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Prime Minister

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.