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Engagements

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009

This morning, on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom, I welcomed President Obama and the First Lady to Downing street.

This afternoon I will be meeting President Medvedev of Russia, Prime Minister Singh, Prime Minister Aso of Japan, and the President of China. Tonight, the G20 leaders will meet in the first session of the G20 summit. I am proud that our country is hosting the G20 meeting.

The Prime Minister and his noble Friend Lord Myners have now had 24 hours to consider whether they can confirm what Lord Myners said to the Treasury Committee about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangements. Does the Prime Minister understand that his Ministers are now held in public ridicule and contempt, and is it not time that at least one of them resigned?

I see that the hon. and learned Gentleman has risen to the occasion today. Lord Myners has made it very clear that he was told of something that he was led to believe was a contractual obligation but was a discretionary matter. That is the issue that UK Financial Investments Ltd is taking up with the Royal Bank of Scotland; that is the basis on which we are considering legal action; and that is the basis on which UKFI will use its votes in the annual general meeting to promote legal action.

Q2. The Prime Minister knows that many unfortunate people in this country have been negligently poisoned in the workplace through exposure to asbestos. Every time that their right to compensation has been challenged in the courts by employers, it has been this Labour Government who have stood by them and helped them. What does he intend to do about the thousands of predominantly working-class pleural plaques sufferers who have been robbed of their compensation by unjust decisions in the law courts? (267917)

Asbestosis is a terrible disease, and all those who suffer from it deserve the best of help from the public authorities. It is right that we look again at this as a result of legal actions that have been taken about the obligations of insurance companies. The Justice Secretary will make a statement on this when we return after Easter.

On behalf of all Conservative Members, I join the Prime Minister in welcoming President Obama and the First Lady, and all the other Presidents and Prime Ministers, to our country this week.

Before turning to the G20, may I ask the Prime Minister about the issue of MPs’ expenses? [Interruption.] MPs may groan, but frankly I am fed up with our politics being dragged through the mud. We need a solution that is transparent, costs less than the current arrangements, and restores faith in the political process. Is it not the case that we cannot wait for another review, and that this needs to be agreed now? So instead of another review, will the Prime Minister agree to an urgent meeting between the main party leaders so that we can sort this out once and for all?

I agree and have said on many occasions that this whole system has to be reformed and improved. I think that there is common ground in this House that it brings no repute to MPs if we are continually having to deal with these issues. We have made some changes, by the will of the House, to the way that expenses are documented, to the way that the Green Book is organised, and to the way that people are obliged to account for their expenditures of money. Both the parties agreed that the Committee on Standards in Public Life could do a good job in looking at these issues. Of course I am happy to meet the leaders of the Opposition parties to discuss this, but to restore public confidence in the matter the Committee will have to complete its review as well, and I have asked it to speed up that review so that it is completed as quickly as possible.

Frankly, the problem is that we do not need another review. Let us be clear: this is exactly what happened last time. The Prime Minister supported a review, he sent it a letter and when it came up with conclusions, he did not vote for them. [Hon. Members: “Nor did you.”] I did vote for them. The public are sick and tired of this situation, and it requires political leadership. That means political leaders making decisions, which means the Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberals and me. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he have that meeting of party leaders so that we can sort this out? May we have it, instead of a review, not in six months’ time, not in a year’s time, but right now?

The right hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he heard my first answer. I said I was quite happy to meet him and the leader of the Liberal party to discuss these issues, but he has to remember that if we in this House are to command public confidence for what we do, we need to satisfy the Committee on Standards in Public Life as well as ourselves. The whole purpose of the discussions we have had in recent years is to take MPs’ pay out of politics, so that it is not MPs who are held responsible for the original recommendations on pay, or for voting for them. I believe that we have to satisfy more than ourselves on the standards we apply in public life. Yes, I am prepared to talk to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should agree to what was agreed before: that the Committee on Standards in Public Life should continue to review this issue and report as quickly as possible.

The problem is that we can all hear the rustling of the long grass.

Let me turn to the G20. At the last meeting of the G20 in Washington, the leaders signed up to an important pledge on free trade, but as the CBI said, there were

“airy promises about completing the Doha world trade deal and rejecting protectionism”,

but that

“Since then, the world has moved backwards, with the majority of G20 countries pushing up barriers”.

What assurances can the Prime Minister give us that this time it really will be different?

The significance of the G20 meeting is that the world is coming together to discuss detailed proposals on trade and other issues to deal with the problems of the day. I do not think we have had a situation before where Russia, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, all the European countries, Japan and America have come together to see whether we can agree shared policies. In 1929 we had the Wall street crash, and in 1945 we had the first meeting of world leaders that was successful in discussing the issues. We are not going to wait for 16 years; we are taking action now.

On the specifics of trade, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we have pushed hard in the last few months to get a trade deal round the world. We were pushing before Christmas, under President Bush, so that an agreement could be reached. The problem that is still outstanding—it will help the discussion if I explain it—is that India wanted assurances about a special safeguard mechanism if there were to be a surge of imports. America wanted an assurance that sectoral agreements would be in line with the general agreement that was to be signed on world trade. The American Administration asked us, as they are a new Administration, for some time in the next few weeks to review their position. Given that they are a new Administration, we have to understand that they will want to look at their position, but I am hopeful about that. I am pressing them on this matter, as I did when I talked to President Obama on the phone yesterday before I met him today. The World Trade Organisation needs an answer, and we need to move forward.

What we will achieve at the summit is this: first of all, we will name and shame countries—[Interruption.] Well, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. [Interruption.] Order. It is always the case that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get leeway. Let the Prime Minister speak.

First, we will name and shame countries that are not prepared to abide by the standards that we are setting. Secondly, we will want to provide trade credits for the future so that we can see world trade expanding by supporting it with at least £100 billion of credit, and thirdly, we will push very hard so that the differences that exist, which other countries have resolved, can also be resolved in America and India.

I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer, but the fact is that the naming and shaming process was actually agreed in Washington in November at the G20 meeting. Since then, the World Bank has produced a paper stating that 17 of the 20 countries involved have actually implemented measures that have restricted trade. Everyone understands that the new American Administration need time, but clearly the biggest boost for the world economy would be the completion of the Doha trade round, so does the Prime Minister agree with me that the greatest success for the G20 would be to set a credible pathway and a credible timetable to a full Doha agreement?

That is one of the things we are trying to achieve, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he cannot avoid the difficult questions about this G20. We are in the midst of the biggest fiscal stimulus that the world has ever seen, and only the Conservative party seems to be opposing it. We are in the midst of the biggest cuts in interest rates that the world has seen and we are restructuring our banking system. Yes, I agree that trade is important, and that is why I have pushed for it very hard, but I think he understood that when I said that America wanted some time to consider the position that was a barrier to getting an agreement immediately. We will push forward on trade, but we will also push forward on the other measures that are necessary for an economic recovery. I just repeat that nobody coming to London has a policy of doing nothing.

There is someone right here in London who said that we cannot afford another fiscal stimulus, and that is the Governor of the Bank of England. I do not know whether the Prime Minister fully understands what happened last week. While he was wandering around the rest of the world telling them how to run their economies, the Governor of the Bank of England was saying right here that the Prime Minister did not know how to run ours. The fact is that the Governor of the Bank of England very publicly snipped up his credit card. That is what happened last week.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the real test of the G20 is whether confidence returns? So here in Britain, will he agree that with the budget deficit at more than 10 per cent. of GDP, a big, big part of restoring confidence is going to be restoring those public finances?

Once again, the Conservative party is misinterpreting what is happening in the world and getting everything wrong. The stimulus that has been proposed in Germany is £75 billion. In France it is £24 billion, in China £400 billion and in Japan £42 billion. There is not one country in the world following the advice of the Conservative party. The real issue at this summit is that some people are prepared to take the action to get people through what is a global problem that needs global solutions. The Conservative party reveals in its questions that it is still the do nothing party of the past.

I have to say that this “do nothing” attack has done absolutely nothing for the Prime Minister. Ever since he started making it, he has been going down and we have been going up. It says nothing about us, but so much about him and his approach to the dividing-line politics of the past. Of course other countries that did fix the roof while the sun was shining can afford a fiscal stimulus, but the Governor of the Bank of England said, quite rightly, that we cannot afford one here.

On the G20, everyone wants a global agreement on issues such as trade, the IMF and tax havens, but is it not important to understand that once the talks are over, Britain will still be left with the most appalling public finances? We are spending £4 for every £3 that we raise. This is a domestic problem, and no international agreement is going to resolve it. Do not these difficult circumstances teach us one very important lesson? We should never leave Britain this exposed again.

The rehearsals will make no difference, because this is not about the party games that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. This is about lives, jobs, homes and businesses. I have not heard him once today talk about the problems of the unemployed and the people whom we are trying help. He said that we cannot afford a fiscal stimulus. That is his position, so he would cut the pension, cut child benefit, not go ahead with the help to small businesses or to home owners, not go ahead with advancing public investment—everything that we are doing to take this country through the downturn, he opposes. I hope that people in every constituency know that Conservative party policy is to cut the pension, cut child benefit and cut public works. That is the policy of the Conservative party.

I fully appreciate that the G20 is mainly about economic issues, but should the Prime Minister or any of his colleagues get a chance to talk to our Russian colleagues, will he remind them that human rights remain extremely important, and that action such as raiding the Memorial offices in St. Petersburg or threatening to destroy the Stalin archives is not worthy of a great country?

Every time I meet President Medvedev, I remind him of our differences with Russia over some of those very issues, and I will continue to do so when I meet him this afternoon. There have been difficulties in the relationship between Britain and Russia, but it is important to recognise that we want Russia to work with us on a middle east peace settlement and in dealing with the problems of Iran, and we want to work together with Russia to achieve multilateral disarmament and ensure that the non-proliferation treaty works. Those are all issues on which I believe we can work with Russia.

We all want this G20 summit to succeed. The Prime Minister is right to say that we will not get out of this mess unless world leaders work together. However, the summit will not help anybody here unless he practises at home what he preaches abroad. On his world tour, he railed against tax avoidance, yet he presided over industrial-scale tax avoidance in British banks and British businesses. He now talks about green-collar jobs, yet his fiscal stimulus has less green stimulus than any other fiscal stimulus in the G20. Does he not see that leadership starts at home?

Let me tell the leader of the Liberal party that for the first time we are on the verge of an agreement, which means that every country that was previously a tax haven will have to exchange tax information on request. So with Switzerland, Andorra, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore—all the countries with which we have been trying to get agreement for 20 years; I do not know whether the Conservative party wants those agreements, but we have been trying to get them for 20 years—we will get agreements at this summit. The issue of tax havens has moved to a new level, where we are dealing with the problem.

On a green stimulus, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman finds that the communiqué reflects the desire in all countries of the world that we do not return to business as usual on the environment, that the recovery is low carbon, and that we will do whatever we can, now and in the Budget, to move that forward.

The words sound good—they always do—but now the Prime Minister has to do what he says. He is the only G20 leader who has blown billions of pounds of borrowed money on a wasteful VAT cut that has not created a single job. Why should any other leader listen to his lessons? Is it not time for him to admit his mistake, announce at the summit tomorrow that he will stop the wasteful VAT cut, and invest the billions of pounds in creating the jobs and homes that this country desperately needs now?

On the environment, we are the first Government in the world to sign climate change legislation that will commit us to statutory cuts in carbon over the next few years. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s party does not seem to think it important, but we are leading the world, as we should, in the environmental debate.

On VAT and other changes, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that one has to use all the weapons at one’s disposal to deal with a global financial crisis. We have cut interest rates, the Bank of England is now putting money into the economy, we have advanced public works in the economy, and we have raised the pension and child benefit beyond the level that was expected in January. At the same time, we are giving income tax cuts, starting this week, by raising personal allowances. We are also helping the unemployed and home owners who find themselves in difficulty. That is the way to deal with the downturn: to take all measures necessary to get through it as quickly as possible.

Arising from what was said earlier, is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us fought against a Conservative private Member’s Bill that would have exempted the House of Commons from the Freedom of Information Act? That being said, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential to have a system of allowances that MPs claim—most of them, of course, are for our staff—so that the public can have confidence that they are legitimate, above board and simply make sense? The sooner we have such a system, the better it will be for the reputation of the House of Commons.

I think I speak for all Members when I say that we want a better system that has proper audit and deals with the outstanding issues that have caused so much controversy. However, I have to say to all Members of the House that for that to command public confidence, it is not enough that one or two of us get together in a room; we have to ensure that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which we set up to deal with such issues, is also satisfied and can tell the public that the system is working better.

Q3. The Christie hospital, which is a world leader in the treatment of cancer, has recently lost £6.5 million owing to the Icelandic banking crisis—money that was earmarked for new radiography centres in Oldham and Salford. Given the Government’s support for financial institutions, what is the Prime Minister doing to help the Christie to recover that money? (267918)

I have met nurses from the Christie hospital, who do a wonderful job in treating people with cancer. The Christie hospital is a world-class hospital and I praise it for what it does. I have said that I will meet its officials to look at the issues that they raise. Essentially, the issue relates to an Icelandic bank that was regulated not in Britain, but outside. For all banks that are regulated in Britain, we have guaranteed the deposits of savers. We will see what we can do, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the central issue is that the Christie hospital is not a charity with funds in a bank that is regulated in Britain. However, we will look at what we can do, and I once again praise the Christie hospital for what it achieves.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Rio Tinto Alcan on the excellent work it is doing in my constituency on carbon capture and storage? The method that it has developed will protect both the environment and valuable local jobs. It is also a world first. Will he share that good news with his G20 colleagues and, more importantly, will he come to Lynemouth at his earliest convenience to see first hand the excellent work that is being done there? (267919)

Yes, I shall be happy to visit to see the progress that is being made in carbon capture and storage and in clean coal. That is an area where we can lead the world. I have been talking to the Norwegian Prime Minister, who has a carbon capture and storage plant under way. We want to work to move the technology forward quickly, and I know that the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Rio Tinto Alcan, is doing a great job. I look forward to meeting the company and talking about how we can expand the technology.

Does the Prime Minister recall when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer selling 400 tonnes of gold from the reserves, even though he was warned at the time that gold is a very good store of value when boom turns to bust? Given that today the price of gold is nearly four times higher than it was when he made those sales, what does that tell us about his ability to run any other aspect of the British economy, and will he apologise to the British people for making those enormous losses on their behalf?

I hesitate to say this, but it was a sale agreed with banks round the world, which all wanted to diversify out of gold. The right hon. Gentleman may know that many other countries were doing exactly what we were doing at that time. He loves Europe so much that he will hate me for saying this, but we bought euros and they have gone up in value.

Q5. There are not many traumas worse than being thrown out of one’s home. The Government have rightly concentrated on trying to help the people facing repossession because of mortgage arrears. Yet a constituent of mine who is gravely ill with cancer has been told by Conservative-controlled Westminster council’s housing arm that she is being taken to court, and faces eviction and court costs, for owing just £390. Does my right hon. Friend share my shock at that behaviour? Is it not right that councils and other landlords should concentrate on cracking down on such behaviour and supporting vulnerable people through these difficult times? (267920)

Our duty in these difficult times is to help people who are in difficulty and in need. That is why we have made greater provision available for housing at this difficult time. I do not know the details of the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, but it seems to me that someone who is suffering from cancer and who is aged should not be evicted, and I shall look into the matter.

The Metropolitan police in London now have dedicated community policing teams consisting of six officers in every local government ward. They have a sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers. Could the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Could the Prime Minister please tell me when my constituents in Cheadle and residents across the rest of the country will enjoy the same level of community policing?

I hesitate to say this, because the hon. Gentleman knows what is happening in his constituency, but there is neighbourhood policing in every part of England as a result of the decisions that we have made. I shall certainly look into what he has said, but we have been very keen to set up these neighbourhood policing arrangements so that people can see local police on the beat and consult them. They are informed by the local police about what is happening, and they can text, e-mail or telephone the local police to get information. Our aim is to have neighbourhood policing in every community in the country, and that is possible only because we are ready to invest in the police.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will vividly remember the damage that was done by unemployment as a result of the failed economic policies of previous Tory Governments, when we were told that unemployment was a price worth paying. Will he give my constituents a guarantee that, in his conversations with the G20 and in the Budget, keeping people in work and getting those who are unemployed back into work will be the absolute priority for this Government, even if it is not for the Opposition? (267922)

Like my hon. Friend, I came into politics because I was concerned about unemployment, and unemployment is what we want to address. That is why, in the next few days, we are introducing our programme to help those who have been unemployed for six months to get new chances of training and new chances of getting into work. We are investing substantial sums of money in helping people at the time they become unemployed, to prevent them from becoming unemployed and to help them if they are unemployed. I believe that that is possible only because we are prepared to make the choice and say that it is right not to do nothing, and that it is right to take action and to invest in helping employment in this country.

Q7. But the Government’s working capital scheme, which was supposed to start on 1 March, has so far not produced anything. Unemployment in my constituency has increased by 152 per cent. in a year. Why has no company in my constituency received any money from the working capital scheme set up by the Government? (267923)

First, £1 billion has been agreed for that scheme already. Secondly, 100,000 companies across the country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will be receiving help from the Inland Revenue and from Customs and Excise. That help is now worth about £1.8 billion as a result of the decisions that we made to put public money into these programmes. I cannot see how he can come here and ask us to do more, when the whole policy of his party is to do less.

Q8. Cancer is a devastating diagnosis to receive, but today is a significant day because cancer-related prescriptions will now be free for everyone. This will give comfort to people in that situation. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in order to provide excellent services in Crawley and the surrounding area, West Sussex primary care trust delivers on its plan to have a linear accelerator in the community, which will add to those fantastic services? (267924)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to help to review and improve radiotherapy capacity in her constituency, and we will be developing a comprehensive business plan that will cover the current and projected needs of her constituency. Let me also say that we have made a decision that is right for patients who are suffering from cancer—that is, to provide free prescriptions. That has been introduced today, and I believe it is a substantial step forward in recognising the pain and suffering that cancer patients have to go through. I hope that it will have support in all parts of the House.

It is not brain surgery to keep a hospital clean or to assist a patient to eat or to drink out of something other than a vase. Will the Prime admit and agree with me that Government targets, while providing substance for spin, have actually damaged nursing priorities and patient care?

If we removed the obligations, cancer patients would not be given the right to be seen by a clinician within two weeks of going to a doctor. If we removed the target, there would not be an 18-week period between the point at which people go to a doctor and the point at which they have an operation. Patients in the national health service have the right to expect the best of treatments, and I think it important to say that if the Opposition will not provide these guarantees, we will provide them to the patients of this country.

Q9. It is 10 years since the introduction of the minimum wage in the UK. It is not in the history syllabus yet, as far as I am aware, but I recollect that not everybody in this place agreed with it. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating something that has helped millions of British working people? (267925)

More than 2 million people benefit from the fact that, for the first time, there is a national minimum wage in this country. I believe that the rises in the minimum wage are an important element of giving people decent wages in the workplace. I hope that, despite the disagreements of the past, there is now all-party agreement that a civilised society needs a minimum wage for people who are in work; we are determined to retain it.