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Prime Minister

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will join me in remembering the life and achievements of Serjeant Steven Campbell from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, who died in Afghanistan earlier this week. We pay tribute to his energetic, brave and dedicated service. His infectious enthusiasm and his sincere patriotism will be sorely missed. The thoughts of everybody in this House, I know, are with his family, friends and colleagues.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed forces, especially those who have lost their lives this week. Our thoughts and prayers are not only with those who have lost their lives, and their families and loved ones, but those who have been injured.

Last week the Prime Minister admitted that he had misled the Chilcot inquiry about the funding for the armed forces. When did he realise that he had misled—before or after he gave evidence?

As I said last week, when I was preparing for last week’s Question Time I was shown the transcript of what I had said in the Chilcot inquiry, and I decided to make it absolutely clear, on the first occasion, to the House and then write to Sir John Chilcot. But I repeat: defence spending has risen by 12 per cent. in real terms. Every request for funding by the Ministry of Defence and the commanders has been met by the Treasury for the operations that have been conducted. I have to say that there was a 30 per cent. real-terms cut in defence expenditure under the last years of the Tories.

May I pay my own personal tribute to all the officers we have lost and give my condolences to their families? I am sure we miss them all.

May I ask the Prime Minister why, in his view, fairness should be the hallmark of a good Government?

I appreciate the importance that my hon. Friend and her constituents attach to the fairness measures that we have introduced: the child tax credit, which has helped 6 million families in this country; the pension credit, which is helping 2 million pensioners to escape poverty in this country; educational maintenance allowances, which are helping half a million children to go to school; and a guarantee that young people under 24 will receive help and will not be unemployed but will have training and work. These are the measures that have been put forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor; they could never have been put forward by the shadow Chancellor.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Serjeant Steven Campbell, who died in Helmand on Monday. We are paying a high price in Afghanistan, and our troops and their families need to know that they have all our support. Our prayers and thoughts are with those who will not come home.

This is likely to be the second last Prime Minister’s questions before the general election, and clearly the Chancellor’s statement is the main event of the day, so this provides an opportunity to clear up a number of different issues. May I start with a simple one? It is Budget day, and there is a picket line outside the Treasury, so will the Prime Minister confirm that on this occasion he would like people to cross it and go to work?

Let me first congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his wife on the good news about their baby. Secondly, I thank him for getting near again to asking a question about the economy. Of course everybody is going to work here, and we will continue to work for a Labour Government and for jobs.

I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his congratulations. I have had a lot of texts and messages from many hon. Members, most of them focusing on how to find the time for these things, but I am very grateful none the less.

It was a very interesting answer from the Prime Minister. Last week he would not give any support to British Airways workers, but apparently the First Lord of the Treasury is content for his own work force to go to work.

In this spirit of clearing up a few issues, one of the things the Treasury is working on concerns the Prime Minister’s disastrous decision to sell gold at rock-bottom prices, losing—[Interruption.] It lost the country £6 billion. The Treasury has now lost its four-year battle against the Information Commissioner to keep the information about that decision secret, so will the Prime Minister now confirm that those documents will be published in full, with no redactions, before the general election?

I am very happy for any document to be published on that matter, but the right hon. Gentleman must do a bit better than that if he is talking about the future. We are lapsing into these issues, so let me just remind him that we have taken people out of unemployment and into work, that we have helped thousands of small businesses and that we have been helping people avoid the loss of their homes. The Conservatives have nothing to say about the present and the future. It is about time he started to think about the policies that work for the future.

If the Prime Minister is so relaxed about this information being published, can he tell us why he spent four years fighting it?

It is a matter for the Information Commissioner and the Treasury. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am happy if the Information Commissioner wishes to publish documents, but is the right hon. Gentleman going to come forward with any serious policy about the future of this country? Has he got anything serious to offer this country for the future? Has he got anything to say to the unemployed of this country, or to mortgage holders or businesses? The person who will be talking about the future is the Chancellor. The shadow Chancellor has nothing to offer.

So really that is it—the Treasury always wanted this information published, and it was only the Information Commissioner stopping it. Once again, this Prime Minister takes the whole country for fools.

Let us try another one. The Information Commissioner has also ordered the Department for Work and Pensions to release information on the Prime Minister’s disastrous raid on every pension fund in the country. The Information Commissioner ruled in November that that should be published and the Department has appealed against it. Now that we hear the Government are not interested in these appeals, will the Prime Minister withdraw that appeal and make sure the information is published?

We had a debate—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor may laugh, but he was the subject of the debate in this House on these very issues and he could not sustain his case about the dividend tax credit. We made the right decision for British industry and the right decision to protect British pensioners. It is the Conservative party that has let pensioners down and would do so in future by opposing many of the measures that we have taken. I am happy for everything in my record to be judged. Now let us start with the Leader of the Opposition—will he tell us what happened over Lord Ashcroft?

It is a simple question. If the Prime Minister is happy for this information to be published, will he withdraw the appeal and have it published—yes or no?

We had this debate on pensions. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] Yes, we had this debate on pensions in this House of Commons. The shadow Chancellor tried to pursue the case against our policy to withdraw dividend tax credits. He could not even make a sensible argument about that at the time. We won this debate on dividend tax credits because our policy was the right policy, and it continues to be so.

On this, the second last Prime Minister’s questions, we have just had what we have had all along from this Prime Minister: no answers, endless cover-ups, not giving the information, not answering the question and dithering on all the important decisions. How much longer are we going to have to wait until we get rid of this useless bunch of Ministers? The cab meter’s ticking. Come on, tell us when the election is, then.

The right hon. Gentleman has been wrong on every single issue about the economy. When the people look at what the Conservative party proposed, they will see that it was wrong on Northern Rock, wrong on the restructuring of the banks, wrong on help for the unemployed, wrong on help for mortgage holders, wrong on help for small businesses and that, when it comes to right or wrong, it was wrong on Lord Ashcroft. Wrong, wrong, wrong—that is the Conservative party. [Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers in particular must calm down. I am sure that they want to hear Fraser Kemp.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Six days ago it was announced that the world’s first mass-produced, affordable zero-emission car would be made in Wearside by Nissan, securing and creating thousands of highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the investment that has been committed to provide the infrastructure for charging points and to support the British motorist who wants to switch to zero-emission cars will be maintained and improved in the coming years, so that the UK can take its rightful place as the world leader in zero carbon emissions?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has done and what Nissan has done to create in the United Kingdom the first mass-marketed electric car. That will mean not only safeguarding and creating jobs, but 50,000 vehicles a year being produced in the United Kingdom.

The one reason why it was possible for Nissan to make that investment was that Government support was available for the development of the new technologies that it is making. Unfortunately, the Conservatives’ industry policy would withdraw support from low-carbon areas. We are the party of jobs and building industry for the future; they are the party of unemployment.

I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Serjeant Steven Campbell from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, who tragically died this week after serving so selflessly and professionally in Afghanistan.

Despite all the news about lobbying in Parliament, the issue has not yet been raised today. That might be because when we put forward proposals to restrict lobbying in Parliament, Labour and the Conservatives both blocked us; when we tried to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs, they both blocked us; and when we wanted to clean up party funding, they both blocked us. Is not the truth that this Parliament will go down as the most corrupt in living memory because they both blocked reform?

We have proposed and will implement a compulsory register of lobbyists. I have also made it clear that anybody who goes before the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, as a former Minister, is compelled to take the advice of that committee. In future, Ministers will sign in advance a contract stating that that is exactly what they will do. We have taken action to make the system more transparent. We cannot say anything other than that the behaviour of the Members who were dealt with in that programme was unacceptable, and I believe that, because such behaviour diminishes us all, the action that we are taking is necessary for the transparency that the public want.

The Prime Minister has had 13 years to clean this up. Let us look at his record. Last summer, we put forward an amendment to introduce recall elections; Labour voted against it and the Conservatives did not turn up. Two days later, on our proposal to cap donations, they both voted against it. On our attempt in the Companies Bill to restrict lobbying, Labour voted against us and the Conservatives did not even turn up. Is this not just a grubby stitch-up between two old parties that basically want to keep things exactly the way they are?

I rather think that the right hon. Gentleman prepared his second question before he had heard the answer to the first.

Oh, he did not. I made it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that any action that is necessary to secure transparency and proper accountability will be taken. That is why there will be a compulsory register of lobbyists; that is why every action that Ministers or former Ministers take in relation to business appointments will be transparent; and, if I may say so, I think that there is a need for humility on all sides of this House.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at 8 per cent., the unemployment rate in the United Kingdom is far below the rate in the United States, of 9.7 per cent., in France, of 10.1 per cent., and in Spain, of 18.8 per cent? Will he assure the House that he will never adopt the policies of the Conservative party, which thinks that unemployment is a price worth paying?

Unemployment is never a price worth paying. I have to say to the House that the claimant count for unemployment today is half what it was in the recession of the 1990s. I should also say that unemployment kept rising for five years after the recession ended in the 1980s. Unemployment is now falling as a result of the action that we have taken, and whatever happens to employment and unemployment in the next few months, we have saved half a million jobs that would otherwise have been lost.

Q2. Given the need to restore faith in politics, could the Prime Minister assure the House that no Labour MP caught up in the lobbygate scandal will be given a peerage? (323603)

Talk about an own goal! I say to the Conservatives that the standards that will be applied to future membership of the House of Lords will be a lot higher than those applied to Lord Ashcroft.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The taskforce on missing people has presented its recommendations. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ensure that they are acted on to protect children at risk?

No one has done more to stand up for the needs and requirements of missing children than my hon. Friend. She deserves the gratitude of the whole House for everything that she has done. I received, this week, the report of the taskforce on missing people. The Government fully accept all the report’s recommendations, which set out a plan of action to improve how agencies will respond when young people go missing and provide the support that should be available to families. We are committed, and I thank her for how she has prosecuted this issue while she has been in the House. We are committed to taking the recommendations forward.

Q3. Which would the Prime Minister rather be remembered for—doubling council tax or destroying people’s pensions? (323604)

I would like to inform the Prime Minister that there are now nine Sure Start children’s centres in Bedford and Kempston, delivering high-quality, much respected and popular support to a wide range of families. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to cut back on the universal service so carefully built up over the past decade would be a tragic betrayal of future generations?

We have achieved our target of 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres, which are now reaching 2.7 million children under five and their families. I understand that the view of the Conservative party is that the Sure Start centres should be restored to their original purpose, which only covered a minority of children. The Sure Start children’s centres are now vital parts of every single community, and nobody should tamper with the advances made in helping children under five.

Q4. The Prime Minister has now had a week to think about it: will he now urge all British Airways staff to go back to work this weekend? (323605)

Yes, and I have done so, and I have done so consistently. The hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] If the Conservatives want to turn an industrial dispute into a political provocation, they are going the right way about it. Any party that wishes to hold government in this country should want to see an industrial relations dispute stopped and arbitration and negotiations take place—it should want to bring this to a conclusion. After all, that is the view of its trade union envoy, who said that it was the business of the Conservatives to help people get back into work.

A ban on mephedrone will come too late for my constituent, Jordan Kiltie, who died last week at the age of 19, but will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that, when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reports on 29 March, he will act immediately to ban such legal highs?

I am very concerned about what my hon. Friend has told me, and I send my sincere condolences to Jordan’s family and to their friends. We are committed to preventing young people from starting to take drugs. The advice is clear that, just because a substance is legal, that does not make it safe. We are concerned specifically about the harms of mephedrone, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is considering that and similar compounds as an absolute priority. We will receive its advice on 29 March, and subject to that advice we will take immediate action. We are determined to act to prevent this evil from hurting the young people of our country.

Q5. Can the Prime Minister tell us when the more than 40,000 policyholders in Equitable Life—including many in Northern Ireland—who have waited many years for a satisfactory outcome are likely to be informed of a positive result? Thousands of such policyholders have passed away since the company began to decline business 10 years ago. (323606)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question and the concern that his constituents and others have expressed. The Government expect Sir John Chadwick to submit his final report in May this year, and we have undertaken to provide a response within 14 days of its publication.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that, following Total SA’s announcement that it is to develop the west of Shetland gasfields of Laggan and Tormore, involving development investment of £2.5 billion, it has placed an order with Corus Tubes to manufacture the gas pipelines at Hartlepool, involving an investment of £200 million? Is that not good news for Teesside and for the country?

That is indeed good news for the country; it is worth around 2,000 jobs in the country as a whole. It is because our recent tax changes have been able to support the development of remote deep-water fields that the project announced by Total can go forward. It has a development cost of £2.5 billion, and Total has awarded a contract worth £200 million to Corus Tubes to manufacture the gas pipelines in Hartlepool. That means jobs in Hartlepool, jobs in the north-east and jobs in Scotland. It means 2,000 jobs in the UK as a whole, and that is because a Government have been prepared to support with tax reliefs the development of North sea oil and gas.

Q6. If the Prime Minister finds himself in Essex during April, as I suspect he might, will he kindly drop in on Castle Point to meet the wonderful people at Age Concern? They will thank him for deciding to re-index the basic state pension to earnings, but will he get on and do that quickly? (323607)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to visit him and to visit Essex. I am aware that he is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and I pay tribute to the work that has been carried out by Age Concern. It is right that, after the Turner report, we made recommendations about linking pensions to earnings. The hon. Gentleman will also recognise, however, that a lot of the work that helps pensioners is done by local councils, and I am afraid that some Conservative councils are letting down the elderly.

The eminent economist Professor David Blanchflower has predicted that if the various measures that are now in place to support people in jobs were to be withdrawn, unemployment could rise towards 5 million. What does my right hon. Friend think the effect would be if a policy of cuts were to be adopted as a matter of principle? How would that affect the recovery in our economy?

Every major country has made a choice about whether to continue the support for the economy that is necessary to ensure a recovery. Every major country in Europe, as well as America and all the major countries in Asia, has made the choice to support the economy so that we can avoid unemployment rising to the levels of the 1980s and 1990s recessions. Only one party seems to stand out against that by wanting to cut now, perhaps at the expense of causing a double-dip recession, and that is the Conservative party.

Mental Health Units

High-quality in-patient care is one component of acute mental health services, supported by appropriate alternatives to admission. The Government paper “New Horizons”, which the hon. Gentleman will know of, published in December 2009, set out a cross-Government programme of action to improve the mental well-being of people in England and to drive up the quality of mental health care.

Praise where it is due; under Blair’s Britain, several first-class state-of-the-art mental health in-patient units were opened in or near my constituency. Under Brown’s Britain, one of them has just closed and another is under threat. Instead of in-patient facilities, we are promised

“a shared dashboard of clinical performance quality indicators”.

Is the Prime Minister happy to see front-line services replaced by management gobbledegook?

I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to be fair, and the World Health Organisation says that we are the best when it comes to the provision of mental health care. We obviously want to do better every time. Since 2001, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in real-terms investment in mental health. It is wrong to say that we are underfunding mental health. We are trying to do what we can and we will continue to do what we can. The hon. Gentleman should be fair in recognising that.

Main House in Birmingham has been providing a much valued residential therapeutic service for people with a personality disorder since being nationally commissioned more than 10 years ago. That service has just closed because when national commissioning ended, Ministers’ intentions that commissioning should be picked up regionally were not undertaken by the strategic health authority. Will the Prime Minister look into what went wrong, with a view to reopening the service as soon as possible?

I would be very happy to look into that and I will ask the relevant Minister to get in contact with my hon. Friend.


Q8. My constituent, Mrs. Ditchburn, fled from Gran Canaria to the UK with her two children because she was involved in a violent and abusive relationship. Her partner has now invoked the Hague convention and her children have been snatched back under terrible circumstances. Will the Prime Minister now take a personal interest in the case and assist Mrs. Ditchburn to get her children back? (323609)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of this question. I am sorry to hear of the difficult situation between his constituent and her husband about their children. The hon. Gentleman will know that following an application under the 1980 Hague child abduction convention on 17 March 2010, the High Court of England and Wales ordered the return of the children to their country of habitual residence. The children therefore returned to Gran Canaria on 20 March 2010. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is not for me to comment or intervene in the decisions of the court, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary to look into this matter. He will write to the hon. Gentleman soon.

Q9. The 82-year-old Mr. Harold Binney from Wombwell in my constituency is supporting my campaign to scrap the derisory 25p age addition on state pensions for the over-80s, which has remained at the same level since 1972, and to replace it with an additional £25 a year through the popular winter fuel allowance. Will the Prime Minister have a word with his very good friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to make sure that this measure is included in his forthcoming Budget? (323610)

I do not want to anticipate all the news that my hon. Friend will receive in the Budget in a few minutes’ time. We have made sure that over the last 10 years pensioner households—indeed, households over 60—have had winter fuel payments every year; they have reached a record level of payment. The Chancellor will comment on that in a few minutes’ time.

This is the last time I will bother the House and the Prime Minister with a question—I am sure he is greatly relieved about that. I would like to associate myself and my colleagues with the words of condolence spoken in the House today. This is a sad and tragic hour in our nation, and rumours of war and wars are common. There is sorrow in hearts. Of course, people bury their dead; they put up their monument, but their heart is torn. I have been in too many houses like that in the north of Ireland not to know how deep the cuts are.

In view of the situation that we have here, and its sadness and its sorrow, and the dark shadow that lies upon the whole of our world today, I ask the Prime Minister to continue to give himself, as always, to the task of deliverance and victory and peace—and may it come speedily.

I think the whole House will want to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for a long and distinguished career, not just in this House but in a number of forums. That includes his position as First Minister of Northern Ireland. I believe that the part he played in bringing the Unionist community together—indeed, bringing the whole community together in Northern Ireland—to ensure that we had devolution of power, and to ensure that the process of devolution of power was completed, will adorn the history books in many decades and centuries to come. On this day and on this occasion, I want the whole House to thank him for his service to the House and to the whole community.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no Member of this House or the other place should seek to prevent, through censorship, the BBC or the Independent newspaper from questioning the involvement of Lord Ashcroft in alleged corruption scandals in the Turks and Caicos islands? [Interruption.] (323611)

They do not like hearing the name “Lord Ashcroft”, Mr. Speaker, but he is chairman of the Conservative party. Perhaps the Conservatives’ zeal for investigations should extend to an investigation into Lord Ashcroft.