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Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the Royal Marine of 40 Commando who died at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham on Monday from wounds sustained in Afghanistan, and to the two soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who died yesterday. We should send our sincere condolences to their families and their friends. We should also pay tribute to the exceptional work of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan and, perhaps today in particular, to the highly skilled doctors and nurses who work alongside them, as well as to those who treat the injured personnel back in the UK.

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.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the millions of people who voted Conservative at the last election in order to make him Prime Minister did not do so in order to see a reduction in the number of people sent to prison or to see those criminals given softer sentences? If he really wants to reduce the budget of the Prison Service, may I suggest that he starts by taking Sky TV away from the 4,000 prisoners who enjoy that luxury in their cells?

May I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful suggestion? He knows that I share his views about the need for a tough response to crime. The challenge is going to be delivering that tough response at a time when the last Government left us absolutely no money. What I would say to him is that we have to address the failures in the system: the fact that half of all prisoners are on drugs; the fact that more than one in 10 are foreign nationals who should not be here in the first place; and the fact that 40% commit another crime within one year of leaving prison. That is the record of failure that we have inherited, and it is the record of failure that we have to reform.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the Royal Marine of 40 Commando who died on Monday and to the two soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who died yesterday. We honour their sacrifice, and we remember all our servicemen and women who are fighting so bravely for our country.

Although this morning saw the unemployment claimant count fall, unemployment is still too high. Behind the figures are real people and real concerns. Can the Prime Minister promise that none of the policies that he will put in his Budget next week will put more people out of work?

First, I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that any rise in unemployment is a tragedy, not least for those people desperately looking for work who want to put food on the table for their families. The figures this morning give a mixed picture. On the one hand, the claimant count is down; on the other hand, the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment is up by 23,000. What I can say to her is that we will bring in our Work programme as soon as we can, which will be the biggest, boldest scheme for getting people back to work, and everything that will be—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should remember why we have had record unemployment in this country: because of the record of failure that we inherited. What I can tell the right hon. and learned Lady is that everything that we do in the forthcoming Budget will be about giving this country a strong economy with sustainable public finances and clearing up the mess left by the person sitting next to her, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling).

In fact, ILO unemployment is down on last month, and the Prime Minister should welcome that. He has criticised our plans, but the Office for Budget Responsibility says this week that, under Labour’s plans, unemployment is set to fall. Will he promise that he will not do anything in his Budget next week that will cause unemployment to rise? We are talking about his policies in his Budget.

First, the right hon. and learned Lady is just wrong about the figures. The ILO figures are up, and the claimant count is down—

Yes, they are; if she looks at the figures, she will discover that. She asked about the Budget. I have to say that I am still waiting for the Budget submission from the Labour party—[Interruption.] Let me tell hon. Members why. Before the last election, Labour set out £50 billion of spending reductions, including £18 billion of reductions in capital spending, but it did not set out where one penny piece of that money was coming from. So, while Labour Members are looking forward to the Budget next week and asking what we are going to do, perhaps they could have the decency to tell us what they would have done.

The Prime Minister did not listen to what I said about ILO unemployment, which is that it is down on last month, and he did not answer the question either. He has already cut the future jobs fund, and he will not guarantee to drop policies that would push unemployment up. He talks about the deficit, but how does putting more people on the dole help to get the deficit down?

Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady should consider this statement about the importance of sorting out the budget deficit—[Interruption.] Hon. Members ought to listen to this:

“Public finances must be sustainable…If they are not, the poor, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes who depend on public services will suffer most.”—[Official Report, 2 July 1997; Vol. 315, c. 303.]

Who said that? It was the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), when he used to talk some sense, in the old days.

As the Prime Minister is talking about new politics and transparency, will he confirm that the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that, under the plans that we put in place, unemployment and borrowing will be lower than we forecast in our Budget, not only this year but next year and the year after? Will he confirm that, and will he welcome it?

First, should the right hon. and learned Lady not welcome the fact that these things are now independently determined, rather than fiddled in the Treasury? What the Office for Budget Responsibility shows is that the structural deficit is going to be £12 billion higher, and that the growth forecast that the Chancellor of the Exchequer produced at the time of the Budget was a complete fiction.

I can answer the Prime Minister’s question, although, to be fair, he is supposed to be answering mine. Yes, I do support the OBR, but he will not say whether he welcomes the forecast that I set out earlier. It is clear what he is doing: he is talking down the economy and the public finances in order to soften up the public for the cuts that he wants to make. Does he not realise that, in doing that, he is also undermining business confidence? How can that be right?

What the right hon. and learned Lady and other Labour Members need to remember is this: never mind talking the economy down, they did the economy down. They left this country with a £155 billion deficit—the biggest deficit in our peacetime history. They are the ones who let the banks go rip. They told us that they had abolished boom and bust, yet they gave us the biggest boom and the biggest bust. They were the ones who told us we were going to lead the world out of recession; our recession was longer and deeper than others. They have not told us about one single penny of the £50 billion that they were going to cut—not one penny. Do you know where they ought to start? Why not start with an apology?

If the Prime Minister thought that our spending plans were so bad, why did he back them right up until the end of 2008, praising them as “tough”? One minute he is praising them, then he is calling them reckless. This is not so much magic numbers as the magic roundabout that he has been on. We all agree that the deficit needs to come down, but will he promise that in the Budget next week he will not hit the poorest and he will not throw people out of work? Does he agree with us that unemployment is never a price worth paying?

The figures were wrong, and the jokes were not much good either. Never mind the magic roundabout, what we are all enjoying on the Government Benches is the Labour leadership election, although it is by day beginning to look more like a Star Trek convention—beam me up! What the right hon. and learned Lady has to answer is this: before the election, her Government set out £50 billion of cuts, but not a single penny was aligned to a single programme—not one pence of the £18 billion they were cutting from capital spending was aligned to one single bit of capital expenditure. Before she starts challenging us about cuts, they should first of all apologise for the mess they have left; second of all, tell us where the cuts were going to come to under their Government; and third of all, recognise that the responsible party, in coalition, is dealing with the deficit and the mess that they left behind.

Despite the huge satisfaction felt in my constituency at the Government’s decision not to proceed with the second runway at Stansted airport, is my right hon. Friend aware that blight and uncertainty still overhang the communities closest to the airport? Will he look to see if other measures can be taken to provide them with longer-term assurance?

First, may I say what a pleasure it is to see my right hon. Friend being able to speak about these issues for the first time in many years. I am sure he will do so often and with great power from the Back Benches. He is right to say that we are very clear in the coalition agreement about Stansted airport. I hope that removes some of the blight and uncertainty; I will certainly bear in mind what he had to say.

Q2. During the general election, the Conservative party distanced itself from remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) when he spoke about Government aid and said that it had nothing to do with Vauxhall. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to remove the uncertainty not only for Vauxhall but for Sheffield Forgemasters and all the other companies that are waiting for support in properly constructed agreements? (2458)

Everyone wants to see Vauxhall succeed; it is a very important company, employing many people in this country, not least in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency. As he knows, a £270 million Government loan guarantee to support GM Europe was announced on 12 March 2010. We are reviewing commitments made since 1 January 2010. Projects that are good value for money and consistent with the Government’s priorities will go ahead. [Interruption.] Let me say to Labour Members who are shouting that we have to be clear that there were spending announcements made by the previous Government before the election that need to be reviewed. To take just one example of one scheme operated by Lord Mandelson’s Department—the so-called strategic investment fund: when we looked at the money provided for specific projects, we found that over two thirds of the constituencies involved were marginal Labour seats. So it is right to examine these, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that proper grants properly made for proper reasons will go ahead; fiddled grants for political reasons should not.

The 16-year-old son of my constituent, Lorraine Fraser, died after a vicious multiple knife attack incident six years ago. One of the murderers is trying to use the law to reduce his tariff after serving only five years, and another avoided conviction altogether by fleeing the country. Will the Prime Minister agree to look into this case on behalf of my constituent and meet her to hear about her plight and about the excellent work she is doing to defeat knife crime in this country?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I would be happy to meet him and his constituent. We need to take knife crimes in this country incredibly seriously: there has been a huge increase in the carrying of knives, and we must put a stop to that. On lenient sentences, I am not convinced that the power introduced some 20 years ago to allow the Attorney-General to appeal against lenient sentences is used enough. We need to look at that again and ensure that in cases in which people feel that a lenient sentence has been put in place, there is an opportunity to increase it.

Q3. The defence contracts for Astute class submarines signed in March were long negotiated and are essential for our security and for thousands of manufacturing jobs in my constituency and across the UK. Will the Prime Minister honour them? (2459)

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman and say that I know how much his constituency depends on the work going on in the submarine yards in Barrow, which I have visited and where I have seen the building of Astute class submarines and the submarines carrying our nuclear deterrent? I know how important that is, but a defence review is under way, and it must include the Astute class submarines—[Interruption]. To those Labour Members who are calling out, let me say that the Labour party was itself committed to a defence review. We asked whether it included everything—even aircraft carriers—and the answer came back yes. It is no good Labour Members bickering now that they are in opposition; it is right to have a defence review and that we consider such matters. I know how important submarine building is to Barrow and to the defence of the nation.

Q4. Labour Members might revere regional development agencies, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable amount of money wasted by some RDAs, especially on unnecessary expenditure on entertainment? Will he confirm that, to get better value for taxpayers’ money, he will take action on RDAs? (2460)

My hon. Friend is right, and I know that a lot of argument and discussion is going on about regional development agencies. The figures about how much money has been wasted, however, should be more widely shared. The East Midlands Development Agency paid more than £300,000 for offices in north America. The Northwest Development Agency shared an office in Newport Beach. One NorthEast spent money on offices in China, Japan, Korea and Australia. The chairman of the South East England Development Agency spent £51,000 on taxis and executive cars in one year alone. We need proper control of costs and spending—there has not been any for the past 13 years, and there sure is going to be under this Government.

May I tell the Prime Minister about my constituent, Nikki Blunden, who is 37, has a son aged four and is dying of cancer. Her consultant wants to prescribe the new drug Lapatinib, which could prolong her life. Last week, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence deemed the treatment not to be cost-effective. Will the Prime Minister stick to his promise not to hide behind NICE, and ensure that the primary care trust funds forthwith this NHS treatment? Nikki Blunden cannot wait; I ask the Prime Minister to act.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for asking that question. My heart goes out to her constituent, Nikki Blunden. We want to see these cancer drugs get to patients more quickly, without the bureaucratic wheels taking so long to turn. That is why we are establishing the cancer drugs fund, and I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health how quickly that can be done. If possible, I want it to be done this year rather than next year. If it can be done, it will be, and if drugs can be got to people like the right hon. Lady’s constituent—we all have constituents in such a position—I will do everything that I can to make that happen.

Q5. The Prime Minister knows that I am always and everywhere for referendums. However, will he tell the House why he is planning a referendum on the alternative vote, which was not in the manifesto of either coalition party, but not a referendum on European integration, which all three main parties were recently promising? (2461)

What I can promise my hon. Friend is that we will have such legislation on the referendum lock, so that it will not be possible in future for a British Government to pass powers from Westminster to Brussels without asking the British people first. That is absolutely right. The referendum on the alternative vote was part of the coalition agreement, and he will be free to campaign on whatever side of the referendum he wants. However, the referendum was part of the agreement that put together this Government, who, I believe, are rolling up their sleeves and sorting out the country’s problems.

Q6. About 1.5 million people suffer from involuntary tranquilliser addiction as a result of medical prescribing, and it completely ruins their lives. Will the Government consider investing in cost-effective, supportive, long-term withdrawal treatment programmes to enable them to lead normal lives, come off benefits, and go back to work? (2462)

Let me praise the hon. Gentleman for his interest in the work that is being done. I know that he is chairman of the all-party group that deals with this extremely difficult issue. The last Government set up a review of addiction to prescription and over-the-counter medicines. We are waiting for the report to be published, and will study it carefully when it is.

Let me make two points. First, I think that there is a problem in our national health service more generally, in that we spend too much time treating the symptoms rather than necessarily dealing with the causes. We could probably reduce the level of painkillers and tranquillisers if we did more—through physiotherapy and other therapies—to deal with the problem in the first place. Secondly, all addictions need proper attention, and proper treatment and therapy, to rid people of their addictions, whatever they happen to be. I am sure that the report will mention that.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister respond positively to the uplands inquiry by the Commission for Rural Communities—which reveals the great value and potential of magnificent hill areas such as ours in Northumberland—by stressing the need to ensure that hill farmers have an adequate income, and that there are rented homes, apprenticeships, and services such as broadband to enable young people to stay in those areas? (2463)

I will certainly look carefully at the report. I have every sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Upland landscape is as beautiful as it is because it has been farmed for centuries, and we need to recognise the connection between beautiful landscape and active farming. We want our countryside to be a living, working countryside, not a museum.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned housing. We must also recognise that the top-down target system was not working. Our plans in the coalition agreement to increase the ability of communities, including villages, to decide whether they want to put in extra homes is a good way of helping to keep the pub, the post office, and the local shops and schools open, and I hope we can proceed with that work.

I am sure that, even as we speak, the Prime Minister and his team are seeking to make savings and possibly cuts, hopefully without affecting front-line services. May I commend to him one way of saving £7.2 million a day? Bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I just do not agree with him. I think that if we brought the troops home precipitately—if we did it straight away—not only would we let down our NATO allies, not only would we let down the Afghan people, but we would create circumstances in which the Taliban would return, and the danger of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan would come straight back.

I know that what we are doing is dangerous and difficult, and that it is costing us dearly. I am, of course, acutely aware of that. However, I think that we must put our effort and our shoulder behind the wheel of the Obama-McChrystal plan to ensure that it works as well as it can, and accompany that military surge with a political surge. We need to seek a political settlement to get Taliban fighters to put down their arms and reintegrate into Afghan society. That is the way in which to create some stability in Afghanistan—never a perfect democracy, but some stability—in which event our troops can come home with their heads held high.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to all who work for the health service, but will he also examine the circumstances in which patients are often discharged from hospital only to be readmitted very soon afterwards? The assessment for continuous health care has become something of a postcode lottery. Will the Prime Minister examine that as well, to ensure that such care is paid for on the basis of clinical need? (2464)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; the one answer that I will give is this. I know that there is a big problem with hospitals discharging patients, sometimes to meet their own targets—including financial targets—without thinking of the longer-term consequences if those patients have to return. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has announced that hospitals will be responsible for patients not just during their treatment but for the 30 days following their discharge, so that we can better link health and social care to ensure that people leave hospital at the right time, in the right way, and for good.

Q9. Siemens is proposing to close Trench UK in my constituency and to transfer its production to France and Germany, despite the fact that Trench UK has a full order book, healthy profits and is exporting all over the world. It is a first-class product. Would the Prime Minister meet me so that we can discuss that illogical decision which could lose the UK a jewel in manufacturing? (2465)

I would certainly meet the hon. Gentleman. I know how frustrating this can be; Siemens is a big investor in my constituency, too. The jobs that he is speaking about are exactly the sort of high-tech, high-skill jobs that we want to keep in this country. Therefore, I will certainly meet him, and we will do what we can in the Budget to ensure that we have in this country a tax regime, support for apprenticeships and support for training that will want to make businesses locate, stay and invest in Britain.

Q10. Every household in Gravesham has inherited a sort of second mortgage of debt. Can the Prime Minister give us some idea of the level of debt per household across the country? (2466)

My hon. Friend is entirely right that every single person in this country is now carrying £22,000 of debt because of the mess that the last Labour Government left us. The fact is this: if we do not do something about it, by the end of this Parliament, we will be paying £70 billion in debt interest. That is more than we spend on schools and more than we spend on defence. It would be a tragic waste of money. That is why, however painful it is, we have to get to grips with the deficit that we were left by the last Labour Government.

Can the Prime Minister explain why the changes to local government funding last week mean that, in Witney in Oxfordshire, people will see an uplift of 1.7%, while children in Brent will see a loss from their education budget of £1.88 million? Can it have anything to do with last week’s statement by the Minister with responsibility for local government, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who said:

“Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt”?—[Official Report, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 450.]

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that we are going to introduce the pupil premium, so that the money follows our country’s poorest children to the schools that they go to. That is what is going to happen. That is what he should support and I will look forward to him supporting it when it comes.

Q11. As the Prime Minister strives to restore sanity to our national finances, will he give a word of reassurance that the Budget next week will seek to encourage and support those who save and provide for their own future? (2467)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We have got to make sure that, in what we do, we help those who try to do the right thing, to save and to look after themselves and their families. The first thing that we have to do is keep control of inflation, keep the Bank of England independent and ensure that the Budget supports the tough approach on inflation, which is the worst thing for savers. The second thing that we can do is ensure that we do not discourage saving by having so many people reliant on a means test. That is why we are committed to linking the state pension back to earnings.

There are no easy ways of reducing the deficit. Some people believe that it can be got all from one area or all from another. I am afraid that it is going to be a difficult task. We will do everything we can to take the whole country with us. We will need to have a responsible debate about how we do it, but it has to be done for the good of our country.

Q15. In the past week, I have been contacted by students and parents in my constituency who are devastated to have been told that geography and politics courses at Liverpool John Moores university have been cancelled from September, giving them less than three months to make alternative arrangements. What assurances can the Prime Minister give my constituents that cuts to higher education will not affect students? (2471)

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. The assurance I can give her is that we are going to increase the number of university places by 10,000 in the coming year, because we want to see higher education expand. The other assurance I can give her is that we are committed to the Browne review that the previous Government set up, on an all-party basis, to look at how we can ensure that higher education is affordable both for the young people going into higher education and for our country as a whole.

Q12. Can I praise the Prime Minister for his staunch support of the NHS and its budget, and use this opportunity to invite him to Malvern to open, some time at his convenience this autumn, our brand-new community hospital? (2468)

Order. It is not against the rules of the House for a Government Back Bencher to support the Government; it is not that odd.

Mr Speaker, we all remember you doing that very well. My hon. Friend’s invitation is a kind one. The commitment that we have made to maintain health spending is very important. I want to see community hospitals and district general hospitals thrive under this Government.

May I invite the Prime Minister to take a trip with me next season from Seven Sisters tube station up to the Spurs ground at White Hart Lane? On that journey he will see a proliferation of betting shops. Will he give local authorities the power to deal with the saturation of betting shops, which are preying on working and poor people?

That is another great invitation this afternoon. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is a balance to strike. Some of the deregulation that took place was necessary in order not to have over-regulation of these sectors, but yes I think that there is a case for allowing local authorities greater latitude to decide on some of these things. We made that point in opposition, particularly on the issue of lap-dancing clubs, over which local authorities should be given more power and influence. The issue now seems to be being taken up more broadly by Labour Members.