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Prime Minister

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

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.

As we prepare to hear the Chancellor’s Budget today, will the Prime Minister detail for us what sort of an impact scrapping the Barnett formula would have on the least well-off regions of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland? Will he resolve that those areas such as Northern Ireland will not be penalised in the allocation of funding for essential services in the Budget?

It has been common ground between all the parties over the last 30 and more years that the allocation of public spending resources in the United Kingdom is based on need. I believe that that is the right formula and the right way to proceed.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, over the last few months, as a result particularly of the pre-Budget report, an injection of resources into Northern Ireland has amounted to £600 million, so that the Northern Ireland economy can do better. He has made his representations about the need for extra policing costs as a result of recent terrorist incidents. I hope he can look forward to the statement that will be made later today by the Chancellor.

The Home Secretary said on Sunday that she is committed to releasing any relevant information into the public domain as soon as possible that would shed light on the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have seen the distress and anger that still exist in Liverpool and elsewhere, and among families and supporters, by watching last week’s memorial service, which more than 30,000 people attended. Will he ensure that all information is got out as soon as possible? That should include not only police files, but health files, local government files and Government papers that relate to the disaster, because the way it was handled originally was a disgrace. The police tried to cover it up and present it as being caused by Liverpool fans. Of course, there was also the disgraceful 3.15 cut-off point for time of death.

I am sure the whole House, on its return, will wish to repeat the sympathies that have been sent to all those families who lost loved ones as a result of the tragedy at Hillsborough: 96 people lost their lives on that day and the inquiry found that actions had to be taken so that something like that would never happen again. I well understand that, even after all these years, the feelings of the families are such that they want to be sure that everything possible was done. So, yes, we will look at how we can release whatever information is available to the families.

I have to say that the Taylor report was a very full inquiry. There was then a further inquiry after 1997 to look into what it may be necessary to do in addition, but if this is a means by which we can help the families in difficult times, even after these years, we will look carefully at what we can do.

Today’s unemployment figures are a reminder of the human tragedy of this recession: young people leaving school and university unable to get a job, and families facing tight budgets as people go on to part-time work or lose their jobs altogether. Before we hear the Budget from the Chancellor, I want to use this opportunity to get the Prime Minister to confirm some simple facts about the state of our economy. First, will he confirm that today’s unemployment figures show that what we have seen so far this calendar year is the fastest increase in unemployment in our history?

That is exactly why we are taking all the action that we are taking. Unemployment is rising—[Interruption.]

There are still 29 million people in work, nearly 3 million more than there were 10 years ago. We will continue to do everything we can to help people into work and help people to stay in their jobs. That is why we have extended tax credits so that they can help people on short time to have a living income. That is why we have taken action to ensure that there are 35,000 more apprentices in our country. That is why this week we introduced a scheme to help people who have been unemployed for six months to get back into work. That is why we are prepared to spend the money and invest it where it is necessary to do so. There is not much point in the Conservatives coming and telling us that they want to do something about unemployment if they oppose every measure that we are taking to deal with it.

The fact is that the Prime Minister’s schemes are not working. The forecast that the Chancellor made in the pre-Budget report of the level of unemployment at the end of the year was reached this morning, in April. That is the truth about these figures.

In terms of the figures, will the Prime Minister confirm that there are now more young people not in employment, not in education and not in training than ever before? Can he give us the figures for that?

I have looked at this very carefully, actually, and there are nearly a million more young people in education, training or work than there were in 1997. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the figures for those aged 18 to 24 or 16 to 24, he will see that nearly a million more young people are in work or training.

Talk about massaging the figures! I asked the Prime Minister for a very simple fact: how many young people are out of employment, education and training? The answer is 857,000. That is the highest number on record. Even before the recession began, it was higher than when Labour came to power. If the Prime Minister will not even acknowledge these facts, how on earth are we going to make any progress?

Let me turn to the public finances. Will the Prime Minister confirm that next year Britain will borrow more than at any moment in our peacetime history—yes or no?

First, on unemployment and young people, let me just give the right hon. Gentleman the figures so that he is absolutely clear. In 1997, 3.9 million 18 to 24-year-olds were working or engaged in full-time education. The figure is now 4.7 million. In 1997, 5.2 million 16 to-24-year-olds were in full-time education or employment. The figure is now 6.1 million. I am giving the right hon. Gentleman the facts, and these are the facts. There are more people in work, training or education than there were in 1997, and I challenge him to deny that fact.

The second issue is public borrowing. In every country, borrowing is rising. The right hon. Gentleman will find that borrowing is actually higher in America than it is in Britain. The reason is that having lost substantial revenues as a result of the economic crisis, we are still prepared to take the action necessary to help home owners, to help people into jobs, and to help businesses. Once again, the question is this: will the Opposition stop deciding to cut public expenditure at a time when it is most needed, and will they support us when we give real help to people now?

What we have heard is a complete failure to address the facts. When the Prime Minister was in opposition, he talked about youth unemployment, not the number of people in jobs. The fact is that since Labour came to power, unemployment is up and youth unemployment is up.

The Prime Minister talks about the deficit. The Chancellor is about to stand up and, I believe, say that we are going to borrow around 11 per cent. of our GDP. There is no other country in the G20 with figures as bad as that. If we do not have a Prime Minister who can accept the facts, we are never going to make any progress.

Let me try another fact. In terms of the recession, will the Prime Minister confirm that, far from this being “not as bad as the 1980s” or “not as bad as the 1990s”, we are now, in Britain, in the deepest recession since the second world war?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has asked that question. In the early 1990s, interest rates went up to 15 per cent. In the early 1990s, inflation went up to 10 per cent. In the early 1990s, the Conservatives did nothing when people were worried about their mortgages. In the 1990s, they did nothing when people became unemployed. And who was the chief economic adviser to the Chancellor at the time? None other than the Leader of the Opposition.

Perhaps on another occasion we can talk about some of the Prime Minister’s chief advisers and what they have been up to. It is about time he realised that as well as bringing the country to the brink of financial bankruptcy, he has brought his party to moral bankruptcy. The truth is—we are going to look at the facts—that this is the deepest and most painful recession since the war. On this day—a day when the Chancellor is going to have to explain that unemployment is rising faster than ever before, that the number of young people not in education, employment and training is higher than ever before, that Britain is borrowing more than ever before, and that the recession is as deep as I said—will the Prime Minister finally admit that he did not abolish boom and bust?

Every crisis that has happened since the second world war has been the result of high inflation pushing interest rates up, causing businesses to go bust and forcing people to get unemployed. That has been the traditional economic crisis we have faced, but this current crisis is happening even when inflation is low and interest rates are low. [Interruption.] If the Conservatives do not want to understand the solution, they will not even understand the problem. This is a global banking crisis, which we are dealing with through measures that in every case the Conservatives have opposed. If they want to do something about the economic crisis, they should support the measures we have been taking.

On this day of all days—on this day of judgment—let me have just one more go. When the whole country can see that we had a boom and we are now in such a deep bust, what is it about the Prime Minister that he cannot admit what everybody knows: he did not end boom and bust?

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we are dealing with a banking crisis that has infected the rest of the economy, and if the Conservative party does not face up to that, it will never be able to solve the problem. [Interruption.] I am not going to go back to the days of the 1990s—[Interruption.]

Order. It is getting to the stage when every day I have to tell you, Mr. Gray, to be quiet when a Minister is replying to this House. You have got to pack it in.

We are not going to go back to the days of the 1990s of 15 per cent. interest rates, when we did little to help people with mortgages. This week we have announced a mortgage rescue scheme that will help—as will our other measures—thousands of families in the country. This week we have announced measures to help young people who are unemployed. The Chancellor will be announcing measures that will not only help jobs, but build for the future. But to do that we have to invest in the future; we cannot cut our way out of this recession. That is the difference between the two parties.

Q11. Contrary to what may have been suggested at the weekend, the Labour Government have done much for the people of Halifax over the last 12 years, and the Prime Minister is responsible for many of those successes. Therefore, may I ask him to reassure me that he will continue to do all he can to protect jobs in the finance industry, in which thousands of my constituents are employed? (269370)

There are better schools, there are more hospitals, there are more Sure Start centres for young people, and there is better provision for the elderly. That is only possible as a result of—in Halifax and elsewhere—the doubling of public investment in our future. I have to remind people that that could not have happened if we had not made the decision to invest, rather than to cut our way through the economy.

Over the last few months the Prime Minister has come up with a shopping list of announcements about creating new jobs, and he was up to it again this morning: 100,000 new jobs from big capital projects; 500,000 people in work by paying employers; 400,000 new green jobs. That is 1 million new jobs he is now promising—jobs that people desperately need when unemployment is now soaring way beyond the worst predictions. Will he tell the 2.1 million people who are now jobless exactly how many of his new jobs have been created so far?

We believe that as a result of the action that we have taken, hundreds of thousands of jobs that could have been lost are not being lost. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to wait to hear from the Chancellor, who will give him a very precise figure when he gives his Budget in a few minutes from now. As for action on employment, when the right hon. Gentleman lists the various things that we have done he is making our point. This does not happen by accident—it does not happen by chance; it is because we have taken action to create jobs that more people have not lost their jobs, as has happened in other countries.

The answer shows exactly what the problem is. What is the point of the Prime Minister’s mortgage support scheme for the jobless, to which he referred, when he cannot even get the banks to join in? How many jobs is he going to create from a subsidy for cars that have not even been invented yet? These are meaningless headlines that serve as a health warning for the Budget, because this is a Prime Minister who makes promises but does not deliver and who raises hopes without giving real help. He should just come clean—he promised 1 million new jobs, so do they exist today, yes or no?

On the home owners protection scheme, I just have to correct the right hon. Gentleman. Many companies have joined that scheme and many companies are now agreeing to have similar schemes to the Government’s, so the idea that we have not acted on this is wrong. First, there is protection for people who have become unemployed and it is at a far higher level than ever before. Secondly, we have agreed with the building societies and banks a moratorium on mortgage repossessions. Thirdly, we have changed the rules that govern court action so that it is a last resort. Fourthly, we have underpinned some of the major building societies so that they can keep people in their homes and people will not suffer the fate of what happened in the previous recession.

As far as jobs are concerned, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to await the Chancellor’s remarks, both on green technologies and cars and on employment generally. I believe that the Chancellor will answer many of the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has put.

Following the success at the G20 in recapitalising the International Monetary Fund, will my right hon. Friend tell me what plans our Government have for the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank in respect of protecting poor people in poor countries from the global recession?

We did agree at the meetings of the IMF and World Bank that more action would be taken to help the poorest of the world. The president of the World Bank has proposed a vulnerability fund, and we have said at the G20 meeting that £50 billion more will be available, in order to help restructure the banks in some of the developing countries and to help people with food, education and health. I have said before that this is not the time to walk away from our responsibilities to the poor of the world.

Q2. The Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in Sri Lanka. Yesterday, the Red Cross described the position there as “catastrophic”, and tens of thousands of Tamils have died there in the past 25 years. Can he give the House an assurance that in the days ahead he will put on the agenda of the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the European Union Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday proposals that might bring a ceasefire immediately and allow not just relief, but independent monitoring of what is going on, so that the bereavement, the death, the injury and the homelessness of those poor people can end before there are any more victims? (269361)

Many Members of this House are very concerned and dismayed by events in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary and I are doing what we can to impress on the Sri Lankan Government not only the need for humanitarian aid now, but the need to press forward with a political settlement, which is the only way forward to deal with the problems that we have faced. I spoke to the President of Sri Lanka earlier this week and I have followed up meetings that we have had previously. I asked him to extend the pause in respect of the ceasefire. I also asked him for humanitarian access to those refugees who have come out, are in difficulty and need help—I have said that the UN should have full access. I also asked whether he would receive a delegation from the United Kingdom, so that we could assess what humanitarian help was available and should be made available. We have had further discussions over the past few days, and I believe that the President will now be prepared to accept a humanitarian delegation, on a cross-party basis, from the United Kingdom. To prepare the way, a Department for International Development Minister will go to Sri Lanka later this week. We will impress on its Government the need not only for humanitarian help, but for a ceasefire and a political solution to these problems.

Q3. The Government have persistently called for an investigation into allegations of war crimes by all combatants in the Gaza conflict. As Israel has now announced that it will not co-operate with an inquiry by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, and as no one will be satisfied with an inquiry by the Israeli defence force alone, will the Prime Minister support calls for an independent inquiry, backed by the full authority of the UN Security Council, so that we can learn the truth of what happened in Gaza? (269362)

We did press the Israeli Government to investigate fully the allegations made against Israeli forces. The previous Prime Minister, Olmert, agreed that that would be done. I have offered the UN Secretary-General full support in his call for an inquiry into the shelling of UN premises in Gaza. All allegations of war crimes must be properly investigated. In addition, I think it important to say that some £50 million in humanitarian aid is now going to Gaza as a result of decisions by the Secretary of State for International Development. People will also be heartened by the fact that the President of the US has asked the President of the Palestinian organisation and the Prime Minister of Israel to visit him in Washington to discuss matters of peace over the next few weeks.

Yes, and I have said sorry that this has happened. I have also written to the hon. Lady personally. We should all say that what happened has no part to play in the politics of this country. It is wholly inappropriate and unacceptable, and that is why there will be new rules and procedures to govern the behaviour of political advisers.

What comfort can the Prime Minister give to my constituents who work for the Ford appendage called Visteon and who have been made redundant in a contrived administration? People have been thrown out of jobs and pensions have been lost. The same has happened to constituents who worked for Nortel.

The car industry, including component suppliers, is important to this country. There are meetings taking place with the companies concerned and we are doing everything we can to help the car industry through this difficult period. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those particular problems.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate Luton Town football club on its magnificent victory at Wembley recently? [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. It was one in the eye for the football authorities and a great boost for Luton. Is my right hon. Friend aware of another boost for Luton and for hard-pressed families in mortgage difficulties, far fewer of whom are losing their homes as a result of our comprehensive support package? That is in sharp contrast to the Tory days when Luton became the repossession and mortgage misery capital of the country. (269363)

I applaud my hon. Friend for her representation of Luton. It is true that Luton won the final and I am pleased that that has happened. The team will be back in the league soon as a result of the efforts made by good local people.

On housing, we will invest in helping people to avoid repossessions. That is what this Government are about—helping people in times of need. But we need to make the decision to invest to be able to do so, and that is what we will do—invest, not cut.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to explain why on earth he is proposing a system of daily allowances instead of an allowance system that is based on actual receipts and need? Apart from sidelining this House again, the proposal is frankly another example of what the public would regard as snouts in the trough, with people claiming money for absolutely nothing. Is not the real reason for bringing forward these rushed and ill thought through proposals the fact that he does not have the courage to sack Ministers who have been abusing the system?

This is a decision for the House itself. The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the present system does not work. The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the present system needs to be changed, and the one thing that is clear is that action has got to be taken immediately. If other people have better proposals, let them put them forward. We are putting forward proposals that deal with the problem, and deal with it now.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that the Information Commissioner recently found concrete evidence that blacklisting was widespread in the construction industry. Given that there was a consultation exercise in 2003, does he agree that it is now time to bring in the regulations to prohibit blacklisting, rather than—and before—going to a further consultation? (269364)

I am, as are the whole Government, very concerned by the evidence uncovered by the Information Commissioner about the re-emergence of blacklisting in the construction industry. In 1999, we established a power to introduce regulations to outlaw blacklisting, and we also consulted on draft regulations in 2003. Evidence at that time suggested that blacklisting had been eradicated but, given that there is new evidence that that is not the case, we are looking urgently at what we can do. We will assess whether the 2003 regulations, amended as necessary, should now be introduced to the House of Commons.

Q6. At their Easter conferences, two teachers’ unions passed motions expressing concern about the presence and safety of asbestos in schools. Would the Prime Minister be prepared to meet me and a delegation from those unions to discuss how those concerns might be allayed? (269365)

Asbestos is a killer disease. It is something that we are trying to eradicate from this country. I would be very happy to meet the delegation that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that the main Barnsley college campus building was demolished recently, ahead of a £50 million redevelopment scheme that has been put on hold? The Learning and Skills Council sanctioned the college borrowing £10 million in advance of the project going ahead. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my two Barnsley colleagues as well as the college principal, Colin Booth, to discuss this issue as a matter of serious urgency? (269366)

Yes, I will, and I hope that we can deal with the legitimate concerns of him and his Barnsley college staff about how we can enhance the investments available to further education colleges. I have said before that further education colleges have got more money this year for new investment. There is a great demand for it. The Chancellor has been looking at the matter and obviously will report in due course about what he can do. However, I fully sympathise with the points that my hon. Friend has made about the position of Barnsley college.

Q8. The Prime Minister has said that we cannot cut our way out of a recession. Why is he foisting billions of pounds’ worth of cuts on Scotland? (269367)

We are not. Scotland has received £2 billion more as a result of the injection of money into the economy, from the rise in pensions and child benefits, and from the cut in VAT and the rise in tax allowances. All that money—£2 billion in total—has gone to Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that that is what is happening, he is living in the dream world of the Scottish National party.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local authority, Greenwich council? It has frozen its council tax for the fifth time in the last 11 years; it has frozen most of its charges; it is providing free swimming for pensioners and under-16s; and it is providing funding so that pensioners and disabled people can use London transport at all times. Is that not an example of fairness and efficiency from Labour during these difficult times? (269368)

Our duty to people in these difficult times is to invest in the future, and not to cut. Our duty is to be fair to other people, and not to be unfair. [Interruption.] It is all very well the Conservatives shouting; half the time in Question Times they are doing nothing—not even standing up to ask questions. I think that they are proving that some of them are part-time Members of this House.