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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2010

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Crime Levels

As a member of the national policing board and the crime reduction board, I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on all matters relating to law and order. The latest statistics show that, overall, recorded crime in Wales is down 3 per cent. on last year.

I thank the Minister for that response. I have in my hand an article from the Daily Post, which says that north Wales is one of the safest places to live in the whole of Britain. Denbighshire has the third best crime and disorder reduction partnership in the whole of England and Wales. Why are Tory MPs and candidates in north Wales going round claiming that violent crime there has risen by 68 per cent.?

It is not for me to say why the Conservative party behaves as it does. I simply say that that comes as no surprise; it is a dodgy party that uses dodgy statistics.

Alcohol continues to play a major role in fuelling violence and criminal behaviour in my constituency and across Wales. In the light of that, what discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly Government on introducing a minimum price for alcohol?

Discussions on that issue are ongoing. It is important to recognise that the Government take a firm stance on issues associated with alcohol abuse and antisocial behaviour arising from it. That is one of our priorities, and it goes hand in hand with the emphasis that we continually place on neighbourhood policing.

Tax Credits

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the tax credit system in Wales. (321806)

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the number of families claiming tax credits in Wales. (321813)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the number of families claiming tax credits in Wales. (321815)

We introduced tax credits to provide support to families, to help to reduce child poverty and to make work pay, benefiting about 326,000 families and more than 500,000 children in Wales.

Happy St. Patrick’s day, Mr. Speaker.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has no plans to axe or cut tax credits?

I, too, wish you a happy St. Patrick’s day, Mr. Speaker.

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, as can the whole Government. Tax credits have made work pay, lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and encouraged people to get off benefits and into work. That is why I resent the fact that there is now a Tory sword of Damocles hanging over tax credits for those on low and modest incomes in Wales. The sooner that the Conservatives stop threatening to cut tax credits and many other support mechanisms in Wales, the better.

In my constituency, just more than 7,000 families have benefited from the child tax credit system. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many families in total have benefited from the policies of this Government on this important issue?

As I have said, 326,000 families have benefited right across Wales. This is not simply a question of their benefiting from tax credits; these measures have helped to lift people out of poverty. About 50,000 children in Wales have been lifted out of poverty, and we also have a policy to offer free breakfasts for primary school children. That is part of our policy of tackling poverty. All that would be threatened if the Tory policies to cut free breakfasts for primary school children and to cut tax credits were ever introduced.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents that the tax credit system is certainly not a gimmick? Will he confirm my understanding that this Labour Government will continue with the £66,000 limit, whereas the Tory proposal is to reduce it to £50,000, which would certainly affect my constituents?

Order. I know that the Secretary of State will probably not need reminding, but I hope that he will focus his reply only on the policy of the Government.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who is standing down at the next election. She has been a real warrior for north Wales, and particularly for women right across Wales. Everyone respects her for that. As she has said, tax credits have played an absolutely vital role, particularly during the downturn, in helping to keep people in work and off benefits. About 21,600 families whose income fell for six months last year benefited from an average increase of £36 a week in tax credits. That helped to keep people in work, and those people would not have stayed in work if that support mechanism had been cut from underneath them, as the Conservatives are planning.

Is not this pathetic scaremongering over tax credits merely a smokescreen to prevent discussion of Labour’s true failure on welfare in Wales—namely, that after 13 years of this sorry Government, almost exactly one quarter of the working age population in Wales is economically inactive, out of work and doing nothing? That is a shameful record.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman dares to mention economic inactivity on a day when the statistics show that it has fallen in Wales by a larger proportion than anywhere else in the UK. This shows that the curse that we inherited from the Conservative Government of people being smuggled off the dole queue on to incapacity benefit and of other forms of economic inactivity has been tackled under Labour. Employment is up to nearly 100,000 extra jobs in Wales, giving people more support, while economic inactivity is down, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many constituents at his advice surgeries have been in tears in his office because of the tax credit system over the past five years?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I have had in my constituency—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I am answering the question, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will like the answer. In my constituency office, I have seen people desperately worried—some in tears—about the threat to their tax credits from the Conservatives, should the Conservatives get into government. Many thousands of my constituents, and many tens of thousands across Wales, have benefited from tax credits, which have given them much better prospects for prosperity in the future.

No would argue other than that the driver for tax credits is a perfectly acceptable and laudable aim, but we all have lots of cases in our constituency surgeries of where they have gone wrong. About 80,000 families in Wales are not claiming a total of £140 million that could be claimed. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should look at raising the income tax threshold by £1,000 to take those people out of the bureaucracy and mistake-making?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have lifted many thousands of people across Wales out of tax altogether through the changes that we have made to taxation. Of course, we want to make sure that especially those on low incomes pay the minimum possible tax and no tax at all, if possible. The tax credit system, notwithstanding the administrative problems that we have seen at the heart of it, has liberated many hundreds of thousands of people right across Britain, including Wales, giving them a chance to work. Otherwise, those people would have been languishing on benefits, as they were under the Conservatives.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that families in my constituency and in Wales will benefit from the policy change recently announced by the Government, which means that there will be much greater flexibility in the tax credit system to cope with changes in the make-up of the household? Will that not provide an even better way of targeting help to those at work who most need it?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Women have especially benefited from tax credits, and they feel especially threatened by the policies of the Opposition. May I take this opportunity to welcome the fact that some 400 new jobs for 18 to 24-year-olds have been announced today in Cardiff, spearheaded by Cardiff county council, which will help to create employment? Many of them will be able to benefit from tax credits in the future, if this Labour Government, but not the Conservatives, are re-elected.

As we have heard, the tax credit system is very complex and fraught with difficulties. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that one of the main causes of poverty in Wales is the very low level at which income tax starts being paid, which stops people entering or re-entering the employment market. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity this morning to support the Liberal Democrat proposal to have a personal income tax allowance of £10,000, which would take 220,000 people out of tax altogether in Wales?

I am not sure how that policy fits with the Liberal Democrat policy of cutting tax credits to many on modest incomes—a policy shared with the Conservatives. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome not only how the tax credit system has benefited so many people in Wales, but the fact that unemployment measured by the claimant count is down, that employment is up and that economic inactivity is down—all better news as Wales struggles to get out of this recession. The situation is still very fragile, but we are making progress, which would be wrecked if the Conservative policies of cuts were ever to take effect.

Tax credits offer important support to people who are in work, and we support them. Many voters in Wales will be surprised that the Secretary of State thinks that £50,000 is a low income—it obviously is to him. This morning’s figures show that the Labour Government have mismanaged this economy, that 9,000 more Welsh workers have lost their jobs and that the Welsh unemployment rate is the worst in the UK. Is the right hon. Gentleman not ashamed that more and more people in Wales are no longer eligible for working tax credits? How can he so blithely say “making work pay”, when one in 10 are now not actually working?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that household incomes of £31,000 or more will be subject to tax cuts if Conservative policies are implemented, and that the figure of £50,000 cited by the shadow Chancellor is wrong. I prefer to believe the IFS rather than the shadow Chancellor, especially given that his policies are being powered by Lord Ashcroft’s illegal—

Pensioners

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on support for pensioners in Wales. (321808)

Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is standing down after many years’ service in the House.

Labour policies since 1997 have provided generous support for pensioners in Wales and across the United Kingdom, and nearly 900,000 fewer of them are now living in poverty.

As my right hon. Friend has said, I shall, sadly, be standing down at the next election and beginning my retirement in Wales.

Far more sadly, I shall shortly be staring the state pension age in the face; I know that that is hard to believe. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the real benefits enjoyed by pensioners in Wales are maintained, especially winter fuel payments?

My hon. Friend’s young appearance will be sadly missed, particularly the bow tie, which is almost unique in the Chamber. I agree with him that winter fuel payments—introduced by this Government, and increased by them to £400 a year for those over 80 and £250 a year, tax-free, for those over 60—are a vital support measure, as are free bus passes and free prescriptions, especially in Wales. All those benefits would be under threat, if the £20 billion cuts promised by the shadow Business Secretary were introduced, which is what we would expect from a Conservative Government.

Many Welsh pensioners would now be enjoying a considerably more comfortable retirement if the then Chancellor, the current Prime Minister, had not decided in 1997 to abolish advance corporation tax credits for pension funds. Does the Secretary of State think, 13 years later, that that £100 billion raid on pension funds was right?

The truth is that pensioners are a great deal better off under this Labour Government. Pensioner households in Wales will be £1,500 better off this year, and the poorest third of pensioner households will be £2,100 better off. Why does the hon. Gentleman not stop his party, and its candidates and Members of Parliament, attacking policies such as free bus travel and free prescriptions for pensioners in Wales?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the free bus pass has not only given pensioners a new lease of life, but has had the environmental benefit of getting people out of their cars and making rural buses more viable. Will he talk to his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that funding for rural buses continues, so that they are available to the pensioners who want to use them?

I will certainly do that, but policies such as free bus travel for pensioners can continue only if the Welsh Assembly Government receive support from the Government in Westminster. If the cuts promised by the shadow Business Secretary yesterday are implemented—an extra £20 billion of cuts are planned over the next few years—the Welsh Assembly Government will not possibly be able to fund free bus passes for pensioners, free prescriptions, and free breakfasts for primary school children. All those things will be under threat.

Research Councils (University Funding)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the allocation of funding by the research councils to universities in Wales. (321809)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a number of discussions about how best to strengthen Wales’s research capacity. We also have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government about the issue, because we recognise that it is vitally important.

I thank the Minister for meeting me earlier this week to discuss Aberystwyth university. Will he also note that, according to the most recent report by the Welsh Affairs Committee,

“the proposal to concentrate research funds appears likely further to limit the opportunities”

for Welsh universities

“to maintain and develop their research capabilities”?

That view will resonate strongly with my constituents in Aberystwyth, where 70 people face the prospect of job losses. Yes, money should follow excellence, but it should also follow the excellence of the future.

The hon. Gentleman and I had a very useful discussion on Monday, in which we addressed the situation in Aberystwyth, in particular with regard to IBERS—the institute of biological, environmental and rural sciences. We fully recognise the excellent work that is done there; I have visited it myself and have seen at first hand the exemplary research that is conducted. Any restructuring is, however, a matter for Aberystwyth university; any restructuring that has been taking place is not a result of any reduction in research council funding, and that support will continue.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the creation of the new Trinity St. David university, based in my constituency, which will act as a strategic hub in the regional framework, linking with Swansea Metropolitan university, Coleg Sir Gâr and Pembrokeshire college, and thereby creating a dynamic learning and skills powerhouse for post-16 education in south-west Wales? Also, is this not one of the key developments that could be put at risk by—

The answer to that last question is, of course, yes. It is vitally important that we continue to invest strategically to make sure that we develop the capacity of our people to the full. As we come out of the current recession and look to the future, it is essential that we invest in higher education and research and development, and that is happening through partnership between this Government and the Welsh Assembly.

It seems that the Minister is content with a situation whereby Welsh universities—Bangor, Aberystwyth and the rest—are short-changed by £41 million in research money per year, as identified in the Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border public services. Is this not yet another case of throwing millions of pounds at people who already have, and ça ne fait rien for the rest?

Well, let us be clear that investment in higher and further education—and education generally—in Wales is gathering momentum and continuing apace. It is extremely important that that happens, because we recognise that investment in skills, education and research and development is the bedrock on which our recovery must be based. That is why public expenditure is so important. That is what we believe in; sadly, Conservative Members do not.

St. Athan Defence Training College

5. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on preparations for the construction of the defence training college at St. Athan. (321810)

May I begin by paying tribute to the excellent work that my right hon. Friend has done over a number of years and wish him well in his retirement?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has discussed with the First Minister the significant economic benefits that the defence training college will bring as the single largest defence investment in Wales.

As we celebrate St. Patrick’s day, we should all remember, of course, that St. Patrick was a Welshman born in the county of Gwent.

The defence training college will greatly increase the defence footprint in Wales, and will lead to the creation of large numbers of highly paid and highly skilled jobs, but will my hon. Friend confirm whether it is still the Government’s policy to allow private companies to buy training packages from what will be a world-class facility?

I confirm that the Labour Government’s policy remains unchanged: bona fide defence organisations will, of course, have the opportunity to use this excellent £12 billion facility. May I also emphasise that this is the single largest defence investment Wales will have ever seen? Labour Members are fully committed to it, and I only wish that Opposition Members were equally committed.

If the Government press ahead with the construction of this defence training college, how will Ministers address the fact that a recent survey by the Public and Commercial Services Union suggested that 74 per cent. of civilian instructors will be either unwilling or unable to relocate from Shropshire to Wales because of the difference in house prices?

The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing and consistent opponent of this exemplary defence establishment, which is most unfortunate. [Interruption.] Labour Members are full-square behind it. We recognise that this will be a huge investment for south Wales. [Interruption.] It will be a massive boost for the Welsh economy, providing thousands of jobs and, most importantly, first-class training for our armed forces.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place on both sides of the Chamber. It is very unfair to the Member asking the question and to the Minister answering it.

Devolution Settlement

6. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the question of the devolution settlement under the Government of Wales Act 2006; and if he will make a statement. (321812)

We regularly discuss how the Government of Wales Act 2006 is delivering powers for the Assembly—so far, in 58 different areas over the past two years.

Are there discussions on taxation powers for the Welsh Assembly? What we have learned in Scotland is that although we may already have them, they are never used by any party and are actually a waste of time.

There has been no pressure—certainly from the Government side—to introduce tax-varying powers for the Welsh Assembly Government. As my hon. Friend has said, they have not been used in Scotland to date.

Why is it right for an English Minister to sit as judge and jury on the question of bilingual juries? Should this not be a decision made in Wales for Wales by a Welsh Government elected by the Welsh people?

I understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman asks the question. The issue that Ministers have had to grapple with is balancing the right and desire of Welsh speakers to have bilingual juries with ensuring at the same time that random selection is maintained. This is part of a continuing dialogue as we move into the future.

On his own website, the Secretary of State says that it is “clear” to him

“that a referendum held before or in 2011 would be lost”,

and that further powers should not be granted

“today…tomorrow, nor even next year or the year after that”.

Given these comments, will he be accepting the referendum request currently sitting on his desk, or, like so many of his colleagues, will he be waiting for any decisions to be taken by an incoming Conservative Government?

As the hon. Lady very well knows, Labour is the party of devolution. We are the only party that has delivered any extra powers for Wales, and I, as Secretary of State, am proud that I legislated in the 2006 Act for the option of a referendum to deliver full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly Government, and in time I am sure that that will come about. Specifically, as she has asked, work is continuing among my officials in response to the First Minister’s request under the 2006 Act to take this process forward, so that a referendum can be called as and when it is required.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has completed all its pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislative competence orders that have come before it. [Interruption.] Can he give an assurance to the House that he will make every effort to ensure that these orders complete all their remaining stages before the Dissolution of Parliament? [Interruption.]

Order. The House really must come to order. The Chair of the Select Committee has just asked a question and it really is the height of discourtesy for him not to be heard.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee in taking forward record levels of scrutiny and speeding this process through. It is our Government’s determination that all the legislative competence orders that have been effectively scrutinised by his Committee will get Royal Assent. There is a Statutory Instrument Committee next week, and I hope that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will co-operate in speeding those through. Yes, in the wash-up negotiations, I hope that the Opposition will back the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy and the LCO to deliver policies to tackle lack of housing and homelessness in Wales, which they are threatening to block.

Before the House rises for the election, will the Secretary of State be willing to share a date for a referendum on further devolution of powers?

This is a matter for consideration after the general election. All the parties agree with that, and that is the position made clear by the First Minister only yesterday.

Economic Activity

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Wales. (321816)

The latest labour market statistics show the economic inactivity level in Wales falling by 9,000 in the last quarter. This is the largest fall in the United Kingdom.

When one analyses the unemployment figures, one finds that 100 people a day were made unemployed in Wales in the three months to January of this year. Is the Minister not ashamed of that and of the lack of drive on fixing the Welsh economy?

Employment figures in Wales are higher than they have been for a long time and compare very favourably with the situation in Wales under the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about economic inactivity, which has fallen by 0.5 per cent. in Wales. That is enormously significant. I remember what happened to economic inactivity when the Conservatives were last in power: all the pits were closed, and a generation of the work force was thrown on to the dole and forgotten about. That will never happen again, under us.

Despite the worst global recession for more than half a century, the level of unemployment in my constituency is 57 per cent. lower than it was in 1992. Does the Minister agree that investment, such as the £635 million at RAF Valley, will provide apprenticeships and new quality jobs in the future, and that that would be under threat if the Conservatives ever came to office?

My hon. Friend is right to cite what is happening at RAF Valley and the defence investment that is taking place there. Such investment is not only happening with the defence training college at St. Athan; it is happening in many other parts of Wales, including the RAF Valley establishment in north Wales. That reinforces the fact that the level of employment in Wales is 100,000 higher than it was under the Conservatives, and we will continue to ensure that creating jobs is our priority.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the three members of our armed forces from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment attached to the Household Cavalry Regiment Battle Group who have lost their lives in Afghanistan this week. Their bravery and the sacrifice they have made for the future of Afghanistan and for the security of the British people will not be forgotten. Our thoughts today are with their families and loved ones as they receive this very sad news.

I am sure that the House will also want us to pay respects to Dr. Ashok Kumar, who sadly died this week. He was a tenacious campaigner and a passionate advocate for the people of Teesside, and his expertise and wise counsel will be sorely missed at all times in this House.

I am sure the whole House would wish to support the Prime Minister in his condolences for the tragic loss of the lives of British servicemen, who died doing their duty, and in his comments about the death of Ashok Kumar, who was a genuinely decent colleague.

The Prime Minister told the Chilcot inquiry and the House that defence expenditure rose in real terms every year. The House of Commons Library has now produced figures that clearly show that that assertion is simply incorrect. This is the first opportunity the Prime Minister has had in the House to set the record straight. Will he now do so? Will he also write to Chilcot to ensure that the inquiry’s record is also corrected?

Yes, and I am already writing to Sir John Chilcot about this issue. Defence spending rose from £21 billion in 1997 to about £40 billion this year; it rose every year in cash terms. For a number of operational and other reasons, the real-terms rise in the defence budget was 12 per cent. over the past 13 years. Because of our expenditure on Afghanistan and on Iraq we have spent £17 billion more than the defence budget, but because of operational fluctuations in the way the money is spent expenditure has risen in cash terms every year, in real terms it is 12 per cent. higher, but I do accept that in one or two years defence expenditure did not rise in real terms.

Q14. The nine Sure Start children’s centres in my constituency are doing an exceptional job. One head teacher, whose school has a centre attached to it, has told me that it would be a massive backward step to restrict access to that centre in any way, so can my right hon. Friend assure him and me that we will not do that? (322431)

We have opened 3,500 Sure Start centres in this country; that is a children’s centre open in almost every community of the country, available to all families and to all children. That is a major transformation of children’s services since 1997, and it would be a very sad day if an all-party consensus could not be reached on the fact that what we do for our under-fives is an essential element of early learning and an essential element of the development of their potential. The Conservative policy to cut back on Sure Start children’s centres—[Interruption.] I think they protest too much, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the Opposition said that Sure Start centres would be better targeted at the deprived communities of this country and not the 100 per cent. who need them.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment who died at Selly Oak on Monday after serving his country in Afghanistan and to the two other soldiers from the same regiment who were killed yesterday? Anyone who has been to Selly Oak knows the brilliant work that the staff do there and everyone should pay tribute to them. The sacrifice of these soldiers should never be forgotten.

May I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Ashok Kumar, who died at a young age? He was respected on both sides of the House for his hard work representing a constituency that he loved and campaigning for the causes in which he believed. The House has lost a great representative and our thoughts should be with his friends and family at this time.

Before I go on to my other questions, may I thank the Prime Minister for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)? In three years of asking the Prime Minister questions, I do not think that I have ever heard him make a correction or a retraction. The fact is that if one looks at defence spending figures or defence budget figures, there have been years when there have been real-terms cuts, and at last the Prime Minister has admitted it. On a day when he has had to admit that he cannot get his own figures right, perhaps we should not have to listen to him talking about Conservative policy.

Let me turn to the strike that threatens to disrupt travel for thousands of people this weekend. Lord Adonis says that it will

“threaten the very existence of British Airways.”

When the Prime Minister was asked about it, he said, “It’s the wrong time.” Will he tell us when is the right time for a strike that threatens the future of one of Britain’s biggest employers and best companies?

I would have thought that every person in this House would want to see a resolution to the dispute as quickly as possible. My thoughts are with the customers of British Airways and with those who depend for their jobs on the success of British Airways and our other airlines. That is exactly why, at this point in time, I want the sides to get together and to discuss these issues—[Interruption.] The Conservative party and others may wish to laugh about this issue, but I think the important thing is the advice that I gave to the management of British Airways and to the unions, which was to take a deep breath, keep calm and keep talking about the issue. I do not think that an industrial relations dispute should be brought into the House of Commons in this way. It is our—[Interruption.]

Order. We are at a very early stage and Members must not get overexcited. They should try to keep cool and keep the noise down.

It is our desire to work, we hope, with the Conservative party and other parties so that we can reach a resolution on the issue.

One word can sum up that answer: weak. It is not advice that is required, but some leadership. Let me ask the Prime Minister this: this weekend, management and non-unionised workers will be doing everything they can to keep British airways going, so will he join me in urging Unite members to join them by crossing the picket line, going to work and getting this business moving?

This is exactly what I mean about trying to make an industrial relations issue a partisan issue in politics. What we need to do is to get the unions and the management to talk to each other. Perhaps I should report to the House that I have talked to both sides and I believe that the agreement that was near to being reached last Thursday is one that they can build on for an agreement this week. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition, instead of calling for action that would happen after a strike took place, would help us by trying to call for a resolution of the strike in the first place.

It is back to the 1970s. We have hand-wringing from a weak Prime Minister while companies go down. Let me ask him the question again. This weekend, will he join me in urging unionised workers to cross that picket line and help get this business going?

The right hon. Gentleman has come a long way from a few months ago, when The Daily Telegraph reported:

“David Cameron has launched a secret mission to win over Britain’s trade unions…The trade unions have also been asked to help draw up opposition policy, the Daily Telegraph can disclose”.

It also stated that

“party officials have met with the unions more than sixty times since the spring.”

One day they are for the unions; the next day they are against the unions. The only consistency is in their total opportunism.

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but Government Back Benchers are simmering over. They need to calm down and keep cool heads.

Most of them are paid to shout, Mr. Speaker; that is the point.

In three years of asking the Prime Minister questions, that has got to be one of the most pathetic answers I have ever had. It is one thing to talk to the unions, but it is another to give in to them like he does. Let me ask him the question again. Does he back brave workers who want to cross a picket line and keep a business going? Does he?

I back a resolution of this dispute. The chairman of the Conservative party met the trade unions and said:

“we have been having lots of meetings with top trade union officials over the last few months…I think the old antagonisms have long gone.”

On the one hand, the Conservative party wants to attack the unions and does not want a resolution of this dispute, but on the other it wants to talk to the unions. That is complete opportunism. It should be trying to find a resolution to this dispute and should be calling on us to work with the unions and the management to do so. Anything else is likely to inflame the situation, and I hope that instead of becoming a partisan politician in this, the Leader of the Opposition, who is showing his opportunism at every moment, will start to become a statesman.

Wriggle, wriggle, wriggle. It is a simple question. It is a question of backbone, it is a question of judgment and it is a question of character. Do you back people who want to go to work—yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman has never once said that he backs a resolution to this dispute. He has never called for management and unions to get together to resolve the dispute. I have already made my views clear about this issue, but I know that what passengers want to know and what the country wants to know is whether we can resolve this dispute. He has said nothing positive about resolving this dispute. It is the same old Tories.

This is why the right hon. Gentleman cannot lead this country—absolutely no backbone when the big tests come. He has failed the big test and we know why: because his party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Unite union. It picks the candidates, it chooses the policies, it elects the leader and it has special access to Downing street. That is why his response is so feeble. Is it not true that when the crunch comes, he can act only in the union interest, not the national interest?

Order. Members have made their views clear. Let us have a bit of quiet and hear the response from the Prime Minister.

Not once has the right hon. Gentleman asked for a resolution of this dispute. Any previous Tory Administration would be trying to resolve the dispute rather than provoke the dispute. I ask him to think again about the words that he has used. They are not calculated to end the dispute; they are calculated to provoke the dispute. I have to say to him also that on the day we are publishing unemployment figures that are coming down, showing that we have a flexible labour market in the United Kingdom, showing that we have taken the action that is necessary to get people back into work, what he has shown once again is that he has no positive policy, no substance and no programme—no wonder he talks without notes: he has nothing to say.

In the light of mother’s day 2010, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to give women in the developing world a real present this year by further investing in maternal and reproductive health at the millennium development goal summit in September? After he is re-elected, will he use his considerable acumen to encourage colleagues in the G8 to recognise the financial value of investing in women’s health and lives?

Five hundred thousands mothers die avoidable deaths each year, but there are things that we can do—[Interruption.] I hope that the Conservatives will be prepared to listen to a concern that is expressed across the world about the levels of maternal mortality. Five hundred thousand mothers die each year. These are avoidable deaths, and this is one of the policy themes of the G8 summit. It is important that we support whatever action can be taken. We as a Government are doing more than most to try to reduce this appalling level of suffering, which can be avoided.

I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the soldier from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, who died at Selly Oak hospital on Monday after sustaining terrible injuries in Afghanistan, and to those of the two soldiers from the same regiment who were killed just yesterday in Afghanistan, having served so bravely there.

In addition, I of course wish to add my own tribute to Dr. Ashok Kumar. He had a reputation as an absolutely first-class local MP. He was a defender of the steel industry, and spoke out on the environment before it was fashionable to do so. He always spoke out for fairness.

Charlie Whelan and Lord Ashcroft are exactly the same. One is the baron of the trade unions, and the other is the baron of Belize. Both are bankrolling political parties, and both are trying to buy—[Interruption.]

The Tories are shouting about something that happened five years ago, but I am talking about cleaning up politics right now. We need a deal on party funding, but both of the other party leaders blocked the Hayden Phillips agreement on that, so why should anyone believe a word that they have to say about party funding now?

We and the Liberal party agreed changes in political party funding in the summer, more than a year ago. It was the Conservative party that rejected the deal.

That is rewriting history. They both blocked the Hayden Phillips agreement—[Interruption.] Maybe the Prime Minister could listen to this; he might learn something. Both other party leaders blocked amendments to cap donations that we tabled to the Political Parties and Elections Bill just last year. It is just like the expenses scandals: lots of talk, and yet both of them have no desire to change anything at all.

As a result of the legislation that we have agreed on, we have made political party funding far more transparent and the conduct of elections far fairer. We have also made it a requirement that people declare in the House of Commons register of interests things that were never registered before. I cannot accept the comparison that the right hon. Gentleman makes. Lord Ashcroft lives offshore, and he is funding the Tory party without paying taxes in Britain.

Is the Prime Minister listening to the growing number of voices calling for investment, not cuts, in next week’s Budget? Does he agree that the Budget should serve not the interests of the speculators in the City of London, but those of the British people as a whole?

The Budget will be about building a stronger economy and taking forward the decisions that have taken us through the recession. In every case—on employment, mortgages and small businesses—those decisions were rejected by the Conservative party.

Q2. RBS, which is taxpayer-owned, has £700 billion less today in loans and other assets than a year ago. Where has that £700 billion gone? (322419)

I do not know all the customers of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

We have been trying to increase lending in the economy by having a range of lenders and not just one bank. We have been trying to get other banks into the business of lending. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that 300,000 small businesses have been given direct, cash flow help by the Government amounting to £5 billion over recent years. The Conservative party opposed that, but we made it possible. As a result, there are more small businesses in this country now than there were a year ago.

Q3. Norfolkline, SeaFrance and P&O Ferries have all attacked Dover Harbour Board’s proposals to sell off the port of Dover, accusing it of abuse of power and threatening legal action through the courts. The people of Dover, the seafarers and the port workers all oppose privatisation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to sell the port of Dover would be the wrong thing? I do not expect that he will say yes to that, but does he agree that no Government would allow the sale of a port without the trust and support of the main stakeholders? (322420)

I have always seen my hon. Friend as the most effective campaigner on behalf of the people of Dover. I repeat today what I said recently: there will be no forced privatisation under Labour. We are not pressurising the port to privatise, but we must look for new options in the investment necessary for port expansion and Dover’s regeneration. Any proposals, however, would need to take account of the views of the local community and the stakeholders.

Macclesfield’s economic success has historically been based on manufacturing industry—textiles, pharmaceuticals and aerospace. Does the Prime Minister agree that manufacturing industry is one of the only sources of non-inflationary sustainable economic growth, and that if it is to be competitive and succeed in the future, it needs more regulation, particularly from Europe, and more taxation like it needs a hole in the head?

We are the sixth biggest manufacturing power in the world. We are expanding in advanced manufacturing, digitalisation and a range of new industries, including aerospace, where we are doing extremely well. It is a vital part of the hon. Gentleman’s region. Our capital allowances programme does more for manufacturing than any corporate tax cut proposed by the Conservative party, which would remove funds from manufacturing. Also, the regional development agencies and their commitment to manufacturing are vital to the future of this country, and they should not be abolished.

Q4. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that public sector investment continues in constituencies like mine, to help to bring in private sector investment and build on the 800 jobs being created by Stobart and Tesco, helped by the Northwest Regional Development Agency grant of £4 million and with the help of Halton borough council? (322421)

The growth of jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the announcements that have been made are very important to the recovery of the British economy. Three hundred thousand people are leaving the unemployment register every month, and we are seeing numbers of unemployed and numbers of youth unemployed falling as a result of the action that we have taken. Those new investments by Stobart and Tesco are crucial, and we also need the regional development agency working with businesses in his region to ensure that the economic growth that the region deserves comes about.

Given that the Prime Minister will have looked closely at the tragic case, will he say whether a Downing street staffer took part in a conference call in July 2008 to discuss the suitability of Steven Purcell?

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that marine renewables have a big part to play in meeting our energy needs, reducing our carbon footprint and generating the jobs of the future? Will he continue to invest in that important sector? (322422)

We are talking about low-carbon jobs for the future. Marine renewables are at the centre of that, and my hon. Friend’s constituency is crucial. Once again, we are investing in the jobs of the future. We are investing in an industry policy that will create the jobs of the future. Under the Conservatives, unemployment would rise.

Q6. May I first thank you personally, Mr. Speaker, for the support that you have given me in my campaign against human trafficking? May I also thank Ministers for their backing, and the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), for his continuing support for and interest in the subject? Now for the Prime Minister. Does he realise that modern-day slavery is here in London, with some overseas diplomats exploiting and abusing modern young people, domestics principally, who have restricted work permits, which prevent them from seeking other employment? They are then forced to leave this country and are deported back to the country they started from because they cannot go to other employment. This is a tragedy both for the families and for the embassy. Will he please see that something is done, because these people are crying out for the Government to take action against modern-day slavery? (322423)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his chairmanship of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children. I welcome his proposal to set up a human trafficking foundation when he stands down from Parliament, and we thank him for the work that he has done while he has been a Member. I know that on this very tragic and very difficult issue he had a meeting with the Borders and Immigration Minister just before Christmas, and I know there is a belief that we could actually make some progress on the very issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The Borders and Immigration Minister is considering his decision in the light of the advice he has received, and he will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman about that. I hope that we can bring a resolution to at least some of these tragic issues of human trafficking.

Q7. I lost a great friend in Dr. Ashok Kumar. He was a gentle man, a true politician and a scientist who must never be forgotten. He was a great friend of this House, and all our thoughts are with his family and his constituents.

There is a campaign called Think Jessica to develop the awareness of vulnerable people, including pensioners, who are preyed upon by scam mail. Those people are losing their life savings to scam mail, and I challenge the Prime Minister to take up the case of Think Jessica and ensure that we outlaw scam mail using American ideas. (322424)

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said about Dr. Ashok Kumar, and my sympathies also go to his family, friends and constituents.

My hon. Friend has identified a very bad practice that preys on large numbers of people in this country. These are the worst rogue trading practices and scams, and as a result of action that we have taken we have uncovered an estimated £4 billion of fraud and saved an estimated £5 million for consumers. Recently, 39 organisations or people have been successfully prosecuted. The Office of Fair Trading is running an awareness campaign to alert the public to these scams, and I urge people to visit the Consumer Direct website, where there are a number of interactive online guides to dealing with those problems. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must empower consumers to recognise and avoid these scams, and we must back this up with the strongest punishment.

Q8. Why should every pensioner in Britain not feel as betrayed by Labour, which has never restored the link between state pensions and earnings, as by the Tories, who abolished the link in the first place? (322425)

Because we came into office and recognised that the first problem in our country was pensioner poverty. That is why we brought in the pension credit; that is why 1 million pensioners have been taken out of poverty; and that is why women who had no industrial pensions of their own and sometimes not even a full pension themselves benefited in a way that has taken them out of poverty. They were mainly widows, mainly in their 80s. But for every pensioner we also created—on top of the pension and the other measures that we have taken—the winter fuel allowance, which goes to every pensioner family over 60 and has given additional help to pensioners over these times. I should also mention that the biggest users of the national health service are elderly people, and we have doubled the budget of the health service.

Q15. Under Labour, interest rates over the past year have been just 0.5 per cent. In the previous, Tory recession, they were 15 per cent. What impact would a thirtyfold increase in interest rates have on hard-working families paying mortgages, and on defence companies, such as Kent Periscopes in my constituency, which are looking to grow? (322432)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unemployment is half what it was in the 1990s, when interest rates meant that mortgage repossessions were about three times what they are now; and there are more small businesses now than there were a year ago, whereas in the 1990s small businesses faced 15 per cent. interest rates and went under. The Conservatives say they are the party of change, but the only economic policy that they have is to go back to the 1980s.

Q9. When the Prime Minister last visited East Dunbartonshire, he was campaigning for my Labour predecessor at Tesco in Milngavie. Tesco now proposes a giant store in the midst of the town’s conservation area, riding roughshod over local opinion. Five years on, does the Prime Minister agree that large supermarkets such as Tesco wield too much power over our communities? (322426)

We have tried to put in money and help to renovate local shopping centres in the centres of towns, including the centres of smaller towns, but I have to say that a planning decision is not a matter for this House but one for the planning authorities.

Q10. May I take this opportunity to thank the Government for their recent series of changes to the way in which we will be dealing with asbestos-related diseases? Many of the victims will be grateful for the action that the Government have taken. Will the Prime Minister overturn the Law Lords’ decision on pleural plaques when new medical evidence becomes available to him as Prime Minister after the next election? (322427)

If medical evidence were to become available, we would obviously reassess the situation; I give my hon. Friend that assurance. At the same time, he should know that the Justice Secretary announced a range of measures which provide real benefits for people with asbestos-related disease. These include a system of fixed payments for individuals and the creation of an employers’ liability tracing office. In addition, the Government have confirmed their commitment to expand medical research in one of the most difficult areas, where lives are so often, sadly, lost. I assure my hon. Friend that if new evidence becomes available we will re-examine the situation.

Q11. Charlie Whelan was copied into all the Smeargate e-mails and was apparently part of the “forces of hell” of which the Chancellor spoke. Can the Prime Minister explain why he is now back in No. 10 advising the Prime Minister, or has the Prime Minister’s moral compass suffered the same fate as the telephone and other items beaten up in the bunker? (322428)

The hon. Gentleman had a chance to ask a question about his constituency, and to speak up for the people of Britain. Once again, the Conservatives are trying to turn an industrial relations dispute into a political football; they should be ashamed of themselves.