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4 Mar 2009 : Column 838

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the House’s attention to the extraordinarily brave work carried out by members of the PSNI. I want to reassure him and other hon. Members that the Chief Constable, myself and others are doing everything that we can to protect the brave men and women of the PSNI. However, what the House can do is send an unequivocal message to the criminals who would threaten the community—that politics is winning, and that paramilitary criminal activity is always destined to fail.

Republican Paramilitary Groups

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent assessment he has had made of the involvement of republican paramilitary groups in drug-related crime in Northern Ireland. [259268]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Independent Monitoring Commission has confirmed that dissident republican groups are involved in drug-related crime. The PSNI will continue to work with the other members of the organised crime task force to disrupt their criminal activities.

Mr. Robathan: But of course the majority of dissident republicans used to be members of the Provisional IRA, which gained most of its money from extortion and other criminal activity while it carried out murder and terrorism. The Provisional IRA was inextricably linked to Sinn Fein, which now has Ministers in the Northern Ireland Government. Does the Minister believe that Sinn Fein ever benefited from criminal money and drug-related crime? What is his assessment of whether it still has connections with drug-related crime and other criminal activity?

Paul Goggins: The people and political parties of Northern Ireland have moved on from the days described by the hon. Gentleman. It is very important that people are able to move on from the grip of fear that dissident republican groups are attempting to deploy across the communities of Northern Ireland. One of the especially despicable things that dissident republican organisations are involved in is the extortion of money from drug dealers. In many cases, they use extreme violence but at the same time they pretend to protect communities from those who deal in drugs. It is absolutely essential that we deal with those dissidents, bring them to justice and make sure that they pay the price for their heinous crimes.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Locals in south Armagh boast that it is one of the biggest oil-producing areas of the world—not because of its geological features but because republicans smuggle and launder fuel there. Millions of pounds are lost to Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue, damage is done to the environment and violence is committed to support that criminal empire, but even so very few people have been arrested and very few assets seized. Will the Minister say when we shall see an all-out assault by the police, HMRC and the Serious Organised Crime Agency against those criminals?

Paul Goggins: We are putting that all-out assault firmly in place. Last year, I established a fuel fraud enforcement group, with the co-operation and active involvement of law enforcement agencies in Ireland as well as in Northern Ireland. Since then, there have been
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a number of arrests, as well as widespread seizures of equipment, cash and illegal fuel. The hon. Gentleman is right that these groups are intent on raising money to support their terrorist activity. They absolutely have to be stopped and I am determined, with partners in the organised crime task force, to do exactly that.

Public Inquiries (Costs)

6. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What estimate he has made of the total final cost to the public purse of the current public inquiries taking place in Northern Ireland. [259271]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The Bloody Sunday inquiry is expected to cost a total of £190 million, including costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence. The Hamill, Wright and Nelson inquiries are expected to cost a combined total of £117 million. The total cost, to the end of January 2009, of all four public inquiries is £267 million, and 70 per cent. of those costs relate to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Mr. Burns: Does the Secretary of State realise that over a quarter of a billion pounds has been spent on the inquiry? When will the time come when the money is spent on investing in a better future for Northern Ireland, rather than on the past?

Mr. Woodward: With huge respect to the hon. Gentleman, I realise that the inquiry cost that much. That is why I have just reported that the total cost was a quarter of a billion pounds. He is right, though, to draw the attention of the House to the very high cost of public inquiries. I am pleased to report to him not only that we are trying to do our best to drive down the cost of inquiries, but that together with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, we are looking at ways of producing better public value from public inquiries.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I listened with great care to what the Secretary of State had to say. Does he not think that it is time to put the past behind us, stop frittering away money on matters that happened 25 years ago, and spend that money on getting people back into employment in Northern Ireland, not on worrying about the past?

Mr. Woodward: Let me commend to the hon. Gentleman the report of Eames and Bradley, which clearly addresses many of the issues that he raises. I caution him on one point: in dealing with the loss of life in Northern Ireland—nearly 4,000 people lost their lives in the course of the troubles—we must all be very careful about describing investigations into the past as “frittering away” public money.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [260223] Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 March.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I have been asked to reply.

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I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan in the past week. They were Corporal Tom Gaden, Lance Corporal Paul Upton and Rifleman Jamie Gunn of 1st Battalion the Rifles, and Marine Michael Laski of 45 Commando, who died last week following injuries sustained in Afghanistan. We owe them, and all who have lost their lives, our gratitude for their service. They are dedicated people, fighting in our interests for a safer world. They will not be forgotten.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in the United States. Yesterday he had talks with President Obama, and today he will address the United States Congress.

Keith Vaz: In a survey published last week, 74 per cent. of parents said that they were very concerned about the increasing violence in video games. Given the increasing availability on the internet of games that exhibit scenes of graphic and gratuitous violence, when do the Government propose to implement the Byron report in full? This is not about censorship; it is about protecting our children.

Ms Harman: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his long-standing campaign on the issue. We need to make sure that we have tough classifications that are properly enforced. We need to make sure that parents have the information that they need. We need to make sure that the industry plays its part. The Government will take action on all those fronts.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to Corporal Tom Gaden, Lance Corporal Paul Upton, Rifleman Jamie Gunn and Marine Michael Laski, all of whom, as she said, have given their lives in the past week in service to their country in Afghanistan? I also want to express our horror at the attack yesterday on the Sri Lankan cricket team, and join in sending our thoughts and condolences to the families of those killed and injured in that outrage. Thinking of all those people, will she agree that if there is to be any further increase in British troop levels in Afghanistan, it must be accompanied not only by clear and achievable objectives and the tackling of corruption in Afghanistan, but by a commitment from the Government to a proportionate increase in the number of helicopters and armoured vehicles, which are essential if our forces are to do their job?

Ms Harman: Of course we agree that our troops should have all the logistical support that they need when they are in the field.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising what happened in Pakistan, and I fully support what he said. This terrible attack is a tragedy for Pakistan and we strongly condemn it. It was an attempt to destabilise democracy in Pakistan and it cannot be allowed to succeed. Our thoughts are with the families of the Pakistani police officers who died and with the Sri Lankan cricketers. The Foreign Secretary has written to the Presidents of Pakistan and Sri Lanka and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has conveyed his condolences. The UK is working closely with Pakistan and the international community to combat the threat from terrorism and violent extremism, which threatens not only the security of the region but the rest of the world.

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Mr. Hague: We obviously agree about Pakistan, and we will hold the Government to their commitment on the necessary equipment for our forces in Afghanistan.

On the economy and domestic matters, we have been pressing for several months now for action to get credit moving from the banks to businesses and, in January, the Government finally announced a type of loan guarantee scheme, the working capital scheme, saying that it would help businesses now. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that it is not yet operational and that not a single loan has so far been guaranteed under the scheme?

Ms Harman: The provisions under that scheme are being finalised, but I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to convey the idea that there is not real help available to businesses now. There is. Businesses with cash-flow problems can apply to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to defer their tax payments, and 72,000 businesses throughout the country have been able to do that. Businesses have been helped with their cash flow by making sure that the Government and Government agencies pay their bills on time, and they are doing that. Businesses are also helped by the extra money being put into the economy with the VAT cut, the extra help to pensioners and tax credits. Businesses are also helped by public investment: capital investment in building schools, hospitals and children’s centres, which the right hon. Gentleman would cut.

Mr. Hague: The right hon. and learned Lady may wish to get off the subject of the working capital scheme, but this was the Government’s flagship scheme for getting credit moving in the economy, which is what so many of us called for. The Prime Minister said on 14 January that the scheme would give real help for business now. The Government promised that it would become operational by 1 March. It is now 4 March and it is not remotely operational. It seems that they applied to Brussels for state aid clearance only last week. Hundreds of businesses are going under and tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs. She is holding a summit on the recession in Downing street today. While she is in charge and the Prime Minister is out of the country, will she undertake to look at this with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and do everything possible to speed up the implementation of this now long-delayed scheme?

Ms Harman: This scheme will come into effect. We have taken a number of measures to get lending going again in the economy, nearly all of which the Conservative party has opposed. We have taken action to recapitalise the banks. We have taken action— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Hands, why do you not allow the Leader of the House to answer the question that she has been asked? It is unfair to shout.

Ms Harman: We have taken action to save the banks from total collapse, action that the Conservatives opposed, and they would have allowed the banks to collapse. We are taking action now to require the banks to increase their lending, and that is why we have an agreement with Northern Rock for £14 billion extra to be lent into the housing market and £25 billion extra to be lent to small businesses. We have been taking the action, all of which the Conservatives have opposed, and we have
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been getting real help to businesses. The right hon. Gentleman can say all he likes about one particular measure, but while we take a range of measures, they would do nothing.

Mr. Hague: I am not talking only about one particular measure. Not only is the working capital scheme, announced in January, not operational now in March, but the jobs recruitment scheme, announced in January, has now been delayed until April; the mortgage support scheme, announced in December, has not even been worked out yet; the guarantee scheme for asset-backed securities is not starting until April; and the Lloyds bank deal, meant to be announced on Friday, has also been delayed. I am not talking about one measure, but about the failure to implement right across the Government’s economic policy.

Why does the Leader of the House not step in? When Chamberlain lost his party’s confidence, Churchill stepped forward; when Eden crossed the Atlantic, exhausted, Supermac came forward. This could be her moment. While the Prime Minister is away, will she step in and make sure that these schemes, on which so much economic confidence depends, are actually implemented now?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman has raised the very important question of mortgage support. People are worried; they fear that if they lose their job, they will lose their home. I remind the House that we have given help to people who fear that they might lose their homes. Instead of having to wait 39 weeks, people who become unemployed will get help with the interest payments on their mortgages at 13 weeks, and an extra amount will be allowed. For people who lose their jobs, we have put extra investment into the jobcentres, and the private organisations too, which help people get retrained and back into work.

As far as the courts are concerned, every single county court now has a help desk to protect people who face repossession, and the building societies and banks have agreed that they will not take repossession action until at least three months of arrears have accumulated. Yes, we are working to ensure that if income falls in a household, there will be a moratorium for up to two years for interest payments. We are working on that, and we look forward to bringing it forward. While the right hon. Gentleman focuses on political gossip, we focus on fighting for Britain’s future.

Mr. Hague: The right hon. and learned Lady should not describe her leadership campaign as “political gossip”; that is not the way to go about winning the leadership of her party. [Interruption.] Yes, I do know about that. I am only a deputy now, but at least I am a loyal one.

If the right hon. and learned Lady will not step in and secure the implementation of all the schemes that I have mentioned, will she step in on the other matter vital to economic confidence—the recognition of past mistakes? She has been overruled, we understand, on Royal Mail, and she has been hung out to dry by the rest of the Cabinet on the Goodwin pension. But she has the opportunity to speak for the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues, urging him to say sorry and move on. In the disagreement between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, whose side is she on, and will she advise the Prime Minister to say sorry for past mistakes?

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Ms Harman: The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have said that when it comes to financial services, yes, we should all learn lessons and take action on the basis of that. Lessons need to be learned not only by the Government but also by the regulators and the financial services industry itself, and action needs to be taken. And we will take action on regulation, remuneration and corporate governance.

But as well as making sure that we have the right regulation system in this country, we have to recognise that whatever the system of regulation in one single country, we have to work together to make sure that the global financial system is properly regulated, because this has been a global financial crisis. So we will learn the lessons and we will take action.

But it is not just for us to learn lessons; the Opposition, too, have lessons to learn. When they were in government, there was no golden age of regulation: people lost a great deal in the collapse of BCCI and through the mis-selling of pensions. When we brought forward statutory regulation, they fought us tooth and nail, and all the way; and even as the credit crunch began to bite, they called for the total deregulation of the mortgage market.

As far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. and learned Lady speak.

Ms Harman: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to learn lessons, let me remind him of what he said when he was Leader of the Opposition:

He went on:

So yes, we have lessons to learn, but we will learn no lessons from him.

Mr. Hague: Mr. Speaker, you would never think the Leader of the House was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, who named a whole Department after deregulation and regulatory reform; you would never think she was speaking on behalf of a Prime Minister who said yesterday that he had nothing to apologise for. Is it not now the case that we have Cabinet Ministers manoeuvring for the leadership while the Prime Minister is abroad, and a Government who no longer command the confidence of the people of this country; and is it not clearer than ever that the people who got us into this mess cannot be the people to get us out of it?

Ms Harman: It is sad but predictable that the right hon. Gentleman should focus on political gossip. Our focus under the Prime Minister will be on the real concerns, real worries and real anxieties of people in this country. We will get on and build the new schools, new hospitals and new children’s centres that the Opposition would stop; and we will help business whereas they would do nothing. I am happy to leave the political gossip to him; we are getting on with fighting for the future of this country.

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