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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadcasting

For decades, Border Television has successfully provided news and other regional services to thousands of communities across thousands of square miles north and south of the border. Will the Minister join MPs from different parties, north and south of the border, who oppose ITV’s plans to dismember the news and other services at Border Television? When he next gets the chance, will he impress on Ofcom that it must not be allowed to wriggle out of the very tight licence conditions originally imposed on ITV Border?

I am aware of the considerable concern about this proposal. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met Ofcom and Digital UK, and with others, including the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), directly lobbied Michael Grade. I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that it is not, of course, for Ministers to tell private companies where they should or should not have their bases, but it is for Ofcom to do so. As the independent regulator, it has a duty to look into these issues very seriously. It is undertaking a public service review of ITV, and I am pretty certain that this will figure very prominently in it.

I fully support the comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and I would like to reinforce the strength of feeling among viewers on both sides of the border and among politicians of all parties for the retention of Border news, which provides a unique and fiercely local service to this primarily rural area. Anything that the Scotland Office can do to influence Ofcom and support local campaigners who oppose Michael Grade’s ill-thought-out merger with the Tyne Tees newsroom in Newcastle would be much appreciated. Does the Minister agree that Border TV is important not just as a local news provider, but as a demonstration that people in the south of Scotland and the north of England, who have common interests and common concerns, are best served by a cross-border United Kingdom approach to broadcasting rather than the separatist broadcasting agenda promoted by the Scottish Government?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I agree with much of what he says and cannot add much to what I said to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the responsibility of Ofcom, which I hope it will take seriously. On the second point, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it makes no sense to take Scottish broadcasters out of a UK market and make them foreigners in the English and Welsh media market. It makes no sense to take Scottish regulation of broadcasting, telephony and the internet away from Ofcom at a time when they are converging everywhere else. It makes no sense to embark on a course of action that would inevitably lead to the break-up of the BBC, and to the balkanisation of Channel 4, to be replaced by a Scottish broadcasting corporation that would be parochial, inward-looking and not what the people of Scotland want.

With the absorption of Grampian TV into Scottish TV, I hope that the Minister will continue to make the case to Ofcom that the two separate licences covering the old Grampian and STV areas remain separate. As with the borders, the north-east of Scotland has its own news agenda and its own identity. There are certainly some fears that the separate identity of the old Grampian service could be lost in the bigger STV.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that Scotland is a nation of regions. What I believe the Scottish people want to see on the news is not the hoary old chestnut of the Scottish six, but more news that is truly local to where they live—whether it be in the north-east, the west or the south-west of Scotland. If there is money to be invested in news and current affairs—I sincerely hope that the BBC, and, indeed, ITV, will increase investment in news and current affairs in Scotland—it should be invested in local news gathering in the north-east, the south-west and the other regions of Scotland. That is preferable to pursuing some narrow agenda to break up British broadcasting, which would lower the quality of TV that our constituents get to watch.

Banknotes

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the acceptance of Scottish banknotes outside Scotland. (179988)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues.

May I suggest that the Secretary of State impress on the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England that it is high time Scottish banknotes were fully legally acceptable throughout the UK? They are authorised by the Bank of England and should have exactly the same status. If dollars and euros are acceptable to traders in England, surely Scottish notes can and should be, too. Will the Secretary of State endeavour to ensure that this anomaly is brought to an end?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to expand a little on the status of Scottish banknotes.

And, indeed, banknotes from Northern Ireland. One of the great successes of the very successful financial services sector in Scotland is the privilege enjoyed by commercial banks to publish banknotes when other banks, including commercial banks in England, do not. The fact is that under the law Scottish banknotes enjoy exactly the same status as all other methods of payment throughout the United Kingdom, although that is not widely known. They are perfectly legal, and people should know and respect that. I know that on occasion some of my countrymen have had their banknotes refused, but I have been in London a great deal over the past 11 years, and in connection with my ministerial responsibilities have periodically had Northern Ireland banknotes in my wallet. No one has ever refused to accept one of them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Scottish banknotes, collected by the Treasury in the form of taxes, could be used to pay for aircraft carriers from the Clyde shipyards? Did he see the headline in Monday’s Glasgow Evening Times? It read “We’re Sunk”, and below that, “Delays set to kill off Clyde yards in 2 years”. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is simply dangerous nonsense, deliberately designed to undermine the position of the yards, and that those engaging in it are being unhelpful?

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman should engage in a letter to the Secretary of State, who can then reply to it. His supplementary is far too wide of the main question.

During his recent discussions with the Chancellor, did the Secretary of State discuss fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament? Does he agree that handing over greater fiscal powers to Holyrood reeks of appeasement of the SNP, and that just one more devolutionary heave will not serve the Union or Scotland well?

The Secretary of State says it is a matter of fact that Scottish banknotes can be accepted throughout the United Kingdom, and he is right, but it is also a matter of fact that often they are not. That was highlighted in an excellent article in the Sunday Mail on 6 January. The paper conducted a random sample, and found that it was difficult to get notes accepted in Liverpool, Tadcaster, Coventry, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne and London, where even the railway ticket vending machines would not accept them. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that although this may not be a massive problem, it is a source of embarrassment and irritation to many of our constituents every year, and will he use his office to address the problem?

I welcome the opportunity to repeat what I have already said. Scottish banknotes are legal, and enjoy exactly the same status as any other method of payment. The fundamental problem is that the law of contract throughout the United Kingdom allows people not to engage in a transaction at the point of payment if they do not wish to do so. I should be happy to join the hon. Gentleman and his party in a discussion about reforming the law of contract if that is what he wishes to do, although I suspect that we would find it difficult to obtain the necessary legislative time or the necessary support. But he is right: in the 21st century, this irritation should not exist for people who are tendering legal notes in payment. I think the best thing for us all to do is to take every opportunity to tell people that those notes are as good as anyone else’s, and should be accepted.

Post Office Network Change Programme

3. If he will make a statement on the progress of the Post Office network change programme in Scotland. (179989)

The Post Office launched the first of Scotland’s area plans in October last year, and expects to complete the consultation process by September. Let me add, for the sake of completeness, that I understand that the plan for the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire area, in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency falls, is due to launch a consultation next month.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, which ranged much more widely than Scotland. Is it not the case, indeed, that the consultation process in all parts of the United Kingdom, including my constituency—and, indeed, Scotland—is divisive, because it effectively pits one community against another? It has become clear that if a community saves one post office, another will have to close in its place. This is all about numbers, not about communities and their vital services.

No, I do not accept that. There are criteria laid down under which such decisions are taken, but we are not leaving this to market forces. If we were, only about 170 of the 1,200 post offices in Scotland would be left open. We are intervening with enormous amounts of taxpayer subsidy because we recognise the value of post offices in the communities they serve. However, we also recognise that people’s shopping patterns have changed: people access services over the internet, which they did not do previously. To do nothing was not an option, but we are not leaving this to market forces; we are intervening, because we recognise that the post office plays a valuable role in many communities, particularly, but not exclusively, rural communities.

Is my hon. Friend content with the performance of Royal Mail deliveries in Scotland? I understand that there are various problems—one of which is that there have been only a handful of replies to the Scottish National party’s “national conversation”. The reason for that problem might not lie with the Royal Mail, but does my hon. Friend have a view on this question?

I was shocked to see that despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish—or rather, UK—taxpayers’ money on its so-called national conversation, the SNP has had only a couple of dozen replies. The problem might reside in the Post Office, or it might reside in the fact that the people of Scotland repeatedly, in election after election, reject the option of breaking up Britain and the narrow nationalist approach of the SNP.

I think that people in communities the length and breadth of Scotland will note the fact that instead of standing up for post offices facing closure, the Minister engages in petty political posturing. Does he not agree that the consultation on closures is a complete sham? It offers the chimera of reprieve in one community, yet will close post offices in another. One community is pitted against another community; one village is pitted against another village. Why does the Minister not stand up for those post offices, instead of posturing?

The House will have noticed the hon. Gentleman referring to the national conversation as petty politics. I agree: it is petty, partisan, posturing politics of the worst sort. On the serious business of the Post Office, this Government have already committed £2,000 million to sustaining a post office network, and we have also committed a further £1.7 thousand million to that. That speaks of a Government who are passionately committed to seeing a post office network exist in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s “do nothing” option, which would see the Post Office wither on the vine.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the Post Office code of practice, particularly regarding temporary closures? There have been 12 such temporary closures in my area in the past three years, with a varying degree of outcomes; five of them are still outstanding. Does the Minister agree that it would be quite against both the spirit and the substance of the code of practice if the Post Office were to include such outstanding temporary closures in the current consultation, thereby denying local communities their say? Will he make that point in any discussions he has?

I shall be happy to make that point. It is important that there is a transparent process with objective criteria, so that local communities can see why a particular post office has been closed and why others have been kept open. I understand that in the highlands of Scotland there are 18 proposed closures out of a total of 198. If we were taking a purely commercial decision, that figure would not be anywhere near 198; it would be massively reduced. We are committed to providing the subsidy to make sure that the Post Office remains viable, but it is important that this is done in an objective way—that there is transparency, and criteria that are adhered to.

DARA (Almondbank)

4. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on preserving the skills base at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, Almondbank. (179990)

If I may say so, I find my discussions with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence among the most fruitful discussions that I have across Government. On a more serious note, any decision about the long-term future of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency will be based on what offers best value for defence and the best chance of longevity of employment for the work force. Accordingly, preserving the skills base at both Almondbank and Fleetlands is at the forefront of Ministers’ minds in this process.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the future ownership of Almondbank has been uncertain for some time. I seek an assurance that he will take into account all appropriate considerations about the skills of Almondbank’s work force during the decision-making process, with a view to preserving those vital skills for the Scottish economy.

I do not think I can make it any clearer to the House that the shared priority focus of this decision is ensuring that the skill base is protected and preserved, and that the longevity of employment is at the heart of the decision. For very good reasons, which have been explained to my hon. Friend, the trade unions and others who are interested, it is the Ministry of Defence’s view that the prospect of investment and additional work coming in to both Almondbank and Fleetlands is in the interests of work force longevity and the retention of the skills base. I am happy to tell him that Baroness Taylor of Bolton, the Minister with responsibility for this area, will be visiting DARA on Friday, and I am sure he will be able to have further discussions with her then.

Although Almondbank is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), most of the people who work there are my constituents. They have great concern about the proposed privatisations. Will the Secretary of State take full account of the joint trade unions’ proposals to keep DARA Almondbank within the public sector and reject a further privatisation, this time of this first-class facility?

I will not accede to the hon. Gentleman’s request to make a decision on that basis. I shall make the decision on the basis of what best serves defence. That is my first priority and I am sure that it is his, particularly when young men and women from this country are risking their lives in operational theatres. That is my priority as far as public spending is concerned, and I am sure that it is his. Secondly, I shall ensure that we do our best to retain the very skilled work force at the facility, and give them an opportunity beyond what the prospective work programme offers them at the moment. I will take into account all suggestions that they make, but I will make the decision based on those two criteria. I would be happy to join the hon. Gentleman in discussions about this if he wants to have them, but he will not change my mind about those priorities.

Broadcasting

5. What recent discussions he has had on the quality of television reception in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (179991)

My hon. Friend will be aware that problems remain with television reception in parts of Ayrshire. Will he outline what steps are being taken to ensure good television reception in as many households as possible, both before and after digital switchover?

My hon. Friend is right. The whole point of digital switchover is to give people better television: better reception, more choice and more interactivity. I know her constituency well, because it borders mine, and I know that many people in north Ayrshire have difficulty accessing a decent signal. It is difficult to say with any degree of exactness what will happen before switchover, but I sincerely hope that they will see an improvement in the quality of their television reception and in the range and number of channels that they receive once we reach digital switchover.

As the Minister knows, the other advantage of digital television is that audio description will enable those with poor sight to enjoy the experience of television far more effectively. The Government have set a very low threshold for what broadcasters have to provide. What are the Government doing to encourage greater take-up of audio description and to improve ease of access to the handsets for those with disabilities?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I mentioned the interactivity that comes with digital TV, and things such as audio description are a key part of that. I have had discussions with the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland, which has been campaigning on this for some while. Just as there is now complete acceptance of subtitles for the hard of hearing, audio description for people with visual impairment must become standard. That will happen, to any meaningful degree, only when we switch off the analogue signal and boost the digital signal. The hon. Gentleman is right to keep campaigning on the issue, and I shall ensure that Ofcom is aware of his concerns.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, Tarbolton, in my constituency, is closely associated with Robert Burns—but none of my constituents could be called a

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie”.

They are not slow at coming forward to tell me that the TV reception is appalling. What will the Minister do for the good people of Tarbolton?

In a week when we celebrate the great Ayrshire poet, Robert Burns, I am sure that the people of Tarbolton will be enjoying those celebrations. Of course, the first ever Burns supper was in Greenock, in my constituency, so we lay claim to having set the tradition. The people of Tarbolton, along with those throughout Ayrshire and the rest of Scotland and the UK, will benefit when digital switchover happens. It will provide more channels, more services, more interactivity and more choice.

Ministerial Meetings

6. If he will make it his policy to make a regular report to the House on his discussions with the First Minister of Scotland. (179992)

I regularly report to the House on matters relating to the interests of the people of Scotland, and shall continue to do so.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It is important that those of us who are not members of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, if we have an interest in Scotland, be kept abreast of the Secretary of State’s important meetings with the important First Minister. Will he ensure that we receive those regular reports?

Perhaps the business managers and others in the hon. Gentleman’s party will consider that to be a bid to join the Scottish Affairs Committee. I know that his party has had difficulty recruiting people to that Committee in the past, so he may well shortly find himself on an elite list. He is right to say that Ministers should be accountable. I believe in that—and I know that he knows that. I have given an undertaking to the House that I will ensure that it is aware of such discussions when they take place, and I will do so.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity, when he meets the First Minister, to explain that the Government have doubled the budget of the Scottish Executive since devolution—with a real-terms increase this year—and to remind him that it is time to start delivering for the people of Scotland?

I agree wholeheartedly. I noticed a headline in the Scottish media this morning on the subject of Budget considerations in the Scottish Parliament. It stated that the Scottish Parliament would decide how to spend a £30 billion budget. I recollect that that is exactly double the amount that Donald Dewar had to spend as First Minister when devolution first started in Scotland. That is a measure of the scale of the investment that the Government have made in Scotland and of the opportunities to build Scotland’s infrastructure. The people of Scotland will not forgive the minority Administration if they do not spend that money wisely on the priorities of the people of Scotland, rather than on what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) called a petty bit of political posturing. [Interruption.]

When the Secretary of State next has a discussion with the First Minister, will he convey to him in the strongest terms the anger and disappointment felt in constituencies such as mine because of the SNP Government’s petty political posturing on nuclear power and their ill-thought-out approach to waste, which have already led to Scotland being written off by prospective investors in next-generation power stations? Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the First Minister that his policies will lead not only to questions about whether Scotland can be self-sufficient in meeting its fuel requirements, but to economic consequences through the loss of the skills and expertise that have been built up by the nuclear industry in Scotland over many years?

I am sure that the First Minister reads Hansard—he will certainly read Scottish questions. I shall refer him to the hon. Gentleman’s question, among other things, when I meet him on Friday. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We know that 40 per cent. of the electricity generated must come from nuclear. We know that the future of our energy and climate change policies depends on energy conservation, but it also depends on the sustainable production of energy. Those who have thought the matter through and understand that a balance is needed know that nuclear energy will have to contribute to that. We have to ensure that the people of Scotland do not rue the day that the nationalists tried to deny them the opportunity of that sustainable future.

When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he remind him that full employment is this Labour Government’s priority, and refer him to the report produced at the weekend, which was endorsed by Dr. Ewan Macdonald of Glasgow university? The report states that the impact of unemployment on a person’s health is the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes a day.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Decades ago, the Black report said that there was a correlation between ill health and poverty, and there is an obvious link between poverty and employment opportunities. That is why we are so proud that the Government’s economic policies and the stability that they have generated across the UK have made such a significant difference to employment, and consequently to unemployment.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Darryl Gardiner of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday. His death reaffirms our deep gratitude to those who have lost their lives in the service of our country. Our thoughts are also with Corporal Gardiner’s five colleagues who were injured in the attack.

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

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Darryl Gardiner.

Will the Prime Minister please tell us what exactly is happening on Britain’s streets when the Home Secretary needs an armed police escort to go and buy a kebab? [Interruption.]

I want everyone in Britain to be, and feel, safe on our streets. Crime is down 32 per cent. since 1997, and violent crime is down 31 per cent. There are more police than ever in our country, and we will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our citizens.

Q2. My question is about flood defences. When a community has been flooded, the people there feel great fear and anxiety the next time there is heavy rainfall. That happened in Carlisle on Monday. Parts of the city have good flood defences, and extra defences will be put in place where they are needed, but what is happening nationally? The Government have massively increased funding for flood defences since last year’s tremendous downpours, but that will not be enough. [Interruption.] Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will look to the insurance companies and local authorities for other funding sources? Will he review—[Interruption.] (180920)

I sympathise with those of my hon. Friend’s constituents who are facing floods, and with everyone around the country who has been hit by them. Sir Michael Pitt has undertaken a review of our policies since last summer’s floods, and we will implement all his recommendations. However, expenditure on flood defences was £300 million in 1997: this year, it is £600 million, and it will rise to £800 million in 2011. That means that more than £2 billion will be spent on flood defences in the next three years, and of course we will consult with local authorities to ensure that the money is spent in the best way.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Darryl Gardiner, who was killed in southern Afghanistan on Sunday. He died serving our country.

Taxpayers have the right to know what their total exposure is under the Prime Minister’s latest plan for Northern Rock. Let us be clear: the rescue package is as much for his reputation as it is for the business. If the bonds are not paid back, and if Northern Rock fails to meet its obligations, what is the total exposure? How much?

The loans and bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock, which, as everyone understands, has a high-quality loan book. It is our intention to get the best deal for taxpayers: they will get their money back, and make a profit.

The Prime Minister will not tell us how much the taxpayer is in for, but the figure is £55 billion. Effectively, he has lumped every household in the country with a second mortgage. Taxpayers want to know how long it will be before they are off the hook, so will he say how many years it will be before the bonds are repaid?

We would be the first to be repaid under the scheme. The loans and the bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should think very carefully about what he has been saying about Northern Rock. In September, he said that he was wholeheartedly behind our proposals to save the company. Then, in the last few weeks, he and his shadow Chancellor have toyed with nationalisation, administration and a private sale. Is it not about time that the Opposition were consistent in their thinking about Northern Rock?

The Prime Minister talks about changing positions, but last week he was all in favour of nationalisation. Then, he gets a tough time at Prime Minister’s questions, he gets on an aeroplane with Richard Branson and he drops the whole plan. The Prime Minister will not tell us how much taxpayers are in for or how long they will have to wait to get their money back. It is like a used car salesman who will not tell someone the price, will not tell them the mileage, and will not give them a warranty. He has gone from Prudence to Del Boy without even touching the ground. This deal depends on a massive effective subsidy from the British taxpayer to Northern Rock shareholders through either lower borrowing or a guarantee. So can the Prime Minister tell us how much that taxpayer subsidy is?

The loans and the bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock. It is as clear as that. If I may say so, the reason why we intervened is the reason why we still are intervening: to secure the stability of the economy. I believe that all parties in the House should be in favour of ensuring that what happened at Northern Rock does not spread to the rest of the economy. I believe that all parties in the House would want to ensure that the depositors of Northern Rock and other building societies are protected, but what we are now seeing is the height of opportunism on the part of the Conservative party. One day it favours nationalisation; another day it favours a private sale; then the shadow Chancellor says that his favoured option is now administration. Let me just tell the House what administration means. It means a fire sale of the assets, it means closing down the company and it means the Government losing billions of pounds. It is the worst possible solution and the Conservatives are not only guilty of inconsistency, but guilty of putting the stability of the economy at risk.

The fact that the Prime Minister will not answer a single question just shows what a dodgy deal this is. He asks about administration. Does he not understand that administration and liquidation are different things? Let me put it this way. Administration is what the Government are in at the moment; liquidation is what is going to happen by the British people at the next election.

The more people hear about this deal, the more they realise that it is a complete con. The Prime Minister is taking a lot of debt, packaging it up and selling it off as bonds. This is a sub-prime deal from a sub-Prime Minister. Let us see whether he can just answer this one simple question. Can he at least tell us what fee is being paid to Goldman Sachs?

That is a matter of negotiation between the Treasury and Goldman Sachs, and it will be published at the right time.

Let us look at the Opposition’s policy of administration. Administration means a fire sale of the assets; it means selling off the assets at the bottom of the market and losing billions of pounds of money. The shadow Chancellor rejected administration in November but is now proposing it in January. The Opposition’s policy is the worst possible policy for dealing with the problem and they have flip-flopped between nationalisation, private sales and administration. They have no credibility on the economy and the reason why we intervened is the reason why we think that the economic record of this Government is a good one. For 10 years we have preserved the stability of the economy. The figures out today show that growth in Britain was 3.1 per cent. last year, and it is the highest growth of the G7. We have more people in employment than ever before and we have lower inflation than our major competitors. That is the recipe for moving forward, not the flip-flop policies of the Opposition.

Only this Prime Minister could talk about low inflation when families filling up at the pumps are paying £1.07 for a litre of petrol. People wonder what planet he is living on.

The Prime Minister will not tell us how much the taxpayer is liable for, he will not tell us for how long the taxpayer has got to prop up this business, he will not tell us what the subsidy is and he will not say how much he will pay to Goldman Sachs. Will he at least say this: in retrospect, does he recognise that it was a complete error of judgment to get on an aeroplane with one of the principal bidders, Richard Branson, and fly round the world?

Not at all, and just remember that the Opposition supported our policy in September and October, but for opportunistic reasons, they have moved against it. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman about inflation in the economy. Inflation in Britain is 2 per cent. In the Euro area it is 3 per cent., and in America it is 4 per cent. We have kept inflation low because we have made the difficult decisions that the Opposition would never face up to. As for the economy, his own adviser—the arts spokesman for the Conservative party—said only yesterday:

“in the 90s…what killed people were paying 15 per cent. interest rates on their mortgages.”

That was under the Conservative Government. He continued:

“Now, there is no reason for interest rates to go up excessively…because we…still live in a low inflation economy.”

That is what a Conservative party spokesman said. The right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that that spokesman is right and he is wrong.

What everybody knows is that taking one of the principal buyers of the business round the world was bad judgment. The deal is bad judgment, and the worst judgment of all was leaving Britain with the highest budget deficit in Europe at a time of economic difficulty. The Prime Minister is now synonymous with delay and dithering. Is not the Northern Rock deal just damaging, dodgy, extra debt from a failed Prime Minister?

It is not bad judgment to take British business men and women to win orders for British exports in China and India. I have no apology to make for that. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s policies, we get from him merely slogans, and no substance whatever. If I may say so, the record of this Government, as he will find when he goes to Davos this week, is acknowledged around the world. We have low inflation, low interest rates and high employment, and had the best growth of any industrialised country in the last year. We are determined to maintain the stability of the British economy; it would be put at risk under Conservative policies for instability. We are the party of stability, and will always remain so.

In contrast to what we have just heard from the Leader of the Opposition, given all the turbulence in global markets and the impact that that can have on people’s everyday lives, is not the most important thing to continue with the Government’s measures for economic stability, which have brought us low inflation, low interest rates and high employment? That is the best way of sustaining economic strength for the future.

Only yesterday, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, while acknowledging the difficult conditions in the world economy and the problems of the last few days, said of Britain:

“we have maintained a good level of growth last year. The level of employment in the country is quite good. Some of our businesses are extremely competitive. The level of earnings remains quite high.”

That is the record, acknowledged by a former Chancellor. Is it not about time that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition acknowledged that we are doing the right things by the British economy? In spite of their views, we will continue to do so.

May I associate myself with the expressions of condolence and sympathy for the friends and family of Corporal Darryl Gardiner?

As we have heard, the Prime Minister this week unveiled his cunning plan to nationalise all the risks of Northern Rock, but to privatise the profits. How can he justify fleecing the taxpayer by handing a blank cheque to the private sector, when he knows, unlike the Conservatives, that temporary nationalisation is the right thing to do?

In the proposals that we put forward, we share in all the benefits as the Northern Rock company, or its successor company, does better. If he looks at the small print, the hon. Gentleman will see that we are protecting the interests of the taxpayer in the best way possible. Again, I am afraid that it is very difficult to listen to the Liberal party on economic policy. Yesterday he spent another £2 billion; a few weeks before that he said that he had £1 billion of extra spending commitments, but he could not justify them or explain how the money would be spent. None of his policies add up. Is it not time that he went back to the drawing board?

Is not the real truth that the Prime Minister will not nationalise the bank because he is running scared of the Conservative party? [Interruption.] It has no solutions—[Interruption.]

The Opposition have no solutions of their own. When will the Prime Minister stop listening to them and do what he knows to be right? Or will he continue to insist that British taxpayers pay through the nose for years to come because of his own lack of leadership?

May I just say it in this way: nationalisation is one of the options that is open to us, as the Chancellor has made clear—nationalisation, public ownership, but it would be on the road back to private ownership, as the Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor has acknowledged. But we are right to look at every option. If commercial companies come to us and say that they have proposals to run Northern Rock in a better way in the interests of the shareholders and depositors than it is being run at present, we are right to look at those proposals. It would be a mistake for us to reject proposals coming from the private sector, as the hon. Gentleman seems to want to do. All options are on the table. We will do what is best by the shareholders and the depositors of Northern Rock, and we are determined at all times to maintain the stability of the economy. We have done that for four months after Northern Rock went into difficulties. We have maintained stability and the difficulties have not spread into other companies and other institutions. We are determined to continue to maintain stability, and all our decisions will be made on that basis.

Q3. May I ask the Prime Minister to focus on the plight of the working poor in this country? Is he aware that despite the clear intentions of the customers who leave tips to people in the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry, the tips are not paid in addition to those people’s minimum wage, but are paid as part of the minimum wage? That must be addressed. Will he agree to meet me and other MPs who have been campaigning on the issue, to discuss how his Government can at last end that shameful practice? (180921)

Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues to talk about the future of the minimum wage. Where tips are paid directly to the employee, they go to the employee. Where they are paid through Visa or through a bill, that is a matter for the employer to negotiate with the employee. The great success of the minimum wage is that it has risen by 50 per cent. since 1999, faster than wages in the economy. The Conservative party said that the minimum wage would cost us 2 million jobs. We introduced the minimum wage, we have raised it by 50 per cent. and we have created more than 2 million jobs.

The Prime Minister has just quoted with approval the reasons that I gave yesterday why this year’s sharp slowdown in the economy might yet not turn into a recession. I thank him for that. Does he also agree with my view that he handed on the public finances to his successor in a quite appalling mess, which means that fiscal policy cannot be used to help in the present situation, that his dithering and incompetence over Northern Rock have added very considerably to our existing indebtedness, and that the fiscal rules on which he used to rely when making his claims to economic stability are now quite incredible and have been shattered by his own policy?

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to rescue himself with his own party after his unguarded comments yesterday about the success of the British economy. As someone who inherited a very difficult economic situation from him in 1997, may I tell him that we have observed all our fiscal rules. We made the Bank of England independent against his advice. We have had 10 years of growth, which the Conservatives would never have had. He predicted a recession in 1997; there was no recession. We have maintained stability, which he would not have done.

Q4. The latest economic survey for the north-east shows high levels of business confidence, and there is no doubt that the region’s economy has improved under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend, with massive reductions in unemployment and record levels of employment. Much remains to be done, however, to reduce the gap between the north-east and other regions. What does my right hon. Friend consider to be the greatest threat to continued progress— (180922)

Long-term unemployment in the north has fallen by 70 per cent. Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by more than 70 per cent. More people are working in the north of England as a result of the Government’s policies, and we are determined to maintain that. That success would be put at risk by opportunistic policies that risked the public services in favour of £10 billion of tax cuts and meant that we could not spend on health, education and the new deal in the interests of the people of the north. That is why I urge people to favour our policies against the policies of the Opposition.

Q5. The Prime Minister was obviously able to answer that question, because it was one that he wrote earlier. Last week, the Government announced that Gloucestershire would be a pilot area for short breaks for disabled children. My Conservative colleagues on the council are already working with local parents to develop that. The Prime Minister will know that in the comprehensive spending review he promised that NHS spending would match that coming from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Can he confirm that my local primary care trust will indeed get £3.6 million over the next three years to pay for those short breaks? (180923)

I can confirm that primary care trusts will get money to make it possible for there to be breaks for carers of children. I agree that we have to do more for disabled children, about whom we have had a review, and for the carers of disabled children. I had a seminar with many carers in Leeds only a few days ago. There is support for more action on respite care, more help for carers’ pensions, more for the carer’s allowance and more support for carers in all their different needs. We are determined to move that agenda forward, and I hope that there will be all-party support for that.

Given that reply, does my right hon. Friend agree that following the reviews conducted for this House on disabled children and their families, the £34 million allocated to Scotland should be spent on the relevant services, including the NHS—and those alone? That is happening in every other constituent part of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has taken a long-term interest in these matters and piloted through a major Bill for the protection of disabled people. The money allocated for disabled children and disabled people should go to disabled children and disabled people, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that, in every part of the United Kingdom, the needs of the disabled are properly recognised.

Q6. With police investigations under way into four projects of the London Development Agency, and with millions of pounds of central Government money unaccounted for, will the Prime Minister join me, and colleagues from across the House, in calling for an independent investigation into corruption at the LDA and the role of Mayor Ken Livingstone? (180924)

That is a matter for the police. If we look at London, we see that jobs are up, police numbers are up, crime is down and transport is getting more investment. That is why we need a Labour Mayor.

Q7. Working people in my constituency are just as concerned about their employment prospects as those who come from abroad to work in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend protect both British and overseas workers by guaranteeing fair wages and conditions for all? In the absence of a European directive, will he ensure support for domestic legislation that protects agency workers? (180925)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the question of vulnerable workers in the United Kingdom—those who have come here to work or who were already in the United Kingdom. That is why we have created a forum to deal with many of those issues. As for the agency workers directive, we look forward to there being a European agreement on that. If there is not a European agreement, of course we will look at what we can do domestically to protect workers and ensure that they have the rights that they should have.

In an age gone by, the Prime Minister might well have been a covenanter. Is he concerned about the current breach of the covenant with the military and about the breach, as we speak, of the covenant with the police services of England and Wales?

The Chief of the General Staff has said that there is not a breach. That is because we are spending more on defence than ever before. Over the course of the last year, we have made arrangements to give better allowances to those serving our country abroad. We are doing everything in our power to make sure that they are not only safe and well protected, but given the best allowances and accommodation. We will continue to do everything in our power to protect our military forces.

As far as the police are concerned, there has been a 39 per cent. rise in police pay over the last 10 years. People understand that in the fight against inflation it was necessary to stage public sector pay awards. I would like to have given the police more. I would like to have given the nurses more, and more to other public sector workers who found that their wages were staged. But if pay rises are wiped out by ever-rising inflation, no benefit will go to the police or anybody else who receives those pay rises.

I hope that over the course of the next year, we can move to a two or three-year pay agreement that will give stability and certainty to the police and other public sector workers. We believe that they do a great job. The important thing, however, is to recognise that in the fight against inflation it is necessary to take action at the right time. Others might not take that action. We did.

Q8. If Britain’s economy is to continue to meet the challenge of global competitiveness, we need to continue to upskill workers. In that context, the recent announcement on ELQ—equivalent or lower qualification—funding is a welcome recognition that the concerns of the Open university and others have been listened to. What more are the Government doing to help mature students and women returners, in particular, to access higher education? (180926)

No one has fought harder for the Open university than my hon. Friend. I congratulate her, as the MP for Milton Keynes, on what she has achieved in fighting for that institution. We have just allocated £100 million to give grants to 20,000 people to get their first degree. She is absolutely right: there are 2.5 million people in this country who have a qualification level just below higher education, many of whom want a second chance to get a degree. We want to do more, particularly for women and mature students, to make that possible, and over the course of the next few years we will set out plans to make that happen.

Q9. I am asking this question as an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. With the number of midwives and student midwives falling, with last year’s cut in NHS resources for maternity services, and with the birth rate in this country dramatically rising, what urgent steps will the Government take to ensure that there is no deterioration in maternity services for pregnant women; and how will they honour the guarantees in their maternity strategy? (180927)

I share with the hon. Gentleman the desire to do more to help midwives and maternity services in this country. I thank him for his work as honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. The figures show that between 1997 and now there has been an increase of 2,084 midwives and a 20 per cent. increase in the number of students entering training for midwifery. We accept that we need to do more, and we will do more, with 1,000 more midwives in the years to come. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. Britain remains one of the safest places in the world for children to be born, and we will ensure that we do everything in our power, with the Darzi report and the announcements that we will soon make, to ensure that that remains the case, and we will ensure that midwifery is properly financed.

Would my right hon. Friend care to congratulate the miners of Tower colliery in my constituency, who over the past 13 years, after investing their own redundancy pay in a miners’ co-operative, have been highly successful, despite the efforts of the Conservatives to shut them down?

I was pleased to visit Tower colliery and give support to the miners who had invested their own savings for all these years. We were able to support that colliery with operating and investment aid. I believe that some of the former miners will be able to continue their careers in deep mining, but the colliery is now exhausted. I want to thank them for their efforts, proving that working people can get together and make a success of a project that other parties said would never work, and to thank my right hon. Friend for her efforts in ensuring that Tower colliery was a great success during those years.

Q11. The Department for Work and Pensions holds records on tens of thousands of women in their 60s who would be eligible to boost their basic state pension under a very complicated scheme that most of them have never heard of. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the DWP simply tells those women what they are entitled to? (180929)

We will do what we can to ensure that women in their 60s have proper pension rights. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is one of the areas where over many decades we have not done enough to secure rights for elderly women. Under the Pensions Bill, more women will get the basic state pension and will not have to have a smaller pension, as before, but we will try to do our best to ensure that women in their 60s get pension rights as well.

Q12. When the Prime Minister was in China recently, what talks did he have about co-operation in research and development in the science sector? Will he ensure that the UK marine science sector is as well resourced as possible so that it can make the most of its global reputation in partnerships with China and elsewhere? (180930)

In China, I was able to say that the marine centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency has very strong links with that country. We will do what we can to sign more agreements with China on scientific co-operation. My hon. Friend understands that under this Government the science budget has doubled. Science has never been better financed. That would not have happened under the policies of the Opposition. We will continue to support the science and technology of Britain.

When the Prime Minister was in China, did he receive assurances that British journalists could visit Tibet, which is currently occupied by China?

On my visit to China, I made it clear to the Chinese Government that we believed that journalists should not only be free to move within China, but free to interview people during the Olympic games. I hope that the offer that the Chinese authorities have made will be sustained after the Olympics, and I hope that international pressure will back up our efforts to ensure that journalists have the right of free movement.