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That is Groucho, I assume.

Mr. Cameron: Soon, the Prime Minister will have plenty of time to read all our speeches, but he just does not get it. How can the Department of Health sort itself out when we all know that the Secretary of State is for the chop? The new Secretary of State for Justice was pathetically pleading for his job on the radio this morning: everyone knows that he will not last five minutes. [Interruption.] I do not know why members of the Cabinet are shouting. The Chancellor’s spin doctors are wandering around the lobby handing out all their jobs. This is the Government of the living dead. Why do we have to put up with even more paralysis?

The Prime Minister: The Government have run the strongest economy that the country has seen in 10 years. Just last week, health service waiting lists were down again. We have the best school results that the country has ever seen, and living standards for every section of the population are up. The right hon. Gentleman can be as cocky as he likes about the local elections; come a general election, policy counts. On policy, we win and he loses.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister join me in sending the best wishes of the House to the people of Northern Ireland on this week’s momentous occasion? Will he also send a clear message to the politicians in Northern Ireland that, this time, we expect them to make it work and not let things break down, no matter how hard it gets?

The Prime Minister: One of the most remarkable things about yesterday was not just the fact of the institutions being up and running but what I might call the atmospherics in Northern Ireland. They were an extremely good augury for the future. I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but I believe that there is now the will to make things work in Northern Ireland. One of the most interesting things about the recent election is that it was back to the normal bread-and-butter issues of politics. That is a huge advance.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I associate myself with the generous tribute that the Prime Minister paid to the former Speaker, Baron Weatherill, who was particularly generous with his hospitality and advice, especially for new Members. May I also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of sympathy and condolence?

Two years ago, the ombudsman produced a report into the tax credit scheme. Why have that report’s recommendations not been fully implemented?

The Prime Minister: Many of the report’s recommendations are being implemented, which is why the difficulty described today by the National Audit Office is reducing all the time. Let us be quite clear about this. Some 6 million families benefit from tax credit and 10 million children get it; and take-up is way above the old family credit. About 2 million pensioners have been lifted out of acute hardship and about
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700,000 children lifted out of relative poverty. That would not have happened without the tax credit system. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is indicating that he is opposed to it, but I can tell him that it has worked miracles for many of the lowest-income people in this country.

Sir Menzies Campbell: It certainly has not worked miracles for everyone. Why are some of the poorest families in this country—38,000 alone last year—being pursued through the courts for money they simply do not have? Why should the most vulnerable pay for the mistakes of the most powerful?

The Prime Minister: If there is a mistake and an overpayment, the Treasury is obliged to try to claim that money back. It would not be fair to the remaining taxpayers if that did not happen. Let us be absolutely clear about the vast majority of the millions of families who have benefited from tax credits as a result of that. That is why the incomes of the poorest 40 per cent. of this population have gone up in percentage terms roughly double what they were in the previous 18 years. It has made an immense difference to many families in this country. We must all know of people in families in our own constituencies who, as a result of the working tax credit, have been able to go out and get a job. The job has paid and they have been able to look after their families properly: it has dramatically transformed their lives. Yes, it is true that we must make sure that we remove some of the problems within the system, but tax credits have brought an enormous amount of social justice and benefit in this country overall.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that over the past four years Liberal-Tory Luton council has wasted unprecedented millions on temporary and agency staff—and on consultants who told it not to waste money on consultants—while cutting services to the elderly and disabled? Will he ensure that we never see such waste again, that we secure better rights for temporary and agency staff and, most particularly, that we congratulate the people of Luton on showing great wisdom in ensuring a Labour council in Luton?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate all my hon. Friend’s constituents who worked so hard for that victory. It is absolutely true that many of the cuts imposed on services are indicative of what would happen if the Conservative central Government got back into power. That is one very good reason why they should not.

Q2. [136185] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): As someone who voted for the Iraq war, I know that the events leading up to it and its aftermath have substantially reduced trust not just in the Prime Minister but in the whole political process. Given that the Leader of the House seems to have indicated that there will be full Privy Council inquiry “at an appropriate moment”, would not the Prime Minister do a lot to restore his reputation if he held that inquiry now, not waiting for his successor, and apologised for the more obvious errors of judgment?

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The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I do not agree with that. Let me say this about what has happened, particularly in the last two or three years in Iraq; it is important that people understand it. What is happening in Iraq is essentially that al-Qaeda on the one hand and elements of the Iranian regime on the other are backing terrorism in that country, the purpose of which is to destroy the prospect of that country being able to have the democracy its people have voted for and want. In those circumstances, it is extremely important that we fully support the work that our forces are doing and rebut this idea that somehow people are dying in Iraq as a result of the activities of British or American or other coalition soldiers. They are dying as a result of the activities of terrorists, and our job should be to stand up to them and not give in to them.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister might well remember our telephone conversation of Saturday 15 August 1998 when, as duty Minister, I had the sad task of informing him that the bomb that had gone off in Omagh 30 minutes earlier was likely to be Northern Ireland’s worst atrocity. Does he agree that it is a testament to the courage and will of people in Northern Ireland that we have come a long way from that almost fatal wound of Omagh so that once mortal enemies are now discussing the real stuff of politics—education, jobs, welfare, and, dare I say it, water rates? Will the Prime Minister congratulate Northern Ireland Assembly Members and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland, on their courage and indomitable spirit over these many dark and heartbreaking years and wish them well?

The Prime Minister: I do, of course, recall that conversation with my right hon. Friend. The Omagh bomb was a terrible and destructive act of terrorism, and in its aftermath the choice had to be made whether it should be allowed to wreck the peace process or whether it should mean that we redouble our efforts to reach peace. Fortunately, the will of the people in Northern Ireland was that the terrorists should not have their way, and that we should redouble our efforts to find a lasting peace. That is the best thing that we can do to honour properly the memory of those people who died in Omagh on that day.

Q3. [136186] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): As the Prime Minister knows, Shropshire attracts many retired people. If he plans to spend his retirement there with his family, he will have noticed the spectacular Conservative gains that were achieved there last week. The issue was local democracy, and the Government are consulting the public on a costly reorganisation of local government. The public have spoken through the ballot box. Will the Prime Minister give a parting gift to the people of Shropshire by committing not to put a costly unitary authority in place in Shropshire?

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Hear, hear!

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) obviously has strong support from his colleague. The same controversy has arisen in County
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Durham, and I am afraid that we have to go through a consultation process and a decision will be made. I suspect, however, that in Shropshire—as, indeed, in County Durham—there are different views about the future.

Q4. [136187] Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, pensioners were the most likely section of society to be living in poverty. Today, they are the least likely, sharing in the economic prosperity under Labour. Will he contrast this Government’s achievements on behalf of pensioners with the attempts in the House of Lords and the Greater London authority to cut the availability of the freedom pass, which is enjoyed by thousands of London’s pensioners? If the Tories will cut the freedom pass for pensioners, what else does my right hon. Friend think they would cut?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about pensioners in 1997 and now— [ Interruption. ] It is all very well for Tory Members to shout, but we should remember that, over the past 10 years, about 2.5 million pensioners have been lifted out of acute hardship. There has also been a dramatic improvement in the living standards of the poorest pensioners. Many of us remember when every single winter there were stories about pensioners not being able to afford proper heating, but now they have the winter fuel allowance. We have introduced a whole series of benefits for them. The freedom pass is extremely important; it has been a tremendous boon for pensioners and disabled people in London. It has been introduced through partnerships with the Mayor of London and with local councils, and we have managed to ensure that that free local transport is available to pensioners. When the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill comes before the House on Monday, I hope that the Opposition will not put that progress at risk.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): As someone who voted against the Iraq war, I can still admire the Prime Minister’s consistency of purpose. Does he acknowledge, however, that with British and American troops increasingly becoming a magnet for terrorists and therefore often becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, a growing number of people who voted for the war in the United States Senate and in this House, and who think that we have acted with honour, now believe that the time has come for an ordered withdrawal of western troops from the country so that it can find peace and justice according to its own lights?

The Prime Minister: I do not in the least disrespect the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s views, or the fact that he has held them from the outset. However, I want to tell him why I believe that he is profoundly wrong in saying what he has just said, and why, if there are voices across the Atlantic saying it, I disagree with them as well. The fact is that the people who are in the best position to judge are the Iraqis themselves. They have a proper democratically elected Government today, and there is a unanimous view among all sections in Iraq—Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds—and the people they have elected, who should not be disfranchised in this debate. With one voice, they are
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saying, “Yes, we wish you to go when the time is right, but not before.” And it is not right yet. We still need to ensure, whether in the south or up in Baghdad, that those people who, through terrorism, are trying to destroy the possibility of Iraq getting on its feet are unable to do so. Of course, it is difficult at the moment—our troops are facing an immensely challenging and difficult time, as are the American troops up in Baghdad. The fact is, however, that they are now working with Iraqi security forces, which, in many cases, are taking the lead—three of the four provinces in the south are now in Iraqi hands—in standing up to those, often linked to outside groups, who are trying to destroy the country. When such carnage is being visited on the country through terrorism, the last thing we should do is get out. Instead, we should stay until the job is done, and the best people to judge that are the Iraqis themselves. At least some credit should be given to the democratically elected voices of the Iraqi people.

Q5. [136188] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): At a time when I and a great many others are working hard to attract inward investment to my constituency of Barnsley and make it an attractive place for public sector relocations under the Lyons review, is not it shameful that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has imposed regional pay rates for court staff in this country, which means that Barnsley will be designated to the lowest pay band and designated a low-income area, and court staff in Barnsley will be paid a lower rate than their exact counterparts working in Sheffield, 14 miles way? Alternatively, is my right hon. Friend’s legacy to the country to be one of unfairness in the workplace?

The Prime Minister: It is correct that in some cities—London, Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield—higher rates are often paid to attract staff. That is nothing new. We have also done our best to try to make sure that premiums are given to the lowest paid, as is the case with the DCA proposals for Barnsley. My hon. Friend would fully support what we have done for the low paid in this country, in agreeing the minimum wage, the signing of the social chapter, paid holidays, the first rights to trade union recognition and the same treatment for part-time workers as for full-time workers. We can be justifiably proud of the provision for the lowest paid in this country.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): At this transitory phase in the right hon. Gentleman’s political life, may I commend him for managing to portray, despite the deep disillusionment of his fellow countrymen with his premiership, an optimism that eluded King James II and would have delighted Walter Mitty?

The Prime Minister: Some things are never transitory, and the hon. Gentleman is one of them. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just reminded me, King James was not re-elected three times as Prime Minister.

Q6. [136189] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What can my right hon. Friend do to allay the fears of my constituents about the proposed tax
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increases that might be imposed on them? Young families are struggling from day to day to pay the mortgage, never mind an exorbitant tax bill. What can he and the Government do to support those people?

The Prime Minister: It is important to remind people that although, for all sorts of reasons, they do not enjoy paying the council tax, they would enjoy a local income tax a lot less—especially two or three-earner households, who would be very hard hit. The single most important thing that we can do is to keep the economy strong. Fortunately, the economy of Scotland is strong today, and we need to make it even stronger.

Q7. [136191] Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Last week, a boy of 13 pulled a fake gun on a teacher in Mereway community college in my constituency. Earlier this year, we experienced a spate of vicious attacks on bus drivers. Yesterday, we learned that muggings in Northampton in April exceeded the previous monthly average by a massive 79. Is the Prime Minister happy that my constituents have already defined his legacy as failed on crime, and failed on the causes of crime?

The Prime Minister: According to the information I have here, in Northamptonshire there has been an 8 per cent. fall in overall crime—and, incidentally, an 8 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 15 per cent. fall in motor vehicle theft—and there are actually 1,300 more police officers than there were 10 years ago.

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Of course I am very sorry about what has happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Crime will still happen, as it will under any Government; but under this Government crime has fallen significantly in the past 10 years, following a Conservative Government under whom it doubled.

Q8. [136192] Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): When and how will my right hon. Friend insist on the supremacy of this elected House over the other place, and ensure that the 17 casinos to which we agreed are built?

The Prime Minister: We hope very shortly to present proposals to ensure that the regional casinos are agreed and introduced. I entirely understand what my hon. Friend says, and he will know that not only am I extremely sympathetic to the point of constitutional principle—which is that this House should have primacy over the other House—but I have never understood why Blackpool and Manchester should be pitted against each other. If the money is there and the investment is possible, let us have both. [Interruption.] I find it extraordinary that the Conservatives have put the Manchester casino in jeopardy, and are going around the streets of Blackpool telling people that they support the casino there. If we had had our way originally, without their intervention, we would have been able to have both.

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Northern Ireland

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Northern Ireland.

I do not think it possible to overestimate the significance of yesterday’s events at Stormont. In effect, we witnessed the final resolution of what has for centuries been the most intractable source of political conflict in the whole of Europe, and its significance is not confined to relations within these islands. What happened on 8 May 2007 showed the world how “A Shared Future” can emerge from even the most bitterly divided and blood-stricken past—and we must never forget how much misery and suffering that caused.

Many people, including Members in all parts of the House, worked tirelessly to make yesterday possible. The foundations were set by the 1998 Good Friday agreement, with the principles of consent and power-sharing at its core, but seeing the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein going into government together on a fair and equitable basis makes “historic” seem a cliché. The fact that they have done it without the DUP’s ceasing to be the DUP, and without Sinn Fein’s ceasing to be Sinn Fein, is all the more remarkable.

When we all witnessed that now iconic picture of the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein together for the very first time on 26 March, we knew that Northern Ireland and the wider world would never be the same again. Since then, by working together, the DUP and Sinn Fein have shown that the greater good can be served without the sacrifice of either principle or integrity. Indeed, I was delighted that the first letter signed jointly by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister asked me to leave my office in Stormont castle to enable them to move in, in time for yesterday’s first meeting of the Assembly and formation of the Executive. Never has an eviction notice been so eagerly anticipated or so warmly received.

Having met the First and Deputy First Ministers together, I have been struck since by their business-like approach to preparing for government and—perhaps even more remarkably—by their cordial and warm personal interaction. Above all, they have shown that age-old enmities can be overcome. That is truly inspirational, as we saw yesterday when they preached together at Stormont a common gospel of healing.

I am convinced that devolution is here to stay. It would now be as unthinkable for Northern Ireland to ask for a return to direct rule in the future as it would be for Scotland or Wales. Indeed, who would have imagined that, as of today, of all the devolved Administrations, Northern Ireland has the only settled Government in place?

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