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Volume 510: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the last week: from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor; and from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, Gunner Zak Cusack. These were men of outstanding courage, skill and selflessness. We must never forget their sacrifice.

The House will also be alarmed and shocked by the events unfolding in Cumbria today. Police were called to Whitehaven at 10.35 this morning after shots were fired by a man, and I regret to report that a number of people have been shot and at least five people have died. I can confirm that the body of a gunman has been found by the police. The chief constable of Cumbria is working closely with other forces and other emergency services to ensure a co-ordinated response to these rapidly moving events. The Government will do everything that they possibly can to help the local community and those affected, and to keep the House informed. A full statement will be made to Parliament tomorrow. When lives and communities are suddenly shattered in this way, our thoughts should be with all those caught up in these tragic events, especially the families and friends of those killed or injured.

All parties in this House will welcome the coalition’s proposals to eliminate quangos and shift power away from unelected functionaries to elected representatives. The biggest quango of the lot is, of course—[Hon. Members: “The House of Lords.”] It is the other place, a legislative Chamber largely appointed by the Executive. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will bring forward proposals in the next 12 months to make all our law-makers accountable through the ballot box?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. I do not always give him answers that make him happy, but this time I can. There will be a draft motion, by December, which the House can vote on. I have always supported a predominantly elected House of Lords, and I am delighted that agreement has been reached on the coalition programme. [Interruption.] I can already hear what a challenge around the House it is going to be to achieve the consensus that we need, but I hope that after all the promises of reform, this time we can move towards a predominantly elected second Chamber.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and to Gunner Zak Cusack from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery. As the Prime Minister said, they were brave men who died in the service of our country. We must never forget the sacrifice that they made.

I strongly support what the Prime Minister has said about the dreadful shootings in Cumbria. We offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been killed and our strong support for the police, the emergency services and the local communities in Cumbria.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the Israeli interception of the Gaza flotilla? I am sure that he agrees that there has been a tragic loss of life, which has angered the Palestinians and dismayed friends of Israel, too. Can he tell the House what is the current position of the British nationals who have been detained by the Israelis? Will he tell us how the Government can contribute to international efforts to make the Israelis recognise that the blockade of Gaza is prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians and making peace in the middle east even harder to achieve? This blockade must end.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about our troops, and also for raising the issue of the events off the coast of Gaza. What has happened is completely unacceptable; we should be clear about that. We should also deplore the loss of life. Indeed, I have spoken to the Prime Minister of Turkey to extend our condolences for the Turkish citizens who have been lost. We should do everything we can to make sure this does not happen again; I stressed this point in a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.

In answer to the right hon. and learned Lady’s specific questions about British nationals, 42 British nationals are caught up in this. I believe that around 37 of them have had consular access and that all of them will be coming home, and we need to make sure that they are reunited with their families as fast as possible.

The right hon. and learned Lady also raised the issue of international efforts to get the blockade open. As she knows, and as the shadow Foreign Secretary will know, we should do everything we can through the United Nations, where resolution 1860 is absolutely clear about the need to end the blockade and to open up Gaza. I would say in addition that friends of Israel—and I count myself a friend of Israel—should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas’s grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it is in their own interests to lift it and to allow these vital supplies to get through.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I know that we will be hearing more from the Foreign Secretary in a statement immediately after these questions.

Can the Prime Minister give me an answer on another important issue—one that I raised with him last Tuesday—about prosecuting rape? We know that it is often only after many rapes that a defendant is finally brought to court, and it is often only at that point that previous victims find the courage to come forward. By making rape defendants anonymous, he is going to make it harder to bring rapists to justice.

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady cares very deeply about this issue, as do I. The fact that rape convictions are so low in this country is a scandal, and we need to improve on that. That means working with the police, and also doing more to help rape victims, including backing rape crisis centres.

On the issue of anonymity, I sat on the Home Affairs Committee that examined this issue; it was of course a Committee in a previous Parliament, dominated by Labour Members, and very ably chaired by Chris Mullin. We came to the conclusion that there was a case for saying that between arrest and charge there was a case for anonymity. The coalition agreement mentions the issue of anonymity, and we will of course be bringing forward proposals, which the House can then examine and debate. I think that there is a case for this to happen, but I understand what the right hon. and learned Lady says—that it is important that the publicity around a case can help to bring forward other people who have been raped. I understand her case, but I think that this does represent a good way forward.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the first point. However, does he not also recognise that to single out rape defendants, which is what he is proposing to do, sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed, and sends a devastating message to rape victims that, uniquely of all victims, they are not to be believed?

I do not accept that. The Home Affairs Committee looked at this very carefully and came to conclusion that in this case there was a case for extending anonymity, also because in rape cases, obviously, those who have been raped have anonymity themselves, and that was the case with this limited extension. We will be bringing forward proposals that can be debated and discussed in the House of Commons. We all want the same thing, which is to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and to send more rapists to jail: that is what this is about.

I am sorry, but I think that that is a disappointing answer, because the Prime Minister shows no understanding of the progress that has been made on prosecuting rape, and he does not realise how seriously this will turn the clock back.

May I turn to another subject that I believe the Government should reconsider—the married man’s tax allowance? It would go to only one in three married couples, and would cost half a billion pounds a year. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how that would contribute to cutting the deficit?

I am an unashamed supporter of families and marriage, and I simply do not understand why, when so many other European countries—I remember often being lectured when I was on the other side of the House about how we should follow European examples—recognise marriage in the tax system, we do not. I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?

The Prime Minister knows that this will not keep couples together; he is just hoping that it will keep his Back Benchers on side. He has not answered the question: how will this planned tax cut help reduce the deficit?

If we are going to get control of public spending in the long term in this country, we should target the causes of higher spending, one of which is family breakdown. We should do far more to recognise the importance of families, commitment and marriage—and let me just say that any recognition of marriage that we put in the tax system will also be recognition of civil partnerships, because commitment is important, whether someone is straight or gay.

So the Prime Minister is seriously saying that he expects us to believe that he thinks a £3 a week tax break, which will cost the Exchequer half a billion pounds a year, will keep families together. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting so quietly by his side—because on this one, Nick agrees with me. We do not need it, it will not work, and they should drop it.

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Lady has a slightly short memory, because when she was sitting over here on the Government Benches, an enormous recognition of marriage in the tax system was introduced by the Labour Government in—wait for it—inheritance tax. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, they massively increased the threshold for inheritance tax that can be transferred between husband and wife. If recognising marriage in the tax system is such a good thing for the better-off, why do we not do it for the less well-off? [Interruption.]

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that the Prime Minister paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and in the dreadful events in Cumbria?

What means does the Prime Minister hope to use to achieve his stated and very necessary objective of allowing the private sector to expand in the parts of the country, such as the north-east, that depend heavily on public sector jobs?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue, because we will have to take difficult decisions about public spending; everybody knows that. Let me be clear: no region of the country should be singled out, but he is right to say that some parts of the country have a very high dependence on public sector jobs. In the Budget on 22 June we will need to bring forward ideas that will fire up the private sector—for instance, the idea that any new firm established does not have to pay national insurance for the first 10 employees. I think that will help, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should also think about ways in which, as we get the private sector growing and make difficult decisions in the public sector, we can help regions that could be adversely affected. The Government are looking seriously at that idea, because we want to take the whole country with us as we deal with the £160 billion deficit bequeathed to us by the Opposition.

Q2. I wholeheartedly support what the Prime Minister said earlier about our armed forces, not least because a lot of young men and women from the Rhondda and the other south Wales valleys are serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the moment. He will know that one of the most important things for protecting our armed forces is ensuring that they have the best training possible, technically and in military expertise. Will he therefore commit himself and his Government unambiguously today to the new defence training college in St Athan in south Wales, which would save lives in our armed forces and provide 5,000 jobs in south Wales? (427)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Everyone who has spent time in south Wales with the military knows that there is an incredibly strong case for the St Athan defence training establishment. I have heard that case on all the visits that I have made, but he will understand that we must have a proper strategic defence review. We have not had one since 1998, and everything has to be included in that review. I would just say to him, as he feels so strongly about this, that he was in the last Government, and that there was an opportunity to give that project the go-ahead before the election, but they did not do it.

Q3. Now that we know that the last Government spent £1 billion on advertising and “invested” £12,000 in golf balls, is the Prime Minister surprised that there is no money left? (428)

We are not really surprised, not least because of the letter that we got from the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am glad to see that he has apologised for the letter, although he has not yet apologised for the legacy. My hon. Friend makes a good point. In addition, we have discovered that £320 million was spent on hotels, £1.5 billion on consultants and—this really did amaze me—one Department spent more than £140 per person on cut flowers and pot plants. Perhaps we could have a lottery to find out which one it was.

Q4. Four high schools in my constituency are in the last throes of the Building Schools for the Future programme: Matthew Moss high school in Castleton, Siddal Moor sports college, Holy Family—a new joint-faith school—and Middleton technology college in Middleton. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that that programme will be seen through to its completion, which would also help many of the construction workers in my constituency? (429)

I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to see that in making the £6 billion in-year reductions—many warnings were given about what that would mean—we have protected the schools budget, and ensured that schools and Sure Start are protected. In terms of building schools for the future, let me be clear: our plans—and our passion, when it comes to education—are to ensure that new schools are provided so that we have real excellence, in the secondary sector in particular. That is what it is about. Building schools for the future is exactly what our plans involve.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the case of my constituent Mr Edmond Arapi, who is facing extradition to Italy, having been tried in his absence? Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and accelerate the review of extradition cases before Mr Arapi is taken from his family and sent to an Italian jail?

I am happy to look at this case, and I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is working on the issue of deportations. Legal processes have to be followed, but I will discuss this with my right hon. Friend, and perhaps then contact my hon. Friend.

Q5. Now that the banks—some of them, anyway—are coming into profit, and the taxpayers are getting a small return on the enormous amount of money that they put in, when does the Prime Minister envisage selling the shares off to his friends in the City? (430)

I would much rather sell the shares in the banks to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I believe in popular capitalism, and there might be an opportunity to do that. Clearly, important decisions will have to be made to ensure that we get the maximum amount of money back for the taxpayer, who has had to put so much money into the banks, and that we have a fully competitive banking system that serves business in this country so that it does not get ripped off by the banks. At the same time, privatising those banks back into the private sector where they belong can help encourage popular capitalism once again.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Denys Shortt of Stratford-on-Avon on his nomination as entrepreneur of the year in the Ernst & Young competition—a well-earned accolade? On the question of earnings, was the Prime Minister surprised to learn that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does? (431)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent. Transparency on pay is an important principle, because it is good for democracy and accountability if we know how much people in the public sector are earning. I also think that it will help us to control public spending. When people see how much people are paid in the public sector, the pressure will be on to keep top pay levels down. It would also be worth while having a maximum multiple of 20 times earnings; we are holding a review to get that done. People at the top of a public sector organisation should not earn more than 20 times what people at the bottom earn. It is that sort of progressive idea that we are looking forward to introducing.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister share the concerns of two schoolteachers from Chesterfield who came to see me this weekend, that children from areas of greater deprivation will suffer disproportionately from his plans to cut 10,000 university places? (432)

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. We can all remember one of his predecessors in that seat, Tony Benn, who left this House saying that he wanted to spend more time doing politics.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we want to help children from less well-off backgrounds by having a pupil premium. We will take money from outside the education budget to ensure that the pupil premium is well funded, so that children from the poorest homes get to go to the best schools and the money follows the pupil into those schools. As for university places, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: we are expanding the number of university places by 10,000, compared with the legacy that we were left.

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on excessive pay? My constituents are outraged at the amount of money that some senior NHS managers are receiving. What can the coalition do to reduce such excessive expenditure?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. By having transparency, we are able to see for the first time who is earning what in the public sector. That will create pressure on top people’s pay in the public sector, to keep that pay down. That is the first thing. In the NHS specifically, as he knows, our plans are all about removing the centralised bureaucracy, partly by removing many of the centralised targets that have caused that bureaucracy to grow. Our ambition is to ensure that the priority is the people on the front line—the nurses, the doctors, the people involved in clinical care—instead of the endless increase in management that we have seen in recent years.

Q8. Many of my constituents are employed by Nissan and in supply chain jobs. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the £20 million grant awarded to Nissan under the previous Government in March will be honoured, in order to develop the next generation of electric cars? (433)

Let me welcome the hon. Lady to her place and say that I, too, have visited the Nissan plant near Sunderland. It is an absolute wonder to see the incredible investment that has gone in there and the many jobs that have been created, not just at that plant but in the supply chain. I want to see electric cars being developed, and when I was at Nissan we discussed that specifically. As for the grant, I do not have a specific answer for her—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It’s a funny old thing: I’m going to give accurate answers, rather than make them up on the spot. I shall be delighted to let the hon. Lady know via a letter as soon as possible.

Q9. Noting the very high standards of professional care in the NHS in Stroud, may I ask the Prime Minister to lend his support to the Stroud maternity unit? (434)

I welcome my hon. Friend, and thank him for that question. I understand that the Stroud maternity unit was under threat under a previous Administration, but I am happy to say that with our plans, under which the money in the NHS will follow the decisions that local people make with their doctors about where to be treated, we will find that community hospitals across our country can once again breathe easily.

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that were paid earlier to our fallen heroes in Afghanistan? We should always remember them. In that spirit, may I ask the Prime Minister, right at the outset of a new Parliament and a new Administration, to give a categorical assurance to our troops that they will always get the equipment and resources that they need on operational duty, to our servicemen and women returning home that they will always get the help and advice that they need to return to civilian life, and to our maimed and wounded that, despite all the budgetary pressures, they will always get the care and compassion that they need and deserve, for however long it takes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—and the way that he put it—about ensuring that we protect and help those at the front line with everything that they need, looking after their families and helping those who are injured. That is what our focus should be. It is all those things, and it is all through the lifetime of those people. I have visited places such as Headley Court and seen the incredible work now being done. However, what we have to realise as a country is that this is not just about getting the equipment or renewing the military covenant, so that we serve our armed services properly, but about recognising that the people who have been injured so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan will need a lifetime of help. I do not think that the health service has yet fully woken up to the—quite rightly—very high demands that those people will place on the health services. That is why I have a strong defence team and a strong health team, who are going to work together to ensure that we deliver for those people, who have done so much for us.