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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Highlands and Islands Economy

1. What assessment he has made of the prospects for the economy of the highlands and islands in the next two years; and if he will make a statement. (325086)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

Real help provided by the UK Government since the start of the recession will ensure economic recovery is locked in and will allow the highlands and islands economy to prosper.

Would the Minister agree that it is highly ironic that at a time when the Government—with everyone’s support—are seeking through their commitment to offshore wind development, for example, to encourage major inward investment in manufacturing in the highland economy from firms such as KBR at Nigg, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ approach to small and medium-sized businesses is driving the likes of Highland Airways, Gaeltec on Skye and others to the wall with the result that the savings accruing to the public purse are more than wiped out by the additional costs of unemployment and all the other benefits that will have to be paid?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the Inland Revenue has not been helpful to Scottish businesses given that its own business payment support service has helped more than 18,000 firms in Scotland, with deferred payments of tax totalling more than £300 million. That, I think, is one of the “real help” ways in which we have assisted small businesses. The package announced in this year’s Budget will give £2.5 billion to small businesses and includes a doubling of their investment allowances. We have a good track record in helping businesses and especially in helping growth in new jobs from which the highlands and islands, in particular, will benefit.

When I was a Northern Ireland Minister, I organised an 11-city tour of the United States to try to bring jobs and inward investment to Northern Ireland. Nationalists were involved in those visits, but they did not try to sell the message of trying to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Might I suggest to my hon. Friend that she should draw that to the attention of those separatist Scottish National party Ministers from the Scottish Parliament, who are peddling separatism in the United States rather than trying to bring jobs to Scotland?

Yet again, my right hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter. Tartan week should be a showcase for increasing our exports to the USA and increasing tourism. Instead, the SNP has characterised it by its own obsession with independence and its gripes, rather than promoting Scotland.

The highlands and islands economy has indeed been damaged by Labour’s many fuel tax hikes. The increased tax on cider has been scrapped; can we have the same again for fuel in the Hebrides, please? HMRC’s actions have pushed Highland Airways to the wall. As a result, people in Lewis and Harris are now having to wait until late afternoon before they get their newspapers. What will the Labour Government do to make amends for their actions?

The hon. Gentleman should look at the facts of the case. Sadly, Highland Airways had substantial trading difficulties and many more debts beyond that owing to HMRC. Unfortunately, a takeover was not possible at the last moment and the company went into liquidation, but I understand that the services to the Western Isles are being maintained by Loganair and other services are also being taken account of. We are working hard to help the employees of Highland Airways find new work under the PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—scheme. That is the best and most practical way in which we can help companies and businesses suffering from the recession.

The Minister’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) shows just how out of touch she and her ministerial colleagues have become. In the last two years, a quarter of corporate insolvencies in Scotland have been enforced by HMRC. Literally thousands of Scots have lost their jobs because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been unable to translate his good intentions on managing HMRC into hard, effective action. Does not that embarrass the Minister even slightly?

The hon. Gentleman should remember that output in the highlands and islands has risen by 75 per cent. since the Labour Government were elected in 1997, and there are 220,000 more jobs in Scotland since we were elected in 1997. Through our real help to businesses, including the business support scheme, which I again point out has benefited more than 18,000 small businesses in Scotland, we have helped to keep people on the road and to get Scotland into recovery.

The Minister compares the number of jobs now with the number in 1997, but she seems to ignore the fact that, last year alone, 65,000 Scots lost their jobs as a result of this Government’s policies. The Government now turn around and offer us empty promises of 100,000 new jobs. They have always taken Scotland for granted; now they are just taking the mickey.

It is interesting to note that the unemployment rates in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are among the lowest in the United Kingdom. That is because of Labour policies, which are creating jobs and supporting people through the recession. The future jobs fund has benefited more than 10,500 people in Scotland by helping them and keeping them close to the job market. It is because of the UK’s policies, taking the tough decisions that the Liberal Democrats would care to ignore, that we have got through this recession much quicker than they would have.


I am most grateful for that very full reply. How does the hon. Lady envisage the situation being resolved if there is a difference in the way in which the Flood and Water Management Bill, for example, once it is adopted, is interpreted in Scotland as opposed to its interpretation in England?

The hon. Lady might be aware that there was recently a case in the Supreme Court regarding the competency of the legislation of the Scottish Parliament. I think that would provide valuable guidance. At the end of the day, when we have difficulties in terms of our relationship with the Scottish Government, we have very detailed procedures with joint ministerial committees in which we can work together to find solutions to problems rather than necessarily considering court action. The fact that the Advocate-General has not needed to take one single case to the Supreme Court since devolution is a symbol of its success.

During her discussions with the Advocate-General, will the Minister raise the devolved issue of transport? Will she also issue guidelines for visitors coming to either Edinburgh or Aberdeen to make it clear that safety is important, particularly when people are travelling in open-decked buses?

My hon. Friend might be referring to the shadow Secretary of State’s unfortunate experience yesterday when his campaign got derailed on day one by inanimate objects. However, I certainly take my hon. Friend’s points on board.

One of the Advocate-General’s roles is to ensure that the relationship between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive works within the devolution settlement. It is clear that when it came to the release of al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, both the victims and the Scottish Executive were the last to be consulted. What steps has the Minister put in place to ensure that that does not happen again? Will she take this final opportunity to condemn the early release of that bomber, who is alive and well seven months later?

The Calman commission recommended a number of ways in which we could improve intergovernmental relationships, and we are very keen to take them forward. It is regrettable that the Scottish Government have declined to accept those recommendations, which have been supported by the majority in the Scottish Parliament. I note the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, which I share, regarding the release of Mr. al-Megrahi, but at the end of the day that was a decision solely for the Scottish Government.

Disabled Children (Benefits)

3. When he last discussed with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the benefits provided for disabled children and their families in Scotland. (325088)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

The Government are totally committed to supporting disabled children and their families. I discuss these matters and welfare reform with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that one of the most shameful episodes in the history of social services in Scotland was when the Scottish Government accepted £34 million that was allocated for disabled children and their families and used it to give to local councils to keep council tax steady? Will he continue to consult with colleagues so that never again can we have such a distortion of the Barnett formula, and never again can we trust those who claim to speak for Scotland and attack the most vulnerable?

Scottish National party Members are shouting at my right hon. Friend, but over many years he has established an impeccable record among others across the House through his campaigning for families with disabled children. His criticism is therefore all the more valid. It is a matter of cross-party consensus that we should all try and do as much as we can to support families with disabled children. It is pretty shameful that the £34 million that was meant to go towards supporting the NHS in helping disabled children in Scotland went into a big black hole created by the SNP.

The Secretary of State will realise that this has been an excessively cold winter in Scotland, and that one of the challenges for people with disabilities is their need for extra heating in their homes. In his discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has he therefore pressed the case for extending the winter fuel payment to people with disability and on disability benefits?

We continue to keep all these things under review. Last year we made some important changes to winter fuel payments for pensioners across Scotland, almost trebling the amounts involved, and we have announced further changes in support of families with disabled children. The Government have announced that people with severe visual impairment will become entitled to the higher-rate mobility component of disability living allowance from April next year. That is after a campaign supported by Members of Parliament of all parties and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. We continue to look for other ways to support families with disabled children.

Calman Commission

We remain committed to taking forward the proposals outlined in our White Paper on Calman. We will bring forward a Bill early in the next Session of Parliament to implement these recommendations.

The Calman commission proposals to make the Scottish Parliament more responsible for its financial decision making offer the possibilities of improving democratic accountability in Scotland and also strengthening the Union. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to introducing the proposals on financial accountability as part of that package?

The Scottish Parliament is one of the great democratic innovations and constitutional changes of recent decades, but the Government and the Calman commission believe that there is an in-built weakness in its architecture, in that it is responsible for spending money but not for raising enough of it. The envisaged radical reforms will give it much more power, and in future the ultimate decision about how much money the Scottish Parliament and Government will spend will be for the Scottish Parliament, which will have to make an annual decision on tax rates in Scotland. That is a fair, sustainable and radical approach, and it is an important part of having a stronger Scotland inside a proud United Kingdom.

Although some form of constitutional reform is certainly necessary, does the Secretary of State agree that the best future for all the people of Scotland is to ensure that the country is not an isolated, small entity but part of a strong and prosperous United Kingdom?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady on all matters, of course, but she is right on this one. All of us who love Scotland and are patriotic about our country know that it is a fantastic place to live and bring up a family, and that it has a phenomenal history. However, it is part of our future and destiny to ensure that a proud Scotland remains an equal part of the United Kingdom. That is not just my view, but the view of the majority of people all across Scotland.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right that there is a commonality of purpose between Labour and Conservatives—they both want to bring cuts to Scotland. We were promised action on the Calman proposals back in the Queen’s Speech in November, but since then we have heard nothing, zilch, not a peep. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention of bringing forward his proposals, and that they would prefer to introduce cuts rather than Calman to Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point with his characteristically good manners and great sense of humour. This is the latest attempt on this matter by a political party, the SNP, that no one in Scotland takes seriously. It is using desperate tactics, but the only thing that Scotland would get by voting SNP in the general election would be a Tory Government. That is because the SNP brought Mrs. Thatcher to power and is desperate to remove this Labour Government as well. The moment that the party decided to prop up a Tory Government was the moment that it surrendered the right to speak for Scotland.

Future Jobs Fund

The future jobs fund is making a significant impact in Scotland, and more than 10,500 jobs have been funded, including in Aberdeen.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this investment in jobs and the announcement today that Labour will introduce another 100,000 skilled jobs in Scotland will be the thing that makes a difference to my constituents in Aberdeen? It will make sure that Aberdeen moves from being the oil and gas capital of Europe to being the energy capital of Europe. Some of those new jobs will be green jobs, but they will be skilled jobs.

My hon. Friend is right. Over recent decades, Aberdeen has been a remarkable European and global centre for the oil and gas industry, but although oil and gas have still some years to run they will not last for ever, so this is an enormous opportunity for Aberdeen, and the north-east of Scotland in particular, to have a permanent centre of European excellence in renewable energy that can bring tens of thousands of jobs to Scotland, especially in my hon. Friend’s Aberdeen constituency and the north-east of the country.

Total Block Grant

6. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the adequacy of the total block grant to the Scottish Executive for 2010-11. (325091)

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues. The allocated Scottish Government budget for 2010-11 is the highest ever—more than double that available to Donald Dewar in the first year of devolution.

I thank the Secretary of State for the clarity of his response. Can he confirm that the UK Government are still offering a package of financial support to the Scottish Government in relation to the Forth crossing?

Throughout my time as Secretary of State, I have tried to take a reasonable approach to the big issues facing Scotland. Of course, that has often not been responded to by the Scottish National party, but in an attempt to be reasonable, and trying to set aside party political divisions on those big issues, the UK Government offered an unparalleled and unprecedented flexibility package to help the Scottish Government build a Forth road bridge. Unfortunately, they rebuffed it; they are stuck in an old ideology, which means that, as we speak, the bridge is no closer.

The Scottish Secretary has done nothing to stop the real-terms cuts to the Scottish budget this year, part of a package of cuts that will be deeper and tougher than Margaret Thatcher’s. Is he proud of his Thatcherite legacy and what will he say to the thousands of Scottish public sector workers who will lose their jobs as a result of British Labour party cuts?

I thought the hon. Gentleman was getting up to thank the Labour Government for the tax credits on innovation in the games industry in Dundee, but he is silent. He cannot bring himself to support his constituents and his city.

I am proud of what we have achieved over the past 12 years, and I thank the people of Scotland, because together we have made Scotland a fairer, more confident place. The last thing we need is a vote for the SNP, to bring in the Tory party by the back door.

Economic Inactivity

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Scotland. (325092)

Order. Before the Minister replies, there are far too many private conversations—some of them indulged in by very senior Members of the House, who I am sure know better. It is not fair to Members and it is not fair to the people of Scotland.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State for Scotland has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the level of economic inactivity in Scotland.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree with me? In Scotland, Labour is working!

My hon. Friend, as always, is short, succinct and to the point. He is absolutely accurate. We are determined not to repeat the errors of the 1980s and 1990s recession. That is why we are helping young people in particular to get back into work. That is why we are growing jobs with our green investment bank. That is why we are helping new industries and renewable industries in the video games industry and in the life sciences. It is by having a managed industrial policy that we will grow our way into recovery.

The Minister will know that 665,000 working-age people in Scotland are economically inactive. In the past three months, that figure has risen by 21,000. In the past year, Labour has wiped £4.8 billion off the value of the Scottish economy. Since 1997, Scotland’s share of the national debt has more than doubled, and almost 150,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those are facts; there is little that the Minister and the Secretary of State can do about them now, but will she take this last opportunity at the Dispatch Box to apologise to the people of Scotland?

Well, I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we certainly will not do. We will not halt recovery in its tracks by cutting public investment now and squeezing off our recovery. He can be sure that the Labour Government are determined to ensure that the recovery works.

Like most people, but unlike Labour Members, I am interested in talking about the present—2010. Labour’s last manifesto said:

“2010: Full employment in every region and nation”.

The number of people who have been on the dole in Scotland for more than one year has in fact gone up by 122 per cent. in the past 12 months, yet the Minister and the Secretary of State still want to introduce a tax on jobs that will kill recovery. If she thinks that that is a good idea, is it not she and the Secretary of State who have been misled, not leading Scottish business figures?

The hon. Gentleman forgets that since 1997 there are 220,000 more Scots in employment, courtesy of a Labour Government. We are determined to continue the recovery, which is why the national insurance increase will not occur until next year, at which point all predictions show that we will have a strong and sustainable recovery. Under this Government, when we have increased national insurance, jobs have continued to rise.


I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about employment in Scotland. Despite the severity of the recent recession, there are almost 250,000 more Scots working today than there were in 1997.

Has the Secretary of State been discussing the shipbuilding industry with his ministerial colleagues? In particular, has he been discussing the fact that Scotland faces the choice of the Type 45 with Labour or the P45 with the separatists? Has he been discussing the fact that the aircraft carriers are threatened by the Tories and would be sunk by the separatists, but are safe with Labour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and others are fantastic champions of shipbuilding in Scotland. He makes a very clear point. The Scottish Conservatives are in favour of industry-destroying cuts, creating elitism and sinking shipyards—we have an unchanged Scottish Conservative party. The last thing that Scotland wants to do is to go back to the old divisions of the 1980s under the Tory party. [Interruption.]

Order. We must have some quiet. I am sure that the House will want to hear Sir Nicholas Winterton.

Speaking in this House as a Conservative and Unionist, may I ask whether the Secretary of State agrees that Scotland’s part of the Union has been very beneficial to Scotland, not least in respect of employment?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman endorses some of what we have been doing over the past decade. Compared with 12 years ago, there are almost 250,000 more people in work in Scotland today, despite the recession. Most people in Scotland are passionate patriots and most Scots are not nationalists. That is why the longer the SNP is in power in Edinburgh, the smaller the support for breaking up Britain becomes.

Immigration Removal Centres (Contraband)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on levels of contraband in immigration removal centres in Scotland. (325094)

Given that contraband is being sent into Her Majesty’s prison in Edinburgh by the use of crossbows, what is the danger of that happening in the immigration centre? Why do Scottish people use crossbows rather than English longbows?

The management of prisons in Scotland is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government’s Ministry of Justice. We have policies and procedures in place to prevent contraband from coming into removal centres, but we would not comment on the details because that might compromise the safety of the centre.


10. What his most recent assessment is of the state of the economy in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (325096)

Official data showing Scotland’s gross domestic product for the end of last year have not yet been published by the Scottish Government, but most indications suggest that Scotland emerged from recession in the fourth quarter of 2009, although the recovery is fragile. The Government are committed to doing all that is necessary to help to drive recovery in the Scottish economy.

The Minister and the Secretary of State will be aware that, in the past two years, 466 Scottish companies have been shut down by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for not paying their bills on time. Currently, many solvent companies in Scotland are being pushed towards liquidation because of HMRC’s actions. Will they have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get him to take the heat off those solvent companies, so that they can continue to trade and pay their bills?

As I said earlier, the Inland Revenue already has a business support package, which we introduced last year, to defer tax payments. More than 18,000 Scottish businesses have benefited and more than £300 million of tax has already been deferred. It is, however, important that HMRC is operationally independent, and its job is to protect the interests of the UK taxpayer.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the two British servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in the past week: from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Guardsman Michael Sweeney, and from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Rifleman Mark Turner. We owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude. Both were engaged to be married, and our thoughts are with their loved ones and their families.

It is because of all our brave men and women in our armed forces that our families, our communities and our country are safer and more secure. At this time, it is right to remember all who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and all those who serve in our armed forces. I spoke to President Karzai and then President Obama yesterday. Our security forces in Sangin will be increased by about 500 from the Afghan security forces, providing greater security for the people of the region and support to our troops.

We are also sadly reminded today of the sacrifice made by members of our emergency services. We send our condolences to the family and friends of the two brave firemen who died in Southampton last night. We pay tribute to the bravery and commitment demonstrated by all our emergency and public services.

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.

May I add my condolences to all those who have lost their lives in the service of their country?

If he is re-elected, will the Prime Minister guarantee that he will not take £6 billion out of the economy?

The big issue is whether we can secure and assure the economic recovery. To withdraw £6 billion from the recovery now would put jobs at risk, put businesses at risk and put our growth at risk. We cannot cut our way to recovery—but we could cut our way to double-dip recession. In 2011 we will use the rise in national insurance to guarantee that we fund our policing and our schooling, and to make sure that the health services guarantees of cancer care and of being able to see a GP at weekends and in the evenings are kept. Those guarantees will be kept, because of the decisions that we make.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Michael Sweeney and Rifleman Mark Turner, who have been killed in Afghanistan in the past week. Two hundred and eighty British servicemen and women and Ministry of Defence civilians have now lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan. As we prepare for the end of this Parliament, we should remember the sacrifice that they and their families have made and acknowledge the huge debt that we all owe to our armed forces for the bravery that they show, day after day.

I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to James Shears and Alan Bannon, the two firefighters killed while tackling a fire in Southampton last night.

As this is the last Prime Minister’s questions of this Parliament, it is the last chance for this Prime Minister to show that he is accountable for the decisions that he has made. Will he start by admitting that when British forces were sent into Helmand, they did not have sufficient helicopters to protect themselves and get the job done?

I do not accept that in any operation to which we sent our troops our commanding officers gave wrong advice; they told us that they were properly equipped. Every time, in every operation, we ask our commanding officers, “Are we able to do this operation?” and our commanding officers have said yes, they can. So I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have done our best to equip our troops, and we will continue to do so. It is right that I take full responsibility, but I take the advice of our commanding officers, and the advice of our commanding officers is very clear.

That answer sums up this premiership. The Prime Minister takes no responsibility and always blames somebody else. Why can he not just admit something that everybody knows to be true—that there were not enough helicopters? Let us listen to Colonel Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para. He said:

“repeated demands for more helicopters fell on deaf ears. It increased risk for my paratroopers, but”,

as he put it,

“the decision-makers”—

yes, the Ministers—

“were not the ones driving into combat when we should have been flying in.”

The Foreign Office Minister that the Prime Minister appointed, Lord Malloch-Brown, said as late as last year:

“We definitely don’t have enough helicopters.”

Presumably, the Prime Minister is going to tell us that all those people were just deceived.

We have increased the number of helicopters in Afghanistan. We have increased the flying time by more than 100 per cent. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should recognise that the Merlins were adapted, and are now in Afghanistan. He should also recognise that the Chinooks were also adapted, so that they, too, can be in Afghanistan. He should recognise that we have other helicopters in Afghanistan that are working, and we are part of an international operation in Afghanistan, where we share equipment with our coalition partners. I have to say to him that the amount of money spent in Afghanistan now is £5 billion a year; that is 1,000 extra vehicles, and twice the number of flying time hours for our helicopters. I think that he should accept that our troops, for the operations that they are asked to undertake, have been given the equipment that they need. That is the right position.

Why should anyone believe this Prime Minister, when he was the first in history to go in front of a public inquiry and not give accurate information about defence spending? Let me ask about another decision for which this Prime Minister ought to be accountable. In the last 13 years, he has robbed pension funds of £100 billion. His own welfare Minister said:

“when Labour came to power we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest”.

Presumably, he was deceived as well. Will the Prime Minister finally admit that robbing the pension funds was the wrong decision for Britain?

The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no answer to the last question, but it is he who has never given an answer on any single policy. As far as pension funds are concerned, we debated the matter in this House two years ago, and the shadow Chancellor put the case that the dividend tax credit had affected the ability of pension funds to have money. I showed at that time that during the period before the stock market crash, what had actually happened was that the resources of the pension funds had doubled. He lost his case when he put it to the House of Commons; it is no use trying to put it again.

What we have done over these last 12 years is give a pensioners’ winter allowance, initially opposed by the Conservative party. What we are saying that we will do is link pensions to earnings—a link taken away by a Conservative Government. What we have done is give 2 million pensioners a pension tax credit, and have given them dignity in retirement—again, that was opposed by the Conservative Government. What we now have is a national concessionary fare scheme that gives pensioners the chance to travel the country; that would be at risk under a Conservative Government.

That, Mr. Speaker, is the sort of deception that we will rebut in this election campaign every time that it comes up. The Prime Minister must be the only person in Britain who thinks that robbing pension funds was a good idea. His own adviser, who sat in No. 10 Downing street, said that this Prime Minister

“will go down in history as the one who destroyed our pensions system…He just ignores what he doesn’t want to hear, then tries to cover up the consequences…people are finally starting to rumble Gordon Brown and it serves him right.”

Presumably she was deceived as well.

Let us take another decision for which the Prime Minister needs to be held to account—[Interruption.]

Order. Hon. and right hon. Members are shouting themselves hoarse before we have even got to the hustings. Members must calm down.

They were shouting out about national insurance contributions, and this is a question about national insurance contributions.

The Prime Minister has made the decision to introduce a jobs tax which will kill the recovery. This morning on GMTV, he said that business leaders who oppose this decision have been deceived. Is the Prime Minister really telling us that he knows more about job creation than business leaders who employ almost a million people in this country?

Once again, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman about what happened during this recession, and what we had to do to take this country out of recession. We had to nationalise Northern Rock, and the Conservatives opposed it. We had to restructure the banks, business supported us, but they opposed it. We had to take action to secure help for the unemployed. Businesses support the future jobs fund, they opposed it. We had to take action to help home owners. Business supported it, they opposed it. We had to take action to help small business itself, and they opposed the funds that were necessary.

On national insurance, there is a clear choice. We can put national insurance up and therefore protect our schools, our hospitals and our policing, or we can do what the Conservatives traditionally do, and put our hospitals, our police and our health service at risk.

The choice is Labour’s decision to go on wasting money and then put up tax on every job in the country. This is what business leaders said:

“cutting government waste won’t endanger the recovery—but putting up national insurance will.”

Let me ask the Prime Minister again. Does he believe that these business leaders, including members of his own advisory council, were deceived?

We cannot cut our way to recovery, and that is why to withdraw £6 billion from the economy now is the wrong thing to do. Let us be clear: the Conservative policies would put jobs at risk immediately, would put businesses at risk immediately, and would put growth at risk immediately.

As far as 2011 is concerned, we have to make a decision. Do we want to maintain the improvement in our policing, our public services and our health service guarantees, and maintain investment in the schools? We say that that will cost that extra money on national insurance; they say no. The public must make up their minds. Do they want the public services to be maintained, or do they want the traditional Tory policy of putting our public services at risk?

This morning the Prime Minister said that these business leaders had been deceived. Since then another 30 business leaders have come again and said, “Ah, they’re right, and the Government are wrong.” Let me read the Prime Minister what they are saying. Paul Walsh, the head of Diageo, who is on the Prime Minister’s business council—[Hon. Members: “A Tory!”] No, not a Tory, but one of the Prime Minister’s advisers—although he is probably a Tory now; so are half the country. Let us hear what he had to say:

“It’s not true to claim businesses have been deceived. National insurance is a tax on jobs”.

Let us hear from John Egan, former head of BAA.

“How can there be a deception? National insurance is a tax on jobs, pure and simple.”

Is not the truth this: that this Prime Minister would wreck the recovery by putting a tax on every job, on everyone earning over £20,000—a tax on aspiration, a tax on every business in the country? This Government would wreck the recovery.

Order. Members must calm themselves. There are several weeks to go. The Leader of the Opposition was heard, and the Prime Minister will now be heard.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about the future; it is the same old Tories. To think he was the future once!

We have the shortest ever waiting lists in the health service; 2.5 million more jobs since 1997; a Sure Start centre in every community in our country; more pupils than ever staying on at school; more students going to university; more pensioners out of poverty; and more dignity and security in retirement. We are the Government who have plans for the future. The Opposition have nothing to offer. Only a Labour Government can do it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at the weekend Sudan was described on the BBC as the “hungriest place on earth”? Given his outstanding record on international development, both as Chancellor and as Prime Minister, will he use his influence within the international community to ensure that the hapless people of Darfur and that region are recognised for the suffering that they now endure?

As long as there are children suffering, as long as there are mothers dying in childbirth unnecessarily, and as long as young people are not getting education in schools, we have a duty as a country to act. I am proud—and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary has done a great deal to push this forward—of the fact that we as a Government have doubled the expenditure in real terms on overseas aid from 0.26 per cent. of GDP, which we inherited from the previous Government, to 0.52 per cent. today. That doubling of our investment in overseas aid is unparalleled in the past 20 years in any country, and I would hope that there would be an all-party consensus that spending on overseas aid can continue.

I, too, would like to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rifleman Mark Turner from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, and Guardsman Michael Sweeney from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, who, having served so selflessly and bravely in Afghanistan, lost their lives there this week. We owe them, and everyone who has been killed or injured in Afghanistan, a huge debt of gratitude. I would also like to pay tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of James Shears and Alan Bannon, the two firefighters who lost their lives in Southampton last night.

Today, he and he—the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition—are trying to fool people that they are serious about political reform, but last week we had yet more proof that that is not true. Here, in the minutes of the Hayden Phillips cross-party talks on party funding, in black and white, we see the Labour party protecting their trade union paymasters and the Conservatives protecting their paymaster in Belize. Who do they think that they are kidding? After they sabotaged that deal, why should anyone trust a single word that they have to say on political reform?

There is one person who prevented the Liberal and Labour proposal from being agreed by the Conservative party. The Conservatives withdrew from the talks, and the reason why is one name: Lord Ashcroft. That was the reason—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. Members—[Interruption.] Order. Members should save their voices for the conversations that they will need to have with their constituents in the coming weeks.

The Prime Minister’s answer was ridiculous. The two parties are colluding to block reform. Just last night they colluded to block the most minimal reforms to our electoral system and the other place. Just as they came together to block our proposals to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs, they came together to block our proposals to clean up lobbying. We all remember, back in 1997, the hope and the promise of that new Government. Look at them now. You’ve failed. It’s over. It’s time to go.

That seemed like a speech in search of a question.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that when we discussed electoral funding and political reform, the Labour party and the Liberal party agreed on the means to reform the political funding system. There was an agreement between our two parties. The Conservative party pulled out of the agreement, and it pulled out on the recommendation of one person: the person who funds the Conservative party, the person who has given £10 million to the Conservative party, the person who has been offshore for many years—Lord Aschroft.

Q2. Plymouth has had some of the most significant new health investment under Labour—the first new dental hospital for 50 years and the first new medical hospital for 25 years. What plans does the Prime Minister have to protect the progress that has been made and the way in which waiting lists have plummeted? (325640)

We have given every patient a guarantee that they will receive treatment within 18 weeks of seeing their doctor. That is a guarantee that we give personally to every patient, and in the next Parliament they can enforce it and go private, or go to another health authority if it is not met. The Opposition party refuses to back that guarantee.

We have given a guarantee to cancer patients that they will see a specialist within two weeks, and in the next Parliament they will be able to have their diagnostic test within one week. That is a guarantee that we have given; the Conservative party will not support that guarantee, even to cancer patients. We have given a guarantee that general practitioners must see people in the weekends or in the evenings as well as during ordinary working hours, and that is a guarantee that we are giving but the Conservative party refuses to support. People will make up their minds in whose hands the health service is safe—and it is in the Labour party’s hands.

Q3. The Prime Minister opened his election campaign yesterday by promising to campaign among real people, but he spent the whole day visiting the homes of staunch Labour supporters. Does he intend to spend the whole campaign visiting and moving from safe house to safe house? (325641)

By the time I met them they were all staunch Labour supporters, as a result of the message that we put to them. Yesterday I visited a number of places in Kent and asked people what the major issue affecting them was, and they said that they wanted to secure the recovery. I had to tell people that the Conservative party taking £6 billion out of the economy would put the recovery at risk. The issue is very clear: jobs with Labour, unemployment under the Conservatives.

Will my right hon. Friend heed the warning of the former Bank of England panel member David Blanchflower that if he followed the advice of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and took precipitate action to cut the deficit, it would lead not only to unemployment but to rising poverty, social disorder and soup kitchens?

This is the central issue of this year: will we secure the recovery? The Conservative party says, “Take £6 billion out of the economy and it doesn’t matter”. In fact, if we take £6 billion out of the economy now there will be more unemployment, more businesses will go under and there will be less growth. I believe that when we look at what people are saying and doing in every other country, we find that they are saying, “We’ve got to secure the recovery before we take any further action.” Only the Conservative party is saying, “Take money out of the economy now”. It has made a historic mistake.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister confirm the whole truth about helicopters, as confirmed by parliamentary answers from the Ministry of Defence? That is that he has already cut helicopter numbers from 522 to below 500 over the past 18 months—and under his plans, by 2020 there will be only 303 helicopters in Her Majesty’s armed forces, a cut of 42 per cent. (325642)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes this view, because we have ordered more helicopters for the future, reconditioned the Merlins to be in Afghanistan, repaired the Chinooks in such a way that they can now be used in Afghanistan, and increased the number of helicopter hours being flown by our troops. That is the answer to those who say that not enough is being done: more helicopters and more helicopter hours in Afghanistan now.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the current issue of The Economist and yesterday’s Financial Times, both of which, speaking for the City and business, say that if there is a change of Government, Britain will find itself dangerously isolated in Europe? Does he agree that we must work with Chancellor Merkel and other leaders, and not get into bed and breakfast with extremist politicians whose views of homosexuals, the holocaust and the Waffen SS are unacceptable in our democracy?

If the Conservative party had really changed, it would have changed its position on Europe—but it is the same old Conservative party, moving further and further to the extreme of Europe. It cannot form an alliance with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy or the centre-right Christian Democrat parties in Europe, so it has to go into alliances with the most extreme elements of Europe. The latest thing that it did was vote against the transfer of information to deal with the problem of tax havens—exactly the sort of policy that Lord Ashcroft would want it to support.

Q5. What did the Chancellor mean when he said that the job losses resulting from the national insurance hike would be manageable? How many is manageable? (325643)

I’ll tell the Conservative party about jobs. Jobs mean helping young people to get into work, including the 200,000 jobs created by the future jobs fund now and over the next few months; jobs means helping young people to stay in work and with getting work experience and education, including the summer school leavers guarantee that we are giving; and jobs means helping small businesses through this difficult time, with the time to pay, the reduction of business rates and the help that we are giving them now. Take £6 billion out of the economy now, and we would put the recovery at risk. Take £6 billion out of the economy, and thousands of jobs would go.

The Prime Minister is aware of the effect of the retrospective introduction of business rates on companies operating in various ports around the country, including Goole in my constituency. Five years after the planned implementation, the Valuation Office Agency has still to agree assessments with many companies. One of those, Scotline, went out of business after being summonsed for a rates bill of £700,000, which was reduced to £114,000 on appeal. Will my right hon. Friend meet the Chancellor, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and get a fair and equitable solution to keep jobs in our ports safe?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he has always been a persistent advocate of the ports and the jobs they create. I am very happy to meet him to talk about this issue and what we have done—the equal interest-free payments paid in instalments over an unprecedented eight years. I am happy to talk to him about what more we can do to help.

Q6. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has already said, Paul Walsh, the chief executive of Diageo and a member of the Prime Minister’s own management and business advisory committee, has said:“I don’t feel at all deceived. This isn’t about politics. It’s my firm view that the proposed National Insurance increase is a tax on jobs”. Why does the Prime Minister think he has got it wrong? (325644)

I have said that the country has to make a choice. The Conservative party has made its choice, but I say to the country that if we want to maintain and improve our schools and policing, including the record numbers of police and neighbourhood policing in this country, and if we want to ensure the cancer guarantee, the GP guarantee and the other guarantees in our national health service, that has to be paid for. I believe that the country will make the choice in favour of maintaining and improving our public services, and I think that, once again, the Conservative party is exposed as the party that opposed public service improvements in our country.

Over the years there has been a continual drift away from direct taxes to indirect taxes, which, as the Prime Minister knows, bear most heavily on those who can least afford them. Does he agree that it is becoming time that we went back to the traditional Labour party policy on taxation, which is to redistribute wealth in favour of poorer people? I would like him to say in this general election that he will see direct taxation imposed on the billionaire rich, who should be carrying the real burden of taxation in this country.

I agree with my hon. Friend on one point, and that is the importance of tax credits, which have helped lower and middle-income people get out of poverty and secure their livelihood. [Interruption.] The Conservatives are not interested in tax credits. Six million families in this country receive tax credits. Twenty million children, mothers and fathers benefit from tax credits. One of the cuts that the Conservatives propose for this year is to cut child tax credits for middle-income families, which would do more to push people into lower-income groups than anything else. They should change their policy and help middle-income families in this country.

Q7. The Prime Minister once notoriously promised “British jobs for British workers”. Can he confirm that the latest official figures, produced this morning, show that the number of UK-born private sector workers is several hundred thousand lower today than it was in 1997? (325645)

Net migration to this country has been falling as a result of actions that we have been taking, and it has fallen in the last three years. It is falling because there are more people here locally getting the jobs that are available. The Conservatives should think twice about their policy on quotas for migration, because the very businesses that they are quoting want to be able to bring people into this country to do the jobs that are necessary. We propose the Australian points system on migration. The Conservatives’ policy of a quota for immigration, without giving a number, would do great damage to British business.

Q8. As I know my right hon. Friend is aware, the past 10 years have seen an unprecedented increase in support for science and technology in this country, but will he agree that now is not the time to cut investment in science, research and education? For it is in these areas that we will ensure our future economic success and economic growth. (325646)

Record investment in education, record investment in universities, record investment in science in our country, record investment in new innovation in our country: that is the record of our Labour Government, and I am proud to tell people that we are the party that supports industry in this country.

Q9. Given the allegations surrounding Glasgow city council and the demands for an inquiry—I believe that the idea of an inquiry is supported by former leader Steven Purcell and Labour businessman Willie Haughey—will the Prime Minister support such an investigation, or is he afraid that there is something to hide? (325647)

The hon. Gentleman came down to this Parliament and he spent most of his time voting with the Conservative party. He should go back to Scotland and explain why, instead of voting for jobs, he is voting with the Conservative party in Parliament.

Order. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly, as we have a ten-minute rule motion to hear.