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Gershon Review

5. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Whether he has met Treasury Ministers and the First Minister in Wales to discuss the effect of the Gershon review job reductions on west Wales and the valleys objective 1 area. [114704]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I met the Paymaster General on Monday to discuss the effect of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ change programme on west Wales and the valleys and Wales as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the issue with the First Minister.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that useful reply. He will know that nearly 50 jobs have been lost in the Department for Work and Pensions office in Porthmadog and that there are further threats to about 50 in the Revenue office. The loss of 100 jobs in a small town in the objective 1 area is a devastating blow. May I ask him sincerely to redouble his efforts—I know he will—to have the policy changed so that it does not devastate that area of north-west Wales?

Nick Ainger: HMRC has not announced any office closures. The programme of regional reviews announced in November is a consultation exercise. Published future staff numbers are initial proposals only. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that before withdrawing any office, a full impact assessment will be undertaken, including an assessment of the impact on the local economy. I agreed with the Paymaster General that we would meet again with the First Minister to discuss these matters, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), that if we did not have a United Kingdom Government, these issues would not be discussed. His policy on separation of the United Kingdom would deny his—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent service that the Bangor Revenue office provides to the whole of north-west Wales. It employs many of my constituents, but those jobs are under threat. Will he press the Treasury, as I and many other Members have pressed the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we provide a full bilingual service to people in north-west Wales? The DWP accepted that and moved Revenue jobs from south Wales; now is the time to keep them in north-west Wales.

Nick Ainger: I can tell my hon. Friend that HMRC recognises the needs of its Welsh-speaking customers, especially during this period of change, and is seeking a better understanding of their requirements across the
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range of HMRC services. I will discuss that with the Paymaster General and the First Minister when we meet again.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak.

Mr. Jones: The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff at the Revenue office in Porthmadog, 24 are Welsh speakers. There are another 44 Welsh speakers in the Bangor, Rhyl and Colwyn Bay cluster. Can he confirm that he recognises the importance to people in north Wales of receiving a Welsh language service from the Revenue office? Has he impressed that on his colleague, the Paymaster General?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Porthmadog office deals with telephone and written correspondence in Welsh. The formal consultation on the future of that office will not begin until after April 2008, so there is plenty of time for representations to be made by Members, trade unions and stakeholders, not only in north Wales but throughout Wales. I assure him that the Paymaster General and I will take up the matter with the First Minister when we meet again.

Police Funding

6. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly Government on police funding in Wales. [114705]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): The Government continue to provide huge increases in resources for the police service. The recent announcement of more than £450 million in total funding for 2007-08 represents another good deal for Wales.

James Duddridge: In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety stated:

Given that the police in Wales have said that that will not be possible under the current funding settlement, can the Minister still guarantee that it will be fully funded and fully implemented in Wales?

Mr. Hain: Of course we want to see neighbourhood policing rolled out right across Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, under this Labour Government we have had 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers in Wales, compared with the consistent cuts in police officers and police budgets under the Tory Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.


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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): There are more police officers in north Wales than ever before, and the introduction of community support officers has brought neighbourhood policing to streets in Wrexham and other parts of north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend have a quiet word with some of those who are bleating in north Wales to get them to enjoy the benefits of a rising budget rather than the contraction that would be brought about if we ever had a ragtag coalition of nationalists and Tories running Wales?

Mr. Hain: I could not have put it better myself. Neighbourhood policing in north Wales is indeed of a high standard. It would be put at risk, not only for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave, but if the Leader of the Opposition’s policy of £21 billion of cuts in Labour’s spending plans were implemented.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Does not the Secretary of State realise how hollow his words ring and how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground? What does he say to people in places such as Abergele and Old Colwyn, who are losing dedicated community beat officers, or our chief constables in Wales, who have to take officers off the beat to fill civilian desk jobs? Where has all the money gone and why does Labour continue to fail to deliver proper policing for the people of Wales?

Mr. Hain: The truth is that there are 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers under Labour, crime has decreased and people see neighbourhood policing that they never saw under the Tories. The clear choice for everybody in Wales at the Welsh Assembly elections in May is voting Labour and against the ragtag, Tory-led, Plaid Cymru coalition that opposes us.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [116017] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Sadly, before listing my engagements, I must once again ask the House to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the three servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past few days. They were: Royal Marine Thomas Curry of 42 Commando; Lance Corporal Mathew Ford of 45 Commando, and Kingsman Alex Green from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. They were all performing vital roles in working towards a safer and more secure world for this country and the whole global community, and we should be very proud of them.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.


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Mr. Bone: May I be associated with the Prime Minister’s opening remarks?

On 30 November 2005 at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister guaranteed that nobody would wait more than six months for a national health service operation. Every month since then, that guarantee has proved worthless and bogus. Today, official Government figures show that 15,832 patients are waiting more than six months. Why?

The Prime Minister: They do not, as a matter of fact; literally a handful of people on the in-patient list wait more than six months. That contrasts with the position in 1997, when 300,000 people waited more than six months. There has been a dramatic improvement, with the waiting list—the lowest since records began—400,000 down since we came to office and waiting times now an average of seven weeks. I thank the hon. Gentleman for letting me point that out.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning racism and xenophobia in any form, including on the so-called reality television show “Big Brother”, which has prompted 13,000 individual complaints? Does not he agree that it is important that broadcasters take great care before broadcasting any such prejudices to millions of people throughout the country?

The Prime Minister: First, let me tell my right hon. Friend that I have not seen the programme in question and I cannot therefore comment on it. Of course, I agree entirely with the principle that he outlined: we should oppose racism in all its forms.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Royal Marine Thomas Curry, Kingsman Alexander Green and Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. I also congratulate the Royal Marines on the bravery of their operation to recover Lance Corporal Ford’s body. It was a reminder of the incredible professionalism of our armed forces.

Last week, the junior Home Office Minister responsible told us that she knew nothing about the fiasco of the foreign criminal records. Now we know that she was receiving and signing letters about the issue as long ago as October. Why is she still in her job?

The Prime Minister: As the permanent secretary indicated in his evidence yesterday, the backlog was not drawn to the Minister’s attention. There is an internal inquiry about exactly what took place. Let me emphasise that, as I explained last week and shall explain again this week, since the Association of Chief Police Officers and those people at the Home Office have gone through the matter, no significant public protection issues have arisen so far in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau checks. It is correct that—since May 2006, when ACPO was given responsibility for the matter—a new system is in place. It is working well but, of course, we have had to work through the backlog of cases. Let me emphasise that we are in no different a position on the matter from any other European country.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister tries to say this is not serious, but someone went on to kill and a people
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trafficker was cleared to work with children. The Prime Minister’s defence seems to be that the Minister knew about the problem, but not about the backlog—but the problem was the backlog. Do we not want Ministers who are going to ask some questions and show some judgment, rather than just operating like giant franking machines signing letters? The Prime Minister could clear up a lot of this if he published the letter that the Association of Chief Police Officers sent to the Home Office. Why does he not publish that letter? It is probably in his file right there. Go on and publish it.

The Prime Minister: First, let me point out that if the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the case that was in the newspapers at the weekend, my understanding is that this particular individual in fact was on the police national computer. Secondly, let me point out that it is simply not correct to say that the problem was the backlog alone. The problem was that there was no proper system and had not ever been a proper system— [Interruption.]—for the exchange of information between European countries. That has now changed. Indeed, I can tell the House that, in addition, there is a proposal from Germany, France, Spain and other countries now to connect databases across Europe. We will look very carefully at that, but it is simply not right to say that this was a problem that we had and no other country had. Every country had it. We have now introduced a new system. If I may say, yet again with this issue, as with many others, prior to 1999 there were absolutely no records kept at all.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister likes to tell us that he believes in freedom of information, so I ask him again: publishing the letter would not harm national security or confidentiality, so publish the letter—why not?

The Prime Minister: There is an inquiry under way and when it completes its investigation, everything will be published fully so that people can see it. Let me however once again repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue where prior to May 2006 there should have been a proper system in place in Britain, because there was no proper system in place across Europe. We have now introduced a proper system for the very first time, and that means, as with many of the other issues, for the first time data are being properly collected and acted upon.

Mr. Cameron: So much for freedom of information. Let me ask the Prime Minister about the inquiry. Will he confirm that it will look at the role played by Ministers, including the Home Secretary?

The Prime Minister: Of course it will look at the role played by Ministers; it will look at the role played by everybody. I simply point out to the right hon. Gentleman the evidence that was given yesterday by the permanent secretary.

Mr. Cameron: Let us be clear. This inquiry is being carried out by the head of personnel at the Home Office. If this scandal had happened in a care home, in a hospital or in any business in this country, do you think you would ask the head of personnel to conduct the inquiry? This comes at the end of the week in which
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two more murderers have walked out of open prison, the immigration staff at Heathrow say they cannot cope and potential terrorists walk free from house arrest and nothing is done. The Government’s response when things go wrong is to put junior officials in charge of an inquiry. Does that not show that this Government and these Ministers are interested in protecting themselves, not in protecting the public?

The Prime Minister: Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman, since he mentioned control orders and terrorism, that it was the desire of this side of the House to detain people. We were the Government who introduced legislation toughening up the laws on terrorism which he and his colleagues voted against. The one group of people we will not take lessons from on control orders or action on terrorism is him and his colleagues.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I have a constituent whose life expectancy is no more than four months. He has asked me to pass on his experience that, first, people in that situation, especially those under chemotherapy, do not get the full support from the benefits system that they need; and, secondly, that he fully supports the Government’s effort to merge databases within the Government so that others do not have to go through the multiple form-filling that he has had to go through. Will the Prime Minister ask the Department for Work and Pensions to take account of both points?

The Prime Minister: I know that there has been a meeting with the relevant Minister. It is very important that we look at the support that we give to people in this situation, and obviously I am grateful for the support in relation to the sharing of information, but it is important that we ensure that the appropriate help is given, and that can sometimes be through the benefit system rather than through specific allowances which, in this case, are really directed towards pensioners.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Once again, I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence for those who have lost their lives in the service of their country.

Yesterday, the Government appeared before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in order to explain their decision to drop the investigations into allegations of corruption in relation to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. When will the Prime Minister publish and make public the Government’s submissions to the OECD so that the British public can judge for themselves?


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