The Prime Minister was asked—
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.
Small businesses, which are essential to jobs in my constituency, are suffering from high raw material prices, high energy prices and, in some cases, reduced demand. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the support that we have given to the banks is reflected in the support that banks give to small businesses during this difficult time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Central to the recovery of jobs is the resumption of lending by banks to businesses. I discussed that not only as a national problem, but a problem in many countries, with President Sarkozy when I met him last evening. We have all taken measures to recapitalise our banks and to ensure stability. We continue to work on increasing access to funding. Having recapitalised the banks, we want to ensure that they will extend availability of credit at competitive prices. Further announcements will be made tomorrow when we have a meeting with the banks.
We are also considering new mechanisms by which, for example, the European Investment Bank can give financial support where traditional institutions are not able to do so. We urge banks not to change the terms and charges for existing lending to small businesses in our country. The President and I also talked about the role of fiscal policy in the future. I have been discussing that with other leaders. It is right that fiscal policy supports monetary policy at this time.
If the Prime Minister wants to help small business, he can start by cancelling his plan for putting up the rate of corporation tax for small business.
In the past fortnight we have learned that housing repossessions are up 71 per cent., unemployment is rising at its fastest rate for 17 years and the economy is shrinking. Will the Prime Minister now finally admit that he did not abolish boom and bust?
I have already told the right hon. Gentleman: we have had the longest period of growth in the history of this country. We have created 3 million jobs during that period, and we have been able to double public investment in education, health and transport. If we had taken his advice, we would not have nationalised Northern Rock and we would not have taken the action to deal with the problems of HBOS and other banks—and he would have loosened the regulation on banks at a time when everybody is saying to increase it. I am not going to take any advice from the Leader of the Opposition on these matters.
How can the Prime Minister not admit that there is an economic bust when 120 homes are being repossessed every day and when the Bank of England says that 1.2 million people are going to go into negative equity? If he cannot admit what he got wrong in the past, why will anyone listen to him about the present or the future?
Let me turn to the Prime Minister’s fiscal rules, which allowed him to pile up this huge borrowing in a boom. He said that his fiscal rules were
“the basis on which I think people have seen this Government as competent”.
He said that they were right for every stage of the economic cycle, and he absolutely guaranteed—that is the word that he used—that he would not break them. Does he accept that the fiscal rules are now dead?
First of all—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I think that the Opposition should listen for a minute, and maybe they will learn something. First of all, the cause of the crisis that we are facing started in the private banking sector, not with national Governments. If the Leader of the Opposition does not understand that that is the problem, he will not be able to come to a proper solution, because the solution lies in recapitalising the banks, then ensuring that they start lending again. If we could have a sensible debate about the matter across the Floor of this House, and he removed the partisan way in which he is dealing with it, as he promised to do—[Interruption.] He was the man who was going to end the Punch and Judy show, and he was the man who was going to have a bipartisan approach.
As for the fiscal rules, we have met them in the last 10 years. If I may remind the right hon. Gentleman, borrowing has been 1 per cent. under the Labour Government during the last 10 years; it was 3 per cent. under the Conservative Government. They broke the roof; we fixed it.
The Prime Minister says—[Hon. Members: “More!”] There’s plenty more.
The Prime Minister says that he wants us to listen; we have been hearing about his fiscal rules for 10 years. He stood there and lectured us about the brilliance of his fiscal rules. Why will he not now admit that they are dead? Let us just remember them—he used to be so proud of them. Rule 1 was, “Only borrow to invest”; now he is having to borrow to pay for unemployment benefit. That rule is dead. Rule 2—[Interruption.] They do not like being reminded about their own fiscal rules. They used to enjoy the lectures so much. Rule 2 was, “Don’t have debt over 40 per cent. of national income.” Even on his own fiddled figures, that rule is now dead. Why will he not admit that the rules failed to deliver responsibility in the good years and that, as soon as the bad times came, they collapsed completely?
May I just remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said only a few days ago? [Hon. Members: “Answer!”] It is important to the issue. He said:
“Borrowing…is inevitable and you have to allow that to happen. Those automatic stabilisers as Keynes called them, those have to operate.”
He is saying that, but the shadow Chancellor said this morning in a newspaper that borrowing is the wrong approach. The right hon. Gentleman said a few days ago that it is the right approach. When will they get their act together and show that they have one coherent policy?
The Prime Minister cannot tell us whether his fiscal rules are alive or dead or in some sort of suspended animation. We have established that he has broken his fiscal rules, and we have established that he led the economy from boom to bust; now let us look at what he is going to do about it. Does he agree that you cannot spend your way out of a recession?
I just repeat what the right hon. Gentleman said. [Hon. Members: “Answer!”] If he said:
“Borrowing…is inevitable and you have to allow that to happen. Those automatic stabilisers…have to operate”,
that means we have to spend in a way that takes us through this economic crisis. If he does not understand what he said a few days ago, perhaps his meetings with the shadow Chancellor during the past few days have not been about economics at all.
I asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed that you cannot spend your way out of a recession. Why did he not just say yes? I have a quote for him. It is something that he said in 1997—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Oh, it was 10 years ago, so it does not count—is that the new rule? This was not some off-the-cuff speech; it was at the Labour party conference, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said,
“we have learned from past mistakes…you cannot spend your way out of recession”.
Is not the truth that the Prime Minister has been going round telling everyone that he is the new John Maynard Keynes with a plan for a spending splurge? Meanwhile, the pound has fallen further than in any previous devaluation, and the Chancellor is having desperately to back off. So can he confirm: is he planning a spending splurge or not?
And he is quoting Keynes. I thought the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported Keynes on when the automatic stabilisers should work. Let me remind him again of the Conservative party position. The person who shadowed for the shadow Chancellor last week said in an interview to the BBC:
“To increase borrowing to deal with an economic downturn—that’s a perfectly sensible thing to do.”
A few minutes later, he said:
“Increasing borrowing is not a strategy for dealing with the recession.”
The Conservatives are nowhere on policy to deal with the problem.
So that is the new fiscal rule—never answer the question. The Prime Minister has been caught red-handed—he spun a line about a spending splurge to try to look as if he had a plan, but the Treasury Secretary said that the Government would not “increase” but “maintain” spending. He has been caught irresponsibly spinning about irresponsible spending. Is not the truth that he has got not a plan but a giant overdraft? Is it not the case that thousands of people are losing their homes and their jobs because the Prime Minister’s irresponsible boom has turned to bust?
The thousands of people in our country who are worried about their homes and their jobs will want to know that they have a Government who are prepared to take the action that is necessary to deal with the problem. The Conservative party says that borrowing is the wrong approach; I say that it is right to take the action that is necessary to lead us through the difficulties. The Conservative party has no policy. It is not prepared for government—it is not even prepared for opposition.
I know that the Prime Minister has a lot on his plate, but I would like him to know the outcome of the referendum in Stoke-on-Trent last Thursday. The people voted to go ahead to have a leader and a cabinet to run the council from next summer. In these difficult times, will my right hon. Friend give the people of Stoke-on-Trent his assurance that the Government will do everything they can to work in Stoke-on-Trent to draw a line, move forward and deal with all the economic issues that we face?
My hon. Friend has spoken to me about those things on several occasions. It is right that all parties work together to come through the difficult times. We will do whatever we can to help the industries of Stoke come through the difficult times that they face.
As we heard earlier, the Prime Minister does not seem to distinguish between good public spending and bad public spending. At a time when every penny of public money needs to be spent wisely, he wants to waste £13 billion on an NHS computer system that does not work, £12 billion on a surveillance database, which will spy on everybody in the country, and billions more on ID cards. He could redirect all that money to the things that people really need in a recession: homes for hard-pressed families; good child care, so that people can go out to look for work; and training for people who have lost their jobs. At a time when all British families have to rethink their spending plans, is it not time for him to rethink his?
I do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gives us. The only figure that matters in this debate is that the Liberal party wants to cut £20 billion out of public spending. That would be the wrong course for this country.
This country is in much worse shape than I feared if it has a Prime Minister who cannot tell the difference between redirecting and cutting public money. Grandiose plans for public spending might help in the long term, but low and middle-income families need more money in their pockets right now. Why does he not have the courage to close the multi-billion pound tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthy? That way, he could deliver big tax cuts for people who desperately need help. It would not require extra Government borrowing, it is fair and it would be good for the economy. Why will not the Prime Minister give people on ordinary incomes some of their money back?
We have been closing tax loopholes in every Budget for the past 11 years. We are putting an additional amount of money into the economy: 22 million people are getting a tax cut of £120, the winter allowance will be £250 for over-60s and £400 for over-80s, and we are helping low-income families with their fuel bills. The right hon. Gentleman cannot wish away the policy that he announced at his conference: to cut public spending by £20 billion. That is the wrong policy for this country at this time.
We are continuing to spend huge amounts of money on regeneration and education, and that is the right thing to do—to prepare and equip ourselves for the global challenge that lies ahead. It is also right that we raise the education leaving age to 18, to enable people who are in work at 16 and 17 to get skills one day a week, to enable people to access part-time learning as well as full-time learning and to give opportunity to all, not just to some. I regret the fact that the Liberal party and the Conservative party seem to be for opportunity for some. We are for opportunity for all.
We moved power from the Executive to the legislature; for example, in decisions about peace and war, and also decisions about treaties. That is what I meant. If the House of Commons can do its business efficiently in 128 days, that is the right course of action.
My right hon. Friend is very aware of the anxiety felt by many small investors in Icesave. We all have constituents with their life savings there. Mine have told me that they are anxious about developments and they are not being told very much, particularly about the structure of the scheme. Can my right hon. Friend confirm please that progress is now being made on the compensation scheme and that investors will be kept advised?
The Financial Services Authority has made an announcement about how it will deal with the problems that are faced by UK retail investors in those Icelandic banks. That statement was made last week and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about these issues.
We want to encourage more black and Asian people to join the police and we will continue to do that. Obviously I will look into what the hon. Gentleman says about the association, but it is important that the message goes out from all parties in the House that we want as many black and Asian people as possible to apply to join the police and to be recruited.
The Prime Minister will know that there is currently a large deployment of men and women serving in Afghanistan from Plymouth and the south-west. What assurances can he offer them, their families and the House that the Government will continue to invest in the equipment that they need to match the professional skills and dedication that they bring to the very difficult job that they do on our behalf?
My hon. Friend has done a great deal, visiting Afghanistan and representing many of her constituents in her area. One of the issues in Afghanistan that we have had to deal with is the provision of properly protected vehicles for our armed forces. I am pleased today to be able to announce the planned investment of more than £700 million to deliver new and improved protected vehicles to our armed forces, particularly in Afghanistan. We will be buying 700 new vehicles and upgrading more than 200 more. In the face of new and developing threats, that will mean that our armed forces have the best practical protection for the work that they do. I hope that all parts of the House will favour that.
There are more police in this decade than at any time in our history, and more community support officers. That has been possible only because we have doubled the budget on police in the past 10 years. Not only do we have more police, but crime has come down as a result of their visible presence on the streets. We would not be able to afford the police services that we want in any part of the country if we took the advice of the Liberal leader to cut £20 billion out of public spending.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, between July and September this year, the BP oil company made a profit of £6.4 billion? When many pensioners and poor, vulnerable people in my constituency are suffering and wondering how they are going to pay to heat their homes this winter, is it not about time that the Government introduced a windfall tax on companies such as BP?
We have applied a levy to the utility companies to enable us to spend more on heating for pensioners and others in the winter months. The fact is that oil prices are coming down. Oil is now $60 a barrel, whereas it used to be $150, and it is important that those price cuts are passed on to all customers. We cannot take the advice of the shadow Chancellor on this matter. He resurfaced—or tried to resurface—with a statement that the price of petrol should go down, yet his fuel duty stabiliser would mean that the price of petrol would now automatically go up by 5p a litre—[Interruption.] He cannot deny it. That is why people doubt the judgment of the Conservative party.
I think the hon. Gentleman should be remembering 1992, when the present Leader of the Opposition stood beside the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and, having tried to set interest rates at 18 per cent., they were unable to keep Britain in the European exchange rate mechanism. That led to 3 million unemployed, and that is the moment that the Conservatives should be remembering.
Members on both sides of the House should remember that the CBI was also supportive of this arrangement. We will bring forward legislation in the next Session of Parliament to implement it. As is the usual practice with EU directives, there will be a detailed consultation on the UK implementation. I think that, given the agreement that has been achieved across business in this country, both sides of the House should support the agency workers directive.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the decision by the Army to organise a homecoming parade in the city of Belfast? Does he recognise that the troops from Northern Ireland who have performed so well and so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan come from both sections of our community? The decision taken by Sinn Fein to run a counter-parade and protest is therefore all the more preposterous, and has heightened tensions in Northern Ireland as a whole. Will the Prime Minister join me in urging people in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have a peaceful Sunday, and that everyone has due respect for the role that has been played by our brave troops, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan? I have seen the role that they have played in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the work that they are doing in mentoring the Afghan army. Will he urge everyone to do nothing to drag us back to the bad old days?
I want every Sunday to be a peaceful Sunday in Northern Ireland, and I want us to work together to ensure that we can undertake the remaining stages of the devolution that will make stability for the longer term possible. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the troops in our armed forces deserve the support of every community from which they come. Where there have been parades in the different cities and towns of this country, not only have they been peaceful but large numbers of people have turned out because they want to give support to our troops and show them that they have the confidence of the British people. I want that to be a feature of our life in every part of the United Kingdom for many years to come.
I am very happy to do so, and I must say that I thought climate change was an issue that both sides of the House wanted to take action on. We recognise the importance of understanding and monitoring climate change. No decision has yet been taken on the level of UK funding, but a final decision will be taken in advance of the ministerial meeting in late November. I applaud my hon. Friend for everything he has done to raise these issues—through the European Space Agency’s programme and the wider work that he does on the environment. I used to think that the Tories supported a green policy, but now I am not so sure.
We said as a Government that we supported a third runway in principle. After all, there are five runways in Amsterdam, five in Paris and four in Frankfurt—and we are talking about only a third runway at Heathrow. We also said, however, that we would look into all the environmental considerations, which is what we are doing at the moment. We will come back to the House in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning on behalf of that industry. Everybody knows that British bacon is best.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the widespread public concern about foreclosures on mortgage properties, particularly by banks such as Northern Rock. Is he aware that some other debts—unsecured debts such as those on store cards—are being purchased by debt factoring companies, which are then applying to the courts for attachment to properties, subsequently obtaining possession of them for trivial debt? Is that a correct interpretation of the law, and if it is, does not the law need to be changed?
I am aware of that problem; we are looking into it. I believe that changes will be needed in practice.
This is the central issue that must be dealt with in the next few days. We have given liquidity to the banks and recapitalised them, so now we must have their resumption of lending. If that can be achieved by their taking new decisions to lend, that is exactly what should be done. At the same time, we will look into other instruments through which banks or other financial institutions can give money to small businesses to increase their cash flow. We will look at everything necessary, so that further to the recapitalisation of the banks, we have the necessary resumption of lending.
I tried to phone Postwatch this morning to ask how to appeal against some of the post office closures in my area only to find that Postwatch had effectively ceased to exist—before the consultation had concluded. Is that fair?
I know that appeals made against closures have been successful in 44 cases. I will talk to the hon. Gentleman about how he can direct his own appeal.
It is for precisely the reasons given by my hon. Friend that the judiciary have issued a new instruction that repossession must be the last resort, not the first resort, and that banks must consider alternative means of funding and other means by which mortgages can be paid over a longer period if necessary. I hope that we will also deal with some of the problems faced by people in the same position as my hon. Friend’s constituents.
We are changing the point at which unemployment benefit can be supported by mortgage interest repayment help. The new system will begin on 1 January, and will apply to people who have been unemployed for 13 weeks. We are taking the actions that are necessary, including, from the beginning of January, buying up old houses that are on the market so that we can encourage the housing market to move forward. I believe that we are taking the policy initiatives—[Interruption.] The Opposition may shout, but they have no policies.