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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Aluminium Industry

1. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the future of the aluminium industry in Wales. (308870)

We remain committed to supporting the aluminium industry in Wales, as we demonstrated with our strenuous efforts to save jobs at Anglesey Aluminium over the summer.

To be fair to the Government, I guess that they did as much as they could to try to ensure the survival of Anglesey Aluminium, but is not the fundamental problem the operation of the European Union emissions trading system, which is making it increasingly difficult for primary metallurgical industries to operate in the EU? It would be all well and good if it resulted in the reduction of global CO2, but it merely results in carbon leakage to other economies such as China and India, which are not constrained in the same way.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct about the Labour Government’s efforts with regard to Anglesey Aluminium. We made strenuous and laborious efforts over the summer to try to save those jobs as far as we possibly could, but unfortunately, for commercial reasons, the company was not able to accept the offer that was made to it. I must say that we remain committed to the aluminium industry generally in Wales and, of course, in the whole of the United Kingdom, but it is important to recognise that we operate within a European Union framework. Naturally, we are concerned about the environment and carbon emissions, and we are doing everything possible to work with our European partners to ensure that those emissions are kept to an absolute minimum. It is important to recognise also that European Union directives have an important role to play in sustaining this country’s economy.

A happy new year to you, Mr. Speaker, and to all Members.

The decision by Rio Tinto Alcan to cease production at Anglesey Aluminium has left a massive hole in the regional economy of north-west Wales, but I put on the record my thanks to the Wales Office and, indeed, to the Government for their efforts with their generous offer and intervention to keep production going. Unfortunately, the company’s internal matters took precedence.

Looking forward to the future use of the land on the Anglesey Aluminium site and the concept of green energy, does the Minister agree that we need to move forward to ensure that those jobs are kept on Anglesey? Will he meet the First Minister to ensure that priority is given to Anglesey?

I also wish my hon. Friend a happy new year. I am sure that it will be a happy new year for Labour, too. The prospects for the island of Anglesey are rosy. For example, I welcome the decision by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to consider Wylfa as a potential site for new nuclear build, and obviously we are looking at various options to ensure that the available land on the Anglesey Aluminium site is used in the most productive way possible. I am aware that a very positive meeting occurred between representatives of a certain company, my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Wales, and I am sure that those deliberations will continue. I shall use my good offices to hold discussions with the First Minister as well.

In 2007, when Lord Mandelson was European Trade Commissioner, he promoted a scheme for halving duty on the imports of aluminium to the EU. That was to the significant benefit of the Russian aluminium industry. To what extent does the Minister consider that that decision contributed to the demise of Anglesey Aluminium?

I do not believe that it was a factor in any way at all, because the aluminium industry throughout the world has faced difficulties. We are of the view that working closely with our European partners is entirely positive, and that is recognised by Rio Tinto, for example, which is an international player. Of course, discussions take place with the European Union, but it is important to recognise that we live in an international community, and the European Union is a big and positive player.

Car Scrappage

2. What assessment he has made of progress on the car scrappage scheme in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (308871)

Since its launch, the car scrappage scheme has generated more than 291,000 orders for new vehicles in the UK, with about 14,500 of those orders having been made in Wales.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, particularly as it confirms my own view. Does he agree that the car scrappage scheme has been of greater value to the British and, indeed, Welsh economies than would have been the Opposition’s proposals to cut inheritance tax for their wealthy supporters?

I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend has got it in one. Rather than wasting public sector money on the richest people in Britain, very few of them in Wales, with inheritance tax giveaways, our putting money into the car scrappage scheme has increased production by a fifth at Ford Bridgend and resulted in a fifth of all new car registrations throughout the UK. That is active government—government supporting people, not favouring a tiny, rich few.

Wind Farms (Montgomeryshire)

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of construction work on new wind farms in Montgomeryshire on the level of traffic and the environment in that area. (308872)

We firmly believe in the long-term benefits of wind energy. Any assessment of traffic and the environment would, of course, be a matter for the relevant planning authority.

Many in Welshpool, Cefn Coch and across Montgomeryshire are very worried about the thousands of slow-moving lorry loads required to build potentially 700-plus turbines, which will cause traffic gridlock. They are also concerned about the environmental impact of the turbines themselves. Will the Minister meet me to hear in more detail the concerns about the traffic flows and about the environmental impact of turbines, if they are built?

Of course wind energy is the most commercially viable renewable technology available, so it is important to go along and enhance its development whenever possible. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I was in Welshpool last year myself and saw the area that he talked about. We will continue to monitor the situation while recognising that responsibility lies with the Welsh Assembly Government, but I would be happy to have further discussions with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues on this matter in future.

Economic Inactivity

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Wales.

Because of the actions my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Government have taken to preserve jobs and get people back to work, the level of economic inactivity in Wales fell by 3,000 from the last quarter. We will not let short-term job losses turn into long-term unemployment. We will not allow Welsh communities to be scarred by worklessness again.

I am grateful for that answer. The Secretary of State recently said in the Welsh Grand Committee that unemployment in Wales may well keep rising for some time during 2010. Has he made any estimate of the level at which he thinks unemployment may peak during this recession?

What has been interesting is that all the commentators are now saying that unemployment will peak at a far lower level than has been said by the Opposition and was previously feared. We have now seen economic activity rates in Wales down 3,000; jobseeker’s allowance and claimant count figures down 500; vacancies up 2,000; and unemployment still up 93,000 in Wales on what we inherited from the miserable Conservative Government last time.

My local authority of Cynon, Rhondda and Taff is particularly pleased with the future jobs fund and the impact it is having on employment in the Cynon valley. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will continue to protect those who are out of work—unlike the Conservative party in the 1980s, which threw people on the scrapheap?

Again, my Back-Bench colleagues are eloquent in their denunciation of failed policies on the other side of the House.

Well, they would be because they represent Welsh seats that were devastated by Tory policies in the 1980s and 1990s when the number of people on incapacity benefit in constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and mine tripled. It has been coming down under Labour. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have seen active Government intervention, spending and investing over the past two years—continuing into the future—rather than a Government who will slash spending and condemn people to losing jobs, bankrupting businesses, plunging Britain and Wales into exactly the same cycle of decline and depression from which we rescued Britain and Wales when we came to power in 1997.

In the Witney constituency of the Leader of the Opposition, 10 claimants are chasing every vacancy. In the Rhondda, 75 claimants are chasing every vacancy, while in Neath it is 35. Will the Secretary of State press his colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions to modulate the pressure on claimants to find work, reflecting local conditions such as those I mentioned? To do otherwise, I think, would be both impractical and inhumane.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and if he has any concrete examples, I would be happy to take them up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The hon. Gentleman will understand the imperative of encouraging people to stay in the world of work. If, sadly, people have been made unemployed, what we are doing, which was not done in the 1980s and 1990s, is to provide them with job opportunities, training and support so that when vacancies arise—there are more and more of them in the Welsh economy generally— they can take that opportunity locally. About half the claimants leave jobseeker’s allowance within three months and more than 70 per cent. within six months—a far better record than in the miserable Tory 1980s and 1990s.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the growth in the manufacturing industry that was noted in the purchasing managers index survey published on Monday will be good news for Wales, bearing in mind our above-average dependency on manufacturing industry? Does he not think that that will help to bring down the level of economic inactivity?

I do indeed. No one is suggesting that this recession has been anything other than extremely difficult for businesses and for those whose jobs have been under threat, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the latest PMI index report shows that private sector growth in Wales increased in November for the seventh successive month. Manufacturing is up, and employment rose for the first time in two years. Wales was the only UK region to record job creation during November, and the latest figures show that the growth in exports from Wales since 1999 was greater than in all the rest of the UK put together. That is a good record under Labour.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will take off his rose-tinted glasses. Under Labour, more than 100,000 more people are economically inactive in Wales than the entire population of Cardiff. In the past year, the number of long-term unemployed has more than doubled. Welsh gross value added has gone backwards compared with the rest of the UK, and Wales is the poorest part of the country. What effect does the Secretary of State think that that is having on the social fabric of Wales?

The difference between this, the deepest recession that Britain has faced in generations, and the much lighter recessions that the Tory Governments completely failed to deal with in the 1980s and 1990s in Wales is that people are now being helped out of difficulty and the economy is starting to recover. It is recovering much more quickly than people expected, and much more quickly than the doom merchants on the Conservative Benches who have been talking Wales down have been saying it would. That is because we have adopted active government policies to invest in jobs and support businesses, rather than turning our backs on businesses as was done in the Tory 1980s and 1990s.

I do not live in the 1980s; I live now. Given the importance of employment in agriculture, is the Secretary of State concerned that under Labour, gross value added per capita for Welsh agriculture has fallen by more than 68 per cent., or more than two thirds? This shocking decline is worse than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Is it not a fact that the legacy of Labour in Wales will be more unemployment, more poverty, more debt and a devastated rural economy?

The problem is that hundreds of thousands of people in Wales had to live in the 1980s and 1990s under a Tory Government. That is why we are determined to prevent the Tories from inflicting such misery on them again. The hon. Lady does not acknowledge that there are now 93,000 more jobs in Wales than when we followed the Tories into power, despite this being the most difficult recession for 60 years. That is a record of Labour success against Tory failure.

Funding and Finance for Wales

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the operation of the Barnett formula in Wales. (308874)

8. What assessment he has made of the recommendations of the Holtham commission on funding and finance for Wales; and when the Government plan to implement the recommendations that they accept. (308877)

The Holtham report made it clear that, although funding is currently at a fair level, spending allotted to Wales could decline in relation to that of England. That is why I have fought hard for an historic new commitment from the Treasury on funding, to prevent the people of Wales from being disadvantaged in the future.

I fully recognise the autonomy of the Welsh Assembly Government in determining specific spending priorities. What can the Secretary of State tell me, following his discussions with Welsh Assembly Ministers, that will reassure my constituents about the overall level of funding available for public services in Wales?

I remind my hon. Friend, the House and the people of Wales that the Welsh budget has more than doubled under Labour, going up from about £7 billion to nearly £16 billion next year. Again, that is a fantastic record compared with the Tory years. Spending on health services in Wales has more than doubled, for example, and there are now more nurses, more doctors and more health workers. That is a record of Labour’s success that should reassure my hon. Friend, but we must protect Wales’s budget in the future.

Now that there is irrefutable evidence of the unfairness of the Barnett formula, the time is surely right for a new formula to be devised on the basis of need. The Secretary of State said that he had an understanding with the Treasury, but Ministers have always been able to argue for more money for their Departments. What we really need is a fair structure. Can we not work together to achieve that?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his modesty. Before Christmas, he told a media outlet that his favourite literary character is Superman. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy!”

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I am happy to work with him, because the issue is one for Wales as a whole. To his and his colleagues’ credit, they have asked questions about the Barnett formula. The formula has worked fairly up to now, as the Holtham commission said, but we need to ensure that it works fairly in future. That is why the formula and the agreement I got with the Treasury for assessing the allocation to Wales under the comprehensive spending review have to be refined to protect Wales’s future.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that as well as moving to the fairest possible system for the allocation of finances, we must understand that the problem with formulae is always unpredictable year-on-year fluctuations? We have seen that in local government, police, health service and other formulae. Will he ensure that any new system makes sure that there is predictable income year on year, whatever the elements on which it is based?

As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very telling point. This goes to the heart of the issue, which is that the Holtham report showed that although Wales had been treated more or less fairly, under seriously large increases in public spending we could see a convergence between Wales and the English average, which would disadvantage Wales against those areas of England that are most comparable with it, particularly the north-east. That is why we needed a new approach that underpinned the Barnett formula with an assessment that ensures every time that Wales is not disadvantaged—it puts a floor, as it were, under convergence—which is what I have achieved.

Road Accidents

6. How many road traffic accidents there were in Wales in the latest period for which figures are available. (308875)

The number of people killed or seriously injured in 2008 was 1,395, which is 31 per cent. lower than the average in the period 1994 to 1998. In 2008, 7,783 road accidents involving personal injury were reported in Wales. We are taking steps to reduce road traffic accidents still further. Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order, and I know that it will want to listen to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling).

The debacle last winter of clearing the roads of snow and ice is perhaps being repeated this winter, with the roads up the valleys in south Wales being closed. Is it safe for my constituents from Croydon, Central, some of whom are Welsh and want to visit relatives, to visit Wales at this time?

The Government in all parts of the United Kingdom are taking drastic action to ensure the greatest free movement of traffic possible. As far as the Welsh Assembly Government are concerned, an announcement has been made that stocks are held for motorways. They are ensuring that stocks that are available for motorways are, if necessary, being made available for local authorities to help with other roads in Wales.

The travel conditions in the snow at the moment are important and we all appreciate the difficulties. However, going back to serious measures that deal with road traffic accidents in Wales, I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating the Welsh Assembly Government on their initiative to reduce speeds outside schools to 20 mph. That is a really important initiative that helps to save lives.

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The Welsh Assembly Government and police forces are working together in Wales on a number of initiatives to improve safety generally, and the one she cites is a very good example. Action is being taken outside a number of schools in Wales to ensure that there is the smallest possible chance of accidents, and it is proving to be extremely effective.

Statistics show that more than one third of all road traffic accidents in Wales in 2008, including 52 deaths and 372 serious injuries, involved young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Many of those accidents could be prevented by better training for young and newly qualified drivers. With that in mind, will the Under-Secretary meet me, other like-minded Members of Parliament and academics from Cardiff university who are involved in those issues, to see whether we can find ways to ensure that newly qualified young drivers can drive more safely, and thus reduce the tragic number of lost young lives?

The Government are making good progress on reducing fatalities and serious injuries. A 40 per cent. reduction target has been set and we are making good progress towards achieving it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to focus on young people, and the Government are doing that. I would be happy to have further discussions with him to see how that can be taken forward.

Future Jobs Fund

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the progress of the future jobs fund in Wales. (308876)

The £1 billion future jobs fund is already creating 4,300 jobs where they are needed most in Wales, including through the successful Merthyr Tydfil borough council bid, which alone will create more than 700 jobs in Merthyr and the nearby communities, helping many of my hon. Friend’s young constituents to find jobs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, which is in stark contrast to the abandonment of young people in the valleys by the Tories in previous recessions. What discussions will he have about economic regeneration and training opportunities to consolidate those that are available, so that the future jobs fund becomes an opportunity for future employment?

I applaud my hon. Friend’s diligent application in supporting his constituents and his expert knowledge of the schemes. I am happy to continue to explore ways in which we can take them forward—they matter so much to Merthyr and areas such as my constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend: I do not understand how the Leader of the Opposition can want to stop the future jobs fund and prevent funding from coming in to support young people, thus condemning them to the misery and unemployment that they suffered in the 1980s and 1990s under a Tory Government. That would be repeated if the right hon. Gentleman got power.

Despite the benefits of the future jobs fund—I pay tribute to it for the jobs that have been created in my constituency—45 per cent. of those unemployed are under 25. Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of the Prince’s Trust about opportunities for young entrepreneurs to create businesses and jobs for the future?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, one of the future jobs fund schemes is in Ceredigion. The Prince’s Trust does fantastic work in Wales and elsewhere, and we should support its efforts to encourage young entrepreneurs to get themselves out of the crisis. That said, because of active Labour Government investment and the policies that we have pursued, youth unemployment is a third lower than it was in the early 1990s under the Tories. [Interruption.]

Order. There is still far too much noise in the Chamber. It is unfair to hon. Members asking questions and, indeed, to Ministers answering them.

Youth Employment

9. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on assisting young people into employment; and if he will make a statement. (308878)

We know that young people in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom have been hit particularly hard by the recession. That is why we quickly introduced measures such as the young person’s guarantee and the future jobs fund—to help them to find work as quickly as possible.

Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), my hon. Friend knows that when larger employers close, it has the social effect of well-paid jobs and apprenticeships being lost. What is he doing to ensure that well-paid jobs and apprenticeships are maintained in affected areas?

It is important to remember that some 54,000 young people have been helped into work in Wales through a new deal for young people and £1 billion has been set aside in the future jobs fund. Those schemes are creating real jobs for young people the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including Wales. I find it strange that Opposition Members opposed both initiatives. We are adamant that the mistakes of the past in the 1980s and 1990s will not be repeated. We will not stand aside and allow our young people to be lost from work for a whole generation.

But is it not the truth that this Government’s approach to youth unemployment has been characterised by massive complacency and a failure to engage with the issue? When the Minister and the Secretary of State met for their friendly pint with the new First Minister last night, what practical steps did they agree on to rescue Wales’s lost generation of young people—the tens of thousands of youngsters doing nothing constructive with their lives?

The most important thing to realise is that we will not repeat the mistakes of the Tory past. That is the lesson that we have learned here at Westminster, and that the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff are learning as well. We are working together in a spirit of partnership to make sure that as many people as possible are put back into work as soon as possible, and our progress is there for all to see. If the Tory policies were implemented, there would be far more unemployed people in Wales than there currently are.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Rhyl city strategy team on its successful bid for the future jobs fund, which will put 320 young people back to work in my constituency over the next six months?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work he has been doing. What is happening in Rhyl is a good example of what can be achieved through proactive government at local authority level, Welsh Assembly level and here at Westminster as well. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved when we all work together and we do not stand to one side. It is worth remembering, too, that unemployment in Wales is still 30 per cent. lower than at the height of the early ’90s; we will not forget that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since we last met. They are: from 33 Engineer Regiment, explosive ordnance disposal, Sapper David Watson; from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Corporal Simon Hornby; from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, Private Robert Hayes; from the Parachute Regiment, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown; from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney and Rifleman Aidan Howell; and from 4th Regiment Royal Military Police, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, who can be rightly proud of the courage, dedication, bravery and sacrifice shown by these men. That sacrifice will never be forgotten. We have been reminded once again since the House last met that there are those who seek to harm us through terrorist incidents. We must remain vigilant and ever grateful to all those serving in Afghanistan and around the world working for the safety of the British people.

I know that the House will also want to join me in sending our condolences to the wife and children of David Taylor who, sadly, died on Boxing day. He was a tremendous constituency Member of Parliament who thoroughly deserved the accolade of Back Bencher of the Year for his tireless work for the people of North-West Leicestershire. He will be greatly missed, not only by his family, who are here in the House today, but by colleagues in Westminster and all his constituents.

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

I would of course endorse all that my right hon. Friend says about those who have made the sacrifice of dying for their country while fighting in Afghanistan. I also want to say something about those in the west of Scotland who have died as a result of taking heroin, all harvested in Afghanistan, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend and comrade, David Taylor, who served in this House assiduously and gave his all in his constituency as well.

If I may turn to the question, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give us an update on the situation in respect of the terrorist incident that took place on the plane travelling from Schiphol in Amsterdam to Detroit?

The whole House will echo what my hon. Friend says about the damage done in our country by drugs that come from Afghanistan, and I would be very happy to meet him to talk about those issues.

Since the Christmas day incident in Detroit, we have, as the Home Secretary reported to the House yesterday, taken a number of actions in key areas. In aviation security, the first of a new generation of full-body scanners will be in operation at Heathrow within a few weeks, and then, over time, in airports across the United Kingdom. Although the person who was involved in the Detroit incident was refused a visa and was on our watch list, we are nevertheless reviewing and enhancing our watch list arrangements, and given the changing nature of security, I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that any lessons that can be learned from recent events are considered and to examine whether we can further co-ordinate and integrate the work of the intelligence services and better make that work available to us.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the seven British servicemen who have lost their lives since the last Prime Minister’s questions? They were: Private Robert Hayes, Sapper David Watson, Rifleman Aidan Howell, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard and Corporal Simon Hornby. They died serving our country, and we must always honour their memory and look after their families.

I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to David Taylor and his contribution to public service. We, too, send our condolences to his wife and children. He was diligent, decent and determined. As one obituary brilliantly put it, he

“was that rare thing among politicians: someone who was liked and admired equally by his constituents, his parliamentary colleagues and his political opponents.”

He will be sadly missed.

This year the Government will have to borrow £178 billion. Yesterday, one of the largest holders of Government debt warned that British debt is likely to be downgraded. The OECD, the CBI and the Bank of England have all warned that there is no proper plan to deal with the deficit. Why does the Prime Minister think that all those people take that view?

First of all, let us put this in context. The debt of every country has risen as a result of the global financial recession, and debt in Britain is actually lower as a percentage of national income than that of America, lower than in France and Germany, lower than in Italy and Japan, and lower than the average for the euro area. So every country faces the difficulty of taking itself out of recession while having to develop a deficit reduction plan. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will not stop the fiscal stimulus before we are out of recession, and we will not take his advice and leave the economy without the necessary support. If we had taken his advice, many thousands more would be unemployed and many thousands of businesses would be lost.

We have published a deficit reduction plan—[Interruption.] Yes, it includes raising the top rate of tax. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman now supports that. It raises national insurance so that we can fund our health and public services. I assume that he has to consider that as well. It does not include cutting inheritance tax—costing £1.5 billion—for the 3,000 richest families in the country. It includes cuts in some of the major Departments, but it includes defending the front-line services of health, education and policing. He asks me about public spending this week after he said that it was the year of change—he changed his policy in the morning, he changed his policy in the afternoon and he changed his policy in the evening.

The Prime Minister talks about the context. The context is the biggest budget deficit of any advanced economy in the world. Let us be clear about what these people say about the Government’s plans. The CBI says that the Government’s plans are “too little too late”. The Governor of the Bank of England says that

“there is not a credible plan”.

The OECD says that

“more ambitious plans…would strengthen the recovery”.

Howard Davies, the man whom the Prime Minister appointed as the head of the Financial Services Authority, said that

“the loss of confidence in the Government’s ability to get the public finances back under control”


“The major risk”

facing this country. And he said that after the utterly feeble pre-Budget report. So let me ask the Prime Minister again: why does he think that all those people think that his plans are so feeble?

The Governor of the Bank of England said:

“The very significant policy actions taken in recent months will…stimulate a recovery in demand, output and employment.”

The IMF said that the UK

“has shown a lot of leadership”—

[Interruption.] That was the managing director of the IMF. It also said:

“The UK authorities’ policy response to the deep recession…has been bold and wide ranging…The aggressive actions by the authorities have been successful in containing the crisis and averting a systemic breakdown.”

I could go through the others. The OECD said that the “fiscal stimulus” has “cushioned the downturn.”

It comes down to this: if we had taken the right hon. Gentleman’s advice, there would have been no action and unemployment would have risen much faster. If we had taken his advice, the 200,000 small businesses that have benefited would not have done so. If we had taken his advice, we would be back to the ’90s mortgage misery with repossessions. The Conservative party got wrong every decision on the recession and the recovery.

The fact is that the Chancellor is now taking our advice. He said that we can get growth only when we deal with the deficit. The Prime Minister tells us about his Fiscal Responsibility Bill, but it is completely feeble. What is required is not an Act of Parliament, but an act of political will—an act of courage. The man whom the Prime Minister appointed to the Bank of England said this about fiscal responsibility Acts. They are, he said,

“acts…of the fiscally irresponsible to con the public.”

Is not the reason for the lack of faith in the Government’s plans that the Prime Minister is so personally incapable of admitting what everyone knows to be true: that there is a need for cuts to be made? On Sunday, he said that public spending will rise by 0.8 per cent. in real terms each year. Given that everybody knows that cuts in departmental spending are necessary, was that not just completely disingenuous?

The person who was misleading the public was the right hon. Gentleman on Monday, about a married couples allowance. He said one thing on Monday morning, something different on Monday afternoon and something different on Monday evening, and then the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who floated the policy, the former leader of the Conservative party, said that he had a private assurance of £4.9 billion being spent. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to reduce the deficit, presumably he does not want to spend £4.9 billion on a married couples allowance. If he wishes to reduce the deficit, presumably he will go ahead with the national insurance tax rise that we are proposing. If he wishes to reduce the deficit, he will not go ahead with his inheritance tax proposal, which he now says is his only pledge. We are reducing the deficit with a plan that includes tax rises, departmental cuts and protecting front-line services. The Conservatives would be cutting education services, police services and the main services in the country. Their policies are a change—a change back to the economics of the 1980s. [Interruption.]

I wish we were. I wish this Prime Minister had the courage to call the election so we could get on with it. I have to say, what a lot of desperate rubbish from the Prime Minister. I thought that he might mention marriage, so let me say this to him. The difference between me and the Prime Minister is this: when I lean across and say, “I love you, darling,” I really mean it. The only divorce that has taken place is between this Prime Minister and reality. Let us take his claim that spending is going up by 0.8 per cent. Is not the only way that he can make that claim by excluding capital spending, which he is actually cutting in half? Is that not completely disingenuous?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about love and marriage, when he is the person who cannot give a straight answer on the married couples allowance: he cannot say, “I do,” or “I don’t,” when it comes to the married couples allowance. As for the public, will he give us a straight answer now? Does his deficit reduction plan include £4.9 billion to be spent on the married couples allowance, £1.5 billion to be spent on inheritance tax and not going ahead with the national insurance rise? That is why everybody says that there is a £34 billion gap in his proposals. He cannot go round the country promising everything to everyone. He has got to face up to the facts: his policies are fit only for opposition, not for government.

If the Prime Minister wants to turn this around and make it Prime Minister’s questions, he should get on and call the election. Then there would be all the time in the world to kiss and make up.

The fact is that this Government are now deeply divided. Everyone knows that the Chancellor wanted to reduce the deficit more quickly. Everyone knows that the Business Secretary goes around the country privately attacking the PBR as a complete failure. Perhaps the Prime Minister could name one Back Bencher on the Labour side who stood up and spoke for his Fiscal Responsibility Bill last night. Not a single one. Does he not understand that a divided party without a proper plan is putting Britain’s recovery at risk? Is that not the height of irresponsibility, and why is he always incapable of doing the right thing?

Let me just give another example for the right hon. Gentleman. Last night he was asked, “Are you committed to education maintenance allowances?” What was his answer?

“Let’s just say I’m not uncommitted to it”.

He then said:

“Well, we’re in a state of quite severe flux on this whole area…so I can’t give you a straight answer”.

Is this an Opposition party ready for government? It should go back to the drawing board and think again.

The fact is that the appalling state of the public finances and the Prime Minister’s complete inability to have a proper plan show the great truth of British politics. He has had two years to demonstrate some leadership, and he has completely failed to do so. He cannot convince business or the financial markets, and he cannot even convince his own Chancellor. Is it any wonder that he ekes out his time as an unelected leader completely incapable of convincing the country?

He is going to have to do better than that. He is going to have answer some questions on policy some time. He got it wrong on the nationalisation of Northern Rock, he got it wrong on the fiscal stimulus for the recovery, he got it wrong on helping the unemployed, he got it wrong on helping home owners, he got it wrong on small businesses. He got every issue of the recession wrong. Nobody will trust him, not just on married couples allowance but on the economy at all.

A year on from the devastating conflict in Gaza, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, the siege continues. Humanitarian relief is hard to come by, and Gaza lies shattered. Although there were undoubtedly war crimes on both sides, does my right hon. Friend agree that what is now happening is the collective punishment of 1 million people? Will he now make urgent representations to ease the siege on Gaza as a critical step towards a peace settlement in that region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she speaks for many people. We must not forget the people of Gaza. I have raised with Prime Minister Netanyahu the speed at which aid and humanitarian assistance can get into Gaza, and we are pressing the Israeli Government to do more to get more aid in. I will look at exactly the points that my hon. Friend has made and see what more we can do in this new year. In the end, this will require a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian state that gives Israel security and Palestine a viable economic state that it can manage. In the meantime, we must avoid unnecessary suffering.

I also add my own expressions of profound sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the brave British soldiers who have lost their lives serving in Afghanistan since the House last sat: Corporal Simon Hornby, Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard, Lance Corporal Christopher Roney, Lance Corporal Tommy Brown, Rifleman Aidan Howell, Sapper David Watson and Private Robert Hayes.

I would also like to pay my own tribute to David Taylor, who sadly died during the Christmas recess. I was once one of the MEPs for his area, and he had a reputation then—and always has had—as an outstanding constituency MP and someone who always spoke his own mind. My heart goes out to his wife Pam and his four daughters.

Last weekend, the Prime Minister said that he was all in favour of aspiration. Could he explain to us exactly what is aspirational about a tax system that he has created in which the poorest 20 per cent. pay more from their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent.?

It was because of all these things that we introduced the tax credit system, which is the means by which we take people out of poverty. We reward work for people who are in work, and for people who pay income tax it removes their liability by giving them tax credits instead. It is the means by which we bring greater justice, take people out of poverty and make work pay, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to support the tax credit system, which is an essential part of our tax and benefits system in this country.

The Prime Minister talks about justice. He has not delivered justice or fairness in the tax system. He is the one who scrapped the 10p tax rate. It is his rules that allow a City banker to pay less tax on capital gains than a cleaner pays on wages. He is about to hit millions of average earners with higher national insurance bills. Where is the fairness, where is the aspiration, in any of that?

The aspiration is helping people into jobs, giving people the chance to earn a decent living, and ensuring that the tax system is fair.

Presumably the hon. Gentleman will now support our 50 per cent. tax on the bonuses of the banks. Presumably he will support the raising of the top rate of tax to 50 per cent. Presumably he will support the removal of pension tax reliefs, which we are carrying out as very much part of the deficit reduction plan. What we have tried to do is ensure that in these difficult times, as we make changes, the burden is shared fairly, which means that those with the broadest shoulders must pay more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.

Q2. I wish to pay my personal tribute to David Taylor.My I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to my concern about apprentices aged over 26 at Stoke on Trent college, which is conducting urgent talks with the aim of securing the funds that are needed for them to continue their training? In the light of the recent National Audit Office report on former coal mining areas, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to do all that he can to ensure that the Learning and Skills Council, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the regional development agency, and the Department for Work and Pensions work closely with the college to find a solution, so that all apprentices can receive full funding? (308856)

It is our intention, even in these difficult times when companies may not be in a position to keep apprentices on, to find alternative sources of employment for them and ensure that the colleges can continue to train them. However, I will examine the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised. As for the coalfields regeneration programme, the National Audit Office’s recommendations have been acted on, and funds from the programme have already been allocated. Stoke-on-Trent has received £3 million, more than half a million pounds of which has been committed to projects that will provide training for individuals.

I hope that my hon. Friend will find some of the answers to her questions in the decisions that have already been made, but I will look into the apprentices question. In 1997 there were 70,000 apprentices, and there are now a quarter of a million. No Government have done more to revive the apprenticeship, and we will not allow the number of apprenticeships to fall during this recession.

Q3. Given that 29 per cent. of jobs in Croydon are in the public sector, I am very worried about Government plans to move public sector jobs out of the south-east. In response to a question in the House, the Chancellor kindly said that there might be “compensatory steps”. Has the Prime Minister any positive views on what those compensatory steps might be? (308857)

I know that the immigration department in Croydon is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Obviously, we are looking into how we can reallocate some jobs that are currently in the south-east in a way that will both save money and spread employment across the country. The Lyons review suggested that 20,000 jobs be reallocated. That has already happened, and we are considering what more we can do. However, I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the work of the London Development Agency and the work that is done in London are a means by which we ensure that jobs are created in London. We are always thinking about what we can do to create more jobs in this capital city.

Q4. Cancer treatment waits have been effectively eliminated for my constituents because our NHS doctors and nurses have met exacting cancer care targets. Today, Macmillan Cancer Support reported that because more people are surviving cancer—which is excellent news—they are more prone to health problems when their treatment ends, and need practical advice. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that they receive that advice and help? (308858)

The Macmillan work is something that is very special in our country, and very much appreciated. I believe that because of the advances that we are making in cancer care—particularly if cancer is detected early and people are able to go through the screening process—many lives that would otherwise be lost are being saved.

I appreciate that considerable aftercare is necessary even after many years, and I am determined that we will continue to support it. However, I believe that the best way in which we can help to deal with the cancer problems in our country is to ensure that we do not lose the two-week guarantee that patients can see a specialist immediately, and that we move towards a guarantee that they will be diagnosed and given the answers within only seven days. That requires money, and it requires determination to spend the money in the right place. We are determined to do that, and I hope that no party seeks to abolish it.

Q5. Given that technology is vital in allowing us to stay one step ahead of the terrorist threat, why have the Government cut spending on defence research by 23 per cent. over the past three years? Is not grasping at a couple of scanners and yet another review a case of too little, too late? (308859)

We have increased spending on security from £1 billion in 2001 to more than £3 billion, and we have increased counter-terrorism capability massively in this country as a result of making the right decisions. We have doubled the number of security staff, we have doubled the number of police who are associated with counter-terrorism work, and we are introducing the e-borders system, which is a means by which we can catch those people who are coming into this country. I do not think that any Government have done more to increase the counter-terrorism capability in this country, and that is right, because our first duty is the security of our citizens.

Given the somewhat disappointing finish to the Copenhagen conference, what action will my right hon. Friend be taking in order to keep up the momentum on this absolutely vital task of tackling climate change?

For the first time, the world was able to agree that we should not have a climate change policy that did not address the problems of rising temperatures, and the 2 per cent. limit was agreed by all countries. We also have agreement that countries will notify what they will do by 2020, and they have got to do so by 31 January. We are obviously pressing for countries to be in a position where they can reduce the amount of gigatonnes in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from about the mid-50s in 2020 to the mid-40s. There has been greater transparency achieved, with every country agreeing to report what it is doing, but we have not yet got the international treaty that we need, and we have not yet got the announcement from all countries that they support the 50 per cent. reduction by 2050. That is work that is still to be done. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must now talk to all those countries that were reluctant to come into these talks with a view to getting a treaty to persuade them that a treaty is necessary. I think that she will see further announcements in the next few days about what we are going to do.

Q6. Bearing in mind the failure of Copenhagen and the current weather cycle, which clearly indicates a cooling trend—[Laughter.] (308860)

Will the Prime Minister reconsider the proposed wasteful expenditure of £100 billion on offshore wind farms, which will be incapable of delivering sufficient energy but will result in excessively exorbitant charges for electricity users?

The idea that the Conservative party could take a lead on climate change when they cannot even convince their own Back Benchers of what is necessary—[Laughter.] The Conservatives cannot make up their minds about nuclear. We are now the leading power in the world for offshore wind. We will soon be making announcements that will make it clear that massive numbers of jobs will come as a result of offshore wind. That is the right policy if we are going to have 15 per cent. renewables by 2020. I cannot understand where the Conservatives’ energy policy comes from. If they take out nuclear and they take out offshore wind—and every Conservative local authority is opposing onshore wind as well—they have no policy whatsoever.

It is now 27 months since people suffering from pleural plaques were denied compensation by the House of Lords. Can I ask the Prime Minister what work is being done across the whole of Government to redress this, and when we can expect some progress?

As my hon. Friend knows, a meeting of legal advisers took place in the past few weeks. I am meeting a group of MPs—I think he is part of it—in the next week. I hope to get a resolution to what is a very dreadful disease—asbestosis—and what we can do about it, and also to deal with the problem that arises from pleural plaques.

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we are going to have the levels of inflation that we had in the Conservative years, he is completely wrong. Inflation is low in this country; we have kept it low for the past 12 years. The idea that the Conservative party is now going to run a campaign saying that our inflation is going to be the highest in the world is something quite ridiculous.

Q8. Given the cold weather, yesterday’s announcement of the boiler scrappage scheme is particularly welcome to the fuel-poor in my constituency and positively welcomed by companies such as Zenex which are at the cutting edge of such technology. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not only promote that excellent scheme but encourage retrofitting, which companies such as Zenex can do, and do well, to reduce our carbon footprint? (308863)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The boiler scrappage scheme will help 125,000 households and is already showing that it is popular and will cut carbon emissions. Retrofitting measures such as insulation will play an increasingly important role.

I must also draw people’s attention to the fact that cold weather payments are being made to people who are affected by the cold weather right across the country—in many areas, including London, from 4 January. Some 6.9 million payments of £25 a week have already been made. We are doing our best to help people through the difficult winter weather, and we will continue to do what we can to ensure that elderly people in particular will turn up their heating and not allow themselves to suffer from the cold.

Given that the severe weather, which has hit my constituency badly, is predicted to continue for the next five days, what action are the Government taking now to make sure that supplies of salt and grit—including the stockpiles held by the Highways Agency—get to where they are needed most?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think the whole House wants to be assured that, in this difficult period of weather when some areas are more hit than others, those areas that need to grit roads will have the salt necessary to do so, and all the support that other local authorities that are not so affected, and central Government, can give them. I assure the hon. Lady that salt supplies have been built up as a result of what we discovered and did last year. At the same time, I can announce that there will be greater co-ordination of the distribution of salt, so that those areas that need that salt will not be denied it. I hope that I will be able to reassure her constituents that they will get the salt and the grit that are necessary.

House of Commons Reform

Q9. What recent representations he has received on bringing forward proposals arising from the report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. (308864)

The Leader of the House has written to representatives of the other parties on this issue. The Government are keen to proceed on a consensual basis.

UK politics has become ever more the private playground of Governments and the media, and this place, Parliament, an ever more tatty backdrop, with little independence. Will the Prime Minister take the powers that he has to bring forward to our agenda—not for debate, but for decision—the proposals to reform this House? Will he please do that in the next few weeks?

It is in all our interests to say that both the standard of debate in this House and what is discussed in this House should reflect the views and values of the people of this whole country. All of us want in this new year to make sure that the House is discussing the issues that matter to people.

We welcome the Select Committee report. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a long-standing interest in these institutional reforms. The creation of a Back-Bench committee, a business committee and party ballots—all these are being looked at in detail. The Leader of the House has made it clear that we will have an opportunity to debate them in due course and to discuss the recommendations.

In due course? We have been waiting for weeks. Is that not typical of this Government and this Prime Minister? He made a big announcement on 10 June last year that we were to have urgent reform of the House of Commons, but when it comes to action the Government act with all the dispatch of a particularly arthritic slug on its way to its own funeral. Will he tell us whether he is still committed to urgent action on reforming this ineffective and incompetent House, or are there people on his own Benches who are stopping that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman gives me a great deal of hope that the consensual approach will work! I think that he is part of the talks. The talks are taking place. The issues about the creation of a business committee, party ballots for Select Committee membership and ballots of the whole House for Select Committee chairmanship were recommended by the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We are now discussing these issues, and they will form the subject of a debate and decisions by this House.

Order. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so both quickly and quietly so that we can proceed with our business.

Bills presented

Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (No.2)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, Mr. David Anderson, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Sheridan, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber, presented a Bill to provide that certain asbestos-related conditions are actionable personal injuries; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 34).

Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Sheridan, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber presented a Bill to make provision for the creation of an employers’ liability insurance bureau comprising an electronic database and a fund of last resort; to make provision about employers’ liability insurance; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 35).

Land Use (Gardens Protection Etc)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Shona McIsaac, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Siobhan McDonagh and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of gardens and urban green spaces; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 36).

British Museum Act 1963 (Amendment)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mr. Edward O’Hara and Rob Marris, presented a Bill to amend the British Museum Act 1963 to permit the transfer of artefacts in the British Museum; to confer powers on the Secretary of State to require the transfer of artefacts in specified circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 37).

Sheltered Accommodation (Residents)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Judy Mallaber, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Mr. Edward Timpson, John Austin and Shona McIsaac, presented a Bill to make provision for residents in sheltered accommodation to challenge certain local authority budget decisions which affect them; to ensure that funding provided by central government to local authorities for sheltered accommodation warden services is not allocated to other services; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 38).

Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Authority)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Virendra Sharma, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Chris Mullin and Judy Mallaber presented a Bill to clarify the meaning of ‘public authority’ in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 39).

Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Sale)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Mike Gapes, Rob Marris, Mr. Chris Mullin, Judy Mallaber and Barry Gardiner, presented a Bill to prohibit the sale in the United Kingdom of timber and wood products that were obtained or produced illegally in their country of origin; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 40).

Torture (Damages)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin, Rob Marris, Siobhan McDonagh and Mr. Chris Mullin, presented a Bill to make provision for actions for damages for torture; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 41).

Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Ms Karen Buck, Clive Efford, John Austin and Rob Marris, presented a Bill to introduce a national day to learn about and remember the Armenian genocide.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 April, and to be printed (Bill 42).