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Future Aircraft Carriers

Q4. [30882] Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When he expects the future aircraft carriers to be brought into service with the Royal Navy.

The Prime Minister: We are committed to delivering this important capability in a time scale that meets the requirements of the Royal Navy. We will set the dates when the carriers will be brought into service when we are ready to commit to manufacture.

Dr. Lewis: If, as the Prime Minister now suggests, it is not appropriate to set target delivery or in-service dates until the order is placed, can he tell me why his own Defence Ministers on five occasions between April 2004 and June 2005 told both Houses of Parliament that the target in-service dates would be 2012 and 2015? Why are they no longer prepared to say that?

The Prime Minister: The reason for giving those dates was the way in which the existing carriers get phased out. Those are possible dates, but we cannot give a firm commitment to a date until we are ready to commit to manufacture. That simply cannot be done at the present time. As I say, it is perfectly possible that those dates will be the dates that we choose in the end, but at this time we cannot give a firm date until the commitment to manufacture is in place.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is a closed question.


Q5. [30883] Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Last week, the local inspector threw out plans for 3,000 houses in Basingstoke because he felt that local communities could not cope with the scale of building. Is it not time for the Government to stop dumping thousands of houses on Basingstoke and the rest of the south-east and to let local councils plan the future of their towns and villages?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is important to ensure that we build enough houses in this country so that people, especially younger people, can access affordable housing. We try to do that
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in a planned way, but for the Conservative party to pretend that no new houses need to be built in the south at all is absurd.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the shocking survey from Amnesty International that shows that a third of those questioned think that women who flirt or are drunk are partly responsible if they are raped? Will he support Amnesty's campaign against all forms of violence against women and assert that all such violence is totally unacceptable and liable to prosecution?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is totally unacceptable and should be liable to prosecution.

Q6. [30884] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Last night, the House debated the straightforward motion

Why did the Government vote against it?

The Prime Minister: Because until we work out the means of ensuring that there is carbon reduction, it is all very well for the Conservative party to join the Liberal Democrats and insist that the Government say that we must reduce carbon by a certain amount by a certain date—actually beyond the targets that we have already set—but they also need to be prepared to say how to do that. The one time we put forward a specific measure, namely, the climate change industrial levy, the Conservative party voted against it. When it has some serious propositions to make, we will listen, but while it continues to behave as if opposition were its natural state, we will not.

Q7. [30885] Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): This Friday, as part of anti-bullying week, Lib-Dem controlled Bristol city council will call on its teachers not to punish or blame pupils who bully other pupils. What message does the Prime Minister have for those who adopt a no-blame approach, which, in my view, is dangerous and reckless, does nothing for the victims and does nothing to make bullies change their behaviour?

The Prime Minister: If what my hon. Friend says is correct about the Liberal Democrats, then it is an extraordinary thing for even them to do and I am shocked by it. [Interruption.] To describe oneself as shocked by the Liberal Democrats is perhaps an oxymoron.

I profoundly disagree with the position taken by the council. Bullying should be punished. Children who bully must be made to understand the harm that they have been doing. New sanctions are available. I am pleased that in the schools White Paper we are giving teachers an unambiguous right to discipline. It is absolutely necessary, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work on that serious problem.

Gas Supplies

12.30 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to comment on the gas supply and market.

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The facts are that so far this winter there have been no gas shortages and supply and demand have remained in balance. Demand from gas is being met by deliveries from the North sea and the rest of the UK continental shelf, the interconnector, imports through the Isle of Grain and storage. We are also seeing a reduction in demand from gas-fired power stations and some large industrial users of gas in response to increased prices.

Gas storage levels remain full or nearly full. National Grid's daily report for 21 November shows short and long-range storage as being at 100 per cent. and 98 per cent. respectively. Medium range remains at 66 per cent. pending the new Humbly Grove facility, which is in the process of filling up.

We will continue to liaise closely with National Grid throughout the winter.

John Hemming: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he confirm that on Saturday 93 GWh were taken from medium storage and 393 GWh from long-term storage; on Sunday 138 GWh were taken from medium storage and 469 from long-term storage; and on Monday 231 GWh were taken from medium-term storage and 496 GWh from long-term storage, which has maxed out at that rate? At that rate of withdrawal, we could breach the safety monitors during winter. At what point will the Secretary of State be concerned if that continues?

Malcolm Wicks: I should point out that I am not the Secretary of State. [Hon. Members: "Yet."] Let us wait until the end of the winter.

The serious point is that in terms of the gas market, supplies are taken from storage from time to time. They are then filled up. Let us remember that the North sea is this country's natural storage. The market is building—it is a matter for the market, not for the Government—more storage facilities, with 10 new projects under way. Reports from National Grid this morning say that what is happening to the spot gas price is irrational. It tells me that it is awash with gas at the moment.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): While I understand that there is an issue about gas supplies, that has a bearing on the cost of gas to intensive energy users. Will my hon. Friend ensure that as soon as the cold spell is over, the price of gas will go down to what it was    before? Will he meet pottery and ceramic manufacturers, who are concerned about the effects on production capacity of the price increase to £1.60 per therm?

Malcolm Wicks: Of course I will meet my hon. Friend's colleagues from industry. Since the spring, we have met intensive users of energy and their representative bodies. Most of business buys gas in the normal way, as do domestic customers. Globally, prices
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for energy are rising, often linked to the price of a barrel of oil. However, our prices are often lower than the median in the rest of the European Union. That is a fact. The particular problem is with intensive users of energy, who use gas as the feedstuff for producing chemicals, for example. They—not the Government—have chosen to buy on the spot market. It is one private company signing a contract with another, and they are suffering from very high prices. We are concerned about that and we are working with them, but as was said during Prime Minister's questions, the market is a liberal, commercial, privatised market in which judgments are made by private companies. We do not need someone posing as a shadow Stalinist Minister of Power saying that the Government should take command. To put the matter in context, the companies in question, although important British industries, represent 0.2 per cent. of companies that use gas and 0.05 per cent. of all companies in the UK. I am not complacent, but we have to put the present concerns in an intelligent and factual context.

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