Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Unemployment

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on youth unemployment in Scotland. (317401)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. Youth unemployment in Scotland has increased in recent months, but since 1997 the number of 18 to 24-year-olds in Scotland claiming unemployment benefit is down by 40 per cent. That issue was discussed at the recent jobs summit in Easterhouse.

After 13 years of Labour Government we discovered yesterday that one in six young people in England between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in employment, education or training. What is the figure in Scotland?

The figures in Scotland have gone down 40 per cent. In Scotland the number of 18 to 24-year-olds claiming unemployment benefit for six months or more was 8,800 in January 2010, so hopefully that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. I would have thought that it would be a matter of consensus across all the political parties that we have to do more together to challenge youth unemployment, because it dampens expectations among the most idealistic and energetic generation, and has the potential to ruin young lives. However, based on the hon. Gentleman’s question, it is clear that he does not understand very much about unemployment among young people in Scotland.

Youth unemployment is a massive problem in Ayrshire, with North Ayrshire having some of the worst levels of social deprivation in Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the Ayrshire jobs summit, which is taking place tomorrow, and does he agree that economic growth and job creation are key for the most successful future for Ayrshire?

It is very important that we take a team Ayrshire approach to trying to overcome youth unemployment, and not just youth unemployment. We are keen to ensure that those over 50, who have perhaps not experienced unemployment or been in a job centre for a considerable period—or perhaps never in their lives—do not become used to unemployment and do not spend that period in advance of their retirement settling for a life on unemployment benefits. It is therefore essential that we do more together across all the generations, in Ayrshire and across Scotland.

In 2000 the then Secretary of State for Scotland boasted that

“For the first time in generations, the end of youth unemployment is a real possibility”.

After 10 years of Labour Government youth unemployment has not ended; it has actually shot up by 60 per cent. Last week the Secretary of State said that the onus was on bankers to deal with unemployment. Then he claimed that Scotland’s economy had been boosted by the recent snowfall. Has it not occurred to him that youth unemployment in Scotland is high not because there are too many bankers or not enough snow, but because the Government’s economic policies are not working?

It is a fact—I thought that the hon. Gentleman would share this view—that a minority of bankers in Scotland have a moral responsibility for their actions and the way they behaved in destroying fantastic international banking institutions, the consequences being, in part, a global recession and rises in youth unemployment. However, because of the actions of this Labour Government, 50,000 jobs have been saved in Scotland. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not care about that, because he is so fixated on trying to get only one job, and that is my job, at the next election. The people of Scotland know that. They see through it and they see the Conservative party in Scotland for what it is: less popular today than even in Mrs. Thatcher’s time.

I do not think that the Secretary of State should give lectures on people who are seen through. He will acknowledge that a stable and supportive family environment plays a major part in equipping young people with the personal skills needed for employment. Yet Cardinal O’Brien has warned that the Secretary of State’s Government are undertaking a

“systematic and unrelenting attack on family values.”

Last night the Secretary of State was due to say, “When the Cardinal speaks, people listen.” The cardinal has spoken. Is the Secretary of State listening?

It is right that we focus on how we get through this recession together. We are determined to ensure that we support families, through tax credits and the national minimum wage, for example. It is sobering to reflect on the fact that during the 1980s Tory recession, it took 19 years for the jobs situation to return to pre-recession levels. Nineteen years—nearly two decades—is how long it took Scotland to recover from that recession. The fact is that the Conservative party has not learned the lessons of the 1980s, because it remains committed to cutting tax credits from many families throughout Scotland. It is no wonder that Scotland sees the Tories as a real danger to its well-being.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could comment on the success of the future jobs fund. He will be aware that his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State visited my constituency recently and saw some of the fruits of the scheme. Is it working in this area?

My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously in his constituency on the future jobs fund, which is testimony to the way he carries out his politics. He is a fantastic constituency Member of Parliament. We announced 1,300 more jobs in the future jobs fund last week, and there are now 9,000 opportunities in the fund in Scotland. That is the Labour Government subsidising the opportunity for young people and others to have the chance of a job during this recession. The Conservatives are committed to abolishing the future jobs fund, which is 9,000 more reasons in Scotland not to vote for them.

Intellectual Property (Statutory Protection)

2. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on statutory protection of intellectual property arising in Scotland. (317402)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of matters concerning Scotland. My Department recently made two orders under the Scotland Act 1998 relating to intellectual property for the Commonwealth games and the register of tartans.

What will be done to protect the intellectual property rights of the people of Stirling if the excavations at the Dominican friary show that the bones that have been found there are indeed those of Richard II, and to provide Government moneys to support DNA analysis and perhaps to allow for an exhibition before the bones of that English king are returned to this country?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing me with a little advance notice of his supplementary question. It gave me an opportunity to look at the reign of Richard II, which was marked by particular acts of violence. He crushed the peasants’ revolt, built up a group of unpopular favourites, arrested, imprisoned and executed the people he worked with, or banished them and confiscated their estates. It sounds a little like a Conservative party selection meeting. More seriously, I am sure that we are all very interested in the results of the archaeological investigation, and that the Scottish Government and the local authority will be more than pleased to promote any find that might be discovered.

Is the Minister aware that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual property involved in building aircraft carriers on Clydeside? Is she also aware that, at this very moment, convenors from trade unions from across the United Kingdom are meeting representatives of the Liberal party to try to get them off the fence on the question of whether they are prepared to support the aircraft carriers?

Order. May I just say to the hon. Lady on the Treasury Bench that I know that her answer will contain a closely argued reference to the importance of statutory protection?

Thank you for your guidance on that point, Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friend has been a doughty fighter for the aircraft carriers in Glasgow, and he is well aware that the project is important not just for Glasgow but for Scotland and the whole of the UK, and that many people will benefit from it. We should cherish and support the talents and skills of the engineers and workers in our shipyards at all times.

Does the Minister agree that it would be naive, misguided and wrong for anyone to claim false ownership, whether in business or in matters of faith?

When it comes to intellectual property, we have a good example of the Scottish and UK Governments working together, and we fully support the measures that have been taken on the Commonwealth games order. That has been one of the successes of the devolution settlement, but the hon. Gentleman unfortunately fails to appreciate that because he has only one aim for Scotland, which is to take it out of the United Kingdom and damage it.

Calman Commission

3. What recent discussions he has had on taking forward the recommendations of the Calman commission; and if he will make a statement. (317403)

The Government are committed to strengthening the Scottish Parliament and making it more accountable to the public in Scotland. We will bring forward a Bill early in the next Session of Parliament.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Has his commitment to implementing the Calman recommendations diminished in any way following the discussions on them?

As I said, it is important that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be increased, and that there should be an increased sense of accountability to the public in Scotland. There is a weakness in the way in which the architecture of devolution has been designed, in that the Scottish Parliament is largely responsible for spending money but does not take decisions about how large its budget should be or how the money should be raised. That is why it is an important part of the Calman recommendations—the vast majority of which we accept—that a patriotic Parliament should be given not only additional powers but, importantly, new accountability.

Only last weekend, we learned of another tragic incident in which a three-year-old boy was shot with an airgun. How many more incidents like that do we have to see before the Secretary of State takes immediate action? The Scottish Government are ready to go, and it is his prevarication that has led to this situation. Will he now get his finger out?

It is pretty cheap and nasty—of course, unusually so for the hon. Gentleman—to try to make politics out of an accident involving an airgun. We are determined to act on this under the Calman recommendations, in great contrast to the Scottish National party’s plans for a rigged referendum. A decade after legislating to ban foreign donors in British politics, the SNP’s referendum would allow money to flow in from all over the world, in a system that is now found only in the Borda counting systems in Nauru and Kiribati. The SNP’s plans for a rigged referendum are absolutely and utterly Kiribati.

The Secretary of State is aware of my view that the present White Paper procedure is unnecessary and that we could have a Bill before the House now. However, since we have this period of delay, will he use the time to ensure that when he brings the Bill forward, it will include a provision to end the practice of double jobbing, whereby people can sit in this Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament, taking two salaries for doing only one job? Surely that has to end.

This is an important issue and we are keen to phase it out. The Government are committed to taking a UK approach to this matter, as it affects Northern Ireland and the Welsh Assembly as well as the Scottish Parliament. I am not that keen to get into the politics of it all, but the issue of whether politicians should have two salaries is important. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. The Government are committed—towards 2011, I think—to phasing out this system of a double mandate and two jobs.

We can guess why the Secretary of State does not want to get into the politics of it since both Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson are seeking to come here as Labour MPs on a dual mandate. When he says that a UK approach should be taken, he ignores the fact that the other place has already decided to deal with this problem for Northern Ireland. Surely that is the example that we should follow, and double jobbing should end now, not at some future date of his choosing.

I do not agree. I think everyone in Scotland knows that there is only one prominent person who is currently double jobbing, but I do not want to make a party political issue of it—[Interruption.] Of course, it is the First Minister. The two people whom the hon. Gentleman alludes to are phenomenal campaigners and powerful women who I hope will be elected to the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats suggest that that is a foregone conclusion, and the hon. Gentleman’s lack of confidence might encourage me to be arrogant, but I am not going to do that.

Devolution Settlement

5. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Executive under the devolution settlement. (317405)

My right hon. Friend last met the First Minister on 11 January at the national jobs summit in Glasgow. He also wrote to the First Minister calling on him to delay the referendum Bill and join us in focusing attention on supporting people in Scotland as we move from recession to recovery.

I am grateful for that answer. Is the Minister able to tell us why during the financial crisis, which the Secretary of State pointed out hit Scotland hard because of the impact of the banking crisis, the Prime Minister did not meet the First Minister to discuss these important issues for almost a year?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we continually work constructively together with the Scottish Government on a whole range of issues, including those around the recession and the banking crisis. There have not only been regular meetings between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, but regular joint ministerial meetings on domestic issues as well as European and financial meetings. The devolution settlement is working well.

Surely there can be no more important discussion between the Government here and the Scottish Executive than about the confidence of people in the electoral system that elects the Scottish Parliament, which was set up by this Parliament. It seems to me that if the proposal is to put a confused question in a referendum and to have either what was called the Condorcet system, which was last abandoned 80 years ago in Michigan, or the de Borda system, which is used to elect the two Slovenian ethnic minority members, that must undermine the confidence of the people in the electoral system. Surely the Scottish Executive must be called to account on that question.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the lack of proper priorities on the part of the Scottish Government at this time. Our sole priority should be to tackle the recession and to get people back into work, instead of trying to create yet another quango at considerable public expense for no good purpose whatever and conducting a referendum that no one wants at this time.

More than eight weeks ago, the finance committee of the Scottish Parliament made a perfectly reasonable request for a Treasury Minister to come to Holyrood and explain the implications of the pre-Budget report for Scotland. No reply has yet been received. The Chancellor may well have been distracted by fighting back the forces of hell, while the Secretary of State may have been distracted by appealing to the forces of heaven. Is there any hope that the two of them might now come down to a more earthly plane, show respect to the Scottish Parliament, and grant that request?

This Government have paid respect to the Scottish Parliament by setting up and supporting the Calman commission. The hon. Gentleman took part in that process, and will be aware of the commission’s recommendations. We have agreed that we are more than happy for the Secretary of State to visit the Scottish Parliament to discuss issues relating to the Queen’s Speech and other issues of government, but regrettably the Scottish Government have been completely unpersuaded to join in and become seriously involved in matters of parliamentary protocol.

Economic Situation

6. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of business and trade unions on the economic situation in Scotland. (317406)

I hold regular discussions with trade unions and business representatives from across Scotland. As I said earlier, last month I co-hosted a national jobs summit in Easterhouse with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and CBI Scotland.

Last week, when I addressed a meeting at the Rotary Club of Dalkeith, it became obvious to me that the co-operation that has been delivered locally between employers and trade unions is very important if we are to get through the current crisis. May I invite my right hon. Friend to come to Midlothian, meet employers and trade unions, and help them to agree on measures that will allow them to get through the crisis jointly?

I am disappointed to learn that I was not invited to the Dalkeith rotary club event, but I am delighted that it obtained the better speaker in my hon. Friend. Of course I shall be happy to visit his constituency. He has put his finger on something very important: as I have said before, the global importance of the current recession requires a team approach to be taken throughout Scotland by the Labour Government, the SNP Edinburgh Government, business and trade union leaders, so that we can get Scotland through the recession more quickly and more strongly. [Interruption.]

Gaeltec Ltd in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye faces liquidation at the hands of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs because PAYE and national insurance contributions have not been paid as a result of financial constraints. Will the Secretary of State reassure the business community that liquidating a company over non-payment of £28,000—leading to redundancy payments that would amount to about £120,000, as well as subsequent unemployment and related benefits—would make no sense whatsoever to the public purse, and that he will lobby HMRC and try to make it see sense?

I am always happy to listen to the right hon. Gentleman when he argues a constituency case so passionately. I will not become involved in the specific detail of the business relationship between HMRC and that one company, but I think he will be reassured to learn that the business payment scheme set up by HMRC has allowed 17,000 Scottish companies to delay their payment of taxes totalling £300 million. However, I will happily look into the specific matter that he has raised.


7. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on reducing unemployment levels in Scotland. (317408)

Long-term unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 91 per cent since 1997, but there are still too many people out of work, and we are reforming the welfare state and investing in the jobs of the future.

The number of long-term unemployed people in my constituency has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s, and the unemployment rate is half what it was during the 1992 recession. Does my right hon. Friend agree that public investment is essential to sustaining private sector jobs? Will he ensure that the Government reject the flawed economic analysis which calls for an immediate slash and burn of the public investment that is crucial to maintaining many of the families in my constituency who work in the private sector?

I hope that my right hon. Friend, who has again argued passionately on behalf of Stirling and the surrounding area, will be reassured by the fact that I agree with what she says, but I know that she will be even more reassured by the fact that the International Monetary Fund agrees with her. During this unprecedentedly severe global recession, it has been necessary for the Government to intervene, such as by supporting the banks, and in particular the Scottish banks, and by supporting people who would otherwise be out of work to stay in work. However, as my right hon. Friend says very clearly, we know that we still have much more work to do to get Scotland through this recession, and we should have no truck with either Conservative plans for immediate cuts or the cloud cuckoo land economics of the Scottish National party.

Rail Services

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the adequacy of rail services between England and Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (317409)

Does the Minister acknowledge that there would be no better way to develop the economies of the north of England and Scotland than to make a commitment to invest in a high-speed rail link, as that would stimulate investment there and ensure that Scotland and the north of England can fully participate in the development of the country? Are the Government committed to that step, and do they understand why the Conservative party is not?

The right hon. Gentleman correctly refers to the great possibilities high-speed rail offers to the whole country, including Scotland. This Government are committed to making sure that high-speed rail reaches the northern part of the United Kingdom—as well as the west midlands, where the first phase of the project will take place, and which we will report on later this spring. The right hon. Gentleman is also right that we require cross-party political consensus, because this project will take several decades to complete. It is very disappointing that the official Opposition reject the opportunity to take part in dialogue now, on an issue that is important both for the future of this country and for reaching our climate change targets.

Job Opportunities

9. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the number of job opportunities in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (317410)

Despite the global recession, there are 234,000 more people in work today in Scotland than when this Government came to power.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will also want to congratulate both Ryanair on the expansion of its maintenance facility at Prestwick, and the Minister for having the summit tomorrow. However, will he take a look at an issue that is of concern to at least one of my constituents: the whole question of education maintenance allowance, where there is a disparity between Scotland and England? Will he look into that? [Interruption.]

Order. The House must at least make an attempt to contain itself, and I know—[Interruption.] Order. The House will listen to the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend’s question must be a very popular one, Mr. Speaker! Amidst all the hullabaloo and excitement on the Opposition Benches, he asked about the important issue of supporting young people in Scotland through the recession. It is very important that politicians in Scotland do not take their eye off the ball in terms of the recession, but that has sometimes happened in the Scottish Parliament. Some people seem fixated with the constitution, at the expense of dealing with the recession. When we talk about over 230,000 more people being in work in Scotland, that is not just a large figure, but it tells of an enormous number of families whose lives have been transformed. It is the equivalent of the entire population of the city of Aberdeen being in work today who were out of work during the previous Government’s time.

Public Expenditure Levels

10. If he will hold discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seek to reduce the difference in the per capita level of public expenditure between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (317411)

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

In Wellingborough, people have £2,199 less public expenditure spent on them than people in the constituencies of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Is that fair?

The fact is that the Barnett formula has survived in various versions for more than a century. It survived 18 years of a Conservative Government. That funding formula has been in place, in whichever form, since 1888. It has been protected and has survived those 18 years of Conservative Government, but it now seems to be under threat from this Conservative Opposition.

Search and Rescue Services

11. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on search and rescue services in Scotland. (317412)

Privatisation of the search and rescue services has caused great concern in my constituency, particularly given the reported reduction in the number of helicopters from 38 to 24. I hope that the Government have rigorous plans in place to monitor the effectiveness of search and rescue services once they are in the private sector and that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that today.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there will certainly be no degradation of the existing service, from which I know his constituents benefit. In particular, I should say that the new helicopters that will be introduced will have more capability and a faster response time, which I am sure will be welcomed.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I answer the question, may I pay another tribute to our troops? They are working with incredible bravery, with fortitude and with dedication to defeat those who would bring terrorism to the streets of Britain by denying the terrorists both land and support and by offering the population of Helmand in Afghanistan a more secure and more prosperous future. I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to the seven soldiers who have lost their lives since the House last met: from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Lance Corporal Darren Hicks; from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh; from 6th Battalion The Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Rifleman Mark Marshall; from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Kingsman Sean Dawson; from 36 Engineer Regiment, the Royal Engineers, Sapper Guy Mellors; from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell; and from 1st Battalion Scots Guards, Lance Sergeant David Walker. These were men of exceptional bravery, of great courage and great skill, whose loss is deeply felt. Each and every one of them was a hero, dedicated to their colleagues and to their mission. We send our profound condolences to their families and loved ones.

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 am sure that everyone in the House will want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments.

My constituents never shared in the bankers’ bonuses yet they paid to bail out the banks. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that they will get their money back, that we will not allow bankers’ greed to threaten our core public services and that we will not, ever, squander this investment on a half-baked public share offer?

First of all, we have imposed a 50 per cent. national insurance tax on bank bonuses, which has to be paid by everybody who is paying cash bonuses over the course of the next year. We have insisted on the application of the G20 rules, which means that cash bonuses above a certain amount cannot be paid—they can be paid only at a later date. We are also working for a global banking levy; we are in discussions with other countries and making progress on how that could be administered. At the same time, we are determined that the banks pay back every penny that is owed to the British public. That is an essential means by which we reduce the deficit, and any plan to give cut-price shares would mean that the deficit would be higher and the public would be denied the money that they should have returned.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the seven servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan since the last time that we met: Lance Sergeant David Walker; Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell; Sapper Guy Mellors; Kingsman Sean Dawson; Rifleman Mark Marshall; Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh; and Lance Corporal Darren Hicks? We are paying a high price for the operations we are undertaking in Helmand, but it is an essential mission and our forces and their families need to know that they have the support of the whole House and the whole country in the work that they are doing.

While the report into the Stafford hospital has only just been published, I want to ask a couple of questions before turning to other subjects. Hundreds of people went into that hospital—some with relatively straightforward ailments—and ended up dying because of the way they were mistreated. Talking to the relatives, as many of us in this House have done, is absolutely heartbreaking. Does the Prime Minister understand that these victims will never be content with an inquiry that was conducted in private, behind closed doors and without any public hearings? Does he understand their clamour for a public inquiry?

Let me say, first of all, that we understand both the sadness and the sorrow of all the relatives who lost their loved ones in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. We know that every single one of those cases where relatives have doubts or questions are now being investigated individually. I understand that more than 300 cases are being investigated and every one of the families deserves to have the answers that are necessary. That is the first form of inquiry that is being done.

The second form of inquiry is the Francis inquiry, which, as the Secretary of State for Health will report in a few minutes, will continue its work on the regulation and supervision of foundation hospitals and, in particular, of this hospital. What happened in this hospital was completely unacceptable. What happened was a management failure in the hospital. When it comes to accident and emergency, I am shocked not only to read the stories but to find that where there should have been four consultants, there was only one, and that where there should have been 55 nurses, there were only 37. This is a failure in management that has to be dealt with. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Health for bringing forward a series of recommendations including a recommendation that where management fails, just as with doctors, we should be able to strike off from a list those managers who are not acceptable to health authorities.

I am grateful for that answer, but is not one of the tragedies of Stafford the fact that people were dying because of bad practice—not just bad management, but bad clinical practice and an over-adherence to processes—year after year. Death rates at the hospital were far too high and were out of line from 2005, yet the Healthcare Commission started investigating only in 2008. Is it not clear that the structure of primary care trusts, strategic health authorities and the Healthcare Commission did not bring this to light early enough? Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a better way of publishing results and patient outcomes in our hospitals and that we need openness, clarity and transparency to stop this happening again?

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman should recognise the action that we have already taken: a new quality test for foundation trusts; a new requirement for approval by the NHS medical director; a Care Quality Commission investigation; reviews are under way; we can remove the chairs of the trusts more easily; and there is already an early-warning system in place. All those things have been done already but, at the same time, the Secretary of State will announce later that there will be an inquiry into mortality ratios and whether that is the best way of judging whether a hospital is successful. There will be proposals about the deauthorisation of foundation trusts and, of course, we know that there are also disciplinary hearings under way. We have done everything we can to ensure that after this was exposed we have not only investigated the individual worries of families who are affected but learned every lesson possible so that it will not happen again. We have a statement this morning from the interim chair of the Care Quality Commission that says:

“We have no reason to believe that there is another trust in England with problems of the scale and magnitude that existed in Mid Staffordshire”.

I want to reassure people on that and also to reassure them that we are constantly tracking the situation.

Just as we need openness in the health service, we need openness at the heart of Government. After the Chancellor’s extraordinary statement last night, the Prime Minister said this morning on GMTV:

“I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my Chancellor”.

Will he try to stand up with a straight face and tell us that that is true?

Not only is that correct, but this is the nearest that the right hon. Gentleman has ever got to talking about the economy in the past few months.

We can talk about the Prime Minister trebling the deficit, about wrecking the pension system, about ruining the tax system and about bringing this country to its knees. Right now, six weeks before an election, with a record Budget deficit, at the end of a long recession, I want to ask why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are at war with each other. This is what we are told—[Interruption.] If they get any closer, they will start kissing. We are told that Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, was “spreading poison against Darling” and that he

“told every journalist who had access to a pencil that Alistair’s interview was a disaster.”

We are also told that there was the most poisonous briefing against him. Last night, the Chancellor said that after he had said what he had said, No. 10 Downing street unleashed “the forces of hell”. Why does the Prime Minister think that he said that?

I have already answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I never instructed a briefing against the Chancellor.

When it comes to the question of the economy, which the right hon. Gentleman has raised, can he and his party now explain why they were for reducing the deficit, then against reducing the deficit and are now for reducing the deficit again? None of his policies stand up, and that is why there is never any substance from the Leader of the Opposition.

It was this Prime Minister who put character at the heart of the election. It was this Prime Minister who asked to be judged on his moral compass. Why is it that the moral compass always points at someone else rather than at him?

This is a verbatim, eye-witness account from one of the journalists. Listen to this:

“Brown’s point man…turned to the journalists and started laying in”—[Interruption.]

Order. If hon. and right hon. Members do not stop shouting, I may have to ring some sort of helpline myself—or, worse still, suspend the sitting. This sort of noise and ranting makes an extremely bad impression on the British public. I appeal to the House to have some regard for the way in which we are viewed by the electorate. The House will hear the Leader of the Opposition.

I gather that things have got so bad in Downing street that even the security guards need protection. Let us just keep it simple. Will the Prime Minister get to his feet and tell us that he knew absolutely nothing about the briefing against his Chancellor? Will he, in front of all these people who have worked with him for so long, after 27 ministerial resignations and after three attempts to get rid of him, get to his feet and tell us that he knew nothing about the briefing against the Chancellor?

The right hon. Gentleman is not doing very well. He has asked me the same question three times and I have answered it. I would rather be defending my Chancellor than be in his position of having to defend his shadow Chancellor. The truth of the matter is that the Chancellor has been right on every issue of economic policy over the past two years and that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have been wrong on every issue in the past few years.

If the Chancellor was right, why was the Prime Minister trying to get rid of him? The Prime Minister wants to talk about the economy; let me give him one statistic and see if he will confirm it. Figures out today show that gross domestic product per capita is lower today than when this Government began. Will he confirm that they are the first Government in 40 years to leave this country poorer than when they began?

The Chancellor and I can confirm that GDP is higher per head than it was in 1997. [Interruption.] That is the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked and that is the answer he will get. The problem with the Leader of the Opposition is that not one time does he ask any question about the substance of policy: he gets it wrong every time. People are now taking a hard, long look at the Conservatives and they are now seeing through them

Q14. Thank you, Mr. Speaker. First, may I add my condolences to those of my right hon. Friend regarding David Greenhalgh, who lived in Ilkeston in Erewash—my constituency—and was a very brave young man? To receive a diagnosis of cancer must be one of the most frightening experiences in anybody’s life. Currently, 94.1 per cent. of patients see a cancer specialist within two weeks. May I welcome the Government’s intention to build on that incredible progress and to make the two-week goal a legal entitlement, thus further reassuring patients with cancer and their families? (317429)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a very keen interest in how we can make progress against cancer in our country. The truth is that if people get early screening and diagnosis, there is a 90 per cent.-plus chance of survival from breast cancer and other forms of cancer such as bowel cancer. That is why we are so keen that everybody who is worried can see a specialist and get a diagnosis as quickly as possible. That is what will save lives.

Our policy of having a two-week guarantee, now reduced to one week, has massive support throughout the country. I cannot understand for the life of me why the Conservative party is against these guarantees that we give to every patient in the country. If the Opposition want to show their commitment to the NHS, they should support the guarantees for cancer care.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the seven brave soldiers who tragically lost their lives serving so selflessly and professionally in Afghanistan since the House last sat. They are Lance Corporal Darren Hicks, Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh, Rifleman Mark Marshall, Kingsman Sean Dawson, Sapper Guy Mellors, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell and Lance Sergeant David Walker. We all owe them and their families an eternal debt of gratitude.

The last time that the Prime Minister wheeled out his slogan “A future fair for all” was back in 2003. Then, just as now, the poorest were paying more of their income in tax than the richest, but there is one big difference—since 2003, the gap between what the poorest and the richest pay has doubled. How can he possibly call that fair?

As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman before, he has to include the importance of tax credits. He forgets that 6 million families in this country get child tax credits, that child benefit was worth only £10 when we came to office, and that the child tax credit is worth anything from £30 to £100 for a family of one or two. That is why we have been able to reduce child poverty in this country. Because we support the policy of tax credits, we will continue to reduce child poverty in this country.

Parties that want to cut child tax credits, as the Conservative party does, will put more children in poverty in this country. That is why we oppose the Opposition’s policy.

The Prime Minister reels off his so-called record, but he has asked us to take a second look and what do we find? The 10p tax rate hit hard-up families, and the hike in national insurance hit people who work hard and play by the rules—tax injustice for the many, tax breaks for the few. Given what happened the last time that the Prime Minister promised a future fair for all, is it not the truth that this is not a slogan but a warning?

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would do better than that. First, we have been dealing with tax breaks at the top, including removing pension tax reliefs for those who are very wealthy, and I hope that he will continue to support our policy. The Chancellor has signed an agreement with Lichtenstein that will bring £1 billion of money back to this country. As far as helping everybody is concerned, it is our policy of helping the unemployed and helping people out of recession that is making the difference between poverty and people having sufficient to live on. That is why, because of our policies, there are half a million more people in work than was predicted even at the time of the Budget. That is what makes the difference to poverty.

Will the Prime Minister and the whole House join me in condemning the kidnapping and the brutal murder by beheading of two young Sikh men in Pakistan by an extremist Taliban group? Will he share with the House the action that the Government are taking to assist the Pakistan Government in protecting minority groups in Pakistan from the Taliban?

The danger posed by the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban, which both work from Pakistan, becomes more and more obvious every day. When my hon. Friend refers to the murders of people in Pakistan by the Pakistan Taliban, he is referring to violent incidents that are happening every day as a result of the efforts of the Taliban. We are working with the Pakistani authorities so that we can make inroads into the Taliban. There has been some success with the leadership of the Afghan Taliban in the past few weeks, but we will continue to work with the Pakistan security authorities and we will continue to say to the Pakistani people, “We will help children with their education. We ask you to work with us so that the madrassahs cannot have an evil influence on the young people of Pakistan.”

Q2. The Prime Minister will know that Government expenditure on advertising, marketing and self-promotion went up by more than 40 per cent. last year. As it obviously is not working, will he cut it out? (317417)

We have already announced that we are going to halve the Government advertising budget and the consultancy budget. The right hon. Gentleman should know that.

Is the Prime Minister aware that February was designated by the Office of Fair Trading as scams awareness month? Does the attempt by the Opposition to pose as a party fit for government not qualify as one of the biggest scams in recent history? Will he join me in logging on to the scamnesty website to draw attention to this latest example of a blatant “scameron”?

Q3. My constituent, Stephen Oliver, died at the age 30 in tragic and mysterious circumstances late last year. Stephen’s family are very disappointed by the Greek authorities’ failure properly to investigate his death, and by the British Government’s seeming acceptance of the situation. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest in the case and try to get the answers to the questions raised by the family? (317418)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of the question. Like him, I am very sorry to hear of the tragic death of Stephen Oliver in October last year and I, too, send my sincere condolences to the Oliver family. I understand that consular staff in London and in Greece are ready to provide advice and assistance to Mr. Oliver’s family as appropriate, including advice on how best to seek further information about the circumstances of his death. I will make sure that that is done. I am sure that ministerial colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will look further into any concerns that the hon. Gentleman may have.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that he condemns not only the use of false UK passports in a criminal operation, but any act of state-sponsored assassination anywhere? Will he drop the Government’s plans to amend the law on universal jurisdiction, which has so far been justified on the basis of the need to protect Israel’s right to due diplomatic conduct and to proper inter-governmental engagement—standards for which the Israeli Government showed utter contempt by the disdain with which the Israeli Foreign Minister treated the Foreign Secretary this week?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that where there are questions about the misuse of British passports, they have to be answered. We have set up an investigation, which is ongoing, into the very instance that he raised. I would not draw immediate conclusions without seeing the evidence. It is important to see the evidence before any further conclusions are drawn, but I agree that we do not support state-sponsored terrorism in any country. I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the laws on international jurisdiction affect all countries, not just one country.

Q4. As has been well chronicled, the Prime Minister had a famously tempestuous relationship with his predecessor, who described him as a “big clunking fist”. Did he mean it literally? (317419)

Once again, the Conservative party cannot raise an issue of policy. Yesterday we had an education statement; on Monday we had a business conference with announcements of new investment; and a Conservative Back Bencher gets up with a planted question from his Front Benchers and cannot ask a question even about his own constituency.

Q5. My right hon. Friend knows that the whole of Teesside is waiting for news about Corus. That company, whose order book was 80 per cent. full in December, has now been mothballed and 1,700 people have been made unemployed. Will the Prime Minister tell the House this afternoon what his Ministers are doing to secure and to help to secure a purchase, and whether it is the case that Tata is unprepared to sell the company and speak to British Ministers? (317420)

First, I share my hon. Friend’s anger about what has happened on Teesside, and the loss of 1,700 jobs in any area is unacceptable. The loss of 1,700 jobs in an area that has depended on that industry for years and had a contract that would have guaranteed future work for many future years is more unacceptable, and we have to look at that very carefully. As I think the House knows, there was a contract involving four companies which would have guaranteed the output of the plant. That contract broke down through the partners in it disagreeing among themselves about the future.

We are doing everything that we can to find a buyer for the plant. I have personally talked to Mr. Tata and to the chief executive of Corus, and I have met people in the area who are concerned about what is happening to the jobs and the prospects for young people there. As we look for a potential buyer, we have also put £60 million into the Teesside area so that we can create new jobs, new training opportunities for jobs and new developments in the area that will provide jobs in the future. But I share with my hon. Friend my anger at what happened, and I am determined that our Government will do everything that we can to make sure that people who lose jobs get jobs in the future, and, if we can avoid it, that people do not lose jobs at all.

Since 2008 and the introduction of new rules on motorcycling and tests, the number of people taking the test has declined by 62 per cent. and the number of people passing the test has declined by 58 per cent. The motorbiking industry is extremely important in the UK. What will the Prime Minister do to rectify what is obviously a very poor system?

I shall take the figures that the hon. Lady has given me and ask the Transport Minister to look into that very matter. It is important that we have a strong motorcycling industry in this country, and it is important that her question about the specifics of the tests be answered.

Q6. Kensley Larrier was convicted of rape in 2005, based on DNA held on the national database. Is it not the case that if storage were restricted to three years, he would be walking free? (317421)

This is a very important issue, and a national debate would help us to resolve these issues. Last year there were 832 matches to the national DNA database, and those were made in cases of murder, manslaughter and rape. That is why the database is supported by the families of victims as essential in protecting the public. So any Conservative party proposal that reduces the DNA register’s ability to punish and find those people who are criminals is, I believe, a step backwards for justice in the country. I hope that the Conservative party will think again about a policy that would leave people who are guilty free as a result of our inability to take the action that is necessary.

Q7. The words of respect that the Prime Minister spoke today about Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell will be echoed in every corner of the west Berkshire community from where he came. Does the Prime Minister agree that nearly everyone in this country supports our troops, but that a sizeable proportion of the population are at least sceptical of our role in Afghanistan? Does he share my feeling that there is a moral imperative on him and his Ministers to articulate and inform people of the value of the work that our troops do there, and of the necessity of stabilising that region? (317422)

I share the sympathies that the hon. Gentleman expresses to the family of his constituent who tragically lost his life. I share also with the hon. Gentleman the urgency to persuade the country that, first, we are in Afghanistan because there is a threat of terrorism on the streets of Britain. I repeat that the majority of the serious terrorist plots that have been discovered in Britain and would threaten the lives of people in Britain come from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. In other words, they do not come from plots within Britain or Europe. They are organised from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, and that is why we are in Afghanistan—to prevent al-Qaeda running Afghanistan through a Government who would be run by the Taliban themselves.

I say secondly to the hon. Gentleman that we have got to persuade people that we have a purpose for our mission, and that is to train up the Afghan forces. There will be 300,000 Afghan police, security forces or army in 2011; they will be a far greater force in numbers than the coalition forces together. Gradually, the Afghan forces, as in Operation Together, have got to take security control of their country to allow our troops to come home.

Q8. People in my constituency want to know what the Government’s priorities will be after the election. Surprisingly, fox hunting is not an issue for them, but taxation is. Could the Prime Minister confirm that he will definitely not have as a priority cuts in inheritance tax for the benefit of a small minority of people effectively paid for by everyone else out of their taxes? (317423)

The Opposition have announced that they wish to cut the child trust fund and cut child tax credit, and they would cut the Sure Start children’s centres in our constituencies—and where would the money go? To pay for an inheritance tax cut for only 300,000 people. It does not take much time to leaflet those 300,000 people to tell them that they would be £200,000—

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that renewed acts of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland are not only threats to the peace process but direct attacks on the very communities from which these terrorists come? (317424)

There are Members here in all parts of the House who are from Northern Ireland or care deeply about Northern Ireland. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that any renewed terrorist attacks are something that we must be vigilant about and take the necessary action to stop. As he knows, large numbers of previously terrorist organisations have decommissioned their weapons and announced that they are ceasing violence. Two organisations have not done that, and pressure must be brought to bear upon them. The way we show terrorist organisations that we will have no truck with their violence is by building up the strength of the political and democratic process in Northern Ireland. That is why I urge all parties—parties in this House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly—to support the agreement that will mean the devolution of policing and justice and the end to a process of constitutional conflict over many years in Northern Ireland. That would be the biggest signal we could send to anybody who is interested in terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Q10. I enjoy a pint of porter and a game of darts as much as any old Etonian, but there the similarity ends. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to strain every sinew to try to achieve an international agreement on a Robin Hood tax, bearing in mind that we all know who in this House speaks for the Sheriff of Nottingham? (317425)

I cannot beat the humour which my hon. Friend brings to this occasion. When the Leader of the Opposition is having his next pint of Guinness and playing darts, he might consider this: there is growing support across the world, just as there was growing support to deal with the recession in a way that he would not propose to deal with it, for a global levy that will put the place of financial institutions firmly at a global level and make a contribution to society. That is the way forward—a global levy, a global banking organisation, and global financial institutions working together. I hope that the Opposition can see beyond their antipathy to Europe to support global action.

Statement by the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Order. If hon. Members are leaving, I should be grateful if they would do so quickly and quietly.