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Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 3 March 2010

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in attendance on Her Majesty the Queen welcoming President Zuma on his state visit to the United Kingdom.

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the five British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan: Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate from 2 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment; Rifleman Martin Kinggett from 4th Battalion The Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion The Rifles; Sergeant Paul Fox from 28 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers, attached to the Brigade Reconnaissance Force; Rifleman Carlo Apolis from 4th Battalion The Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion The Rifles; and the soldier from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who died yesterday. They demonstrated outstanding courage and skill, and they died serving their country, their comrades and the people of Afghanistan. Our thoughts are with their families and their loved ones; their sacrifice will not be forgotten.

I am sure that the whole House will also join me in sending our sincere condolences to the people of Chile following the terrible earthquake at the weekend.

The whole House will wish to join the right hon. and learned Lady in paying tribute to those brave men who have given their lives for our freedom, and of course in what she said about the people of Chile.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady please tell the House why manufacturing has declined faster under this Labour Government than under any other Administration ever?

Indeed, this is just typical of the Conservatives talking the country down. British manufacturing is strong and it has a great future, especially with advanced manufacturing and that supporting the digital and creative industries. The Conservatives constantly describe Britain as heading towards an age of austerity. We do not share that pessimism; we are optimistic for Britain’s future, including in manufacturing.

AstraZeneca in my constituency has decided to relocate its research and development facilities to Cheshire, which will cause 1,200 jobs to be lost to the local economy in 2011. Overall, pharmaceuticals are strong in the United Kingdom, and the Office for Life Sciences has ensured that many such jobs remain in the UK. However, that is no consolation to the 1,200 people who will have to relocate from my constituency, so will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Government will give every assistance to the taskforce that we will set up this week to address the situation and ensure that there is economic and development help for the constituency of Loughborough and the people who will be affected?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We do not believe in standing by, letting people fend for themselves, letting recession take it course, or that unemployment is a price worth paying. We have an active interventionist policy to support industry, including in the regions, which would suffer if the regional development agencies were abolished, as proposed by the Conservatives.

May I join the Leader of the House in sending our thoughts to the people of Chile, and in the sad tributes that we pay so often to the British servicemen killed in Afghanistan—in the past week, Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, Rifleman Martin Kinggett, Sergeant Paul Fox, Rifleman Carlo Apolis and the as yet unnamed soldier from 3rd Battalion The Rifles. Let us hope, as the right hon. and learned Lady says, that they are not forgotten and that their sacrifice is not in vain.

I begin by asking the Leader of the House about a matter directly relating to the armed forces, because now we know from the Chilcot inquiry that the Ministry of Defence felt, in the words of its permanent secretary, that it was running “a crisis budget” rather than being able to plan coherently. Is it not time to recognise that it was a mistake of the Prime Minister to insist on cutting the helicopter budget at a time when our country was in the middle of two wars, and with thousands of British troops deployed?

We have maintained a second to none commitment to our armed forces. It would be wrong for the shadow Foreign Secretary to imply that we in the Government are anything less than fully committed to our armed forces. When it comes to procurement of equipment and financial support for the forces, we will make sure that that commitment is honoured. I am sure that he will be pleased with the increase in helicopters that has recently been announced.

I am not saying that the Government are not committed, simply that they made an enormous mistake in 2004 that let our armed forces down. The former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) said at the Chilcot inquiry that

“had that budget been spent in the way that we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now”.

Is it not a lesson for everyone that such an error was made? Will the Prime Minister recognise that when he gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry on Friday this week?

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know what the Prime Minister is going to say to the Chilcot inquiry, he will have to wait until he says it. It is fatuous for the Foreign Secretary to ask me—[Interruption.] what the Prime Minister is going to answer in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry on Friday. To return to the insinuation that lies behind the right hon. Gentleman’s point, I want to assure the House and everybody in this country who so values the work of our troops that we stand four-square behind them.

That is the second time that the right hon. and learned Lady has called me the Foreign Secretary. She must think that we have had the election already. Turning to the UK economy and this week’s economic news, why does the Leader of the House think that UK Government bonds are priced by the market as almost twice as risky as the bonds of Pepsi or McDonald’s?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the value of sterling [Hon. Members: “Bonds!”] depends on a range of issues. On his point in relation to his own position, there are two contingencies there. First, he is making the assumption that the Conservatives have won the election. They are arrogant. They have not. [Hon. Members: “You said it!”] Secondly—

Order. I apologise for interrupting. We must have some order. Constant barracking and yah-boo behaviour is a complete turn-off to the public. We do not want it. We do not need it.

Secondly, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is making the assumption that he will remain in his position. I wonder about that, since the House puts the highest value on integrity—[Interruption.] Yes, it does, and the country—[Interruption.]

Order. This session will take place in an orderly fashion or it cannot credibly take place at all. I appeal to Members to calm down and to listen both to questions and to answers.

This is something that the whole House can agree on—that this House places the highest value on the question of integrity. This country has been misled, and the question is whether it was misled by the deputy chair of the Conservative party, or whether it was—[Interruption.]

First of all, I was not assuming the election result; she was assuming the election result, and the election of the Conservative party. Secondly, the question was not about sterling but about Government debt, to which I shall return in a moment. And thirdly, people in glasshouses should not start throwing stones, because the real party funding issue in this country is the power of the Unite union. It is bankrolling the Labour party, wrecking British Airways and its deputy general secretary, her husband, has just gone through an all-women shortlist to be selected to stand for Parliament. She may not want to recognise marriage in the tax system but she sure does in the political system.

So, let us return to the question, which is the fate of our entire national economy—merely that. As the Governor of the Bank of England says,

“the longer there is not a credible plan that sets out what actions will be taken”—

on the public finances, there is—“a risk.”

If the right hon. and learned Lady does not know about Government debt, why does she think that business investment showed its biggest annual fall last week since records began?

The question is not about one man in this House of Commons; the question is about one man in the House of Lords. When it comes to Government debt, the most important thing is that the economy should grow, that we take action to ensure that there is growth in the economy and that we have more jobs.

It is also important that we are careful about public spending, and of course tax has a part to play in reducing the deficit. People who have promised to pay their taxes, and given assurances, should pay their taxes, so what has happened to the tens of millions of pounds of taxes that the shadow Foreign Secretary promised would be paid by Lord Ashcroft? We want to know.

If she wants to discuss the House of Lords, I am sure that she will want to explain the position of Lord Paul, who was made a Privy Counsellor after he bought 6,000 copies of the Prime Minister’s book on courage. Never has so much been given for so few people to read so many words in vain. She might also want to explain why Labour took half a million pounds from a non-dom hedge fund manager called Mr. Bollinger. Champagne socialism is alive and well in the Labour party, obviously.

We had moved on from debt to business investment—she may not have noticed that—but, given that she raised the question of the pound, does she agree with the Prime Minister, who said some years ago that

“a weak currency arises from a weak economy which in turn is the result of a weak Government”?

So, what does this week’s plunging pound say about this weak Government?

As I said in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, many issues affect the value of sterling, and we are determined to strengthen the economy and pay down the deficit. The issue that he referred to is a question of the assurance that was given by Lord Ashcroft—[Interruption.]

Order. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any help from Back-Bench Members. I would say to the Leader of the House that we must stick to matters of Government responsibility.

Order. This matter has been addressed, and I am sure that the Leader of the House will now do as I suggest.

This is an issue outside the House of Commons, and I want to deal with issues inside the House of Commons, because the shadow Foreign Secretary stands here without a shred of credibility.

I think we know what a desperate panic the Government are now in, and it will not save their marginal seats.

Is not the continued absence of—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but Government Back Benchers are now getting very, very over-excited—they must calm down.

They should enjoy themselves while they are still here, Mr. Speaker.

Is not the continued absence of confidence in the Government’s policies the biggest threat to recovery, as it means that interest rates and mortgage rates will be higher in future than they would otherwise have to be? Would not the real way to create the economic confidence that this country needs be for the Prime Minister, while he is at the palace today, to ask Her Majesty to dissolve this Parliament and call an election so that we can be rid of this disastrous Government once and for all?

The real way to ensure that we keep the focus on the economy growing and more jobs coming into the economy is to continue to pursue the policies that have strengthened and supported it, and not to accept the advice and suggestions of the inexperienced shadow Chancellor—he was described as such by the shadow Business Secretary—because that would undermine the economy. As to the issue of credibility and who we should believe, we cannot have it that the vice-chairman of the Conservative party is right and the shadow Foreign Secretary is right. They cannot both be right—one of them should go.

Order. The House must calm down. A Back Bencher is on her feet. She has a right to ask her question and to be listened to with courtesy.

On Sunday, Bletchley Park in my constituency marked LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—history month by having a day of celebration of the life and work of Alan Turing. Will the Leader of the House congratulate the organisers at Bletchley Park on this event, which served as a reminder of the unacceptability of the sort of homophobic laws and prejudices that pushed Alan Turing to his suicide in the 1950s?

I congratulate Bletchley Park on commemorating Alan Turing. His work, and his commitment, is taken forward by us in government, because our Equality Bill, which passed through the House of Lords last night, will further strengthen and protect people against discrimination and homophobia.

May I add my condolences and those of my party concerning the five servicemen who bravely died on our behalf in Afghanistan; and our condolences, too, on the earthquake in Chile?

I extend a very warm welcome to President Zuma and suggest to the Minister that in her capacity as Government spokesperson on gender equality she might wish to enter into a debate with him on his strong advocacy of polygamy, and particularly the role that married tax allowances might play in promoting it.

Speaking of tax, I told the Minister several weeks ago that Lord Ashcroft was a non-dom, and it has been confirmed that he avoided approximately £100 million-worth of tax while serving in Parliament. Can the Minister explain why Lord Ashcroft is now claiming that the Government relieved him of the solemn and binding undertaking to remain as a permanent resident in the UK?

As to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the married man’s tax allowance, it is paradoxical that it would be available to a man on his third wife but not to the first two wives bringing up his children. That is one of the many reasons why we do not support the married man’s tax allowance.

The hon. Gentleman, as it turns out, was right that Lord Ashcroft, despite the assurances he gave, was a non-dom, and he was right that the country had been misled into believing that Lord Ashcroft was complying with his previous assurances. I agree with him that there are answers to be given on this, but they are not answers to be given by the Government. They are to be given by the—[Interruption.]

There are answers to be given by the Government. Will the right hon. and learned Lady release immediately all the documentation and records of conversations in the Cabinet Office that relate to this matter? More generally on the issue of non-domicile taxation, can she explain why the Government took on board a Conservative proposal for a poll tax on non-doms that bears harshly on low-income expatriates but is a pathetic flea bite for seriously rich fat cats such as Lord Ashcroft?

I believe that we should have full transparency on this issue, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. The question of the release of any Government papers is a matter for the Cabinet Secretary, but as far as information about this is concerned, we perhaps do not just need to wait for any information that is released by the Cabinet Secretary. We can read Lord Ashcroft’s autobiography, aptly entitled “Dirty politics, Dirty times”, because in it he explains how he came to be in the House of Lords. He says, “I owe it all to William.”

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recollect that we had to fight the Falklands war because the then Conservative Government withdrew the patrols by HMS Endurance and offered to hand over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands to the fascist dictator Galtieri? Will she—[Interruption.] The Conservatives are laughing, but they were going to hand over the Falkland Islands. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reaffirm staunchly this Government’s loyalty to the loyalty of the people of the Falkland Islands and uphold their wishes and their rights?

I will give that assurance. There is no question about the sovereignty of the Falklands, there is no question about their right to self-determination and there is no question but that they will be fully defended.

Q2. Will the Leader of the House confirm that during the course of this Parliament, more than half the small businesses that have become insolvent have been driven into bankruptcy by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other Government agencies? (319880)

In fact, 200,000 businesses have been able to stay in business because they have been able to postpone paying their taxes as a way of supporting them through the recession. HMRC has been able to conclude agreements with more than 200,000 businesses, including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and that is a programme to help business that his party opposed.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the serious concerns being expressed by individuals, groups and organisations, as well as the press and the media, about the inadequacy of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991? I speak as a recent victim of an attack, and I share those views. Will she consider having serious discussions with her Cabinet colleagues about that Act, which I am told was hurriedly put together, in order to review it?

I express my great sympathy to my hon. Friend for the fact that she was a victim of such an attack by a dog. I assure her that discussions are under way among ministerial colleagues on this matter. We cannot have a situation where people are afraid to let their kids go to the park or to take their own pets out for a walk in the park, or where elderly people are afraid to be on their own because some people have dangerous dogs. If they will not control them, we have to look again at the law and make sure that they are controlled.

Q3. I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Wakey wakey!”] I must have dropped off listening to the right hon. and learned Lady. If she is having such difficulty with the concept of Government bonds, might she take advice from Mr. Michael Saunders, the chief UK economist of Citigroup, who said this week that unless we see a Conservative Government with a clear majority, the interest on Government debt will surely rise? (319881)

I thought the hon. Gentleman had dropped off a very long time ago. I will take advice from many quarters, but I will not take advice—and neither will this Government—from the inexperienced shadow Chancellor.

Today we will be discussing the Bribery Bill—[Interruption.] Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell me whether Lord Ashcroft’s donations will be covered by that Bill?

What did he say? [Interruption.] This is how you can tell it was not a planted question—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, could you ask my hon. Friend to repeat the question? I did not hear it—there is too much noise opposite.

Order. It does not make much sense for Members to shout at the tops of their voices and then complain when someone is not heard. I call Mr. Phil Wilson.

Later today, we will be debating the Bribery Bill. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me whether Ashcroft’s donations will be part of it?

Unfortunately, nothing in the Bill will be retrospective. However, assurances that were made to pay tens of millions of pounds in tax should be kept. The measures we have taken—they were passed in the House last night—are important, but that does not relieve Lord Ashcroft of his obligations to pay his taxes.

Q4. The Government often apologise for things in the past, such as the treatment of child migrants to Australia after the war. However regrettable such things are, the Government were not responsible for them. Why can they not apologise for things that they are responsible for, such as the state of the economy and the fact that they sold off our gold reserves for less than a quarter of what they would now be worth, which has so far cost the country $11 billion? Will the right hon. and learned Lady apologise for that? (319882)

We will take our responsibility seriously, and our responsibility is to see this country out of recession and into recovery. I think it is disappointing that the right hon. Gentleman should not accept and support the fact that it is right sometimes for Governments to apologise for what has been done in history that leaves people with a great sense of grievance. When an apology is given, it is the right thing to do, as it was in respect of child migrants and slavery.

Q5. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that on one of the several occasions when the last Conservative Chancellor, who is currently shadow Business Secretary—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—announced that he was cutting the value of the married couple’s allowance, he described it as a bit of an anomaly. Indeed, one of his predecessors, Lord Lawson— (319883)

Order. I just say to the hon. Lady that she must relate her question to the policy of the Government.

My question is indeed about the policy of the Government. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that Lord Lawson described the allowance as something that should be allowed to wither on the vine, which it was? Does she therefore agree that there are better things to spend £600 million on than introducing a bit of an anomaly?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest in Sure Start centres, we will continue the child tax credit and we will continue the child trust fund. I can also reassure her that we will not reintroduce a married man’s tax allowance that would give 13 times more to the richest people than it would to the poorest people. It would not encourage one single couple to get married or make them happy in their marriage. But it would send—and this is why it would be cruel—a clear message to children in families in which the parents are divorced. It would say to them that there was something wrong with their family, and therefore that there must be something wrong with them. That is another reason why we would never introduce it.

Q6. Five years ago a young person in my constituency was on the dole for an average of eight months before getting a job. That figure now stands at 18 months, the highest figure in the north-west. Is not that the reality of how this Government have failed young people? (319884)

The reality is that four times fewer people are unemployed in this recession than in the previous recession, because of the action that we have taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will fight hard to support industry and jobs, especially jobs for young people. That is why we have introduced the future jobs fund, with a guarantee that after only six months every person under the age of 24 will be guaranteed work or training.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House whether the Government have received representations from the Electoral Commission about foreign money being used to buy British constituencies?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is evident that the Tory party is for sale, but Britain is not.

Leominster town crier and fire fighter Dave Taylor has got cancer. His oncologist has prescribed him Avastin, which is not approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. What can she do to keep this man alive?

NICE is independent and acts on the best scientific and medical advice. I pay tribute to the progress that has been made in cutting the loss of life from cancer, and the work that is done by oncologists and the rest of the health service to lengthen people’s life expectancy and improve their care. That is one of the things that has benefited from the great increase in investment that we have made. I ask the hon. Gentleman to back our commitment to the guarantee that after someone visits a GP with a suspected cancer, they should see an oncologist within one week.