carry out such an experiment, even though the police and others locally were saying that it was sensible to do so, we would have been criticised the other way. We need to consider carefully the results of the experiment.
In relation to street crime in London, however, I know that my hon. Friend will support the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will allow us to get at the assets of drug dealersI am afraid that that legislation is opposed by the Conservative partyand the measures on street crime, particularly restrictions on bail for persistent offenders, which we believe will have a serious impact on cutting street crime. She will know from the latest figures produced by the Metropolitan police that that measure is having that effect.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): When the Prime Minister became aware that a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence had recently taken up a private sector post with a commercial lobbying company with defence clients on its books, was he satisfied that the spirit and the substance of the rules governing such transfers had been met?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I was. The Ministry of Defence has carried out the relevant processes which apply to the whole of Government. The permanent secretary certified the arrangement, and it was made in consultation with the Cabinet Office in the normal way.
Mr. Kennedy: In terms of public perception, does the Prime Minister not think that special advisers should be subject to exactly the same rules as senior civil servants? For many people, this case, and the Government explanations attached to it, stretch credulity. When will the Prime Minister take further action to clean up this state of affairs?
The Prime Minister: I disagree, I am afraid, that action is necessary to clean it up. The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence applied the rules in the normal way, and the Cabinet Office was consulted in the normal way. That is the right and proper way to do it, and that is precisely the system that has been used for many years. Rather than dealing with perceptionthe right hon. Gentleman's question and that of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) were about the perception that they want to createis it not about time that we dealt with the reality? The reality is that special advisers, whether for Labour or Conservative Governments, do a perfectly good job. I fully support the special adviser system and it would be deeply unfortunate if we got rid of it.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that one insurance company has chosen to withdraw cover from areas that are judged a flood risk? People in much of my constituency in the Trent, Derwent and Dove valleys rely heavily on the insurance industry and on flood protection to ensure that they can live a normal life. Will my right hon. Friend emphasise the need for additional spending on this matter in the spending review?
The Prime Minister: We are spending substantial additional sums of moneyrunning into many millions of poundson flood defences. Of course, I shall look into the particular point that my hon. Friend raises. It is a problem that we need to tackle with the insurance companies to try to ensure that everybody who can possibly get insurance gets it. I am afraid that one of the things that we know from the work that has been carried out and from the analysis of the changing nature of the climate is that these problems may well recur.
Q2.  Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): If the Prime Minister recommends to the British people that they should abandon the pound sterling in a referendum and they reject his advice, will he resign?
Ross Cranston: That White Paper announced a plan for an alcohol strategy. Since that time, the charity Alcohol Concern has estimated that there have been about 2 million serious incidents of violence around pubs, 130,000 deaths from excessive alcohol consumption and numerous incidents of domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend crank the machinery so that we have an alcohol strategy in place?
The Prime Minister: We will be investing somewhere in the region of £30 million in action against under-age drinking in particular, which is a serious problem. I point out tooit is important that the public understand thisthat the police and local authorities now have two very specific powers to deal with this issue. First, they can
Q4.  Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): In view of the close friendship between the United States and the United Kingdom, is the Prime Minister aware that the talks aimed at liberalising transatlantic services from Heathrow have stalled twice? Intense pressure has been put on No. 10 officials by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic because they do not want more competition. Bearing in mind the fact that he believes in open skies, will he put his seal of approval to an open skies policy across the Atlantic from Heathrow? Will he kick-start the talks?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we are keen to liberalise the US-UK air services agreement. That is important, but it must be done on terms that are fair. The competition must be fair, otherwise we will put the jobs of thousands of British employees at risk. I am, in principle, very anxious to restart this process, but it must be on the right terms. At present, those terms are not right, but we are in intensive discussions with the American Administration to try to get the process going again.
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): It is said that we are all Thatcherites now. May I, as a Bevanite who aspires to be a Blairite, tell my right hon. Friend that there are those of us who would rather undergo root canal surgery without anaesthetic, be cast away on a desert island with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)with no ear plugsor even be entertained to a full and frank discussion in the Whips Office, than accept such a description? May I ask the Prime Minister for his view?
The Prime Minister: Yes. I am delighted that we have moved this country away from Thatcherism. The problem with Thatcherism is that it took no account of social division; it grossly underinvested in our public services; it did not care about unemployment; and it isolated this country in Europe. That is precisely why I am delighted that we have a new Labour Government today to put the situation right.
Q5.  Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): The Prime Minister of the Irish Republic recently stated that the decommissioning of all illegally held weapons and explosives must take place within a year and that the IRA must be disbanded. When will the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have the courage to set and achieve the same objectives?
The Prime Minister: First, we have to make sure that no level of paramilitary activity is considered acceptable, because no level of paramilitary activity is acceptable. I can go further and say specifically that by that I mean not the procurement of weapons, not the targeting of people and not the so-called punishment beatings that are actually
I also believe, however, that the peace process offers us the best chance of achieving that aim. Even though I know that it is under strain, for the reasons implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question, it is precisely because people have got to make that democratic choice that there cannot be a halfway house. If we look over the past few years and at Northern Ireland as a whole, the vast majority of people have benefited from the peace process, the economy has benefited and security has benefited. We now have to work together to ensure that the aim that both the Taoiseach and I want to see is achieved.
The Prime Minister: I do not, for the reasons that we have given many times. The best way to eradicate pensioner poverty is to do what we are trying to do. In particular, the minimum income guarantee is increasing pensioners' incomes far and above the rises that would result from a link to earnings. Universal elements, such as the winter fuel allowance, the free television licence for the over-75s and the new pension credit when it comes into effect, will help people on lower incomes far more than if we simply linked their pensions to earnings.
The trouble is that if we link the basic state pension to earnings, we will never get enough resources from Government to give such a lift to the basic state pension as it attempts to cure pensioner poverty. We have therefore to distinguish between different groups of pensioners. Some are relatively well off, some are very poor. It is the right duty for this Government, with our principles, to help the poorest most.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Last year, the Government said they would take away the driving licences from absent parents who failed to pay child support. They announced that three times and the idea received big headlines. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many people have lost their driving licences?
The Prime Minister: No, I cannot, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that as a result of the measures that we have taken to make parents face up to their responsibilities, the Child Support Agency is now working far better than the hopeless mess that everyone remembers, which we inherited from the previous Government.
Mr. Duncan Smith: After such big headlines and so many announcements, the answer is that one person has lost their licence out of nearly 200,000 parents who failed to pay child support. Two years ago, the Prime Minister announced that benefits would be withdrawn from people who failed to do community service. It was spun, and I quote him, as a
Mr. Duncan Smith: The one group who are not facing up to their responsibilities are the Government. The answer to the question is that to make a small saving of £5,000, the Prime Minister spent £300,000. On Monday, he was back to his old tricks, when he re-announced plans to get more sick and disabled people back to work. I remind him that he spun exactly the same set of stories three years ago, but the number of people on incapacity benefit is rising. By next year, he will have increased the welfare budget by more than the health or education budgets. Surely the reality for the Prime Minister is that the unspun headline is simply, "He talks a good game, but when will he deliver?"
The Prime Minister: Let us deal with the welfare budget. If we leave aside the tax credits and the pensioners' help that we want to spend money on, and take the social security budget that is based on social and economic failure, we are saving £4 billion a year over and above the levels of spending that were in place when we came to power. Indeed, leaving aside the areas in which we want to spend money, social security bills are falling in real terms for the first time in years.
As for what we are doing in the welfare state, we are managing to get those bills down because we have an extra 1.5 million people in work. Although when we came to power hundreds of thousands of young people were on the dole, I can tell the House that as a result of the new deal, the number of young people who are on the dole today is 4,500. That is the difference that we can make by ensuring that we save money on failure and can then spend it on pensioners and working families, which is where we want to spend it.
Q7.  Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I doubt that my right hon. Friend is aware that Lewisham is the safest inner-London borough in which to live. However, there is still a problem in the Downham area of my constituency of young tearaways terrorising people with their behaviour. Will my right hon. Friend give me reassurances that I can share with my constituents about what the Government will do about that problem?
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I know that the Prime Minister feels much put upon by the press at the moment, and I am sure that we all share his pain in that regard. If it is true that Mr. Mick Jagger has some good news coming, no one would begrudge Sir Michael such an honour, but the Prime Minister's stated policy is that honours should go to ordinary people who do extraordinary things and provide inspiration for others at times of great personal suffering and trauma, so would not Mrs. Pam Warren be a suitable candidate for such recognition?
The Prime Minister: We should give honours to a range of different people. While honours are given to people who are famous and celebrated, this Government introduced honours, and in particular knighthoods, for head teachers who have done an excellent job with their school. We will always have a mix of people in the honours system, and so we should have.
Q8.  David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): In my constituency the police hold many outstanding arrest warrants against individuals for whom they have no current address, while the local jobcentre and Benefits Agency hold those addresses but are forbidden to co-operate with the police by the Data Protection Act 1998. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Act is there to protect the innocent, not the guilty, and it should not be used in this instance as an obstacle to the fight against crime?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we want to make sure that requests for information are now considered in respect of all crimes, not only the most serious. There have to be proper safeguards for the civil liberties and privacy of the individual, but the information is vital to the police in their work and I am sure that it should be made available to them.
Q9.  Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): I presume that the Prime Minister is aware of the BBC 2 programme that followed the Metropolitan police paedophile unit for the past two years. It is clear from that and other evidence that paedophile activity is much greater than many of us had realised, and might have been accentuated by the internet. There are three police paedophile unitsI hope that the Prime Minister is listening.
The Prime Minister: I will certainly consider any request the hon. Gentleman makes, but the position within the Metropolitan police is obviously an operational decision for the police. I do not know what other measures the force is taking, but I know that the Metropolitan police treat the issue very seriously. As for the Government, we have made it clear that we want to tighten the law in that area, and we will do so as soon as possible.
The Prime Minister: The best thing we can do is make sure that we invest in bus services, especially rural bus services. Some £200 million is to go into rural bus services, and there are many more services available. Furthermore, under the Transport Act 2000 local authorities have the opportunity to produce transport plans and strategies. However, I think that such decisions are better taken locally.
Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a reception in the House today for victims of cystic fibrosis? It is a debilitating disease from which victims suffer all their life and die prematurely. Does he remember pledging in 1997 to withdraw prescription charges for victims of that disease and reiterating that pledge in the House in March 1999? Does he realise that victims were entitled to take that pledge at face value and that it meant a great deal to them? Is this not a good occasion on which to demonstrate that it was not merely a politician's promise, but that he meant it sincerely and is now going to deliver?
The Prime Minister: First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about cystic fibrosis and the suffering it causes. Only the other day I met a cystic fibrosis sufferer who made exactly the same points. True, we have to consider the matter within the context of the overall sums that the Government are putting into the health service; on the other hand we are aware of the things that were said previously and we intend to honour them.
Q11.  Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): This week is national carers week. Six million peopleincluding my constituent Mr. Norman Hosker, who is in his 50s and cares full-time for his 80-year-old mother, who has osteoporosissave this country about £57 billion a year. Knowing that, and in view of a recent