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My hon. Friend understandably makes remarks about intercept recordings, which “Panorama” recently threw into the light. He will know that the Prime Minister has asked Sir Peter Gibson to conduct an urgent review to consider the way in which the intercept evidence was shared and used that day. The Prime Minister has asked
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for that report to be brought to him as soon as possible, and he made it clear that he will report to the House as soon as is practicable.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State is right to identify the lack of trust between the parties as a major barrier to progress. What can he and the Government do to rebuild that trust? Does he accept that it must be rebuilt not only in Belfast but in the House? The House endorsed the St. Andrews agreement on the basis that it reflected trust between the parties and commitments that were made but are not now being honoured.

Mr. Woodward: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, especially in the past few months, when the Government have been working with the parties to seek resolution to the problems. He is right to refer to trust and the need to establish it, and to say that everyone in the House has a responsibility to ensure that government in Northern Ireland is successful. It is in all our interests for devolution to work. The work yesterday of the special envoy, Paula Dobriansky, and that of the American Government, the Irish Government, the British Government and the Opposition parties—I thank them for their continued support—is to try to help the parties in Northern Ireland achieve resolution. However, it is important for everyone to recognise that we all have a responsibility, and every part that we can play to help the parties develop and rebuild trust is essential at this moment.

Security

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [225765]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): For the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the security situation has been transformed and there is continued and welcome progress towards normality. However, there are small, completely unrepresentative factions of dissident republicans who remain active and dangerous. While loyalist groups are making encouraging progress, they have yet to decommission their arms.

Miss McIntosh: Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the recent attacks on police officers in Northern Ireland? What assessment has he made of the danger that they face and what steps is he taking to improve the security situation in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Woodward: The House will wish to know that the security threat to police officers in Northern Ireland is higher at the moment than at any point in the past five years. The hon. Lady mentioned attacks on police officers; several have taken place, and they were marked by the cowardice as much as the criminality of those who perpetrated them. We owe a huge debt not only in Northern Ireland but throughout Great Britain to the brave men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland who daily put their lives on the line to protect the communities. Their welfare is of concern not only to the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, but to the Government
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and everybody in the House. We will make every resource available to ensure that we protect our police officers. However, it is the wish of those police officers that stability be maintained in Northern Ireland. We can support that best by completing devolution, and by the Executive meeting.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I pay tribute to the very brave police officers who are withstanding these terrible attacks.

On 16 August, dissident republicans carried out an attack in County Fermanagh in which they used Semtex that the Deputy Chief Constable described as old Semtex. In other words, it is likely to have come from the IRA, which was supposed to have disarmed and put all its weapons beyond use. What does the Secretary of State make of the situation and what assessment has he made of the likelihood of dissident republicans getting further supplies and of IRA members joining the dissidents in carrying out such cowardly attacks?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman again makes an extremely important set of observations about the attack that happened in the middle of August. Let me remind the House that the PSNI is and always has been aware that before decommissioning took place there was a concern that a small amount of ammunition and possibly Semtex may have been transferred. However, I would say this to the hon. Gentleman. It is important to focus on where the threat today is coming from. It is not coming from the threats of the past. The threat is not coming from PIRA; it is coming from new organisations that are, regrettably, filling the space in a political vacuum. I remind him and other hon. Members of the Independent Monitoring Commission report that was produced in September, which was categorical in saying that PIRA has completely abandoned its past and is completely committed to a political future. The organisation has been allowed to wither and the army council is effectively redundant. We should focus today on where the threat is really coming from, not on where it once was and has now gone away from.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [226779] Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 October.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today at the European Council. He will make a statement to the House on his return.

Mr. Campbell: May I ask the Leader of the House, who is obviously sitting in Superman’s seat, whether she will look at the small business sector? I met a Northumberland jeweller in my constituency last week who has five workers, but who is thinking about laying two or three off. Can the Government do anything for these small businesses?


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Ms Harman: It is because of the importance of small businesses in our economy, particularly their importance as employers and given their impact on jobs, that we will do everything that we can to support them through what is undoubtedly a difficult time. One of the actions that we are taking is to ensure that Government and Government agencies pay their bills earlier, by cutting down the time that it takes the Government to pay from 30 days to 10 days. We want to ensure that we back small businesses up with more help through the European Investment Bank. One of the main reasons why we have been stabilising the banking system and buying shares in the banks is to ensure that they start lending again to small businesses at reasonable rates. We will do whatever it takes to back up our small business sector.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): On the day we discover that unemployment has risen by 164,000—the largest rise in 17 years—it is a grim day for the British economy and a time of anxiety for many families, as hon. Members, this week in all parts of the House, will acknowledge. Given that many companies have been hit by the credit problems, as the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) just mentioned, and that if they can be given some breathing space, job losses can be reduced, will the Government now reform the insolvency laws along the lines that we have proposed?

Ms Harman: We have already changed the insolvency provisions for businesses, in the Enterprise Act in 2003; we have already taken action on that. We are very concerned about unemployment and we are not complacent at all about the situation, despite the fact that unemployment is considerably lower than it was in 1997.

There are two issues that I would like to point out to the House today. First, we are announcing £100 million extra to help those people who lose their jobs to retrain and get the skills that they need for new jobs. There are still 600,000 vacancies in the economy, and we need to help people who lose their jobs to get new ones. There will also be extra help for home owners who become unemployed. Instead of having to wait 39 weeks before they can get help to pay their mortgage, there will be help for them to pay their mortgage 13 weeks after they become unemployed.

Mr. Hague: Will the right hon. and learned Lady acknowledge that statements about 1997 might now be complacent, given the forecast from Capital Economics this morning? It states:

Will she also acknowledge that the £100 million programme announced by the Government this morning will be spread over three years, at £33 million a year? That will amount to £18 a year for each unemployed person. Will she also acknowledge that that money has already been allocated to the skills budget and has already been announced? Would it not therefore be a good idea to adopt our proposal, which the Federation of Small Businesses says

Ms Harman: As I have said, we have already made the changes to the insolvency provisions, in the 2003 Enterprise Act. We are not complacent about the situation
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in the economy. We have made no bones about the fact that our economy is facing hard times, but the right hon. Gentleman should not write our economy off. Our economy is made of sterner stuff, and the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have said that we will take every action we can, not only to stabilise our economy nationally but to work internationally with other Governments to stabilise the global system. That is why the Prime Minister is not here today.

Mr. Hague: We understand why the Prime Minister is not here today. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady is not complacent, because she wrote in her blog in February that

Perhaps she will now acknowledge that that is no longer the situation. If she will not adopt our proposed measures on insolvency, may I ask her about another group of people who have been hit by the economic crisis in recent days? They are the people who have retired from their jobs. One such group is the pensioners who are forced to buy an annuity on reaching retirement or on reaching the age of 75. They will be locked into a lower income for the rest of their lives. Last week, we proposed suspending the rule on this, and Ministers said that they were looking at the proposal. Will the right hon. and learned Lady now cut through the delay, announce a decision by the Government and tell us that the Government will suspend that rule in order to help the incomes of thousands of pensioners into the future?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the blog that I wrote earlier this year. While it is true that the global seeds of this problem—the increase in oil and food prices, as well as financial instability—have been coming over a period of time, the impact on family finances, businesses and jobs has been sudden, not only in this country but around the world.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned pensioners. Yes, we are concerned about pensioners, who particularly feel the effect of the fuel increases. That is why we have increased the winter fuel payment. It is important to consider the question of the impact on people—albeit a small number of people—who have to buy their annuities within a certain period of time. I know that this is something that the Treasury is aware of, and I know that the Department for Work and Pensions is talking to the Treasury about the issue. But the most important thing is that we stabilise the markets so that shares can continue to be steady and their value can grow.

Mr. Hague: I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady acknowledges the importance of the issue about pensions. However, it is all very well being concerned about it and looking at it. Have not the events of recent times shown that swiftness in decision making is at a premium? Will she therefore undertake to go back to her colleagues in the Treasury this afternoon? Since this matter was at the top of our concerns, as she herself said only last Thursday, and since many pensioners are worried about it, will she sort it out today with her colleagues, so that they can come back to the House this week to tell us that that rule has been suspended?

Ms Harman: I do not think that the Prime Minister or my colleagues in the Treasury need any advice from
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me on that point; nor do I think that they need any from the right hon. Gentleman. He can rest assured that they will act not only swiftly, but sure-footedly. There is a serious situation across the board—whether it be in respect of jobs, small businesses, the housing market, charities or local government—and we are determined to take the action that is necessary, not only nationally, but internationally, to see this country through.

Mr. Hague: We look forward to the action— [Interruption]—instead of concern and talking, which is all we have had so far at today’s Question Time. Small businesses and pensioners are two of the casualties of an economy built on debt, so what exactly do the Government mean when they say that they are insisting that institutions which are being bailed out will maintain borrowing at 2007 levels—the year at the height of the boom that has turned to bust? Is that not irresponsible? Why did Baroness Vadera of the other place say that there was

while the Chancellor was saying that lending would be maintained “at 2007 levels”? Who is speaking for the Government and what are their policies on the lending of those banks?

Ms Harman: Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman and the House. Having ensured that money goes in via the Bank of England so that extra liquidity is available, having ensured that loans are made available on a guaranteed basis at commercial rates and having made provision for buying shares, we want to make sure that, after this Government’s actions, instead of the banks just sitting on the capital, they actually lend it to small businesses and home owners. What would be the point of Government action if it did not make a difference to the people who are feeling the pressure of the global credit crunch? What has been written into the agreement with the banks in which we have taken shares is that they should, at reasonable rates, re-establish credit lines to the housing market and to small businesses. When it comes to Government debt, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned, I do not regret and we do not resile for one minute the investment in our schools and the public investment in our hospitals.

Over the last 11 years, during which we were investing in hospitals and schools, we were also paying off Government debt. In 1997, public debt as a share of GDP was 43 per cent, and we reduced it to 37 per cent. We are now in a position to allow Government debt to rise in order to back up the economy in the way that is necessary. On Monday, the right hon. Gentleman’s party backed the measures we took to help to get the financial services working properly. It is a shame that he does not back the means to achieving that end.

Mr. Hague: Of course we backed those measures, but the Government are no longer in a position to boast about their economic record when taxes have risen by more than £5,000 for every family in the country since 1997, when the World Economic Forum says that 104 other countries are better prepared than us for the economic downturn, when debt has risen remorselessly, when unemployment is rising at the fastest rate for 17 years and when inflation has trebled since 1997. Against that background, is it not time to acknowledge that the claim to have abolished boom and bust was one of the most
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foolish, one of the most hubristic and one of the most irresponsible claims ever made by a British Prime Minister?

Ms Harman: I think that this is a serious moment for the economy and that it requires action from the Government, but the right hon. Gentleman should not write Britain off or compare us unfavourably with other countries. The Prime Minister will take action to protect this economy, and he will also work with the other European countries to ensure that international action is taken. It could possibly be said that, in that respect, he is a man with a plan.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): Fifty-five thousand members of RAF Bomber Command lost their lives in world war two, yet today there is still no national memorial paying tribute to the sacrifice made by those brave men and women in defence of our nation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in supporting the RAF Bomber Command memorial fund as it seeks to raise £2.5 million for such a memorial, and will she ensure that the Ministry of Defence consults the memorial fund properly before finally deciding on a location?

Ms Harman: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that I will see that the Ministry of Defence thinks very carefully about that request, and looks favourably on it. We must ensure that we recognise and continue to pay tribute to those who, like the 55,000 whom he mentioned, have paid with their lives for this country.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): How really prepared are the Government to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who are now losing their jobs, given that they have just completed a massive cut in the staff of benefit offices and jobcentres? While the two measures that the right hon. and learned Lady has announced today are very welcome, can she give us an absolute assurance that people approaching those services in search of financial help and emergency loans—which does not mean waiting for 13 weeks—will be dealt with promptly, efficiently and sympathetically, as the bankers were this week in their hour of need?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The action taken in respect of the banks was taken not just for the sake of the bankers, although the financial services industry is a large and important employer, but so that we could get credit flowing back into small businesses and the housing market.

The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about the services and support that will be given to people—not just talked about—when they face the awful prospect of being without jobs. I would say that there are improved and increased services for each individual from the Department for Work and Pensions, not just as a result of the important work of Jobcentre Plus, but in the private and voluntary organisations that work alongside people who have lost their jobs to ensure that those people have the skills and the confidence to obtain their next jobs.

We are not complacent about today’s job figures, which are definitely very concerning, but there are still 600,000 vacancies in the economy.


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