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Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2009

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed on operations in Afghanistan in the last week. They were: Sergeant Benjamin Ross of the 3rd Regiment the Royal Military Police; Corporal Sean Binnie of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Black Watch; Rifleman Adrian Sheldon of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles; Corporal Kumar Pun of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles; and a soldier from the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, who died yesterday of wounds sustained in Afghanistan at the weekend.

I have been fortunate enough to witness at first hand the bravery, professionalism and dedication of our soldiers from every battalion fighting for us in Afghanistan. We are determined to ensure that we can be a force for good in helping the people of Afghanistan and protecting the security of people in Britain and the wider world. These men, and all those who have lost their lives in conflict, deserve our profound gratitude. Their service will never be forgotten.

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

I associate myself—as, I am sure, does the whole House—with the condolences paid by my right hon. Friend to the families of the brave soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

The whole country is deeply concerned about MPs’ expenses, and public anger is surely heightened because of people’s own financial and economic circumstances. Laing O’Rourke, a major construction firm in my constituency, has just announced that it is taking on several hundred extra apprentices this year, but unemployment nationally remains extremely worrying. What can my right hon. Friend do to invest in skills and jobs to ensure that we are well placed when we come out of the recession? I am sure that he would agree that unemployment is never a price worth paying.

In answer to my hon. Friend’s first point, our responsibility is to create a system of MPs’ allowances that is transparent and will be seen by the country as wholly fair. We must prove ourselves worthy of the public’s trust. We must apologise for the mistakes that have been made. We must rectify all the errors that have happened, and we must reconstruct the system in a way that the public will see as building confidence in the political process. I believe that the steps that were taken last night by the Members’ Allowances Committee were the first important steps in dealing with this matter for the whole of the House together.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: any unemployment is a tragedy in any area of the country, and it is our duty to do everything we can to help those people who are unemployed. Where people are being taken on, there is help available. Where people are on short time, we are providing help through the working tax credit and through training allowances. For where people have become unemployed, we have announced today the details of a scheme under which, for all 18 to 24-year-olds who are unemployed and out of work, there will be an offer after a year of training or of work. I am grateful that social entrepreneurs, as well as charitable organisations, are already involved in the offer of work. We aim to provide 150,000 jobs as a result of the initiative that is being taken today.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the officer from the Welsh Guards who died of his wounds at Selly Oak hospital, and to the four service men who were killed last Thursday: Corporal Kumar Pun of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Corporal Sean Binnie of the Black Watch, Rifleman Adrian Sheldon of 2nd Battalion the Rifles, and Sergeant Ben Ross of the Royal Military Police. Such a tragic loss of life in a single day should remind us of all the bravery that all our service men and women show every day. They have all made sacrifices on behalf of our country, and we must never forget them.

Let me ask about the issue of MPs’ expenses. The first words that the Prime Minister said about them today concerned the need for transparency. Does he agree that one thing we could do pretty much right now is publish our expenses online the moment we put in a claim? Should that not happen online in real time? Does the Prime Minister agree that MPs from all parties should do that now?

Yes, Mr. Speaker, I understand that the Committee on Members’ Allowances is looking at the issue. I think it important for there to be a transparent system so that when a claim is reported to the Fees Office, the Fees Office can itself put it on the internet. That should be a responsibility of the system of the House, and I hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.

I hope that every Member of the House, in considering this issue, will agree that if trust in politics dissipates or disappears, the whole political system cannot work properly. I think that we all have a duty now to ensure that the agreements that we reach and the independent reviews that are carried out are such that they can restore confidence in the system.

As for last night’s proposal from the Committee on Members’ Allowances, I think it important, as the Committee has suggested, for the receipts and payments of Members over the last four years to be scrutinised by a body that includes people who are completely independent of the political system. By doing that for all MPs over a period of four years, we can show the public that we have taken every necessary action to deal with any anomalies, to repair them, and at the same time to build the confidence in the political system that is necessary for the future. I believe that this is a matter in which all parties will want to be engaged, and it is important that we deal with it now.

Of course I agree with the Prime Minister that we should all support the Kelly commission and the work that it is doing, and yes, we should all support the idea of establishing a committee to look back over the last four years, but is there not a problem with this, and does it not show that we need to get on with things now? If we just ask a committee whether everyone has obeyed the rules, it will take a long time to investigate and will then, I think, find—surprise, surprise—that everyone has obeyed the rules. The issue is not so much about whether the rules were obeyed as about the rules themselves. How much needs to be paid back is not really a legal issue; it is a moral and an ethical issue, and it requires some political leadership to sort it out. Does the Prime Minister not understand that?

Yes, I do, and the leadership means leadership in the whole political system. We have a duty to look across the political system—all parties—to act together, as the Committee tried to do yesterday, and to reach an agreement.

The Committee’s proposals are extreme and radical. It will ask outsiders to look at receipts, expenses and payments over the last four years, and will then report on whether they were regular or irregular. That is dealing with the past. For the present, the Committee proposed an interim system, and I believe that it can command all-party support. However, the long-term changes will require the confidence of the public, which is why, as I have said before, I have always believed that we need an outside body—the Committee on Standards in Public Life—to report on what should be done. Its proposals must then be taken into account by the House.

If we are to make changes in the system, however, we need an outside body—a body carrying some confidence that it is acting completely impartially—that can report on the changes that we can make, and I believe that it should report as soon as possible. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone that we go beyond ordinary party politics, and that we make absolutely sure that what we do affects the whole House and all Members, and the way in which they behave.

I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer but I still think that there is going to be a problem with just saying, “Let’s go back and look at the claims people made under the rules”—[Interruption.] Members are shouting but that is again part of the problem in this House—let us be frank about it.

Let us see if that committee can do it. However, if we just look at the rules and whether people were complying with them, that does not go to the heart of the problem. It does not go to the heart of the anger that people feel. That is why Members of Parliament on both sides of the House decided to write out cheques and send money back, and I think that that is right.

Let me turn to another issue: reducing the cost of politics more generally. If we are frank, many of us know that the next issue we have to tackle is the communications allowance that was introduced only two years ago. It is worth £10,000 to every MP. Let us be honest: taxpayers are effectively paying out thousands of pounds so we can all tell our constituents what a wonderful job we are all doing. We have all done it; we all know the facts. Is not this a gigantic waste of money? Will the Prime Minister now get on with something I have suggested many times? Let us save some money—scrap the communications allowance now.

The first way we are going to save money is through the changes that were voted on in the House two weeks ago—changes that I and others put to the House—about how we can save money on the London allowance, how we can reduce the cost of the additional cost allowance and how we can get the receipts fully dealt with—even those below £25—and submitted. That is the first stage of reducing cost, and the costs of the system will fall.

I have to say something about the right hon. Gentleman’s point about rules as well. It is true in some cases that rules have not been properly obeyed and action has to be taken—I think that everyone will agree with that. It is also true that there is a looseness sometimes in the interpretation of the rules, or that the rules themselves are too loose. That is what the Committee on Standards in Public Life has to look at, but I hesitate to say that one or two Members of this House can get together and write the new rules on everything. We need independent scrutiny to assure the public that people can have confidence in the system.

As for the communications allowance, all allowances always have to be looked at. This, again, followed a vote of the House—a vote involving all Members of the House.

Let me ask the Prime Minister, in short order: how does he, in this current recession, when businesses are facing such difficult times and people are having to make such reductions in their own expenditure, justify the £10,000 communications allowance?

In this period, all members of the Government have frozen their salaries. I have myself refused to take the pension that may be given to any serving Prime Minister. I have refused the London allowance that is available to me. I think that all Members of the House have to look at what they can do in their own situations. As far as the communications allowance is concerned, it is open to the House to look at all these things, but a vote of the House took place. It is always open to Members to propose changing it.

The Prime Minister says that it is open to the House. That is so often his answer. What we want is some leadership to cut some of these costs. He seems to have such a tin ear to these issues. In an age where we are going to have to ask the public sector to do more for less, should we not start with ourselves? We have in the House of Commons 646—[Interruption.]

The House of Commons has 646 MPs. We have one of the largest lower Houses in the western world—larger than in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. In fact, if we take the Lords and Commons together, we have more political representatives than any country other than China. Should we not reduce the cost of politics by asking the next Boundary Commission to reduce the size of the House of Commons?

Many of the countries that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about are federal systems that have not only central Parliaments but federal Parliaments. I do not know whether he is proposing that we make an instant judgment now to reduce the number of MPs by 50, 100 or 150. Those are matters that have to go before an independent commission and people have to look at the boundaries. On all these issues, I am trying to build a political consensus on change. I am trying to build a consensus across all—[Interruption.]

I am trying to build a political consensus on change. It is unfortunate that we cannot today highlight those issues on which we agree that action needs to be taken immediately. That is the way forward for this House to restore trust in its affairs. We have got to deal immediately with the issues ahead of us. We have got to take the extreme action that I propose—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to support it—and, at the same time, we have got to reform the expenses system. I think that today is a time for us all to come together to make the changes that are necessary.

I must say to the Prime Minister that Spain and France are not federal systems, and they have much smaller Parliaments than we do. The Prime Minister says again that he wants to have an independent commission. I sometimes wonder whether—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak. [Interruption.] Order. Dr. Howells, please; the Leader of the Opposition must be able to speak.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the Prime Minister needs an independent commission to work out whether to have tea or coffee in the morning. Whether by putting expenses online, by cutting the cost of politics by abolishing the communications allowance, or by making this place smaller and more efficient, is it not time to wake up and see what is going on in the country? Is it not time for us to see ourselves as the rest of the country sees us? Is it not time to stop the talking and the endless committees, and start showing some real leadership to deliver some real change? How can we bring about the change this country needs if we cannot change ourselves?

It is precisely because we have to change that these radical proposals are being put forward. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen today to divide on issues, instead of to concentrate on the issues on which we agree. I think everybody will agree that this is a problem of the political system that has got to be dealt with by all of us. If we are to restore confidence in politics, that means restoring confidence in all of politics, and it means all Members of Parliament being part of that process of restoring confidence. Leadership is about the whole of the political system responding to the changes that need to be made, and leadership is me saying to all the political parties that they have got to act immediately to change the system. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what is most important for politics today is to move forward with the changes on which we can agree and that are urgently necessary. Of course we should discuss other issues over a period of time, but we must discuss them in a way that is non-partisan so that we can reach proper agreement.

Many organisations support the Equality Bill: Age Concern, Carers UK and all the disability organisations. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when opposing the Bill on Monday, the Opposition could cite one organisation on their side: the Campaign Against Political Correctness? Will he assure the House that he will continue to support the views of Age Concern, Carers UK and the disability organisations and reject the views of those who oppose equality?

This is another issue on which it would be good to have political consensus. Discrimination on grounds of age or of being a carer is simply not acceptable in modern society. I hope that, despite the debates that have taken place in the last few days, we can reach an agreement on that, and I think we would be speaking for the whole country.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the brave soldiers who lost their lives serving us and the people of Afghanistan in Helmand province: Sergeant Ben Ross, Corporal Sean Binnie, Rifleman Adrian Sheldon, the soldier who died in a hospital in Birmingham yesterday after being shot in Helmand at the weekend, and Corporal Kumar Pun, who it is worth remembering now adds his name to those of the more than 45,000 Gurkha solders who have died serving this country over the years.

I would like to return to the issue of MPs’ expenses. I suspect that many people are a little baffled by all the different proposed solutions, because none of them seems to deal with the biggest loophole of all: MPs making hundreds of thousands of pounds buying and selling properties funded by the taxpayer. Surely the only long-term solution is to get all us MPs out of the property game altogether.

I know that this is an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman feels strongly, and it is exactly the kind of issue that the Kelly committee will be looking at. Let him and others put their proposals to the committee and let us come back with a solution. I say to him that any solution that is put forward for the longer term will have to command more than the confidence of this House—it will have to command the confidence of the general public.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but I still think he is making this a little too complicated. A really simple principle is at stake: we are here to serve our constituents, not to make a fast buck on the property market. That is why I have always thought that we should do what they do in Scotland: simply end—stop—any taxpayer-funded mortgages altogether. Until the new rules are in place, we Liberal Democrat Members have committed ourselves to handing back to the taxpayer every pound of any gain made from the sale of second homes funded by the taxpayer. Will he commit—[Interruption.]

I hope that people will also speak up for decent, hard-working Members of Parliament who are going about their duty in the ordinary way and who are not trying make any money out of being a Member of Parliament, but simply trying to serve the public. It is very important that we get some context in this debate. Where there are abuses, they must be sorted out. Where there are disagreements about future policy, I agree that recommendations should be made to the committee by MPs and by parties but, as I have said before, I do not believe that we will command the confidence of the public unless people outside this House believe that what we are doing is also right. This cannot be an issue for just Members to make long-term decisions upon.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal about houses, I know that capital gains tax has to be paid on these second homes. That is the first priority, and the other matters can be dealt with in representations to the committee.

My right hon. Friend will want to know that the people of Teesside were very pleased to receive his instant support following the news that the Corus steelworks could be closing. Will he support the campaign that is being led by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and other Teesside Members to help Corus and enable it to remain a significant part of employment on Teesside?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that the whole House should be concerned about. Corus entered into a contract with four other steel and other manufacturing operators that was supposed to last until 2015. If that contract is broken, a high level of compensation will have to be paid. We are trying urgently to talk to the companies concerned, which range across four different countries, to make the case that it is important to keep the Teesside plant open and that it is counter-productive to close it in the current circumstances, and to see whether, as was previously the case, a buyer, as part of that consortium, is available to take over the plant. These are the issues that we are dealing with. In the meantime, the Minister for the North East of England and Jobcentre Plus are making their services available so that people are in no doubt that if there are to be redundancies, we are there to help people to get new jobs.

Q2. A recent report by the National Housing Federation suggests that more than 100,000 young people will leave the countryside in the next three years, not because they want to do so, but because of the lack of affordable housing. If they stayed, they would be the leaders of their community in the future and the basis of the local economy. This Government have never really understood rural problems, but will the Prime Minister agree to meet a delegation representing young people in the countryside to set out the problems and share some of the solutions? (274644)

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to go away with the feeling that we have done nothing on this issue; we are determined to help people to get housing and to give help for jobs in rural areas. Indeed, a member of his party was asked to report to us on policies that could be implemented to help people in this position. We will do what we can to help people to get jobs and we are discussing with housing contractors how we can move forward on housing. Some decisions actually relate to planning decisions made by local authorities. We will need the support of local authorities in these areas, but we are determined to do what we can by the rural population of this country.

Q3. Every year more than 100,000 children go missing in this country. Thankfully, most of them are found safe, but some of them are not. Over the next few days, events will be held all around the country to mark international missing children’s day. Will the Prime Minister meet me and members of the leading children’s charities to find out not only what is being done to protect those children, but what we need to do further? (274645)

My hon. Friend is right about the number of children who go missing. Last week we talked about lost children who become part of child trafficking near Heathrow. That is completely unacceptable, and I have asked the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to report on that specific instance immediately. In addition, we are working with local authorities to ensure the best care for vulnerable children who are identified by border agencies or at ports, and the immigration and citizenship Bill before Parliament will introduce a new legal duty. The Home Affairs Committee will publish a report tomorrow on some of these issues, and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation after that.

What is the Prime Minister’s response to the further report issued last week by the parliamentary ombudsman as a result of her concern about the Government’s failure to action her recommendations on behalf of Equitable Life pensioners?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are looking carefully at that report. We have set up an examination by a judge to consider the very matters in the report, and we will report back as soon as he finishes it.

Q4. Amid all the gloom this week are two good news stories. One is the minimum wage, which is 10 years old and still going strong. The second is that economic pundits—even the OECD—now concede that the sunny uplands are in sight after the slump. George Soros says that recovery is on its way. He knows all about money and slumps, because he was the man who took £2 billion from underneath the noses of two Tory grandees: Lord Lamont and the Leader of the Opposition. (274646)

I welcome my hon. Friend back for his first question after his recent illness. Things got really bad while he was away, and we are very pleased that he has come back. He is right about the importance of the minimum wage. We supported it in 1997 and we continue to support it. It has been raised this week and we have made it clear for the first time that tips should not be charged against it. We are determined to keep it, and I hope that all hon. Members will consider voting against the Bill on Friday whose intention is to undermine the minimum wage and kill it off in this country.

Will the Prime Minister set out what he is able to do in the next critical 48 hours to stop a further massacre taking place in Sri Lanka?

The House of Commons will debate the issue later this week. I am calling for three urgent actions, and I am making that clear in conversations with the President of Sri Lanka. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government must exercise the utmost restraint and avoid civilian casualties. All civilians must be allowed, as I have already requested, to leave the conflict zones, and the UN must have full access to civilians caught up in the conflict. We will play our part through our aid programme. The Foreign Secretary has been in New York to urge the UN to take further action and our special envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), has been in the region meeting partners and building up pressure for a full ceasefire. What is happening in Sri Lanka is having a devastating humanitarian impact, and we will make continuing efforts to avoid civilian casualties, taking whatever action we can to persuade the Sri Lankan Government of the need for restraint and an end to the violence.

Q5. In the last 18 months, Erewash credit union has saved local people £170,000 that would otherwise have gone to doorstep lenders in high interest rates. That reduces the misery experienced by people trapped in debt and releases extra money into the local economy. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Department for Work and Pensions growth fund backs credit unions. Will he assure me that that fund will remain the highest Government priority? (274647)

In the Budget we added an extra £18.5 million to help the credit funds. More than 100 credit unions have already benefited from that fund, and more than 150,000 people are being helped. I know that the credit union in my hon. Friend’s constituency is a shining example of what is possible, with 700 people obtaining affordable credit. It is making new investment to help people with housing, which is desperately needed in her area. I congratulate her credit union on doing a fantastic job. We want to support credit unions in every part of the country, with both more support and more legislative backing in future.

Please will the Prime Minister tell us whether the Government are in a position to support the long-awaited improvements to the heritage site at Stonehenge and to the roads, as well as the visitor centre that has been anticipated for so long?

I am pleased to announce that, in partnership with the Stonehenge programme board, we have been able to identify a suitable and affordable solution for a visitor centre. Stonehenge is one of the world’s key heritage sites and the hon. Gentleman is privileged to have it in his constituency. Today’s announcement marks the first step towards making the long-held aspirations that he and others have had for Stonehenge a reality. The site will be further enhanced by the closure of the A344, which at present takes traffic very close to the stones. Funding of up to £25 million will be provided through a range of public and private sources. We are determined to help the development of one of the great sites in the world.

Q6. At various times in our history we have had the Long Parliament, the Rump Parliament, the Good Parliament and the Addled Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are not careful we will finish up as the Moat Parliament or the Manure Parliament? Should we not say now that we will accept whatever the Kelly committee says? Will my right hon. Friend say that on behalf of the Government and invite the other party leaders to say it on behalf of their parties, too? (274648)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have said that I do not think, given what has happened in the past year or two, that the House can proceed on the basis of just Members of the House making a decision without seeking outside support and consulting outside bodies. I hope that we will receive a good report from the Kelly committee and that we and all parties will be able to support it.