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Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2009

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.

Many regions of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, found it challenging to compete when times were good. In the depths of the current recession, what additional assistance can the Prime Minister offer the devolved institutions to improve the everyday lives of millions of United Kingdom citizens?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the £600 million fiscal stimulus into Northern Ireland, which allows people to have more money to spend, advances public works programmes and gives more help for the unemployed, is the best way to deal with the problems that we have at the moment. In addition, 3,500 businesses in Northern Ireland have been able to defer their taxes to enable them to have better cash flow. We will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that businesses, home owners and individuals who are facing doubts and uncertainty about their jobs come through this difficult recession. We will continue to offer people real help now.

The Prime Minister will have seen the distressing reports this morning in The Guardian about the trafficking of children, who arrive at Heathrow, are taken into care, and are then trafficked into prostitution and used as child labour. He has always taken a personal interest in the care and safety of children. May I ask him to secure a report for the House on the measures that the Government are taking with the local authority to tackle this problem and prevent this human suffering?

Child trafficking is completely unacceptable and inhumane, and anything that we can do to stop child trafficking, we will do. I will investigate, with the Home Secretary, the reports that are in the newspaper this morning. We will do everything that we can to protect these children. We are leading internationally in asking other countries to help us ban the practice of trafficking children. We will do everything that we can.

There have been a series of U-turns, defeats in Parliament—even when the Government have a majority—and Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, openly questioning the authority of the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that those are signs of a Government in terminal decline?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman cannot ask questions about the economy, swine flu or the difficult decisions that we have got to take in the world. Once again, he reduces everything to personality. We are getting on with the business of governing.

If the Prime Minister got out and knocked on a few more doors, he would realise that his leadership is the issue. He likes to talk about these issues of substance, but his failure to reform welfare, his failure to deal with the deficit, and his failure to run a united Cabinet all have two things in common: they are failures, and they are his failures. So let us take the state of his Cabinet. This weekend, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote an article calling the Government’s performance “lamentable”. Given that she is openly mocking the Prime Minister and his authority, what is she still doing in the Cabinet?

What would be unacceptable is if we were to follow the policies of the Conservative party. What would be lamentable is if we were to adopt the Conservatives’ policy of doing absolutely nothing. Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about the big issues of the day; once again, he has nothing to say about unemployment; once again, he has nothing to say about the help that we are giving people for housing; and once again, he has nothing to say about help with businesses. Talking about U-turns, this is the man who promised to support the Government through the economic crisis; within a few days, he had abandoned that promise with his U-turn.

I am afraid this just won’t wash. The Communities Secretary—she has appeared; I am glad she is still here—did not write an article about the NHS. She did not write an article about unemployment. She did not write an article about the recession. She wrote an article about the Prime Minister’s leadership and his failure of authority. Let me read out what she said:

“YouTube if you want to.”

How much more mocking can one get than that? She also wrote:

“All too often we announce . . . five-year plans, or launch new documents—often with colossal price tags attached—that are received by the public with incredulity at best and, at worst, with hostility. Whatever the problems of the recession, the answer is not more government documents or big speeches.”

Having just made a big speech, who on earth does the Prime Minister think she is referring to? Does he not realise that his Government simply cannot go on like this? Let me ask him again: why is she still in the Cabinet?

What we are doing is taking action on the recession. We are helping the unemployed get back into work—opposed by the Conservatives. We are helping people with their mortgages—opposed by the Conservatives. We are helping people with cash flow for their businesses—opposed by the Conservatives. We are going to give a September schools guarantee to every school leaver that they will get work, training or educational support, which is also opposed by the Conservatives. Let us talk about the real issues in government. It is about making big decisions in difficult times. The right hon. Gentleman is not up to the task.

The big issue in British politics today is the fact that the man who is meant to be leading our country shows such appalling judgment. That is the reason he is losing his authority. Let us look at the string of misjudgments that we have seen. The Prime Minister has made U-turns on Titan prisons, the internet database, MPs’ expenses and that humiliating defeat on the Gurkhas. Why does he think he got so many judgments so badly wrong?

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about U-turns, the biggest U-turn is his supporting public spending, and now saying that he will not match our public spending. The biggest U-turn on education is to support money for education, and then to say that he will cut it. The biggest U-turn is to say that he was supporting us on the police and is now planning to cut police expenditure. Let us remember that he was the “hug a hoodie”, which was another of his big U-turns. Compassionate Conservatism—it has gone, gone and gone.

I am sure that sounded just great in the bunker, while the mobile phones and printers were flying round the room. The biggest U-turn of all is that of the Prime Minister, who fought the last election accusing us of £35 billion in spending cuts. On his own arithmetic, he has cut £85 billion from his own spending. If he is so confident of his arguments and his judgments, and if he thinks he is on the right side of these arguments, why does he not do what Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did after four years of a Parliament and call a general election?

The reason I am confident about what we are doing is that there is nobody in the world supporting the policies of the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Go to America, Germany, France or Italy—he has no supporters in Europe. He is completely isolated because he wants to cut spending during a recession, and everybody else recognises that we cannot cut our way out of recession. We have to invest our way out of recession. The Conservatives are in the dark ages on policy. They have to think again.

The Prime Minister talks about isolated. He is isolated in his own Cabinet—he is the only one who thinks he is any good. What is it about this Prime Minister and elections? He would not fight an election to win the leadership of the Labour party; he did not fight an election to become Prime Minister; and he does not have the courage to go to the country now. Is not the truth that Britain needs a strong Prime Minister with a united party capable of taking long-term decisions? Instead, we have a wasted year with an utterly busted Government. No one doubts that he might have come into politics for the right reasons, but is it not clear that he is just not up to the job? The public know it, his party knows it, and now the Cabinet knows it, so why not do the last bold thing left and call an election?

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s six questions, and not one of them has been about policy. He has not raised the cause of the unemployed in Britain once; he has not mentioned mortgage holders or home owners once; he has not mentioned small businesses once; he has not mentioned the state of the economy and what we can do to improve it once; he has not mentioned the public services once; and he has not mentioned health and education once. He is completely out of his depth when it comes to the big issues in this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in just a fortnight’s time, a £120 million designer outlet will open at Gloucester docks, with the creation of more than 1,000 local jobs? Will he call on the regional development agency to continue to invest in urban regeneration companies? It is creating jobs and investment in communities such as mine, and that is a real contrast with when the Opposition were in power.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who fights very hard for the interests of his constituents. More jobs are coming to his constituency as a result of what he is doing, and he knows that the Conservative party would abolish the regional development agency. We will support it, we will invest; they would make cuts. That is the dividing line between the parties.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister gave a speech on education and young people. It was his big chance to show that he still has some big ideas for the country: to explain why one in three 11-year-olds still cannot read or write properly; to explain why we have more young people than ever before in prison, in debt or on anti-depressants; and to explain why under his Government we have the unhappiest children in the developed world and a care system in crisis. How is a bit of tinkering with the schools complaints procedure going to fix any of that?

Let us deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, about children and reading. Far more, and a far higher percentage of, children are able to read and write at 11 as a result of the decisions that we have taken as a Government. There are 30,000 children who now get personal tuition to be able to read, and another 30,000 who get personal tuition to be able to write. No Government have invested more in reading, literacy and counting for children, and we have doubled our expenditure on the education of every child over the past 10 years. Of course, there is a great deal more to do and, of course, we are worried about instances of children in care, where there has to be reform. But, we have doubled investment in education over 10 years. It could not have happened under a Liberal or Conservative Government.

There comes a point when stubbornness is not leadership; it is stupidity. [Interruption.] At least I say it to the Prime Minister’s face; Labour Members say it behind his back. For the past 12 years, this Government have vilified and criminalised young people and abandoned a whole generation, and all the Prime Minister can do is spin a vacuous speech to keep his own party off his back. Is it not now obvious that he does not really care about what is right for the country? All he really cares about is saving his own skin.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman prepared his answer to the second question before he got the answer from me. The truth is that we are doing more than ever before to help children realise their potential. Sure Start did not exist until there was a Labour Government; nursery education until age three did not exist until there was a Labour Government; and all the programmes that have doubled expenditure and raised standards in primary schools did not exist until there was a Labour Government. Of course, we have more to do, but it would be better if he supported us in doing the right things, rather than attacking us when we are doing the right things.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that, despite the current state of the economy, Rother Valley still has 3,000 fewer people unemployed than it had in 1997? May I encourage him to keep up that help and assistance for areas that need it and to forget about the blustering from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are doing everything that we can to protect jobs and help people into jobs. Some 350,000 people, who did not receive tax credits before, now receive them to make up for the short-time working that they have to undergo, and we are trying to help people who are unemployed to get back into work as quickly as possible, given that there are almost 500,000 vacancies in the economy. What will not work is doing absolutely nothing and failing to help the unemployed. I must tell my right hon. Friend that, in the Budget, the Chancellor was given an estimate that if we had refused to take action, 500,000 more people would either face unemployment or be unemployed. That is the difference between Conservative policies and Labour.

Q2. My constituents who have worked hard and saved hard now feel betrayed, because the value of their savings has slumped and interest rates have plunged close to zero. Indeed, the banks that those constituents’ taxes have helped to bail out are the very ones offering them virtually nothing for their savings. What message does the Prime Minister have for my constituents who now wonder why they bothered to save? (272703)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the worst thing that could happen to savers would be rampant inflation wiping out the value of their savings. We have kept inflation low during the past 11 and 12 years. The second thing that we have tried to do in the Budget—particularly for elderly savers—is to increase the amount of money that can be invested in individual savings accounts. Soon that will be £10,000 a year. We are aware that low interest rates put additional pressures on savers. We have taken action in the Budget to help them, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that.

In my constituency today, we have the biggest town centre redevelopment in the north-west of England. It includes a new shopping centre, a hotel, a new office block, two primary care centres and a new police station. The Opposition’s spending plans would cut 200 officers from Greater Manchester police. What would be the point of a new police station with that level of spending cuts?

My hon. Friend makes a point. When people are looking, in every area, at the numbers of police who are going to be on the beat, or the number of teachers or classroom assistants who are going to be in schools, they have to compare the spending policies of our party with the spending policies of other parties. It is absolutely clear that thousands of police would lose their jobs as a result of the policies of the Conservative party. It is also clear that spending on regeneration would be brought to a halt by the policies of the Conservative party. People face a choice. We have to invest our way out of recession, as America and other European countries are doing, and not cut our way out of recession. That is the 1930s route; we are taking the modern way out of recession.

Q3. What does the Prime Minister intend to do about the important issue of bullying in the workplace, given the reliable reports of a senior Whitehall boss throwing around mobile phones and printers and swearing at switchboard operators? (272704)

I have always recommended that the Prime Minister treats everything from the Opposition as a joke.

The Prime Minister will recall meeting me and my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) to hear our arguments against the use of service charges and tips to pay the minimum wage. What are the Government going to do to end that scandalous practice, which is harming millions of people in this country?

Last month marked 10 years of the national minimum wage, which I am proud to say was introduced by this Government. It has helped millions of workers over these years. There has been an issue about tipping; consumers—people who are buying goods—leave their tips in good faith, expecting them to go to the workers themselves. Our public consultation, which we promised, has shown that consumers, workers and businesses support a change that would mean that tips would be in addition to the national minimum wage. I believe that that is the right policy, and that is why we will implement a change in the current policy.

Q4. The Prime Minister will be aware that twice as many people have signed the online petition at No. 10 calling for his resignation than voted for him at the last general election. What is his response to them? (272705)

I have listened to Tory Back Benchers for the past 20 minutes, and not one of them has asked a serious question about policy. They should be ashamed of the way they are treating the House of Commons.

Q5. This weekend, I witnessed the great escape of Brighton and Hove Albion in securing its place in the first division. Its next goal of championship football is boosted by construction under way at Falmer Community stadium, which will eventually provide 66 apprenticeships, not to mention those involved in building it. That is a stark contrast to Brighton and Hove city council— (272706)

Let me, too, congratulate the Brighton team on its success; I think that the whole House will want to do so. I saw some of the photographs of the celebrations. I understand that Brighton has delivered nearly 4,000 Skills for Life achievements, and that is helping young people. I believe that the Learning and Skills Council has provided Brighton and Hove Albion’s football in the community scheme with funding, and we will continue to support that. Football clubs that are at the centre of their communities are good for every community, and Brighton has proved exactly that. It brings not only community support but football success.

Q6. Two years ago, the Prime Minister ruled out holding an immediate general election on the grounds that he needed time to set out his vision. Will he tell us how that epic project is proceeding before the British people and he are put out of their collective misery? (272707)

Has any Question Time exposed the hollowness of the Conservative party more than what we have seen today? We are dealing with an international financial recession, a health epidemic, which we must deal with in the most sensitive way, and problems that arise from mortgages, unemployment and businesses. I am ashamed that not one Conservative can even raise a question about these issues.

Q7. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that it is absolutely vital to retain what we have left of British manufacturing. In recent days, there has been speculation about the future of the General Motors plants in Britain—in Ellesmere Port and in Luton. Will he undertake to do everything possible and necessary to ensure that those plants stay open and that we keep those jobs in Britain? (272708)

We are in regular touch with every one of the major car companies in Britain. As my hon. Friend knows, proposals arising from Fiat in relation to Chrysler and General Motors are being discussed. There is another Canadian bidder looking at trying to move into Europe. A number of issues have to be discussed in relation to these offers. We are determined to protect our Ellesmere Port and Luton operations of General Motors. We are also determined to help Jaguar Land Rover and all the other companies that exist in our country—Honda, Toyota, Nissan—and we are determined, as he knows, to help LDV, as we have done, to give the company a loan that enables it to complete due diligence on a new bid that is being made for it. Where we have had requests, we have been prepared to consider them and, in many cases, to take the action that is necessary.

On another serious policy issue, given the Prime Minister’s commitment to greater parliamentary scrutiny, will he confirm today that there will be a full parliamentary debate and vote before the next stage of the Trident programme?

There are regular parliamentary debates on these issues. There is the defence debate that takes place every year. The House of Commons came to a view on this issue, and people are perfectly free to raise it on the Floor of the House. Defence debates happen regularly and will continue to do so.

Q8. My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the difficulties facing employers and employees in the construction industry—problems that have been further compounded by the activities of illegal gangmasters. Will he therefore agree to meet me and other like-minded colleagues to talk through the issues involving illegal gangmasters in the construction industry? (272709)

I am happy to do so. This issue concerns me and anybody who looks at the performance of the construction industry. We are also, as I said last week, looking at the operation of illegal blacklists in the construction industry, which is an unacceptable practice.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister tell me whether the Communities Secretary’s complaints about his Government’s failures were dealt with in the usual way? (272710)

If the hon. and learned Gentleman were asking about how we are regenerating the area that he represents, the housing policy that the Communities Secretary is responsible for or the funding of local government, it would be a serious question. But unfortunately, even before the local council elections, the Conservatives cannot ask anything about local government. Of course, they are prohibited by their policy from asking anything before the European elections about Europe.

Q10. When the Government are looking at allocating the very welcome additional £300 million to be made available to further education colleges, will the Prime Minister look especially at those schemes that are directly linked to regeneration projects, such as the one in Blackpool, where a site has already been cleared in the town centre for our excellent college to move into and spearhead the regeneration of the town? (272711)

I know very well about the issues in Blackpool, about the importance of learning, education and training and about the big plans that exist in Blackpool to extend further education. We have put aside an extra £300 million of capital funding for further education colleges. We are now working with the Learning and Skills Council to deliver a swift resolution to these issues. Since 2001, 700 projects at 300 colleges have been funded. I have to say that in 1997 not a penny was going to investment in further education colleges. Over this spending period, as a result of the announcements in the Budget, we will be spending £2.6 billion, and I hope that my hon. Friend’s colleges will benefit.

We in this House owe a debt of gratitude to the Gurkhas, who have served this country through wars going back a number of hundred years. Did the Prime Minister notice that last week, the whole House united to reject the present Government’s position, including 100 of his colleagues? It looks like the Government are beginning to say that they do not feel bound by that vote. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether his Government will be bound by the terms of that vote last week?

We are the first Government who have given justice to the Gurkhas; we are the first Government who have allowed Gurkhas right of settlement in the United Kingdom; we are the first Government who have given Gurkhas equal pensions and equal pay; and we are the first Government to double the pension of Gurkhas who stay in Nepal. We will listen to the voice of the House, as it was expressed last Wednesday. We are speeding up the 1,500 applications and hope to have them completed by the end of May. We are looking at the five judicial reviews as a matter of urgency and will complete that work very soon, and we will come back to the House with a statement. I have always said that we want to do this stage by stage, and we will come back to the House with a statement.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree that, based on what I heard again last night at a packed meeting about the serious experiences of failings that people have had at Stafford hospital, which they allege are continuing, there is an urgent need for a change of culture, stronger public and patient involvement and a way of resolving and closing the issues for grieving relatives, including an inquiry that answers all their questions? (272712)

It pains us all to have to look at the appalling failures that happened at Stafford hospital, but I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that since they were exposed, swift and decisive action has been taken locally. That includes the opportunity for anyone concerned about care that they or a loved one received at Stafford hospital to seek an independent clinical review.

A report was done last week that showed that there have been significant improvements at Stafford. Recommendations in such reports will support the staff at Stafford hospital. Extra nurses have been employed and an experienced assistant director of nursing has been brought in. We are boosting the front-line staff, and we are further improving patient care as part of a package of measures. The Healthcare Commission has already conducted a full investigation and produced a detailed report laying bare the failures, but I can say that anyone concerned about care of any loved one will have an independent clinical review.

Q12. One million people across the north-west of England worked to raise the £6 million that the Christie hospital stands to lose in the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. Why is the Prime Minister now the one person standing in the way of compensation? (272713)

I met the nurses at the Christie hospital when I was in the north. I have also heard and answered questions in this House about it and written many letters to people, because I am worried about the situation, too. The fact is that we are not the regulatory authority and that many, many more people had finances in institutions regulated by the Icelandic authorities. The first responsibility is for the Icelandic authorities to pay up, which is why we are in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and other organisations about the rate at which Iceland can repay the losses that they are responsible for. However, we have also agreed that we will look at the particular case of the Christie and see what we can do to understand how we can meet its need.

We and the hon. Gentleman have to accept the fact that many more people who were affected by the Icelandic regulatory authority lost money as a result, which means that certain precedents would be set. We have to look at the matter in the round, and we will do so.

Local people are very concerned about Swindon borough council’s cuts in park-and-ride services and about cuts of up to four branch libraries, despite more than £400,000 of extra funding from the Government. Is that not a warning of Tory public service cuts instead of Labour investment?

Mr. Speaker, you do not have to look in a crystal ball; you look at every Tory authority round the country. They are cutting back on public services, obeying the orders of the Conservative leadership that cuts in public services come before the investment that they need. That is one of the issues that people will be talking about in the next few weeks, because it affects real lives.