Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2009

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Automotive Industry

1. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the car manufacturing and trading sectors in Scotland on Government support for the industry. (279144)

Mr. Speaker, good morning, and thank you for all the guidance that you have given me and so many others in all parts of the House over the years.

I have met Scottish manufacturers, including representatives from the car industry, to discuss the car scrappage scheme. I have also met people from Scottish companies that work in climate change technologies, which are, of course, an enormous growth area in Scotland.

I share the comments made by the Secretary of State for Scotland on how welcome you have been, Mr. Speaker, to us on the Labour Benches.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The car scrappage scheme is helping manufacturing and UK consumers. However, there remains genuine concern among car retailers, such as John McGuire in my constituency, about the Treasury’s recent decision on the vehicle excise duty refund. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Treasury to get that decision overturned?

My hon. Friend has raised that matter with the Treasury on a number of occasions. The gentleman whom he mentions, Mr. McGuire at Phoenix Honda, operates a company in his constituency but is a constituent of mine, so he has also come to my surgeries. Mr. McGuire raises important points on behalf of his company and many others across Scotland. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to raise the matter with the Treasury. If there is anything that I can do to assist in that, I will of course be happy to do it.

The Secretary of State mentioned that he has had meetings with people in the renewable energy sector. What conversations has he had with his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on securing some of the £400 million that has been announced for that sector? Has the Secretary of State given particular thought to how the money might be used for marine renewable energy in the Pentland firth?

The hon. Gentleman has raised that important issue with me in the past, and I look forward to visiting his constituency in the parliamentary recess to discuss the points that he raises about the Pentland firth. I have spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the issues. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that about a third of the £750 million strategic investment fund established by the Government is to be earmarked for low-carbon investment. We now have to see what opportunities for the type of marine technology that he mentions are provided by that fund, the additional sources of Government support and the private sector. There is an enormous opportunity for a green industrial revolution in Scotland and beyond.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for all your kindness during the years in which you have been in the Chair.

I may have to declare an interest, as I have a car that is more than 10 years old, and the Donohoe household is looking for a new one. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give me some indication of the number of applications made under the scrappage scheme?

There is certainly great evidence to be had from car dealers across Scotland. When I visited Arnold Clark in Stirling, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), people there were saying how popular the scheme was. The Government are working to provide specific figures shortly, but Douglas Robertson, the chief executive of the Scottish Motor Trade Association, has said:

“The arrival of the government backed scrappage scheme has without doubt affected Scotland’s figures. Traditionally Scotland has always had, on average, the oldest cars in the UK so it is to be expected that we should show the most benefit from the scheme.”

That is the intention behind the scheme; it is a kick-start for the motor industry, and it is supportive of the environmental industries as well.

The Secretary of State will know that manufacturing industry, including the car industry, is vital to the recovery of not only the Scottish but the United Kingdom, economy. Is he confident that the Government are not loading additional burdens on manufacturing and industry, at a time when competitiveness is very important? Secondly, does he believe that the banking system, which has benefited from huge taxpayer largesse, is playing its role in ensuring the success and survival of manufacturing industry?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. The car industry is of strategic importance across the UK. There are about half a million people employed in the motor retail sector across the UK, so there is a challenge not just in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We always have to bear in mind the balance of regulation and bureaucracy in the private sector, as well as in the public sector, and the need to do so is particularly acute at a time of economic difficulty. Along with the rest of the Government, we are seized of the need to ensure that, where possible, regulation has as light a touch as possible on the motor industry and others, particularly at this difficult time.

Contrary to the Government’s spin on the car scrappage scheme, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has said that new car registrations in May fell at an annual rate of 25 per cent.—almost no change from the previous month. This month Ministers had to concede that four months after Lord Mandelson launched his £2.3 billion automotive assistance programme not a single penny from the scheme has been received by struggling firms. On a day when it is revealed that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Scotland has doubled in one year alone, is it not about time that the Government matched their words with actions and offered real help to hard-working families across the country, rather than just headlines and spin?

There we have it: the authentic voice of the Scottish Conservative party, via Lancaster. The hon. Gentleman neither understands nor has any real sympathy for the people of Scotland. Of course there are real difficulties in the Scottish and UK economy, but he should stop playing politics and remember that when the Conservatives were in power their message was “Get on your bike and search for work” and that unemployment was a price worth paying. We will do everything we can to help Scotland through the current recession. We have looked at the lessons of the recession of the 1980s, when communities were destroyed and families were scourged by unemployment across the generations, and we are determined that there will not be a generational consequence of this recession in Scotland.

Public Expenditure

The Calman commission considered these issues. In 2007-08 the total expenditure on services per head in Scotland was £9,032. Scotland and England have seen similar percentage increases over the past decade.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, and I am delighted that he survived the night of the blunt knives. He is, of course, a highly respected Minister, but more importantly, he is a strong Unionist. My constituents have a third less public expenditure spent on them than is spent in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that this imbalance weakens the Union?

I do not share the view that the Barnett formula or the method of funding across this disparate Kingdom in any way fuels extremism or is a cause of the vile British National party support. I do not agree with that. In Scotland, on occasion, there is complacency about what happens in respect of the British National party. Of course we all know that its members are racists and anti-Semites, but their vote in Scotland has gone from near zero a decade ago to 27,000 at the European elections. The proportion of the BNP vote in Scotland was higher than the ethnic minority proportion of the population in Scotland as shown in the most recent census. Despite the complacency that sometimes creeps into Scottish politics, I believe that the BNP is also a Scottish problem.

Is it not clear that public investment is vital to the Scottish economy, especially at a time of recession? Is not one of the strengths of the Calman commission report the fact that its recommendations will give the Scottish Government of the day greater scope and flexibility over public spending?

The Calman commission report has been welcomed across Scotland, except by a small number on the Opposition Benches. The Calman commission is about a different type of devolution. It is about making decisions that affect the people of Scotland in Scotland, and it delivers a stronger Scotland inside a stronger United Kingdom. It also ensures that there is greater responsibility in the Scottish Parliament for the decisions that it makes on spending.

The Secretary of State is right to point out that the Calman commission recommended limited additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister has offered to test that proposition and independence in a referendum. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the people should decide that?

The SNP does not know which way to face on the report. We have the ludicrous sight of a nationalist party opposing more power for a Scottish Parliament. It could not be made up in any fantasy world of politics. Although the Scottish Government have confirmed again today, as I understand it, that they will not do the right thing by participating in the steering group on Calman, I ask the hon. Gentleman to have words with his friends in the Scottish National party and persuade them to do the sensible thing, and not to ban Scottish civil servants from helping to make the Calman commission the type of report that it can be—a report that strengthens the Union and delivers responsible devolution to Scotland.

I add my tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for your support and for your service.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Calman commission is a very radical and positive step forward for Scotland, and that when the Scottish Parliament is spending public money, it should be accountable for it?

My hon. Friend and I were elected on the same day in 1997 on the manifesto commitment to deliver devolution for Scotland. Devolution has been a remarkable success, but it can be better still: more power for Scotland, doing what is best for Scotland and ensuring that Scotland stands strong within the United Kingdom. I believe—but, more importantly, most people in Scotland share the view—that Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are stronger together in the United Kingdom. We would be weaker if we followed the SNP’s policies of separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State will be well aware of the sterile exchanges in recent days about the future of public expenditure in the United Kingdom. Will he promise to put aside the smoke and mirrors and to level with the people of Scotland about the consequences for public expenditure of the inevitable and necessary efforts to reduce record deficits?

As I have said from this Dispatch Box on numerous occasions, the budget for the Scottish Government has doubled over the past 10 years. The current First Minister has more than double the budget of Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar. Of course, the Scottish Government have to try to make savings, but even after any efficiencies they will have more money next year than they have this year, and that is because of continued Labour investment. We are determined to ensure that that money continues to go to Scotland to help Scottish families.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for your unfailing friendship over many years. I appreciate it very much.

The Calman commission might be good for Scotland and it might be good for the United Kingdom. What is unacceptable, however, is that the Scottish Parliament has passed a resolution on the commission’s terms of reference but we have never done so. That is wrong. There is a United Kingdom, which I, in part, represent by representing an English constituency, and it really is unacceptable that Calman has not addressed our interests. I illustrate the fact by noting that we had a Secretary of State for Scotland, from a Scottish constituency, putting tolls on the Dartford-Thurrock bridge across the River Thames while tolls were being removed from the bridge across the River Clyde. We really have to address the West Lothian question; if we do not, other people will.

There are many things for which I am responsible and there are occasional mistakes that I have made, but I have never introduced tolls on the bridge in my hon. Friend’s constituency and I have never even visited it. However, I take his remarks as a well intended invitation to go and do so.

I shall certainly get into my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I may not get out of it.

The important point that my hon. Friend makes, however, is about the devolution arrangements throughout the United Kingdom. The Calman commission is about strengthening the Scottish Parliament, but it is also very clear about strengthening the United Kingdom. I believe in the United Kingdom and think that the United Kingdom—the four nations of the UK—is the most successful gathering of nations anywhere in the world. Additional work needs to be done on constitutional renewal throughout the UK, and I look forward to my hon. Friend participating in those endeavours.

I am sure that over the past 30 years, Scottish questions will have been the highlight of your parliamentary calendar, Mr. Speaker. May I use this occasion not just to thank you and Mary for the personal kindness that you have always shown me, but to recognise the outstanding contribution that you have made to public life in Glasgow, in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom?

Does the Secretary of State agree that, unlike the First Minister of Scotland, the Calman commission based its analysis of public expenditure in Scotland on research and fact, rather than on soundbites? Does the Secretary of State welcome the commission’s suggestion of an updated needs assessment for the overall level of spending in each part of the United Kingdom? In the meantime, how does he envisage the welcome steering group that has been established taking forward the commission’s recommendations for reshaping the mechanism by which Scotland receives 60 per cent. of its public spending, and over which the Scottish Parliament has control?

Of course, the Government and the Treasury continue to consider the wider needs assessment and keep it under review. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will serve on the steering group, which I will chair. It is about maintaining the consensus that has developed around Calman and building the momentum to deliver on the Calman proposals.

It is not too late for other parties to become involved in the process. Unfortunately, however, the Scottish National party has said that it rejects in principle the invitation to become involved. However, it is surely not too late for it to decide not to ban Scottish civil servants, to help make a reality of this work, which will require better working relationships. Doing that would be an early way of proving better intent on the part of the Scottish Government.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree that the past year has seen the three Unionist parties working together for the people of Scotland on the future of devolution, putting Scotland’s interests first? That is in stark contrast to the national conversation, which is the pursuit of a separatist agenda at public expense.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the First Minister is out of touch with what the people of Scotland want—a devolution settlement that works, not separation? In the best interests of the Scottish people, will the Secretary of State try one more time to persuade the First Minister to put aside petty party politics, join the mainstream of the constitutional debate and leave behind the backwater that is his national conversation?

The fact is that there was an open invitation to the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government to become involved. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman thinks, but I reckon that there comes a point when it is rude to invite people continually to something in which they do not want to participate. So the next move is for the SNP Government. Even if they are not willing to do the sensible thing and participate in the steering group, they have to do the right thing and not block its progress. Scotland and the United Kingdom will never forgive a party that puts its interests before the needs of our country.

Lending (Small Businesses)

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on measures to encourage banks to lend to small businesses in Scotland. (279146)

Mr. Speaker, since I came to the House I have much appreciated the friendship and support that you have shown, as one of my neighbouring MPs. I thank you for that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues. Since the start of the year, the Government have introduced a range of measures to help increase liquidity and ease credit conditions for business.

Like other hon. Members, I have huge amounts of correspondence from constituents with viable small businesses who are desperate to get credit but are being offered loans only on ridiculous terms—anything between 7 and 23 per cent. above base rate. On 15 October, the Leader of the House said:

“One of the main reasons why we have been…buying shares in the banks is to ensure that they start lending again to small businesses at reasonable rates. We will do whatever it takes to back up our small business sector.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 790.]

When will the Government start doing “whatever it takes”?

The hon. Lady should look at the facts. The Government created the enterprise finance guarantee specifically for companies that cannot access commercial lending. To date, more than 187 firms in Scotland have benefited from loans of more than £25 million. In addition, the business support payment scheme from the tax office has helped 9,000 Scottish firms defer £167 million. I have been advised by the Royal Bank of Scotland that in the past year its lending to small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland has increased by close to £100 million, and that it anticipates lending an additional £250 million to the Scottish SME sector this year alone.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many company owners who come to me complain that the terms and conditions of the enterprise finance guarantee are horrendous, as has been said? Furthermore, they are being asked to put up their family homes as a guarantee for the loans, although they have substantial equity in their own companies. Is it not unacceptable that people should be asked to put forward their family homes as a guarantee for money that, frankly, is being given to them at the behest of the Government, who saved the banks in the first place?

My hon. Friend raises a legitimate concern, although the taking of securities over domestic property by commercial lenders has always been a fairly standard practice over many years. We are ensuring that the banks in which we have a national stake will lend guaranteed amounts—more than £11 billion in the case of Lloyds TSB and more than £16 billion in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland. We continue to press to ensure that that money gets through to the businesses that need it the most.

The Minister invites my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to look at the facts. The fact is that every week every Member of this House hears from a small or medium-sized enterprise that is not able to grow or is having its existence threatened because of banks’ failures to lend. That failure to lend and to support SMEs must be addressed, because today’s figures demonstrate that, as unemployment in Scotland rises at twice the rate of that in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is having tragic consequences for thousands of Scots every month.

Last year this Government invested £50 billion in Scottish banks—equivalent to £10,000 for every man, woman and child. The first thing we had to do was to stabilise the banking system to allow our businesses to survive. We appreciate that the credit situation has been difficult. However, Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, recently said:

“In discussion with our members in Scotland, we have found that concerns are easing about access to finance, but there are still some concerns about the cost of credit.”

We are continuing to work very closely with the banks, and we believe that we will see an increase in lending over the next few months.

May I add my voice to all the tributes that have been paid to you, Mr. Speaker? I look forward to bumping into you in my constituency.

Does my hon. Friend share the view that the scale of what has been done to support the banks in the United Kingdom makes a very powerful and persuasive case for the protection of Scotland’s interests within the United Kingdom?

Yes, absolutely. Were it not for the strength of the United Kingdom, Scottish finance by itself would not have been able to provide the £50 billion that was essential to maintain the Scottish banks. As I said, that amounts to £10,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland, and it shows the benefit of working together in partnership. [Interruption.]

Order. Could I ask the House for some quietness? There are people’s livelihoods at stake, and they have got to be discussed here in the House.

Local Authority Finance

4. What assessment he has made of the effect on the budgets of local authorities in Scotland of recent changes to Government funding allocations. (279147)

Local councils, including my own, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, are going to face real cuts through the Westminster cut in Scotland’s budget. I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman will campaign on this next year if he finds himself in opposition, but will he use his remaining time in government to do the right thing by protecting Scotland’s front-line services and funding? Will he stand up to the Treasury, or are we going to hear more excuses?

As I said at this Dispatch Box just 10 minutes ago, the Scottish Government’s budget has doubled over the past decade because of Labour investment; and, even despite the efficiencies that are to take place, it will increase again next year. The hon. Gentleman talks about choices. In the next few months, Scotland will face a clear choice between a Labour Government and the Conservative party. No one in Scotland believes that that rump over there is going to end up governing the United Kingdom. The fact is that the Scottish National party wants to see, and is determined to see, a Conservative Government returned to Westminster, because that suits its narrow political purposes.

Mr. Speaker, may I join those who pay tribute to you in saying that I am extremely grateful for your many acts of kindness to me, which began when I made my maiden speech from the back row of the Opposition Benches?

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that allocations to local authorities will still be made by the devolved Executive in Holyrood, and that they remain twice the amount that they were 10 years ago, and very much more than when I was president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities?

My right hon. Friend has enormous experience from when he was president of COSLA. The fact is that, as I have alluded to and as he said, the Scottish Government’s budget continues to increase. We do, of course, look for additional ways to support local government, and tomorrow I will be hosting a job summit about how to support Scotland’s long-term unemployed through this recession. Local authorities have an enormous role to play in that in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.

Housing Market

5. What assessment he has made of the effect on the housing market in Scotland of the fiscal measures introduced in the 2009 Budget. (279148)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the alarming findings reported in today’s edition of The Herald about the low take-up of schemes to help home owners in Scotland? Will she discuss with the Scottish Government ways of ensuring that my constituents and hers can get the same benefits that home owners are getting in other parts of the UK?

I very much share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the report that was issued today and reported in The Herald. Some 81 per cent. of agencies helping people across Scotland said that they knew that conditions imposed in the scheme were much more difficult for the people in the most desperate need and facing repossession. I do not want to see home owners in Scotland getting less protection than is already enjoyed in England. That is why I hope that the Scottish Government will act very quickly on the recommendations made by the repossessions working group and provide free legal advice in any court proceedings to everyone facing repossession.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, this is your last Prime Minister’s questions, Mr. Speaker. The whole House will have a chance to acknowledge your great contribution to public life in a few minutes’ time.

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

Mr. Speaker, may I add my appreciation of your kindness and generosity towards me and many other hon. Members in your time as Speaker?

In view of recent speculation, can the Prime Minister assure me that budgets relating to the support of green energy development and combating climate change will be maintained and enhanced over the next three years? Would he reflect on what the United Kingdom’s ability to meet its carbon budget commitments would be if such funding were cut by, say, 10 per cent.?

In the Budget we committed an additional £1.4 billion of support for the low-carbon economy. That would not have been possible if we had followed the advice of the Opposition to make cuts of 5 per cent. this year. It would be impossible in the future if we went for the plans that have been suggested by the shadow Health Secretary to cut departmental expenditure by 10 per cent. We are for investing in the environment, not for using the money for inheritance tax cuts for the very few.

Welcome to Prime Minister’s planted questions! [Interruption.] Some Labour MPs were a bit confused: when they were told about Mr. Ten Percent, they thought it meant his opinion poll ratings.

In our exchanges last week, the Prime Minister read out figures for total Government spending after 2011. Does he agree that, using the Treasury’s own forecasts for inflation, those figures mean that spending is going to be cut in real terms?

I welcome this debate about public spending. I relish the chance to debate policy for once with the Opposition. The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman has to confirm is that he is cutting spending this year.

Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. That is the best way—we hear what the Prime Minister has to say. [Interruption.] I am not responsible for his answers.

The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman has to confirm is that he would cut spending by 5 per cent. this year. That means that vital services would be losing money. I welcome the debate that we are having in this country. We are investing to get ourselves out of the recession; the Opposition would cut, and they would make the recession last longer. That would lead to higher debts and higher deficits that would have to be spent for. As for spending beyond 2011, the right hon. Gentleman knows the truth: he wants to spend less—10 per cent. less in most Departments—whereas we want to spend more.

Absolutely no answer to the question. For the time that Peter Mandelson allows the Prime Minister to go on doing the job, he should at least answer the question. Every year, at every Budget, the Prime Minister stood there and read out figure after figure for total spending and told us it was an increase in real terms. Now he stands there, reading out figures for total spending, without admitting that they represent a real-terms cut. The country will conclude that he is taking them for fools. Everyone knows that what matters is spending over and above inflation. Let me ask him again: does he now accept that his spending plans from 2011 mean a real-terms cut? The Chancellor says that they are a cut. Are they?

The first thing we are absolutely sure of is that, regardless of economic circumstances, employment, investment and inflation, the Conservatives will cut expenditure by 10 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman said it himself last week—Tory cuts versus Labour investment. Now let me read out the figures for current expenditure. Current expenditure will grow every year to 2013-14, not just in cash terms but in real terms. Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics. After that, it will be less but asset sales will make up much of the difference. So we are increasing current expenditure, and increasing capital expenditure up to the Olympics. Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal is to cut expenditure by 10 per cent. He had better admit the truth: he is cutting expenditure by 10 per cent.

It sounds more and more desperate. Whichever way we look at the figures, the Government plan to cut spending. Let us consider capital and current spending. Capital spending will go from £44 billion in 2009-10 to £22 billion in 2013. That is a massive cut. Now let us look at current spending. We must exclude debt interest and paying for unemployment—what the Prime Minister used to call the bills of social failure. When we do that, we see that current spending is also being cut. Capital spending—cut; current spending—cut. Those are Labour cuts. Let me ask the Prime Minister again—the question will not go away until he answers it. Will he admit—I would not listen to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward); he was pretty useless when he worked for us and he is still pretty useless. The question will not go away. Will the Prime Minister accept that his spending plans from 2011 mean a real-terms cut?

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying to us—he had better listen to the debate because it will go on for many months—is that, regardless of growth, employment, interest rates or inflation, he is dogmatically set on a 10 per cent. cut in most departmental expenditures. Let me read out the real-terms current expenditure: 603 to 629 to 633 to 638 to 642. What is that but a rise in real-terms current expenditure? I have already explained about capital expenditure and what is happening after the Olympics, but gross investment, real terms—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has not produced one figure yet and I have just given him the figures in the Red Book—63, 55, 49—and we will make that up by the asset sales that we have already announced in the pre-Budget report. I have to tell him that current expenditure will continue to rise in cash and real terms. The issue is that the Conservatives will cut current expenditure in real and cash terms. It is exactly what I said—Tory cuts, Labour investment. What is worse is that they would cut expenditure so that they can help the few with inheritance tax cuts, while we are the party of the many. Let him say that he is abandoning inheritance tax cuts.

Every commentator and every economist has concluded that the Prime Minister is wrong and looks increasingly ridiculous. Let us take just one. Last week, Robert Chote, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that

“judging from his performance at Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday—Gordon Brown needs some help to interpret his own Chancellor’s Budget.”

Let us take one of the Prime Minister’s former Treasury Ministers, whom he appointed to work with him in Treasury. The right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) said that

“as the Budget made clear, the only way to clear a huge debt overhang in the medium term will be to cut billions of pounds from public spending.”

Why does the Prime Minister find it so impossible to give a straight answer and be straight with the British people?”

I am the person who is giving the House the figures. The right hon. Gentleman has given not one figure to back up his proposition. The only figure that we have had is the admission by the shadow Health Secretary that he would cut public expenditure in vital Departments by 10 per cent. What we will not be doing is cutting expenditure by 10 per cent.

Let me tell the Leader of the Opposition what the real-terms rise in current expenditure is, and perhaps at some point he will listen: 603 to 629 to 633 to 638 to 642. These are rises in expenditure after inflation has been taken into account. Once again, he is trying to hide the fact that he has got 10 per cent. cuts. His is the party of cuts; we are the party of investment. Because he wants to use the cuts to pay for inheritance tax, let us remember once again: the Conservatives are the party of the few and we are the party of the many.

The right hon. Gentleman is just sinking and sinking. He thinks that everyone is so stupid that they will not notice that once we take out debt interest and unemployment benefit, the Departments of all those Ministers on the Treasury Bench will be cut, cut, cut. That is the truth. Why does the Prime Minister not just stand back for a moment and ask why he is so distrusted? It is not actually the recession: there is a recession all over Europe; and yet no other European leader—[Interruption.]

The reason the right hon. Gentleman is in the hole that he is in is because he is not straight with people. [Interruption.]

Order. We must allow the Leader of the Opposition to be heard. [Interruption.] Order. Allow the right hon. Gentleman to speak. [Interruption.] Order. I do not want a Minister pushing his luck, so I ask the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) to behave himself.

Labour Members shout for half an hour on a Wednesday and spend the rest of the week trying to get rid of the Prime Minister. His problem is that he is not straight with people. He was not straight over the cancelled election; he was not straight over the 10p tax; he was not straight over flying to Iraq during the Tory conference; he was not straight over Damian McBride; he was not straight about who he wanted as his Chancellor; and now he will not be straight with people about the level of Government spending. Will everyone not conclude that if you cannot be straight with people, you are simply not worthy to be our Prime Minister?

Order. Even though it is my last day, the Leader of the Opposition knows that the term “you” is not something that I approve of, and I think that the candidates at all these hustings will be saying that they do not approve of it either.

The right hon. Gentleman is learning all the time. At last he has a European policy, and he now admits that there is a European recession. As far as his last comments are concerned, is it not remarkable that he descends back into personalities? He cannot deal with a policy debate. I have said that we are taking action to deal with the recession, and that means that more people will be in work, that more businesses will be saved and that more help will be given to mortgage holders. We are spending money to take people out of recession; he would cut the money now. There would be more unemployment, more debt and more deficit. The Conservative party has to face up to its responsibility. The Conservatives are calling for public spending cuts at a time when every country in Europe and the rest of the world knows that we have to inject more money into the economy.

As for the future, everybody also knows—this is where the serious debate lies—that what can happen depends on growth and what happens to inflation, employment and interest rates. There is good evidence that the proposals that we have put forward are working, whereas the proposals that the Conservatives have put forward would not work. As for the future of public expenditure, let us just be clear: I have read out figures showing that there are not only cash rises in all our current expenditure in each year, but real-terms rises. The Leader of the Opposition has given us no figure, except the figure of his Health Secretary, which is a 10 per cent. cut in public expenditure. The public will remember one thing about the last week: 10 per cent. cuts in public expenditure under the Tories; investment under Labour. They are the party of the few; we are the party of the many.

Why does the Prime Minister not understand that character and policy come together in the vital question of telling the truth that public spending will be cut, according to his own plans? Everyone will have seen today that the Prime Minister has drawn one of his precious dividing lines between himself and reality. That is what we have seen. People know that they have a Prime Minister whom they never elected, a Prime Minister who cannot be straight with people and a Prime Minister who will not even give 10 per cent. of the truth.

The leader of the Conservative party said:

“We’ve made it clear that a Conservative government would spend less than Labour.”

So it is absolutely clear that the Conservatives would be spending less every time. They would be cutting spending on vital services, and people should not forget that. He wants to read out quotes from this person or that person, but why does he not face up to the policy issue? We are spending 5.5 per cent. more on the health service this year, and 4 per cent. more on education. We are building more schools, employing more nurses, building up the health service and making the policing in our community work. At every point, the Conservatives would be cutting these vital services. They should go back to their constituencies and explain how many police, nurses, doctors and teachers they would cut under policies that are in the interest not of the many but, in their case, only of the few.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will be brief, but I want to thank you for your personal kindness to me and my party over your many years in the Chair and outside this Chamber.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that devolution to Northern Ireland has not been completed owing to the absence of the devolution of policing and justice. This issue has now become a political football between the two parties in power, and the situation has been exacerbated by the recent European elections. Will he take a personal new initiative to complete that all-important stage of devolution, which is the prerogative of the whole community in Northern Ireland?

I think that the benefits to Northern Ireland of the devolution of policing and justice will be very considerable indeed. I realise that there are very delicate issues that have to be dealt with, and that there are conversations to be had, but I recognise that progress has been made with the commitment of the major parties to devolution in principle. Talks are now taking place that I hope will yield results, and I hope it will not be long before we complete the process of the devolution of policing and justice under terms that will give security to every community in Northern Ireland.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the comments made by his Chancellor this morning when he blamed the banks’ boardrooms for the recession but refused fundamentally to change the way we regulate them?

We are fundamentally changing the way we regulate our banks. We are banning them from giving bonuses at the moment where we have taken over the banks. We are changing the structure of the boards by the way we are dealing with the problems that have been created in this recession, and we are introducing new financial services legislation in the next year to change the structure of regulation. In every area in which abuse has been found, we are taking action to deal with it. I hope that, when the legislation comes before the House of Commons, the right hon. Gentleman will support it, because that is the right thing to do. When people make mistakes, that has to be dealt with, and we are dealing with the mistakes that have been made in the City.

I still think that the Prime Minister is trying to have it both ways. He cannot just blame the bankers but not change the basic way we control them. He is just passing the buck. I will tell him who is to blame for this recession: a Government who did not listen to warnings, who let the bankers get away with blue murder and who, even now, refuse to separate ordinary high street banking from casino investment banking. Can he not see that if he just keeps passing the buck, the only certainty is that this kind of crisis will happen all over again?

The right hon. Gentleman is speaking as though high street banks and investment banks did not fail. The truth is that both failed, and we have to deal with that. The solution is to have better regulation and better supervision. It is actually about cross-border supervision at a global level as well. It is about bringing in those countries that have been outside the scope of supervision and regulation. That is what the G20 was about: to bring them all into the regulatory and supervisory net. To be honest, I think the right hon. Gentleman actually supports what we are doing but cannot bear to say so.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite all the promises, the Lloyds group of banks is planning to decimate jobs in Yorkshire and take them down south to Peterborough? Will he urgently talk to the management of the Lloyds group and point out that we are major shareholders in that bank and expect better standards?

I am very happy to talk to Lloyds, which made promises at the time it took over HBOS about what it would do to safeguard the jobs of its employees. We will look at the issue in that context; any jobs lost are to be regretted and we will do everything we can.

Q2. The Prime Minister will have satisfied virtually nobody with his private inquiry into the war in Iraq. He does, however, have the opportunity to satisfy one family—the Al-Sarraj family. Mr. Al-Sarraj, who is detained in Camp Cropper in Baghdad, is the husband of my constituent, Shereen Nasser. Will the right hon. Gentleman talk to the US authorities to try to secure a release date for Mr. Al-Sarraj? (280104)

The hon. Gentleman has raised the case with me; I shall look further at what he says and write to him.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to condemn the appalling racist attacks on Romanian families in Belfast?

Yes indeed, and I hope that the authorities will be able to take all the necessary action to protect those families.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Department for Transport has been compiling dossiers on opponents of the third runway at Heathrow and handing them over to the police? Will he find out whether there is one on me and one on his hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)? (280105)

I know nothing about this—[Interruption.] Any allegation that the hon. Gentleman makes will of course be investigated, but it is not something that has been drawn to my attention. As far as the Heathrow expansion is concerned, it is a contentious issue but the House has voted on the matter.

Q4. My right hon. Friend will know that the Lancashire police constabulary is the top-performing police force in the country. Burglary is at a 27-year low and vehicle crime at a 20-year low. The number of police officers, police community support officers, special constables and other staff has increased by 1,400—30 per cent. since 1997. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what impact a 10 per cent. cut in policing will have on staff and crime in Lancashire? (280106)

It could involve the loss of about 15,000 police. Those who advocate 10 per cent. cuts in the Home Office have to face up to the consequences, as it will mean fewer policemen on the beat, less neighbourhood policing and less protection against crime. [Interruption.] I notice that Conservative Members are not worried about a 10 per cent. cut in the police; I think they would hear from their constituents if such a cut were ever to happen.

Has the Prime Minister any concern about the expressed intention of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to axe the full-time police reserve in Northern Ireland? Does he recognise that there is a heightened level of dissident activity and that the Chief Constable is leaving his job, so is this not a decision that should be left to the new Chief Constable?

I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have committed additional resources to deal with the problems posed by the dissident groups in Northern Ireland. I spoke to the former chief of police in Northern Ireland at exactly the time of the incidents and we promised him that the resources would be there to deal with the problems arising from the actions of those dissident groups. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the security of the people of Northern Ireland will not be put at risk in any way.

Q5. Mr. Speaker, may I thank you for your kindness over the years and wish you well? Knives, age-related games and alcohol were all bought online recently by a 16-year-old acting for Greenwich trading standards without any checks being made. They were bought from Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, Argos and other stores, even though his card was registered with his real date of birth and address. Will my right hon. Friend look to extend the provisions in the Gambling Act 2005 to restrict and have simple checks on age so that our young people cannot get easy access to knives and other age-restricted goods, in accordance with the recommendations of the children’s charities digital manifesto on internet safety? (280107)

I know about the document to which my hon. Friend refers. She may be aware that yesterday we published the “Digital Britain” document describing the steps that the Government are taking to ensure the online safety of children, and the ways in which the Government will continue to support further action by the industry against such practices. We have also set up the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which, as she probably knows, is examining these issues.

The Calman commission reported this week that the Scottish Parliament should have additional limited powers. The First Minister has offered to test that proposal, together with the proposal for independence, in a referendum. Does the Prime Minister agree that the people should have their say?

I am sorry that the Scottish National party is not supporting the Calman recommendations. They give a new basis on which the Union can move forward, providing a measure of devolution that will allow the Union to be safeguarded for the future. The difference between us and the Scottish National party lies in the fact that the SNP wants complete independence, although all the evidence suggests that the people of Scotland do not.

Q6. May I thank you personally for your kindness, Mr. Speaker?On policy, let me say to my right hon. Friend that my constituents are nervously awaiting the outcome of the Learning and Skills Council’s review of the Building Colleges for the Future programme. We need that money. Will he give some reassurance that when the review takes place our Government will make an immediate decision, and that he will take account of our commitment to urban regeneration in Burslem and to the university quarter so that the full amounts can be provided for the campuses in Cauldon and on the Burslem site? (280108)

In the Budget, we announced an extra £300 million of capital spending on further education colleges to meet some of the demand that has arisen as a result of the number of colleges that wish to expand and build new facilities on their campuses. We are looking at all the projects. The LSC has talked to the principals of all colleges this month, and we hope to announce the projects that will proceed to their next stages as soon as possible.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Government have received any informal briefings from Damian McBride? (280109)

I should like to ask the Prime Minister about a modest constitutional innovation. Will he invite the House of Commons to amend its Standing Orders to allow senior Ministers in the House of Lords to come to this Dispatch Box to defend their stewardship of their Departments, and to pilot legislation of which they are the principal architects? Even the most senior junior Minister will on occasion be nothing more than a superior parrot unless that change is made.

We have a strong team of Ministers in the House of Commons, who are perfectly able to answer questions and conduct debates in the House of Commons. If my hon. Friend has proposals for constitutional innovation, perhaps he could put them to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).

Q8. This is national elder abuse week. According to the Government’s own figures, 5,980 older people are victims of abuse every week in this country. Will the Prime Minister consider the need for legislation? The overwhelming majority of organisations responding to a Government consultation said that it was necessary, not least at a time when 5,900 people every week are unprotected from assaults and those who commit the assaults go unpunished. Is it not time for legislation, and will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the matter? (280110)

Any abuse of the elderly is completely unacceptable. I hope that the criminal law will protect them, and that the regulatory framework will be such that we can give the protection that is necessary. We will continue to keep that regulatory framework under review. In a week when the amount of abuse of the elderly is being noted, I think it right to say that no citizen should be engaged in anything that puts the dignity and security of elderly people in our country at risk.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could explain a phrase that I heard recently: “Play the ball and not the man.” Perhaps as an ex-rugby player he could explain both its meaning and its application to Prime Minister’s questions.

It means that on only a few occasions in the past year has the Leader of the Opposition managed to raise questions about policy. We welcome the debate about policy which will be held in the country over the next few months, when we will show that we will safeguard the health, education and public services of this country against 10 per cent. cuts by the Conservative party.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending the work of the Chernobyl children’s charities, which bring thousands of children over from Belarus every year for recuperative holidays? Will he also explain why the Home Office has decided not to give free visas to the Chernobyl children from the north of Ukraine, who are suffering worse conditions than those from Belarus, and will he meet me and a delegation of the charities to discuss this important issue? (280111)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on many occasions and has taken a deep interest in it. I also know that he has held an Adjournment debate on it. He is asking about the Home Office and what it can do to help. I suggest that he ask for a meeting with the Home Secretary, and I am sure the Home Secretary will be happy to meet his delegation.

As my right hon. Friend may know, I have in my constituency three of the five biggest energy users, and they are very concerned about increasing energy costs. What steps are my right hon. Friend’s Government taking to protect them against excessive profits, which has happened before in respect of the energy companies?

Everybody is concerned about the 50 per cent. rise in oil prices that we have seen over the last few weeks. The oil price was $150, then it went down to $30, and it has now gone up to $70. That means that it is very difficult for energy companies in this country, but also very difficult for consumers, and very difficult when we consider future gas and electricity bills. I believe that the world has got to look at what it can do to make sure that supply of and demand for oil is far more in balance, so that we can keep oil prices under control.