The Prime Minister was asked—
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, the whole House will wish to join me in welcoming today Her Majesty the Queen’s approval for a new form of recognition for the families of those members of the armed forces killed on operations and as a result of terrorism. Her Majesty will be making an announcement today, directly to the families of armed forces personnel, in which she will make clear her personal attachment to the new recognition. I am confident that that will be a very special and fitting tribute indeed to the great debt that we owe to all those who die on operations, and to the enduring loss shouldered by their families.
This morning I met ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further such meetings later today.
Our armed forces are the bravest and the best in the world, and in the armed forces day celebrations on Saturday the people showed how much they love and respect them.
May I ask the Prime Minister about swine flu? A number of people in Castle Point—adults and children—have tested positive, and the local campaigning newspaper, the Echo, is keen to reassure people that progress is being made. What will he do next to tackle the problem?
I share with the hon. Gentleman the respect that he has stated for our armed forces, and for the armed forces day on Saturday, when thousands of people in all parts of the country wanted to give recognition—deserved recognition—to the work that our armed forces do every day.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of swine flu. He may know that we have had an emergency meeting of the Cobra group—the civil contingencies secretariat—today to look at the incidence of the disease. I have to report to the House that the total number of confirmed cases for the UK now stands at 6,538. That compares with just 2,236 last week. That large rise in numbers of confirmed cases means that a more flexible and local approach will be used in areas where there are higher numbers of cases reported. The Health Protection Agency, in conjunction with the NHS, is doing excellent work to limit the spread of the virus. We continue to monitor the situation closely, making sure that arrangements are in place so that the UK remains well placed to deal with the pandemic. We will adapt those arrangements as the situation changes, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will make a statement to this House tomorrow on the outcome of our deliberations.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the armed forces. My grandfather, Hugh MacDonald, served in the Black Watch during the second world war. He is buried in the Black Watch section of the military cemetery in Gibraltar. The House will excuse me for using Scottish vernacular, but I fear that he might be birling in his grave at the thought that the famous red hackle of the Black Watch may be no more. What assurances can the Prime Minister give, not only to me but to serving personnel and veterans, whom I met on Saturday, that the Black Watch red hackle will remain the symbol of the Black Watch?
I, too, met Black Watch servicemen on Saturday and people who have contributed greatly to our armed forces. I can assure my hon. Friend that the tradition that he talks about will be maintained as long as the Army exists.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said, and I agree with him about the Queen’s new recognition for our armed forces—we should all be incredibly proud of what they do on our behalf.
Last week, it was demonstrated for everyone to see that capital spending under Labour will be cut. Now I want to turn to total spending. Does the Prime Minister accept that his own figures show that once the Treasury’s forecast for inflation is taken into account, total spending will be cut after 2011?
No, total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013-14. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, it will continue to rise—[Interruption.]
Order. The Prime Minister’s answer must be heard.
I think that that answer gets zero per cent. The Prime Minister said very clearly no, it will rise, so can he explain a copy of a Treasury presentation that was given to us? On page 7, there are headings for current spending and capital spending, and the headline says very clearly: “Reduction in medium-term spending”. May I ask the Prime Minister, if even the Treasury is giving presentations around the country saying that public spending as a total is being cut, why cannot he admit to the truth?
I have told the right hon. Gentleman previously that current spending is going to rise, and that capital spending, as I explained last week, will fall after 2011. These are the public spending projections for the future, but I have to tell him that the debate about public spending is about how we return to growth and jobs in the economy. The reason we have advanced spending to 2009-10 is so that we can spend to get out of recession. We put forward proposals for homes and jobs, and for more money in 2009-10. The Opposition have rejected this expenditure. We have put forward proposals for expenditure in 2010-11—increasing expenditure, and the Opposition have rejected that.
The capital spending that we have advanced to 2009-10 and 2010-11 is therefore not available after 2011. This is precisely the way in which a Government will act to take the country out of recession, and I must therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman why—[Interruption.] Oh yes. His shadow Chancellor should explain why he was going into television studios yesterday saying that he was going to cut schools now, cut Sure Start now, cut the September guarantee for school leavers now, and do nothing about unemployment. That is surely the issue: we cannot get out of recession unless we spend now on the services that we need.
Today we see a Prime Minister in full retreat. In the first answer, he says that we are going to get a zero per cent. increase in public spending—that is a new one. In the second answer, he finally admits that he is going to cut, and cut deeply, capital spending. He talks about the debate about public spending: the debate is about whether the Prime Minister can be straight with the British public. Let me ask him again. He stood at the Dispatch Box and talked about total spending year after year—that is the figure that people are interested in. As the Treasury itself says, when it comes to total spending, there is a reduction, not a freeze, in medium-term spending—I am glad that the Prime Minister is talking to the Chancellor for the first time in weeks—and given that it is talking about a cut, will the Prime Minister stand there, give a straight answer and say that once we allow for inflation, total spending is being cut?
I have already said that current expenditure will rise, and continue to rise. Capital spending will rise until 2011, then it will fall. I have already made it clear that for health, education and for all these public services current spending will continue to rise. The issue is surely this: in 2009-10, we are raising spending substantially. We are doing so in 2010-11, and we are doing it to take us out of recession. There is only one serious party in the world that is trying to tell us that we should cut spending now—the Conservative party. The right hon. Gentleman must therefore admit that under his proposals, schools would lose money now, teachers would be made unemployed, Sure Start services would go, child care services would be at risk, and no teenager would get a guarantee for jobs. That is the future if the Conservatives were ever to implement it.
Complete nonsense. Nobody—[Interruption.] It is interesting that not even the Prime Minister’s own Cabinet now backs the ludicrous line that he is taking about public spending. He keeps talking about this 10 per cent. I do not know whether he realises how much damage it is doing to him. It is not doing any damage to us. Let us explain where the deceit about the 10 per cent. comes from. Let me explain to the House—[Interruption.]
Order. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard.
If we take the Government’s own spending plans, take off debt interest and take off the increase for unemployment, which, sadly, will go up, we are left with a 7 per cent. cut in every Department—the Government’s own figures. If we exempt the NHS, we get a 10 per cent. cut—the Government’s own figures. If we take out—[Interruption.] Thank you, Schools Secretary. If we listen to the Schools Secretary and take out health and schools, we get a 13½ per cent. cut. That is the Prime Minister: Mr. 13½ per cent.—his own figures. Let us see if he can answer the simplest of questions. Is he going to have a full departmental spending review before the election—yes or no?
The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman said was that unemployment is going to continue to go up. That is the Conservative policy. It is a prediction. That is when they say that unemployment is a price worth paying. Is he basing his assumptions on unemployment rising to 2014? No wonder he wants to cut public services. He is basing his assumptions on unemployment continuing to rise, because he will do absolutely nothing about it. We have taken action that is preserving 500,000 jobs. A quarter of a million people are leaving the unemployment register every month. We put in extra money on Monday so that there is more for young people who are unemployed and for summer school leavers. We will not forecast our spending plans on unemployment being higher in 2014 and rising every year, but if that is what the right hon. Gentleman wants to do, he cannot afford public services. Therefore the truth is that he will be cutting public services by 10 per cent.
I have to say that this is one of the most feeble performances that I have ever seen from the Prime Minister. If Peter Mandelson had not been so busy wandering round the television studios this morning, he could have given him a bit of tuition. There is only one person who we want to add to the unemployment register, and that is this Prime Minister. I asked a simple and straightforward question. Perhaps he could now answer it. Peter Mandelson has said that there will not be a spending review before the election. Can the Prime Minister tell us—will there be one or not?
It would be wrong to have a spending review now, at this stage—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because we are in the midst of a recession and it is not possible to say what unemployment, growth and all the characteristics that the right hon. Gentleman has been referring to are likely to be in 2012, 2013 and 2014. We have got to the heart of the Conservative position today. They are the party of unemployment. They are premising all their spending plans on unemployment continuing to rise. He said himself that unemployment will keep on rising. If that is the basis of their spending plans, people can look forward, under a Conservative Government, not just to 10 per cent. cuts, but to rising unemployment. Why do they want these public spending cuts? To pay for inheritance tax cuts for the very rich. We see once again that they are the party of the few, and we are the party of the many.
I know the walls of the bunker are thick, but the Prime Minister seems completely unaware that unemployment is rising across the country because of the policies of his Government. We have seen hundreds of people lose their jobs at Diageo in Scotland—another tragic case—yet the Prime Minister seems blissfully unaware of what is going on in the country that he is meant to be governing. Everyone will conclude that the Government will not have a spending review because they do not want to own up to the cuts that they are planning in Department after Department. The truth is that this Government are planning to cut capital spending: fact. They are planning to cut total spending: fact. The most important fact of all is that they are incapable of being straight with the British people.
This Opposition would cut public spending this year and deprive people of help with unemployment and housing. This Opposition party would cut public spending next year, and cut it savagely in schools, in education and even in the Sure Start programme. We now know the truth about the Conservatives’ assumptions about the future: they assume that unemployment will continue to rise, as the right hon. Gentleman said, until 2014. That is not the policy of this Government; we want to get people back into work.
Does the second franchise fiasco on the east coast main line in two years not tell us that the Tory rail privatisation experiment has finally hit the buffers? Now that we are taking the east coast main line back into public ownership, can we keep it that way?
Our first and overriding obligation is to ensure continuity of service to the passengers, and that there is no disruption of services, so the Secretary of State for Transport is establishing a publicly owned company, the East Coast Main Line company. It will take over all franchised rail services at the point that National Express East Coast ceases to operate, and existing staff and assets will transfer to the new company. We are making sure that the service continues to run, that passengers continue to be served and that jobs continue to exist.
I first join in welcoming the announcement from Her Majesty today for such a fitting tribute to recognise the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces.
This afternoon we have seen the bogus debate about public spending hit new lows. I am almost tempted to suggest that Lord Mandelson and the Conservative economic spokesman go on another cruise together to make up. The real failing is that the Conservative party leader wants to cut spending when the economy is still on its knees, which is economic madness, and he will not tell us how; and the Prime Minister is still living in complete denial about the long-term savings that will be needed when the economy starts to recover. Are they not both deliberately choosing to trade insults so that they can both avoid telling the truth?
The right hon. Gentleman does not tell us what his policy is at all. The fact of the matter is that if spending were cut this year, jobs would be lost and services would be put at risk; and if spending were cut next year, jobs would be lost and services would be at risk. We are determined to ensure that spending remains in order to increase job opportunities and to protect home owners, and to make sure that our public services are in place. I hope that he will join our side of the debate in protecting public services for the future.
What the Prime Minister is avoiding once again is the fact that difficult choices on long-term spending need to be made now if we are going to get any grip on the country’s finances. That is why we should admit that we neither need nor can afford to replace Trident. He is planning to sign the first contracts for the new Trident submarines this summer, during the recess when we are all away. Is it not obvious that he should not do that?
We have already announced a deficit-reduction plan for the next five years. We have taken difficult decisions about efficiency savings and asset sales, and about raising the top rate of tax: about measures that ensure that people who are in a position to pay more do pay more in the tax system—that is, at the top rate of tax. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support those measures, which are designed both to reduce the deficit and to ensure that there are sufficient resources for public services. I have already made my position on Trident clear—in the debate on Monday.
Last week Corus announced 379 job losses in the steelworking town of Stocksbridge in my constituency—job losses that will have a devastating impact on the economy of a town with a population of only 13,500. Will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to do whatever he can to ensure that Corus can secure a long-term future for steelworking in places such as Stocksbridge?
Corus employs more than 20,000 people in this country, and wherever there are redundancies it is a matter of sadness and regret. We are dealing with a fall in demand in the steel industry throughout the world, and it is affecting Britain and every other country. We are in talks with Corus, we have provided extra money in the past week for help to secure jobs and we will continue to talk with it about what more we can do. We are also in negotiations with Corus about its relationship with a conglomerate of steel producers. That contract has broken down; it puts jobs in Britain at risk; and we are trying to do what we can to ensure the agreement of a new arrangement that can protect more jobs in Britain.
As I have already explained to the House, we are bringing forward investment, previously allocated for later years, to 2009-10 and 2010-11. The reason why we are doing so is that we can help get the economy out of the recession. The capital investment would not be supported by the Conservative party. As a result, projects such as housing, in which we are investing from this Monday, as we have announced, could not go ahead. I have already explained to the House that while the previous Budget announced that there was a rise in capital expenditure over a period of time, more money has been reallocated to the first years so that we can help ourselves out of recession.
There has been a great deal of talk about the modernisation of the House, but I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether we could go back in time—to when we had Prime Minister’s Question Time twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There would be much more accountability to Back Benchers, the questions would be more topical and the Chamber would be much better attended on Thursdays.
That is an idea on which Mr. Speaker may wish to consult.
As the hon. Gentleman should know, in 1997 there were 70,000 apprenticeships in Britain; this year, there are 225,000—three times as many. To say that we have reduced the number of apprenticeships, or that we are not taking the issue seriously, is wrong. As far as training programmes are concerned, on Monday we announced how we would do more for summer school leavers and for young people under 25. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the new investment that we have made into those measures. They cost money; I hope that his party is prepared to support them, even if the Conservative party is not.
I understand that Wigan will receive more than £21 million between 2008-09 and 2010-11 as an additional resource to help tackle problems faced by local people. Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about both the neighbourhood renewal fund and some other aspects of central funding to local authorities, but I do say that in the past few years we have increased those resources substantially. Where there is unemployment, we will be increasing resources to help people get back to work.
We are raising expenditure on the health service this year and next year. The hon. Gentleman should know perfectly well that we have done so against the advice of the Conservative party, which would prefer to see—[Interruption.] If we had not taken the decision to raise national insurance to put investment in the national health service, we could not have had the 90,000 extra nurses, the 20,000 extra doctors and the new hospitals. That decision was opposed by the Conservative party.
In a few days’ time, the newly elected European Parliament sits for the first time. Can the Prime Minister assure me that Labour MEPs will not sit with Polish MEPs who are homophobic and of an anti-Semitic orientation, with Czech MEPs who believe that global warming is a myth, or with Dutch MEPs who think that abortion should be abolished and that Sunday shopping should stop? Which party does support those loonies and weirdos?
It took the Leader of the Opposition almost a year to admit that there was a recession all over Europe. Now that he has had to admit it, perhaps he should also admit that there is a need for co-operation all over Europe to deal with these issues. What I think people will find very sad is a Conservative party now on the fringes of Europe with some of the extreme parties on the right wing of the European political family.
The hon. Lady will know that the Health Secretary will make a statement tomorrow on the issue of swine flu. We will make sure that at all points we are vigilant in ensuring that the treatment of that disease in every part of the country is right and proper.
My right hon. Friend may have seen today’s announcement by Diageo on the restructuring of jobs in Scotland, to which the Leader of the Opposition referred. It was mixed news, with 500 job losses over two years but also £100 million of investment, including in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to negate the loss of these jobs, and will he agree to meet the company to discuss its continued plans for investment in Scotland?
Where there is unemployment, we are ready to help. The measures that we announced on Monday will move in to help young people, but also adults who are losing their jobs. It is possible for firms making capital investment to get new capital allowances which were introduced in the Budget to stimulate new investment. We are seeking an investment-led recovery. The capital spending that we have reallocated to 2008-09 and 2009-10, while it falls in 2010-11, is vital to doing that. We will continue to back private investment in our country, and these are the figures that I want to make clear to the House.
The hon. Gentleman raises very difficult issues. I am sure that the whole House will share my deep disappointment at the recent behaviour of the Iranian regime: disappointment at the manner in which legitimate demonstrations have been suppressed; disappointment at the restrictions that he has mentioned on the freedoms of the Iranian people, with people due to stand before a closed court on 11 July; and disappointment that the Iranian Government have expelled two of our diplomats and detained several of our embassy staff. This action is unjustified and unacceptable. Some people in Iran are seeking to use Britain as an explanation for the legitimate Iranian voices calling for greater openness and democracy. However, we will continue, with our international partners, to raise our concerns with Iran, including on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.
Following job cuts announced by Lloyds, will the Prime Minister assure banking staff in my constituency that he will do all he can to protect their jobs? Will he join me in sending a clear message to Lloyds Banking Group that further job losses would be totally unacceptable?
I have visited the area and talked to staff, and I understand their frustrations at what is happening. They have served the bank well, and they are the victims of what has happened to HBOS in its worldwide activities, particularly its failures in other countries. We will do what we can to help the staff of HBOS and Lloyds TSB. We are also making it possible for people to have new facilities to find jobs in the area. We will do what we can to reduce unemployment in these difficult circumstances; that is why we have set aside £5 billion to help the unemployed, which is only possible because we have made these additional allocations.
Being straight with the British people means talking about how we get out of recession and how we build for growth. It is not much good the Opposition’s talking about 2011 when they are cutting spending in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Throughout this debate, they have refused to support the action we are taking on jobs. They have no plan to come out of recession, they have no plan for jobs, and they have no plan for growth in the economy: they have nothing to offer the British electorate but cheap gibes and no policy.
I do not know why the Opposition mock this. Giving a guarantee for school leavers to get a school place, a college place, an apprenticeship or work experience—some form of activity that prevents them from being unemployed—has never been done before. That costs money, and we are prepared to spend that money. The Opposition party would refuse that money. In other words, thousands would be unemployed as a result of the Opposition’s policy.
Is the Prime Minister aware that some of the finest residential training for severely disabled people has been put in jeopardy by the decision this week of the Learning and Skills Council not to fund the expansion of the National Star college in my constituency? Would he agree to meet a delegation of some of the disabled students, some of the principals of the college and myself, to discuss the unique situation of that college and see whether there is a solution to this problem?
We have set aside £2.3 billion for investment in further education colleges over this spending review period. We put an additional £300 million into that in the Budget. I will ask—[Interruption.] This comes under expenditure on colleges, and it needs money that would have to be provided by the Government. I am saying to the hon. Gentleman that I shall get the further education colleges Minister to meet him about this, but we have put £300 million extra into the investment in capital buildings as a result of the Budget.