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Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

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.