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I got the impression that the right hon. Gentleman was feeling strongly about water charges.
The Chancellor was listening closely to his point, and we will do our best to provide an incoming Executive with the wherewithal they need to have the successful start to devolution that he wants.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I follow the potential engine driver and ask the Secretary of State to talk to the Chancellor, who is, I think, now listening? Will he tell him that the people of Northern Ireland really are concerned about water charges, and do need a moratorium of at least a year, and not to be double-charged for the privilege?
Mr. Hain: All that the Government were doing was introducing water charges in Northern Ireland as they are paid in Wales, Scotland and England. The verdict on the doorstep, however, was very clear. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is well aware of the situation and will no doubt take close notice of the hon. Gentlemans points.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Alliance party of Northern Ireland on its super-stunning victory and on returning the first ethnic minority Member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, in the Assemblys history? Does he accept that the nine-strong united community group is truly committed to the shared future agenda? Will he work with the UCG to ensure that, however unstable any potential Government in Stormont, there will be a stable and progressive Opposition, led by the Alliance, which maximises the chances of a principled shared future and a prosperous Province?
Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I particularly welcome the fact that Northern Ireland has the first legislator of Chinese origin in the entire United Kingdom, which is a fantastic achievement.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in hoping that on 26 March we see the Assembly and Executive fully restored and exercising powers over the government of Northern Ireland. For that to endure, however, does he agree that the tendency of some republicans to make an artificial distinction between so-called civic and political policing must end, and that there must be a readiness to support the police unreservedly?
Mr. Hain: Indeed, and that has been made clear by both the president of Sinn Fein and the ard fheis motion. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and am grateful for his support on the objective of getting devolution up and running on 26 March. I am sorry that I cannot congratulate his party on its performance in the elections. It was beaten by the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Alliance, the Green party and the Progressive Unionist party, but at least it beat the Rainbow candidate who stood on a commitment to remove cash from circulation and introduce an electronic currency called the wonder.
To return to the policing issue, does the Secretary of State agree that the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) that she would not report to the police knowledge of the activities of republican dissidents are unacceptable, and that politicians must be prepared to support the police even if it leads to the investigation and arrest of their former comrades?
Mr. Hain: I think that Gerry Adamss statement on Monday about the brutal murders committed that day, which I quoted earlier, was very clear. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, has said that anyone who has information on the McCartney murder should supply it to the police. He has encouraged people to report crimes such as rape, car theft and violence against old people and to co-operate with the police, and he has encouraged republicans to join the police. Those are sea changes of historic proportions, which I know the hon. Gentleman will welcome.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Smith of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday. He was part of the mission in Sangin to protect the Kajaki dam project. Once again we pay tribute to his heroism, his sacrifice and the work done by him and his colleagues in Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Following last weeks election, does he agree that what the people of Northern Ireland want is for their interests to be put first, and for local politicians to get on with the business of forming a Government? Will he confirm that the deadline for devolved government in Northern Ireland remains 26 March, and that that deadline will not change?
I pay tribute to the leaders of all the political parties, including those in the House, who have played such a prominent part in the politics of Northern Ireland over the past few years. Let me also say that one significant
developmentin addition to all the other things that are happening in Northern Irelandis the publication today of the employment figures, which show that over the past few years there have been 100,000 extra jobs in Northern Ireland and a reduction of 30,000 in the number of unemployed people.
What was fascinating, by all accounts, about the election in Northern Ireland was that the bread-and-butter issueswater charges, health, education and the local economywere prominent on the doorstep. That in itself says a great deal about the modern face of Northern Ireland.
Replacing Britains independent nuclear deterrent is in the national interest. A submarine-based alternative is the right answer, and the decision needs to be made now. Does the Prime Minister agree that in a dangerous and uncertain world, unilateral nuclear disarmament has never been and will never be the right answer?
The Prime Minister: For precisely the reasons that I gave when I made my statement to the House, I think it right that we make the decision now to begin work on replacing the Trident nuclear submarines. I think that that is essential for our security in an uncertain world. It is important for us to recognise that, although it is impossible to predict the future, the one thing that is certainas I said in my statementis the unpredictability of it. For that reason, I think it sensible that we make this decision today.
Mr. Cameron: I agree with the Prime Minister. Does he agree that replacing Trident meets both the spirit and the letter of our international treaty obligations? Will he confirm that the last Conservative Government cut the number of warheads, that his Government cut the number of warheads, and that there will be further reductions in the future? Does he agree that, as a result, the argument against replacing Trident on the basis of non-proliferation simply does not stand up?
The Prime Minister: We are very proud of our record in this respect, and making sure that we reduce the number of warheads is important, as we have said. It may be possible to reduce the number of submarines, although that is a decision that will have to be made at a later stage.
Yes, of course it is important that we conform fully with our non-proliferation treaty obligations, and we are doing so. I think it is possible for us to continue to play our full partunder the non-proliferation treatyin the multilateral negotiations that I hope will take place over the years to come, so that the world becomes a safer place with fewer nuclear weapons. However, I think that we shall be best able to achieve that if we maintain our nuclear deterrent.
We are discussing this now because the system could take about 17 years to put in place, so the timing is right, the legality is clear and maintaining the deterrent is in our national interest. Because the Prime Minister has the support of the Conservative party, we can work together in the national interest.
Will he tell us clearly that tonights vote is the vote and that there is no going back after tonights vote? Will he also confirm that he will stand by his policy and that he will not appease those in his own party, or the Liberal Democrats, who simply want to run away from a tough decision?
The Prime Minister: It is precisely because I believe that this decision has to be taken now that we have the vote today in the House of Commons. I entirely understand why people might want to put off this decision, but the fact is that we need to take the decision today if we want to get parliamentary approval for the work that has to begin now on the concept and design phaseof course, the actual contracts for the design and construction are to be left for a later time. If we want to get proper parliamentary authorisation, this decision has to be taken now. I entirely understand and respect the views of those who hold a different opinion on this issue, but I have been pretty clear and firm on it from the beginning, and I think that we should continue to be so.
Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the petition submitted to Downing street seeking a posthumous knighthood for the late Jock Stein in recognition of his achievements as the manager of Dunfermline, Celtic and Scotland? As this year is the 40th anniversary of Celtic and Stein winning the European cupthe first British team to do sowill the Prime Minister give serious consideration to giving approval for this petition to go online as soon as possible?
The Prime Minister: Those decisions are not taken by me, and I know that the rules governing posthumous awards are very complex. However, Jock Stein was a great manager, a great Scot and someone who contributed enormously to football and civic society in Scotland.
I cannot help remembering that the last time the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the Prime Minister voted together in the same Lobby on an issue of national interest was on Iraq, and that has not proved to be a comforting precedent. Does the Prime Minister accept that the most immediate nuclear threat is from other countries acquiring nuclear weapons? What then will be the role played by his Government at the nuclear non-proliferation review conference in 2010?
The Prime Minister:
We will continue to play a positive role on this issue. However, I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence whatever that if Britain now renounced its independent nuclear deterrent that would improve the prospect of getting multilateral disarmament. On the contrary, I think that the reverse is the case. I must also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although of course I understand why he wants to put off this decisionI understand that that is his positionthe fact is that the 17-year programme is what has been advised by the experts who advise us on this issue. I recommend that he read the evidence given to the
Defence Committee on this very point by Rear-Admiral Mathews. So the 17-year period is clear, and that must be worked back from 2024, which takes us to 2007. That means that we have to take the decision now if we want parliamentary approval for the concept and design phase. I am sure that if we did not seek parliamentary approval but continued with the work on the concept and design phase, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be standing up and asking why I had not sought such approval.
Sir Menzies Campbell: The Prime Minister surely accepts that a hasty decision to replace Trident is bound to undermine our ability to have influence at the conference in 2010. Should we not now be offering to reduce the number of warheads on Trident in order to give a lead to others?
The Prime Minister: We are set to reduce the number of warheads, but it is absurd to say that we can somehow put off the question of whether we take a decision now on this concept and design phase. That is absurd because obviously we have to take the advice of the experts, such as the director general who is in charge of this matter in the Ministry of Defence and others, who say to us that it is a 17-year programme and it must therefore begin now if we want to maintain the nuclear deterrent. Therefore, we cannot put this decision off; we have to take it now. I recall that a few days ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said on this issue,
I will not sit on the fence.
Q2.  Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister share my shock and horror at the stories in the Sunday newspapers about the treatment of injured soldiers? Will he ensure that these hospitals will be fit for purpose, and guarantee that those heroes who come back injured will have the correct treatment and the after-care that they deserve?
The Prime Minister: I totally agree with what my hon. Friend says. Many of the stories in the Sunday newspapers were from cases of some months ago, all of which have been investigated and looked into. I want to say this on behalf of the staff of the medical defence services at Selly Oak hospital and those who work elsewhere in our armed forces. They do a superb job for our armed forces, and it is simply not true that the national health service staff who work alongside them do not give excellent care to those who are injured. They do give excellent care, and I can tell my hon. Friend, based on the discussions that I have had with people working at that hospital and on the visits that I have paid to that and other facilities that handle injured soldiers, that there is an immense amount of praise, which never gets any publicity, for the staff who work there and the care that they give. When these stories appear, we should at least balance them with a fairer and I think truer picture of what is actually happening.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con):
May I press the Prime Minister a little further on the point raised by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? As the
Prime Minister says, anyone who has been to the Birmingham Selly Oak hospital is hugely impressed by the work that the doctors and nurses do. I have seen it for myself and it is impressive, but surely what matters is not just the quality of care but the environment in which our soldiers are cared for. Is it not the case that when soldiers are injured in battle one day and in a British hospital the next, it is easier for them if they are surrounded by soldiers who have been through what they went through? I know that the Prime Minister has made progress in getting a military managed ward, but when does he expect to have a dedicated military facility in the hospital?
The Prime Minister: The commitment is precisely to have a military managed ward, and there is such a ward and has been since December of last year. Let me explain why it is important to express the situation in that way. Hospitals such as Selly Oak, to which very serious cases are brought, need the advantage of having the full range of NHS facilities and experts. It is precisely for that reason that the last Conservative Government rightly took the decision to phase out the military hospitals and to replace them with facilities for the armed forces within the NHS. But I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important that those who are injured in war are then surrounded by their own comrades, and that they have a sense of their own feeling and sentiment among them. That is precisely what is happening now. I got the latest report from that hospital just a couple of days ago, and if either he or I were to visit it, we would find that the facilities offered to people are very good.
every confidence that in three years time
we will not just have a military managed ward, but effectively a dedicated military ward where our people will be exclusively
The Prime Minister: As I understand it, the point is that there may be beds in some of these wards where the level of care is intensive and high, and where anything between six and eight consultants may be looking after a particular person. But if, for example, there are spare beds within such a ward and the staff are required to look after a civilian patient, it would be wrong to say that such a bed could not be used for a civilian patient. It would also be a very inefficient use of resources. But the whole point is to create the circumstances in which our armed forces who are injured are given the best and highest possible care, and in which they receive that care surrounded by other soldiers and members of the armed forces. General Sir Richard Dannatt said the other day that, having visited those facilities, he was satisfied that they were doing the very best for our armed forces.
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