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Volume 493: debated on Wednesday 10 June 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.

Our specialist hospitals are the jewels in the NHS crown, but unfortunately their knowledge and expertise are not always passed on to district general hospitals, which means that some patients undergo inappropriate operations which later have to be reversed by specialist hospitals, or even worse, are prevented from having operations which could free them from pain. Could the Prime Minister spare just 10 minutes to meet the chair of the federation of specialist hospitals to see how matters could be improved?

Of course I will, and I think he will understand, as I will understand, that that depends on proper investment in specialist hospitals. He will be as concerned as I am by the remarks of the shadow Health Secretary that he will cut spending in the vital areas that are important to our country. The shadow Health Secretary said that he would review the national health’s organisations on a “zero basis”. He said he wants to ensure that the unit costs considerably reduce, rather than increase. He said this morning that he wants a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental limits. Before the Conservatives ask for more spending on the health service, they should talk to the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Health Secretary.

Will the Prime Minister affirm the Labour Government’s commitment to maintaining funding for public services such as housing, universities, police, law and order, transport and pensions, and reject the Tory party policy of a 10 per cent. across the board cut, which would take this country back to the worst days of Thatcherism?

Specifically, this morning the shadow Health Secretary spoke of

“over three years after 2011 a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other Departments. It is a very tough spending requirement indeed.”

He said that the job of the shadow Chancellor was to be clear about where the spending restraints bite. There can be no doubt that the choice, whenever it comes, is between a Government who are prepared to invest in the future and a Conservative party that will cut.

When even the old-timers are reading out the Whips’ handout questions, we know things are really bad for the Government. May I say how pleased I am to see the Prime Minister in his place? Let me be clear about what we think of electoral reform. We want to keep the existing system. We support the link between one MP and one constituency, and we back our system because weak, tired and discredited Governments can be thrown out. We supported the system when we were behind, when we were ahead, when we won, when we lost. Why has the Prime Minister suddenly discovered an interest in changing the electoral system? Does it have anything to do with the fact that his party got 15 per cent. of the vote last week?

Finally, after many, many weeks, a question on policy. Is it not remarkable that it has taken that amount of time for the Conservatives to come up with a question? [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] The statement that I shall make in a few minutes, after 12.30, will deal with exactly those problems. I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are different electoral systems in different parts of the United Kingdom, in many cases with the Conservative party’s support. There is a different one in Northern Ireland, a different one in Scotland, a different one in Wales, a different one for the European Parliament, which is based on proportional representation, and a different one in the House of Commons. I shall deal with the issue in the constitutional statement in a few minutes.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that it is no good the Prime Minister saying, “Wait for the statement,” when he has briefed all the details to the press. And, I have to say that, on asking questions about personalities, what is there left to ask when so many members of the Cabinet have walked out because they cannot work with him?

I want to ask the Prime Minister questions about the issue of electoral reform and the process that he intends to follow. On that issue, does he agree that a truly proportional system has massive drawbacks? Did we not see that on Sunday night, when the British National party, a bunch of fascist thugs, got two members elected to the European Parliament? Does he agree with me that that is a very, very strong argument against proportional systems?

Let the whole House send the message that the politics of discrimination, prejudice and bigotry have no part to play in the democratic life of our country. Let us all take action together to expose the racist and bigoted policies of the British National party. And, let us be clear that, on the Labour side of the House, we will do everything in our power to show that the problems that made people vote for the BNP are the problems that we are dealing with—on housing, on social justice and on employment. Nobody, however, will support the BNP’s anti-Semitic policy or its policy that is even against mixed-race marriage. I believe that the whole country can unite on that.

What I say about electoral reform, however, is that I have never myself supported the policy of proportional representation for a Westminster Parliament; that has always been my view. The right hon. Gentleman has to accept that the policy of proportional representation exists for the European elections, and I do not see a proposal from his party to change it at the moment. He has to accept also that the Jenkins proposals for the additional vote plus PR laid down criteria by which it would be impossible for the British National party to hold a seat—even under the PR system—in the British Parliament, unless it won a constituency seat.

Everyone will agree with what the Prime Minister says about defeating the BNP, and it does mean all mainstream parties making sure that they go door to door and get their voters to go out and vote.

Let me ask about the process, and let us be clear about what the Prime Minister seems to be considering. We are in the fifth and final year of a Parliament, and there have been reports that a referendum is being considered for before the general election. Can the Prime Minister confirm those reports? Is that something that he is considering?

There are no plans for that, and let me just say that when the right hon. Gentleman hears the statement later, he will hear that there is an interest throughout the country in what happens on electoral reform. We published a review—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but we published a review on electoral reform only a few months ago. That has led to a serious debate in the country, but we are not putting proposals forward today. If I may say so, I said that he had moved on to policy, but there seems to be an element of self-interest in the way that he is approaching—[Interruption.] Is it not strange—[Interruption.] Is it not strange, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. It is getting too noisy—[Interruption.] Order. I am not getting much help from the Opposition Chief Whip. Maybe I can get a bit of help from him here. It will be a bad day when I have to tell the Opposition Chief Whip to be quiet, but the Prime Minister must be heard.

Is it not strange that the Opposition are not even interested in discussing that democratic reform, and that the first questions that the right hon. Gentleman asks on policy are not about the economy, not about the health service, not about education, not about public services—not about the issues that the public out there know that we and they are concerned about?

I have to say to the Prime Minister that remarks such as that make him a figure of ridicule across this country. Everyone is entitled to ask what the Prime Minister’s motive is. For 12 years there was not a squeak about electoral reform, but now that he has been trashed at two elections he suddenly wants to put it on the agenda.

This is all of a piece with the Prime Minister treating the nation like fools—expecting us to believe that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling) is his first choice as Chancellor, and telling us that he cancelled the election because he was going to win it. The Prime Minister said that he had “no plans” for a referendum. We all know what that means—he said that he had no plans to put up taxes in 1997. Instead of saying “no plans”, let him stand up at that Dispatch Box and rule out a referendum.

I said that I had no plans, and I repeat that I have no plans. Is it not again remarkable? What MPs are being told by their constituents is that they should concentrate on getting the politics of this country sorted out, on getting us through the recession and on building us a better future. Not one question from the Leader of the Opposition has been about the central issues facing our country.

The Prime Minister has chosen today to make a statement about constitutional reform; he cannot complain that I am asking questions about it. The Prime Minister talks about the economy, but let us be clear about what his legacy will be: not the most useless Government that we have had in history—although they are—but the biggest budget deficit in Europe and the biggest that we have had in our history. So let us be clear about “no plans” or “no proposals today”, as he put it. A man with no democratic legitimacy, who has never been elected as our Prime Minister, who has been defeated every time the public have been able to vote for him, is now considering trying to fix the election rules before the next general election. Is that not what is happening?

First of all, on public spending and deficits, let the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his proposals are for a 10 per cent. cut in most departmental expenditure. If he wishes to raise the question of deficits and debt, let him confirm that the proposal of the shadow Chancellor is now to cut public expenditure by 10 per cent., as confirmed by the shadow Health Secretary this morning.

Let us have a debate about the choice that really does exist in the country: between a Conservative party that now wants to cut, even at a time of recession, into our basic public services, and a Labour party that wants to invest in them. Let him also be honest with the country that when it comes to calling for an election, he has absolutely no plan for dealing with the recession. He has no policies for dealing with unemployment, no policies for dealing with small businesses and no policies for dealing with the problems of this country. He is an Opposition leader who has no plans for government, and he does not deserve to be in government.

One of my plans for dealing with the recession was the same as the Prime Minister’s last week—to sack the Chancellor. The Prime Minister might be talking about a second-preference voting system, but the fact is that he is left with a second-preference Chancellor.

On the issue of public spending, let us be clear about the answers that the Prime Minister has given. He said last week:

“Public spending is rising every year”.

His Chancellor said:

“I have cut overall public spending”.

The figures that the Prime Minister is hawking around are his own figures. He is planning to cut public spending by 7 per cent. in every Department over the next three years. The next election—when he has the guts to call it—will not be about Labour investment versus Tory cuts, but about the mismanagement—[Interruption.] It will be about the mismanagement of the public finances, the appalling deficit that he has left and his plan for cuts.

Let me just ask the Prime Minister this question. On the issue of electoral reform, why not admit that the current system gives the country the chance to throw out a Government who are weak, divided and incompetent? That election is what we should be having now.

Let me read the figures for public spending, so that there is absolutely no doubt about the truth of what I am saying and that the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. Public spending this year is £621 billion; it rises next year to £672 billion—that is this financial year. It then rises to £702 billion, then to £717 billion, then to £738 billion and then to £758 billion. Those are public spending rises. The only party proposing a cut in public spending is the Conservative party.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. At the next election, there will be a choice: a choice between a Government who helped people and actively intervened to take us through a downturn and a Conservative party that would do nothing. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Robathan, you cannot behave like that. You run the risk of being put out of the House. [Interruption.] Order. Everyone has to be quiet.

There will now be a choice between a Government who have actually intervened to deal with the recession and a Conservative party that said “do nothing”. It will be a choice between a Government who are increasing public spending by the figures that I gave and a Conservative leader who, for the first time in the House of Commons during this Parliament, has now admitted that the policy of his party is spending cuts. That is what he has told us today; that is going to be the choice before the country.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I know you are very anxious to hear this question.

The Prime Minister is aware that Barnsley college has been caught up in the incredible bungling of the Learning and Skills Council over the Building Colleges for the Future programme, to the extent that we have a half-demolished college. Incredibly, the LSC has, yet again, delayed the decision from 3 June on which colleges will be funded. My college is now technically insolvent and has announced 53 redundancies. When will the Prime Minister intervene to sort this mess out?

In the Budget, an extra £300 million was put into further education colleges. We are now looking at how we can help the individual colleges that have spending proposals for new investment. Let me remind the House that no investment was taking place in further education colleges when we came into power. We are now investing more in further education colleges than ever before. I believe that my hon. Friend’s college in Barnsley is one of the priorities for getting that new investment.

Everyone who has been out on the campaign trail in the past few weeks knows how angry and frustrated people have become about the way in which this Government always raise people’s hopes only for people to see them disappointed again and again. Nowhere is that truer than in housing, where we have had more announcements than new homes. Since January, when the Prime Minister announced the biggest council house building programme in decades, only 20 new homes have been started. Will he, just for once, make a promise and actually deliver?

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s figures. What has happened since January is that we have put in place measures, first, to protect people in their own homes, so the expected rate of mortgage repossessions has not happened and mortgage repossessions are roughly as they were a few months ago. Equally, at the same time, we are bringing in a programme to invest more in social housing over the next few months and, indeed, over the next few years. I have to tell him that we are prepared to take even more decisions to make available more social housing over the next few months. That is only possible because we have taken the decisions about the increased investment that is necessary at the time of a recession that his party and the Conservative party have opposed. I hope that if he is going to ask us for more social housing, he will support the necessary investment for it.

If that is all true, why are a staggering 1.8 million families in this country waiting for a home—70 per cent. more than when this Government came into power? If the Prime Minister wants to do something now, why does he not stop the Treasury from grabbing all the money that councils raise in rents and sales and allow them instead to use that money to build desperately needed homes? Will he at least do that?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are 1 million more people in homes than when we came into government in 1997. We have also improved houses for more than 1 million extra people. At the same time, we are putting aside extra money for social housing. By 2010, more than £40 billion in total will have been invested in housing since 1997, and we will have made house improvements for 8 million people. We are reducing the number of non-decent social homes by more than 1 million. Since 1997, more than £29 billion has been invested in social housing. We are not complacent, and that is why we are planning to invest more this year.

Since the stated objective of bailing out the banks was to maintain lending to businesses and home owners at 2007 levels, and since the latest official figures just published show that that lending is now absolutely flat—indeed, 20 per cent. down on 2007 levels—when will my right hon. Friend use the power that he already has from majority ownership of several major banks to force the banks to give priority to rescuing the real economy rather than simply looking after their own interests and letting the real economy go hang?

My right hon. Friend is right that the banks have a duty now to lend to small businesses and for housing. Since 1 March they have been under an obligation, as a result of quantitative agreements that we have reached. In other words, RBS has agreed to increase its lending this year by £25 billion. Lloyds TSB has agreed to increase its lending by £14 billion and Northern Rock by £5 billion. Voluntarily, HSBC and Barclays have agreed to increase their lending. The total increase in lending that has been agreed, to come from 1 March, is £70 billion extra over what was available last year. We will begin to see the companies that will benefit from that being able to say that whereas rejections were issued before when they put in applications, they are now having their applications accepted. We will continue to monitor the situation, but I assure him that £70 billion of extra money is going into lending to small businesses and for homes.

Q2. Pensioners and others who rely on their savings are suffering greatly from the low interest rates needed to tackle the recession. Will the Prime Minister explain to them why the savings limit for council tax benefit has stuck at £16,000, when, if it had gone up in line with the retail prices index, it would now be £27,000? (278779)

In all areas, we have to look at what we can afford at different times. Obviously we have done a great deal for those who are on pension credit, to raise the amount of money that they receive. We have done a great deal for people who are on working tax credit and on child tax credit, to raise the amount of money that they receive. Obviously reform of housing benefit is something that we are looking at, but I think the hon. Gentleman has to accept that 1.5 million children have come out of poverty as a result of what we have done, as have 1 million pensioners. If we had not had the pension credit, the winter allowance and the free TV licence, pensioners would not be as well off as they are. There are many people in other parties who did not support those things when we did them.

Q3. Last week, Able UK announced a multi-million pound investment in my constituency, which is going to create 5,000 much-needed jobs. It is on the largest development site in the north of England, on a deep-water estuary. I would appreciate it if my right hon. Friend and his Ministers could tell me what further he can do to secure more economic development in my area and across the country. To that end, will he meet me and my colleagues to look at some of the barriers we still have to economic growth in my constituency, such as— (278780)

Just for Opposition Members, the latest estimate shows that there would be 500,000 more people unemployed if we had followed the policies of the Conservative party.

At all times, we will seek foreign direct investment into this country. We have given people new allowances so that they can invest now, through the recession, in our future. The only way of making a better future is to invest in the future. That is what we are doing. Unfortunately, our opponents want to cut.

Parliament stands accused of being ever more distant from the country. Away from the political arena, what does the Prime Minister feel he has ever achieved in the real world that qualifies him to lead the nation?

I think every MP should return with a bit of humility after listening to their constituents over the past few weeks. Every MP has learned from their constituents that they want us to clean up their politics and get them through the recession, and they want us to build for the future. That is what I am going to do, and I believe I have the experience to do that.

Q4. In the next two years, Ealing’s health services will see an increase in funding of more than £55 million, thanks to the Labour Government. However, is my right hon. Friend aware of concerns in the NHS about a zero-basis review of its budget? Will he reassure me that he will not implement those Tory plans? (278781)

I can also give the House the figures for current expenditure over the next few years. Including the health service, it will rise from £565 billion to £608 billion, then to £645 billion, £666 billion, £689 billion and £712 billion. That is not a cut, that is a rise in expenditure. The only way that the cash figures will be cut is if there is a Conservative Government cutting 10 per cent. out of the major Departments. This is the day when the shadow Health Secretary admitted that the Conservatives plan 10 per cent. cuts in our vital public services. This is the day when the Conservatives revealed their true manifesto for this country. This is the day when they showed that the choice is between investment under Labour and massive cuts under the Conservative party.

Q5. In 2007, there were 8,324 deaths in which C. difficile was mentioned as a cause on the death certificate—an increase of 28 per cent. on the previous year. Yesterday, the British Medical Association produced a report, which said that infection control procedures were being damaged through overcrowding and understaffing at NHS facilities. Does the Prime Minister agree that any avoidable death is unacceptable? In the light of the report, what fresh actions will the Government take to eliminate all superbugs from our hospitals? (278782)

I am determined to do that. We have introduced new rules for nurses, for people being checked as they come into hospitals and for cleanliness. We have given matrons more powers and doubled their number so that cleanliness is at the centre of everything that happens in the national health service. We are determined to root out C. difficile and to deal with MRSA. I assure the hon. Gentleman and anyone who has had personal experience of that happening to any member of their family that we will continue our work to remove C. difficile and MRSA and we have the utmost sympathy for those who have been affected.

Does—[Hon. Members: “It is Mr. Speaker.”] Steady. Does my right hon. Friend understand the anger among people who work in financial services, who have witnessed millions of pounds being rightly invested in our banks to shore them up, but now see thousands of jobs jettisoned by, for example, Cheltenham & Gloucester in the middle of a recession? Does he agree that the banks need to work with the unions to keep people in work during a recession rather than shedding jobs to pay money back to the Government?

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents. I know that Cheltenham & Gloucester has made several redundancies, and that is a big issue not only for him but for the rest of the country. I am happy to meet him to discuss those issues, but let me say that we are determined to keep as many jobs as possible in this country and to prevent unemployment where possible, and, when it happens, to give people new jobs. A hundred and fifty thousand new jobs have been created as a result of new investment that we are making in the flexible new deal to enable young people and others to get jobs. Even in the current difficult situation, more than 200,000 people are finding new jobs every month. We will continue to provide that support, but I have to say again that the issue is clear: we are prepared to provide the investment that is necessary; the Conservatives are revealed again as the party of cuts.

Q6. Last month before the local elections, the Prime Minister, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) about his regional development agency, said that Conservative Members wanted to abolish regional development agencies. We do—we want to give the powers and the budgets to local authorities. He said:“We will support it, we will invest; they would make cuts.—[Official Report, 6 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 165.]This week, after those elections, the South West of England Regional Development Agency has made £56 million of cuts, cutting projects in my constituency in Newent and Cinderford and halving the budget for regeneration in Gloucester. Why should anybody believe a word the Prime Minister says again? (278783)

Thousands of companies in the hon. Gentleman’s area are getting help under the Inland Revenue scheme and others that we are introducing. Thousands of companies are getting special help to take them through the recession. If his argument is that we must avoid cuts, he had better talk to the shadow Chancellor because he proposes massive cuts in services today and in future. The Conservative party has been revealed today as the party that will fight for the next few months on cuts in services. At some point, Conservative Members will have to tell us how many nurses, doctors, teachers, carers and public servants will lose their jobs as a result of the new policy announced this morning.

Q7. Would the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to Lawrence Daly, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers from 1968 to 1984? He was the man who led the Wilberforce inquiry on behalf of the union and changed conditions in the mining industry more than any other individual. He was also a man who loved to sing and loved poetry. The NUM in Scotland—the Prime Minister is an honorary member of the Scottish miners union—is looking to pay a tribute to Lawrence Daly in his homeland of Fife. Would the Prime Minister consider coming to Fife and also paying tribute to him? (278784)

I would indeed. Lawrence Daly was a friend of mine, as well as of many people. There are few people who did more to advance miners’ conditions in this country than Lawrence Daly. He fought for miners’ safety in a way that brought about big changes in safety in the mining industry. He fought for miners to get the right to compensation for pneumoconiosis and other diseases. I believe that he and so many other miners’ leaders who fought for good conditions in what is a very dangerous industry deserve the wholesale gratitude of everybody, in all parts of the House.