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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to the House last Tuesday, we recognise the concerns that a number of people have expressed about the accountability of direct rule Ministers. We will reflect carefully on ways in which the existing accountability mechanisms may be strengthened and supplemented, including proposals put forward by some of the parties in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Spellar: The Secretary of State rightly said that we have had a number of suggestions, some of which are variations of the one that the hon. Gentleman just described. We have to engage in discussions, and my right hon. Friend and I are discussing with political parties how to move on, but we have to get some common ground between the parties on such issues.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): The Minister might agree that at a time like this there is always the temptation to do something for the sake of doing something. Will he firmly resist the temptation to go down the James Prior road and have an Assembly without either authority or responsibility? He should not spend time and effort on something that will fail, but base the effort on the fact that only the two sovereign Governments acting together have the power and the authority to deal with criminality, illegal arms and illegal armies.
Mr. Spellar: I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the core importance of tackling criminality, which is re-emphasised by the hon. Gentleman. His party has views on how we could move forward to greater ministerial accountability. We are considering that, but obviously we need common ground between parties as to how we make progress, recognising the common desire for greater accountability.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)
(Con): Is not one way to ensure greater accountability to transfer certain powers away from Ministers to directly elected local authorities? In that context, will the Government press forward with the proposals under the review of public administration that seem to have been gathering dust in pending trays for far too long?
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Mr. Spellar: That is not right. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), has been having discussions with parties regarding the review of public administration. There is not unanimity even on, for example, the number of local authorities there should be. Discussions are taking place as to which powers should be delegated to those local bodies. Of course, that would have a significant impact on a future Assembly and Executive, so the matter is not straightforward. We take the point that devolving decisions to the most appropriate local level is important, but we need to achieve some common ground on it.
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of increasing the accountability of Ministers to the people of Northern Ireland and making the workings of the House more accessible to them would be for the sittings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to take place in Northern Ireland during the suspension?
Mr. Spellar: As my hon. Friend and those who cheered that comment know, there is not exactly common ground on that in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. We continue through the usual channels to explore how that could be progressed, but we recognise that there are difficulties.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The cost of maintaining the Northern Ireland Assembly since suspension in October 2002 until 31 December 2004 has been £53.5 million. That comprises £23.2 million for costs relating to Members and political parties, £20.2 million for costs relating to Assembly staff, and £10.1 million for property, accommodation and business service costs.
Mr. Pearson: It is important to recognise that the Assembly machinery must be maintained for when devolution is restored. As a Government we carefully monitor the situation. The number of Assembly staff has been reduced from 403 to 292, and about 40 per cent. of those have been fully or partially redeployed. We have saved about £15 million during the present financial year by allowing staff to go to work for other departments. We will continue to keep these matters under review.
David Burnside (South Antrim)
(UUP): Rather than continuing the phantom, empty, inoperative Assembly, should not the Government move ahead and give us
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accountable government by speeding up local government reform, getting rid of the health and education quangos and giving us a tier of local administration on top of Government, similar to the way in which England and Wales are governed?
Mr. Pearson: I agree that it is important that we move forward with the review of public administration, which the people of Northern Ireland clearly want to see. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been having discussions with a range of political parties during recent months, and I will continue to do so. We are just finishing some work on local identity, and I hope to have a firm proposals paper ready for consultation either at the end of February or early in March, which I hope will fully address the issues that he rightly raised.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): If you, Mr. Speaker, and the House will allow me, before listing my engagements, I will once again briefly update the House on the current casualty figures from the tsunami in respect of the British missing and dead. The number of category 1 missingthose most likely to be lostis, including the 53 confirmed dead, now 274, which is down from 410 last Wednesday. The category 2 figurethose unaccounted for in the region but not in the highly likely categorynow stands at 360. That is down from over 600 last Wednesday.
Ann McKechin: This week, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs presented his report on the millennium development goals to the United Nations, and showed how far short the world is of reaching those targets. When 150,000 children in Africa die each month from malaria alone, and when 114 million children are denied even basic education, does my right hon. Friend agree that, when the G7 finance leaders meet next month, we should press them for substantial increases in debt relief, and to use the International Monetary Fund gold reserve to achieve it?
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the UK would pay its share of the debt service owed to the World Bank and African Development Bank on behalf of low-income countries that could then use the debt service reduction for action on poverty, health and educationthe very things that the millennium development goals deal with.
We will press other G7 countries to join this initiative. It is important that they do and I hope that Europe joins this initiative as well. We can then make sure that the
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money that these countries desperately need, scarce enough as it is, is not going to pay billions of dollars-worth of debt service repayments.
The appalling photographs in today's newspapers bring shame on our country, but we should recognise that they in no way reflect the true character of Britain's armed forces. While the current court martial will decide on individual issues of guilt or innocence, what steps will be taken to investigate the circumstances in which conduct of the kind alleged can take place?
The Prime Minister: First, let me say that everyone finds those photographs shocking and appalling. There are simply no other words to describe them. However, in fairness to our armed forces, I want to make two points. First, the difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things do not happen, but that in a democracy when they do happen people are held and brought to account, and that is what is happening under our judicial system. Secondly, the vast majority of those 65,000 British soldiers who have served out in Iraq have done so with distinction, with courage and with great honour to this country. So while we express in a unified way our disgust at those pictures, I hope that we do not allow that to tarnish the good namefully deservedof our British armed forces.
I can also assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will do everything that we can the Army is doing this alreadyto investigate the circumstances surrounding these matters. The very fact that these courts martial are being brought is an indication of how seriously the Army takes them.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle) (SDLP): Given the Chancellor's positive statement on sending assistance to the poorer countries of the world, and given that the poorest countries in the world are those without education, is not education one of the best forms of assistance that we can send, because it will enable such countries to become totally self-sufficient in a generation or so?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right that investment in education is the best investment that we can make. It is worth pointing out that measures led by this country have already been taken on debt relief. For example, Uganda has been able substantially to increase the number of children in primary education, precisely because it has been able to spend money on education. That is why it is so important that the initiative announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is extended to other countries and that they agree to it.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)
(LD): All of us agree with the sentiments expressed earlier by the Prime Minister on the publication of the photographs of abuse and I am sure that he will agree that the photographs' very circulation is likely to increase the difficulties and dangers for our troops, who are good and honourable, in Iraq. What is his assessment of the impact of the circulation of those images on likely levels of violence? Given the reports of
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bombings today, does he think that there may yet be a need for additional British troops to bolster the safety of the troops who are currently in position?
The Prime Minister: On the last point, the additional deployment for the purposes of the election is satisfactory and sufficient, and I am not aware of any request for additional troops. On the first pointwe saw this when pictures of American soldiers were publishedI think and hope that people in Iraq understand that the fact that we are taking action and prosecuting people who we believe may have been guilty of offences indicates that we do not tolerate that type of activity in any shape or form. It is worth emphasising that Iraqis to whom I spoke on my visits to Basra have paid tribute to the British armed forces' work.
Over the next few weeks, Iraqis will have the chance to participate in their first ever democratic elections. Millions of them want to take part and I am sure that they will. According to the United Nations, the vast majority of Iraqis who are allowed to participate want to participate, whatever part of Iraq they come from. In part, they can do that only because of the courage of British soldiers, who are remaining in Iraq to help them reach the state of democracy that the Iraqis want.
Mr. Kennedy: On troop numbers, given that the Governments of Holland, the Czech Republic and Portugal have all indicated that they will start a phased withdrawal of their troops from the British sector in Iraq over the coming months, what is the likely consequence for our troop numbers? For example, does the Ministry of Defence plan to send in more troops after the election to plug any gaps left by the withdrawal of those forces?
The Prime Minister: No, there are no plans to expand the British contribution. It is correct that some of those countries that had a time-limited commitment to Iraq will act in accordance with it. For example, the Dutch will withdraw their troops at a certain point after the election process. At the same time, however, the Iraqis' capability and capacity in relation to armed forces, police and civil defence is being developed all the time. It cannot be emphasised too often that we do not want to stay for a moment longer than we need to and that the Iraqi people do not want us to stay for a moment longer than we need to. It is a question of staying until the Iraqis' capability is sufficiently robust that they can look after their own security. Everything that comes out of Iraq makes it clear that the people who are causing terrorism and insurgency do not represent the vast majority of Iraqis or even the vast majority in the communities around Baghdad. If they were left to it, those people would be very happy to live in a free democracy, as would the rest of us.
Q2.  Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
(Lab): I am sure that the Prime Minister knows about my Bill, which I have introduced with cross-party support, to require approval by a vote in Parliament before British forces are sent into armed conflict. Will he support those proposals, so that no future Prime Minister can ignore the important precedent that he set when we had a vote,
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whether or not some of us liked the result, on Iraq, and will he consider setting another precedent by providing Government time in which to debate my Bill?
The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind acknowledgement that we provided an opportunity for this House to debate the conflict before entering into it. On the rest of his points, I am afraid that I will have to disappoint him. As I have said many times before, it would be unthinkable for a country to go to war against the wishes of Parliament, but it is not right to constrain the prerogatives that exist at the moment. We did allow people to have a vote before the Iraq conflict, but there may be circumstancesI cannot foresee them, but there may bein which action has to take place very quickly. I will study my hon. Friend's Bill carefully, but we would have to consider the detail of it before any such change was made.
The Prime Minister: We have of course honoured that pledge. In respect of any pledges that we make at the next election, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait for our manifesto. Of course, there will be a Budget in the meantime. I would point out to him that we have not raised the top rate of tax and that we have actually cut the basic rate.
The Prime Minister: As I said before, we will give the details of any tax commitments we make in our manifesto. I might point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government of whom he was a member fought an election specifically on not putting VAT on fuel, and then put VAT on fuel, so we will take no lessons on broken promises on tax from him.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister promised not to put up taxes at all. He said that he had no such plans. He said that no one should assume that this Government would increase national insurance contributions, and the first thing that they did after the election was to increase national insurance contributions.
Every independent expertthe International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, The Economist, the Institute for Fiscal Studiessays that the Government are spending more than they are raising and that a Labour Chancellor would have to put up taxes. Why does the Prime Minister think that they are all wrong?
The Prime Minister:
I think that they are wrong for the very simple reason that the Treasury forecasts on the economy have been proved right. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was the person who told us that we would have a recession as a result of Government policy.
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As we are talking about tax commitments, I have been having a look at the right hon. and learned Gentleman's supposed tax commitments. I hope that he will now publish the detail behind the so-called James review, because it is actually based on the Government's own savings as set out in Sir Peter Gershon's report. It also has a set of completely incredible savings. To give just one example, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to save almost £1 billion from the commissioning of care by primary care trusts, when the total amount of care commissioned by PCTsthe administrative costsis £90 million. That is one example, and I will give many, many more. It is a long list, but we will have time to explore it. In addition, he is going to cut the new deal, despite the fact that it has helped hundreds of thousands of people into work, on the very day when unemployment has yet again fallen. That is the difference between Tory cuts and Labour investment.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister has got his figures on James wrong, just as the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster got them wrong on Tuesday. We have published whole of that report173 pages of it; it is on the Conservative party website. Is it not absolutely clear that the Prime Minister plans to do what he has always doneto put up taxes in the first Budget after a general election? Is it not clear that the choice facing the country is between more waste and higher taxes under Labour and value for money and lower taxes with the Conservatives?
The Prime Minister: I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is into that argument because he says that everything is published on the website, but I have been having a look at what is published. For example, it says that, by changing the role of regional development agencies, he will save £365 million, yet the total administrative costs of all RDAs are far less than that figure. It is regeneration programmes in local communities and not bureaucracy that will actually be cut. He says that he will cut £1 billion by scrapping the sustainable communities plan but that figure includes £400 million that is spent on social housing and on helping pensioners and others get a better standard of living. That is not waste, that is cuts in front-line services. I can do no better on his record on tax than to quote this:
Mr. Howard: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on social housing, too. We have spelled out in detail how we shall be able to provide more social housing than the Government. Everybody knows that the Government waste money. The Gershon report says that they waste £21 billion of taxpayers' money, and we have been able to provide more savings. Have there ever been a Government who taxed so much, wasted so much and achieved so little?
The Prime Minister:
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is keen to get away from the detail of that but he is not going to in the days ahead. Let me give
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another example of his so-called cuts. He says that he will scrap the Small Business Service, which means approximately £400 million
Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the Prime Minister that he must concentrate on the policies of his Government. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that he has commented on his policies when he should be asking a question. Perhaps the Prime could oblige me.
The Prime Minister: Absolutely right, Mr. Speaker, and therefore let me make a commitment on our policy: we will keep the Small Business Service, not cut it. We will keep the new deal, not cut it. We will keep the money that goes into regeneration, not cut it, and we will keep the money that goes into health care and not cut it. We will never promise to cut taxes and spend morethe promises that the previous Conservative Government made. What did they end up with? Boom and bust. [Interruption.]
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If we can get away from elections and back to the reality of my constituents for a moment, I am conscious that my right hon. Friend is aware of the effects of the recent disastrous floods in Carlisle. The latest position is that thousands of people have been forced out of their houses, perhaps for at least eight months, and 260 businesses have been badly affected. So far, the Government's response has been good and I hope that that will continue. However, will he ensure that the new flood defences that were planned will be modified and that work on them will be started as soon as is feasible? Will he give a commitment that they will be of a standard that would have withstood the water that caused the recent flood?
The Prime Minister: I express my sympathy to my hon. Friend's constituents who have been affected by the flooding. I understand their concern, since more than 3,000 houses have been flooded and many more have suffered wind damage. The Environment Agency was already considering the options for a new flood defence scheme to give added protection to Carlisle. I note that, as a result of what has happened, it and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are considering how they can ensure that any new flood protection scheme tries to tackle the problem that has affected my hon. Friend's constituency. We understand the urgency of that. As I said when I spoke to him the other day, I shall take a personal interest in ensuring that that is done properly.
The Prime Minister:
As I have already said, the Chancellor will set out the detail in the Budget. When we come to the election, we will set out our promises on tax as on everything else. We will not make promises that we cannot keep. In particular, we will not say that we can somehow cut everyone's tax and increase spending
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without that resulting in a serious problem for the country. Not merely on the detail but on that general principle, the right hon. Gentleman and his party have lost any minimal credibility that they had, and we will enjoy pursuing them on that issue between now and polling day.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister recall that, in the past two years, the Government have had to intervene in regard to railway firms that were not pulling their weight and, in one case, to a firm that was being neglectful on safety? Is he aware that the coal industry is now suffering from the same problem? UK Coal, the largest employer in the industry, is not only neglecting safety but running down the few remaining pits. I would expect the Government to do the same for the energy industry as they did for the railway industry. They should intervene, get rid of UK Coal and put somebody in there who can be trusted to save the mines.
The Prime Minister: I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend has raised on UK Coal. Part of the problem comes from the way in which privatisation took place, both in transport and in the coal industry. The result of that has been the waste of many billions of poundswe have been debating waste todayand the loss of jobs in mining communities.
The Prime Minister: I have to say that this is the Conservatives' attempt, after the debate about the changes to the licensing law, which they supported at the time, to say that they were really against them. Let me explain the position to the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that the changes will introduce more flexible licensing. The number of clubs or pubs that will apply for 24-hour licences is very small, but there will be greater flexibility. The important point is that, in addition, there will be greater powers for police and local residents to object to licences to ensure that the minority of places that are causing the trouble are shut down. There are greater powers under the antisocial behaviour legislation to deal with people who are drunk and disorderly and causing trouble. As I said last week, the pleasure of the 95 per cent. of people who play by the rules and abide by the law should not be affected by the small minority who misbehave under the existing laws and would misbehave under any laws. The task is surely to deal with them specifically, and to deal with the pubs and clubs that are allowing them to misbehave in that way.
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)
(Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the divisional commander of Chapeltown police, Chief Superintendent Howard Crowther, and his team on an operation last month that resulted in the removal and arrest of 180 drug dealers from the streets of
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Chapeltown? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to sustain the freedom of the streets for the community is to adopt the kind of policies that this Government support, which ensure the social, economic and physical regeneration of suburbs such as Chapeltown? Does he also agree that if the Conservatives ever got back into Government
The Prime Minister: I congratulate Howard Crowther and his team on what they have done in Chapeltown, which I know is an example that is being studied elsewhere in the country. It is an example of the police working with the local community to use the new antisocial behaviour powers. It is important that they do that. The other point that my hon. Friend made is also important. This is not just about having tougher laws on closing the houses of drug dealers, seizing their assets and making sure that they are properly prosecuted through the courts. The other part of the equation involves regenerating some of these areas in terms of housing and employment. That is why it is so important that the money that we have set aside for this continues to be spent.
Q5.  Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Six years ago, the average first-time home buyer paid no stamp duty. Last year, they paid £1,300. Will the Prime Minister have a cosy fireside chat with his Chancellor about that?
The Prime Minister: We will publish over the next month proposals that will help first-time home buyers. For those families who are struggling to get on the housing ladder, it is important that we increase the supply of housing in a planned and orderly way that does not affect the green belt. It is no use Conservatives saying on the one hand that they are in favour of helping people on to the housing ladder and into the housing market, while on the other hand opposing all the measures necessary to do so.
Q6.  Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable economic progress made in the city of Glasgow since 1997, with more than 50,000 new jobs being added to the city's employment base. Is he also aware, however, that the number of people classified as economically inactive remains at 100,000, which is one in three of the available work force? Will he consider what new initiatives and additional resources might be made available to the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus, Scottish Enterprise Glasgow and other local agencies, to enable them to help many of those on incapacity and related benefits back into work?
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend points out rightly that we now have record employment levels, with 2 million more jobs since 1997, long-term employment down by 80 per cent., and the number of young people on the dole having fallen by almost 80 per cent. since we came to office. He is also right, however, to say that there is much more to do. That is why it is important that the new deal programme is kept and extended, and that we help people on incapacity benefit who can work to get
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off benefit and into work. All of that requires an active policy for the labour market, which is precisely why, instead of savaging or privatising Jobcentre Plus, which is the policy of the Conservative party, we should ensure that we help more people off benefit and into work. Those 2 million jobs have not just been about the strength of the economy, important though that is, but about active Labour partyand labour marketmeasures to help people off benefit and into work, to give them training, child care and all the things that sometimes stand between them and a decent job.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): The Prime Minister has known for some time that the republican movement was responsible for the Northern Bank raid. Because he has yet to develop a coherent response, he is in danger of giving the impression that after a little while he will welcome back through his door the biggest bank robber in British history. Does he realise the damage that that will do to himself and his party?
The Prime Minister: First, I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not in any shape or form dismiss the importance or seriousness of what has happened. We are now seeing what we do to find a way forward which ensures that those people who are democrats and committed to every aspect of the democratic process are able to find a way forward, and that those people who are not prepared to commit themselves to exclusively peaceful means do not hold up the process for everybody else. That is what we will consider. As he knows, such a proposal requires not only support in the Unionist community but support in the nationalist community, too. If I can, I still want to find a way forward that includes everybody. It must be said, however, that we can no longer have a situation in which political parties are associated with paramilitary groups that are committing either what we might call terrorist offences or ordinary criminality. There simply can be no place for that. Unless and until it is absolutely clear that things have changed fundamentally, it is difficult to see the way forward on that inclusive basis. But the challenge is not for us. The challenge is for those who have been engaged in that type of activity to realise that we cannot wait for ever while they make up their minds.
Q7.  Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)
(Lab): Overall crime continues to fall in my constituency, with burglary down 33 per cent. last year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the seven new community support officers who have just started work in Lowestoft? With 20,000 more CSOs planned nationally, can he tell us how many more new CSOs my constituency can expect to see and what more he will do
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to tackle antisocial behaviour, if we continue to invest in crime fighting rather than cut the Home Office budget as the Conservative party would do?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right in saying that overall burglary has fallen, according to the British crime survey, by about 40 per cent. If one is a victim of burglary, however, is it no consolation to know that that is the case. It is therefore important that as well as the type of laws that we have introduced in relation to antisocial behaviour and drugs particularlyoften, burglary and acquisitive crime are linked to drug addictionwe increase the numbers of police and community support officers. I assure him that that programme will continue and be expanded in the way in which we have said, and that it is fully funded within the Government's programme. Community support officersopposed by the Conservative party when they were introducedhave in fact been tremendously popular.
Q8.  Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Prime Minister look again at the decision as asked for by the colonel of the Royal Welsh Regimentthat Welsh regiments should be allowed to show their names in the same way as the Royal Regiment of Scotland?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly look into that. I am aware of concern about it. I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is looking into it already, but I will ensure that I am properly acquainted with the facts as well.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that what has been described as the finest music auditorium in the world is not in Paris, not in Rome, not in New York, and not even in London? [Hon. Members: "Where is it?"] In fact, it is in Gateshead. When my right hon. Friend visits the new Sage music centre on the bank of the Tyne, which he will do fairly shortly, will he take the opportunity to congratulate all who have been involved with it, and in particular congratulate Gateshead's Labour-controlled council on its vision? Will he also ask his Ministers to co-operate fully with the council in its further efforts to develop the quayside area of Gateshead?
The Prime Minister: Anyone who has visited the quayside area knows that what my hon. Friend said is absolutely true. The centre and, indeed, the whole development are a testament to the vision and leadership that have been offered locally. I think that that is one reason why people now consider the area one of the places to go in Europe, a fact of which my hon. Friend and his constituents can be very proud.
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