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Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010

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.