The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith):
The calculating system is obviously unfair and out of date. Two major reforms of the ongoing review have already been implemented: the rating of vacant non-domestic property and the phasing out of industrial derating. Further reforms will be introduced in April 2007 for the domestic sector, including the change from rental to discrete capital values and a new rate relief scheme. Consultation is already under way on charitable and business relief proposals.
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David Simpson: In light of the fact that a majority of the people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that had specific manifesto commitments to oppose the Government's current plans to change the rating system in the Province, will the Minister consider delaying any legislation on that until there is a consensus among the people on whom it will have a direct impact?
Angela E. Smith: We have to recognise that although we take on board as much public opinion as possible, we must press ahead with rating reform and proposals on water charges. Households in Northern Ireland contribute less than half the taxes and charges than those paid in similar circumstances in England, Wales and Scotland. If we are to sustain and improve public sector investment, we have to ensure that the money comes in.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Ministers are in the process of meeting representatives from the political parties and loyal orders with a view to ensuring that the 2005 marching season passes off peacefully and can be enjoyed by those who participate in it.
Mr. Campbell: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he elaborate on what further measures are being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that parades, such as the small number of parades organised by the Orange Order that go close to nationalist areas, enjoy the same freedom as the small number of nationalist parades that go close to Unionist areassomething that they have enjoyed for the past 30 years?
Mr. Woodward: The Parades Commission is in consultation with all interested parties. The more that can be done to bring all political parties and institutions to consult and co-operate with each other, the more likely it is that we will see another seasonthe thirdin which there is little public disorder, little violence, and further peace and progress for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith):
Seasonally adjusted figures from the labour force survey for the period from February to April 2005 estimate that there are 37,000 unemployed persons in Northern Ireland, which equates to an unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent. Over
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the last year the number of unemployed people in Northern Ireland fell by 2,000 and the unemployment rate decreased by 0.4 percentage points.
Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend agree that we have come a long way since the dark old days when employment opportunities were governed by a person's Christian name, which church they attended and the community in which they were brought up? Does she also agree that improved employment opportunities and increased prosperity have helped to cement the peace process?
Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree. If we are to build a cohesive society where people move forward together, it must be done on the basis of economic competence. The Government have ensured that there are jobs and that people are back in work. That cuts across the whole community.
Jeff Ennis: I recently visited Londonderry and Belfast and there is no doubt that regeneration is moving apace in the big cities in Northern Ireland and creating many jobs, but what are the Government doing to promote employment measures in the more rural parts of the Province?
Angela E. Smith: Through Invest Northern Ireland and other programmes, we must ensure that the whole of Northern Ireland shares the benefits of increased economic prosperity. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the interests of rural areas are very much at the forefront of our mind.
Mr. Campbell: The Northumberland air ambulance service has three aircraft, two of which are grounded at present because of lack of funds. Will the Prime Minister use his office, or his Ministers, to get those aircraft, which do a wonderful job saving lives, back into service?
The Prime Minister:
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Great North air ambulance service does an excellent job and I know that two helicopters were added to the service last year. It is obviously for the national health service trust to decide how it spends its money and it has decided not to spend its money in that particular way. I understand that talks are going on aimed at trying to secure some long-term funding. In the meantime, I think
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I am right in saying that some cover is being provided by an air ambulance based in Durham, but I very much hope that a long-term solution can be put in place that allows the service to continue to the benefit of my hon. Friend's constituents and others.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): When Europe's leaders meet tomorrow, they will have a clear choice on the way forward for the constitution: they can declare it dead or they can seek to extend the period for ratification. Which will the Prime Minister be urging them to do?
The Prime Minister: As I said yesterday, the sensible thing in the light of the no votes in France and Holland is to have a pause for reflection and to consider the right way forward for Europe, because the constitution obviously cannot proceed until a way is found round those France and Holland votes, or we decide to proceed in a different way. That is a decision that has to be made collectively. What is important to realise is that, as a result of the way in which we have approached it, there is a clear understanding in Europe that there needs to be a far more fundamental debate about the future of Europe. Fortunately, as Britain has a Government who are not Eurosceptic but who believe in Britain at the centre of Europe, we are in the right position to play a good part in that debate.
Mr. Howard: Why should a way round the votes of the people of France and the Netherlands be found? Is not it the case that the people of France and the Netherlands have clearly expressed their view? Is not it pretty obvious that the constitution is dead? Why will not the Prime Minister face facts and admit it?
The Prime Minister: The fact is that, as we have said, there is no point in proceeding with our referendum until the situation changes. If it does not change, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right that the constitution cannot proceed, but that has to be a decision taken by the whole of Europe. At this moment, the important thing is for us to sit down and think, in Europe, about how we make sure that Europe is more relevant to the concerns of people in the early 21st century. As I said, this country, in its presidency, is well placed to lead that debate.
Mr. Howard: I agree with the Prime Minister that we should use this as a great opportunity to think hard about the future of the European Union. There is indeed a growing consensus that we need to rethink the entire basis of the European Union. Should not that mean that the European Union should do less and do it better, and that it should start returning powers to its member states?
The Prime Minister: This is where I fear the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Conservative party want to lead usto a renegotiation not of the constitution, but of the existing terms of Britain's membership; in other words, exit from the European Union as it is. Let me remind him that
Mr. Howard: Margaret Thatcher was saying that she did not want to leave the European Union. I do not want to leave the European Union, and nor does the Dutch Foreign Minister, but he said recently that Europe should start returning powers to its member states. I agree with that. Does the Prime Minister?
The Prime Minister: That is precisely why subsidiarity is a major part of the new constitution. But that is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman's position. His position is to renegotiate the existing terms of Britain's membership. Let me quote something else to him, from someone now back in the House as the Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea and a Conservative leadership contender, although it is true that that does not put him in a very exclusive group. None the less he said:
Does the Leader of the Opposition accept that if he wants to renegotiate the existing terms of Britain's membership, he has to get the agreement of every other member state in Europe, and not a single one of them is prepared to agree it?
Mr. Howard: The Dutch Foreign Minister says that the Prime Minister is keen to talk about everyone else's views. I want to remind him about his views. He is the man who, in order to get into the House, told voters that he wanted to get out of Europe. He is the man who signed away our opt-out from the social chapter and now complains about EU red tape. He is the man who said we did not need a constitution at all, then he said we had to have it, and now he cannot make up his mind one way or the other. He is the man who said a referendum would be a gross betrayal of the British national interest, and then promised we would have one. He has wriggled on Europe like a worm on a fish hook. It is not time he talked straight to the British people and gave it straight to the leaders in Europe tomorrow?
The Prime Minister: First, it is true that we agree that Britain should be part of the social chapter. I am proud of that decision. I think it was the right decision. What is more, I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that when he was opposing Britain's membership of the social chapter, he used to say that it would cost Britain a million jobs. We have joined the social chapter and we have 2 million more jobs in this country. Our approachbeing willing to fight for Britain's interests, but from a pro-European positionis the right one for the country, and that is the approach we will continue to adopt.
Q2.  Clive Efford (Eltham)
(Lab): While I welcome everything the Government are doing to increase the supply of affordable homes, I draw my right hon. Friend's
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attention to the shortage of affordable rented accommodation, particularly in London. My surgery every week is full of young families who are forced to live with parents because they cannot find affordable homes, and even with the assistance that the Government are planning to provide, they cannot afford to buy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to increase the supply of rented accommodation at affordable rates so that those families can have hope for the future?
The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the urgent need for more affordable homes for people. He will know that we are investing about £1.5 billiona 50 per cent. increaseand ensuring that we can provide affordable homes. The difficulty is that it seems that we need a mix of social housing and low-cost private housing. The proposals made by the Deputy Prime Minister will enable us to increase not merely social housing but low-cost private housing, and we need both if we are to make a real impact on the housing problems of London and the south-east.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Returning to the European issue, obviously, and given the exchanges that have just taken place, it would be only fair minded of me to pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the leader of the Conservative party, for the principled stand he took over the endorsement of the Maastricht treaty. We remember that in this House and therefore wonder what we have been listening to today.
Given the rejection of the treaty in the referendums in France and Holland, surely we have to accept that this constitutional treaty is no longer viable. That being the case, does the Prime Minister agree that what we need is not just his pause for reflection but a formal moratorium on significant treaty revisions, so that the European Union can demonstrate to the citizens of Europe that under its existing responsibilities it can carry out the tasks that it needs to carry out?
The Prime Minister: The future of the constitution in the end can be pronounced on only by the European Council as a whole, which is why we have been careful in the words that we have chosenI think for very sensible reasons. Immediately after the referendum results, there were people calling for us simply to proceed regardless. Some reality has now dawned, and that is not going to happen. The way that we approached the matter was the right way, not trying to usurp a decision that has to be taken by the European Council.
In respect of treaty revision, the most important thing is to have a serious debate over the next few months about the right economic and security policies for Europe in the early 21st century. I hope that we can play a part during our presidencies in those debates. At some point, though, there will be a need to change the mechanisms whereby Europe makes its decisions, because those mechanisms are not in my judgment capable of delivering effective European decision making, given that we have 25 members, which will increase to 27 and then further.
Does the Prime Minister acceptI am sure that he doesthat the key challenge is to bring Europe closer to its citizens, but that a number of
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significant reforms can be begun here and now without significant treaty revision? For example, will he over the next few days be arguing the case for the opening up of the deliberations of the Council of Ministers, so that instead of meeting behind closed doors to make European law, we can see the discussions, in exactly the same way that we do in this House? In terms of this House and its procedures, has he given consideration to the all-party recommendations of the Modernisation Committee about scrutiny here of European conduct, so that we have better accountability from our Ministers when they go to the Council?
The Prime Minister: We certainly support better scrutiny of European proposals here in this House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will bring forward some proposals on that in due course. In respect of the Council meetings, we are broadly sympathetic on that point, as we got that proposal included in the constitution.
To be absolutely blunt, although opening up the deliberations of the Council to public view would obviously be a democratic step forward, it would not in the end answer the real questions in Europe. One can see clearly with the referendum results that there is a debate going in Europe about two things. The first is the right response to globalisation and the rise of countries such as China and India, which have low labour cost production and will compete on a very tough basis with Europe and the rest of the world. We need to decide on the attitude towards globalisation. We are in favour of a free and liberal approach. We believe that we should welcome the competition and invest in skills and education in order to meet it. Others believe that we should try to protect ourselves through regulation. I do not think that that is the right way to go.
The second debate is about the transatlantic alliance: is our main alliance still with America? If we start to answer those debates and forge a consensus on the political direction of Europe, some of the other issues will become easier to manage. Until we do that, Europe will be uncertain of its political direction and people will find it difficult to vote for constitutional treaties and other things that are important for the political class in Europe but that do not necessarily answer the people's queries.
Q3.  Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Thanks to the assistance of local Labour politicians in Aberdeen and despite criticism from local Liberal Democrats, the people of Beach boulevard in Aberdeen have been able to sleep at night for the past three months because of the implementation of a dispersal order against the boy racers, or as they are known locally, "bouley bashers", who have made residents' lives a misery for years. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for communities elsewhere in the UK in which people's lives are still being blighted by antisocial behaviour? Dispersal orders and other powers available to the police in antisocial behaviour legislation are sometimes blocked by those who did not support the power's introduction in the first place, such as the Liberal Democrats.
The Prime Minister:
Like my hon. Friend, I strongly support antisocial behaviour legislation. Where the legislation has been implemented properly, the powers
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are being used effectively to tackle antisocial behaviour. I urge communities to look at the available powers and make sure that the police, local authorities and local residents are using them properly. I hope that we have moved onI do not know whether we haveand that the Liberal Democrat party, both here and in Scotland, will support antisocial behaviour orders and other parts of the legislation. The idea that those powers are an affront to civil liberties is patently absurd, because they protect the civil liberties of the decent, law-abiding majority.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The Prime Minister has been against Europe and then for it. He has been for the pound and then against it. He has been against a referendum and then for it. And although he has been against negotiating on our rebate, I discovered at the weekend that he is for it, although to be fair to him he is both for and against it right now.
The Prime Minister has taken more positions than the "Kama Sutra" Does he now regret not killing off the European constitution at the time of the Dutch referendum and not giving a lead on the future direction of Europe at this summit rather than ceding the initiative to the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France, who have debated our rebate in a ludicrous way, which has left him more isolated than ever we might have been?
The Prime Minister: First, may I say what a superb question that was? I am devastated by it. If I can put it gently, our approach to Europe is better than the right hon. Gentleman's. It was not for us to tell the Dutch people to vote against the constitution, which includes a sensible set of rules for the way forward. As I have said, the main thing is to have a political debate about the future of Europe, and I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman's participation, in whatever position he finds acceptable.
Q4.  Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Nearly 40 per cent. of people on incapacity benefit are on it because they have mental health problems. The Government have done a great deal in recent years to try to improve mental health services across the country, but there is still a chronic shortage of psychotherapy, counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy treatment. All too often, people who are trying to deal with stress, anxiety and depression end up popping pills or committing suicide. What are the Government going to do to make sure that we have the right range of mental health services across the whole country so that we can get more people off benefits and into work? A good, fulfilling job is probably the best way towards sound mental health.
The Prime Minister:
I certainly hope so. I know that my hon. Friend had an Adjournment debate on this subject this morning, and I entirely agree with what he
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says. The Department of Health is working on proposals for extending the range of treatments offered under the NHS to people with mental health problems, focusing particularly on greater availability of the so-called cognitive behavioural therapies. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that those are as cost-effective as many drug regimes and are actually often more popular with patients.
There is shortly to be a Green Paper on incapacity benefit reform. However, I totally agree that many people with mental health problems, particularly if they are not so severe as to disable them completely, would be much better off if they were helped back into some type of work rather than being on incapacity benefit, where often their lives are not fulfilled in the way that my hon. Friend rightly says they should be.
Q5.  Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The constitutional treaty may be considered by some to be dead in the water, but further European defence integration goes ahead unchecked, according to the chairman of the relevant Committee in the European Parliament, who said:
Is it any wonder that the British public are so sceptical about the European Union when the engine of European integration forges ahead without brakes and with no reverse gear, in spite of the democratic decision of the French and Dutch people clearly expressed in recent referendums?
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I just totally disagree with that. It is worth pointing out that the trouble with Conservative Members is that they want to use the current situation in Europe as a way of making their age-old case to get Britain out of Europe, which is the worst possible response. [Interruption.] I am afraid that it is true. That is why they want to renegotiate existing treaty obligations, and why they want to withdraw co-operation in areas such as defence, which is intergovernmental and which we do precisely because we think that it is in this country's interestsas it isto have a sensible form of defence co-operation with other European Union countries. It used to be a matter of common consent on both sides of this House that we should co-operate on defence matters. Such defence co-operation was actually, I think, in the Maastricht treaty. It is only today's Conservative party that has moved so far from the mainstream that the Conservatives see every item of co-operation as somehow an insult to the interests of Britainit is not.
Q6.  Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I should like to ask the Prime Minister how best we can encourage a sensible debate about our future energy suppliesa debate that is not dominated by the powerful nuclear lobby and that recognises that coal, with investment in clean-burn technology, has a key role to play in meeting our energy needs. Finally, does he agreeI am sure that he wouldthat only public ownership of what is left of our deep mine coal industry can guarantee its future in the years ahead?
In respect of the clean-burn technique and ensuring that we use fossil fuels in a more environmentally sustainable and beneficial way, I do agree with him. That is why we are putting millions of pounds into research, as indeed is the United States, into developing cleaner coal technologies. That is extremely important.
In respect of nuclear power, there are, as I have said before, no current proposals to build new nuclear power stations, though, as we said in the energy White Paper, we cannot rule out the possibility of doing so at some point in the future. What is needed now is to accept, particularly after the papers signed by the academy of science in all the G8 countries, that there is now little doubt that climate change and global warming are major issues for us to confront and deal with, and this type of clean coal energy policy will be a vital part of the future.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Is it true, as has been reported, that 80p out of every pound of individual donations to the Labour party has come from people who have either been honoured or ennobled by the Government? Given that the Prime Minister is a pretty regular sort of guy, can he offer an explanation, bar the obvious one?
The Prime Minister: I do not know the precise proportions but the only reason why people know how much money is given to political parties, including the hon. Gentleman's, is that we published the names of donors for the first time. We have therefore introduced, for the first time, proper open transparency about who gives what to political parties.
Q7.  Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister's positive endeavour to tackle poverty in the world. Will he add one more item to the agenda for his leadership of the G8 and presidency of the EU? Will he lead the call for a worldwide ban on asbestos? There are good reasons for doing that. The manufacturing focus has shifted to the developing world and the disease, disability and deaths that will be caused by exposure will add to poverty and continue adding to poverty unless we can bring in a ban that is similar to that which has been introduced throughout the industrialised world.
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We all recognise that asbestos can have serious effects on people's health and he is right that we should aim to achieve a global ban. We are working towards that through the United Nations environment programme. At the risk of unduly and unnecessarily provoking Conservative Members, I say the EU has already introduced a ban on the use of asbestos in the Union.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley)
(LD): Does the Prime Minister share my concern and that of a vicar in my constituency and many of his parishioners who are irritated by the nuisance of mechanical phone calls, whereby a computer phones them but nobody is at the end of the line? Will he put pressure on Ofcom to use current legislation to ensure that the practice ceases, and review the legislation?
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The Prime Minister: I am not sure whether the vicar's powers or mine are most suitable for dealing with that issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments although I cannot honestly tell him what I think the answer is because I do not know. However, I shall find out and get back to him.
Q8.  Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Bonjour. What steps does the Prime Minister propose to take to measure the results that his Ministers achieve on a regular basis? Will he consider introducing a "Minister of the month" award? Will he accept from me a nomination for the Minister for Europe, who has achieved so much in such a short time? I had not fully appreciated that putting Britain at the centre of Europe meant renegotiating the common agricultural policy, renegotiating the European budget and picking a row with France. He has my complete support.
Q9.  Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In Northamptonshire, police numbers are 15 per cent. below strength. The chief constable has stated that he needs at least 200 additional officers and the Labour chairman of the police authority said that funding for the force has been inadequate for a number of years. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet a cross-party delegation from the county, including Members of Parliament, so that the scale of the problem can be made clear and steps taken to sort it out?
The Prime Minister: I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raisesI have heard them many times from people in his constituency and elsewhere. We are increasing considerably the amount of police funding. I point out that we have increased it in real terms by far more than, for example, the previous Conservative Government. We will continue to consider how we manage to get a fair and equitable distribution of resources across the police forces and we will always be willing to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman and others. However, I must stress that we have more police officers in this country today than ever and that we are also supplementing them with community support officers. Overall, we have the greatest number of police and community support officers that we have ever had.
Q10.  Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): President Bush would appear to believe that 4 per cent. of the world's population continuing to produce 25 per cent. of the world's carbon dioxide emissions is sustainable. In contrast, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California said just a few days ago that the debate on climate change is over:
The Prime Minister: Well, I will do my best to persuade the G8 of the importance of tackling the issue of climate change. What is necessary is to ensure that we get a process in which the United States is involved, and then, not just the major, modern developed countries but countries such as China and India, which, over the years to come, will be major consumers of energy. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that that is a fundamental challenge, and I hope that this year, at the G8 summit, we can set the issue on a different and better course for the future.
Q11.  Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)
(Con): In 2001, the Labour party manifesto pledged to
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cut truancy in our schools. What has happened in the intervening years, and who is responsible for the gross failure of our children?
The Prime Minister: It is true that truancy has not been cut, but it is also true that, as a result of the massive investment in education in our country, we have the best results for 11-year-olds, the best GCSE results and the best A-level results that this country has ever had. Under the previous Conservative Government, funding per pupil was cut. Under this Government, it has risen. Yes, a lot remains to be done on truancy and other issues, but the education system in this country is going places and getting better as a result of a Labour Government who believe in education, not a Tory Government who used to cut it.