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Prime Minister

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Marine Paul Warren from 40 Commando Royal Marines, who died on Monday, and to the member of 40 Commando Royal Marines who died yesterday. We should constantly remember, and show our support for, the services and sacrifices made on our behalf by our armed forces and their families.

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

The coalfield communities regeneration programme breathed new life into places such as Wigan after the devastation caused by the pit closures in the 1980s. Michael Clapham’s review is very welcome, but the decision to freeze the funding will devastate our economy all over again. Can the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that he is not simply seeking to close down the coalfields all over again?

Of course I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. Let me first of all congratulate her on her election to this House, and say how much we want to make sure, in spite of the difficult decisions that we have had to make in the Budget, that we go on helping and regenerating communities that face difficulties. I have visited the site in Wigan where the new Lads and Girls club is to be built. That is the result of excellent joint work between the private and public sectors, and we need many more projects like it. We will have more to say about that next week.

Q2. The Prime Minister will be aware of the vital contribution of the 23,000 Territorial Army and other reservists who have fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans in the last six years. So far, 22 have lost their lives in those operations, and the ones who survive are twice as likely to get post-traumatic stress disorder than their regular counterparts. What recognition and support can my right hon. Friend give to the thousands of employers who routinely allow staff to volunteer, train and engage in reservist activity and who, by doing so, are critical to our military success in those operations? (3683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the contribution that our Territorial Army plays in serving our country. He is also right to remind us how many people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some 600 volunteer reservists serving today. Standing up for our armed forces is not just a Government responsibility: it is a social responsibility, and something that we should all do. We should pay tribute to those businesses that help people to volunteer and take part. We should remember their service in doing that as well.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Paul Warren from 40 Commando Royal Marines, who died on Monday, and to the member of 40 Commando Royal Marines who died yesterday? They fought with bravery and they died in the service of their country.

The Chancellor announced yesterday that the Government will bring forward relinking the basic state pension to earnings to 2011 rather than 2012. Can the Prime Minister tell us how much money the Treasury has set aside to pay for that next year?

Actually, what the Chancellor did yesterday was more complex than that. He said—[Interruption.] This is an extremely important point, and hon. Members will want to listen. We have a triple lock in place to make sure that the pension upgrade is at the highest level possible. Next year, therefore, because of what we expect will happen with the retail prices index, the pension will be upgraded and increased along with it. When the right hon. and learned Lady gets to the Dispatch Box the next time, will she confirm that Labour’s plans were to uprate benefits by less than the consumer price index?

There was nothing complicated at all about the question, but it was one that the Prime Minister did not seem to want to answer. The answer is that the Government have not set aside a single penny for that big promise to pensioners. Next year prices are due to go up more than earnings, so bringing forward the earnings link by a year does not give pensioners anything extra. But although pensioners get nothing from that change we all know they will pay more in VAT. The Chancellor promised to provide help for pensioners. I am sure that pensioners, including those in the Southwark Pensioners Action Group, or SPAG, which the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), knows well, will want to know: are pensioners better off or worse off as a result of the Budget?

I have to say to the right hon. and learned Lady that there is a danger in asking the second question without having listened to the first answer. The first answer is that the pension will be uprated by RPI, which is likely to be higher than earnings next year. In terms of how much money we are putting into the state pension system—[Interruption.] How much, they ask? We are putting in £1 billion over the Parliament—£1 billion. What a contrast. In 13 years, Labour never linked the pension back to earnings. We have done it in two months.

The Prime Minister is not being straight about this. We know that there will be no increase in the pension from linking it with earnings a year early. A pensioner will not benefit from the cut in tax from raising the personal allowance either, because they do not get that if they are over 65, but they will pay more VAT. The Chancellor promised to help pensioners. Will the Prime Minister not admit that pensioners will be worse off under his Budget?

Perhaps I could recommend to the right hon. and learned Lady the Budget Red Book, although in her case I suspect it is the unread book. If she looks at page 41, she will see £1 billion going into the state pension system in this Parliament. What a contrast. We all remember the 75p increase for pensioners. Under our triple lock system, that can never happen again.

Page 41, table 2.1, item 48 states:

“Basic State Pension: introduce triple guarantee”.

Money set aside: zero. The Prime Minister is not being straight about his promise to pensioners.

Can I ask the Prime Minister about families with children? Families with children, with an income of less than £40,000, may be breathing a sigh of relief that they still have their tax credits, as that was on the news last night. But is it right? Can he confirm that—as he promised in the election—families on less than £40,000 will not lose their tax credit?

What we are doing is making sure that the less well-off families get the most money. What a contrast again. Since 2004, child poverty went up by 100,000 under a Labour Government. In this Budget, child poverty does not go up by a single family.

Once again, the Prime Minister is not answering the question. The truth is that, despite the Chancellor’s promise, the Budget small print shows big cuts in eligibility for tax credit. The Prime Minister promised that no family on less than £40,000 a year would lose child tax credit. Will he admit that that is not the case? Will he admit that there are families on a joint income of £30,000 who will lose all their tax credits?

The point that the right hon. and learned Lady has got to address is who left us in this mess. Who left a budget deficit of £155 billion, with absolutely no proposals to deal with it? Who put forward—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister. This level of barracking is unacceptable, and I can tell the House that it is detested by the electorate. It must stop.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Who put forward £50 billion of cuts, without outlining a single penny piece? The whole country can see what is happening here: one party put us into this mess; two parties are working together to get us out of it.

I think that what the electorate detest is broken promises, and people will want to know how the right hon. Gentleman’s Budget will affect them. He was not straight with pensioners. He was not straight with families. He was not straight on VAT. When the Chancellor got up to present his Budget, he proclaimed:

“I am not going to hide hard choices…in the small print of the Budget documents. The...public are going to hear them straight from me, here” —[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 167.]

Is not the truth that that was his first promise and that he broke it even before he sat down?

The right hon. and learned Lady talks about broken promises. We remember, “No more boom and bust.” What happened to that promise? We remember, “Prudence with a purpose.” What happened to that one? We remember, “We’ll protect the poorest,” when Labour took away the 10p tax rate. The fact is that the Labour party has got absolutely nothing to say about the biggest problem facing this country, which is the massive budget deficit. It might be adopting Greekonomics, but we are sorting out the problem.

Given the size of the structural deficit that we have inherited, how many apologies has the Prime Minister received from Opposition Members for what they have left behind?

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend, who, I know, will speak with great passion for his town of Blackpool? We should congratulate it on its footballing success recently. On that note, I am sure that the whole House will want to show its support—[Interruption] yes, including all Members—for the England team this afternoon in their key game.

I have not yet received a single apology for the appalling mess that we have been left, but at some stage, the Labour party will have to wake up and realise what a mess it made of the British economy.

Q3. Will there be fewer police officers at the end of this Parliament compared with the number that we have today? (3684)

What we want to do— [Interruption.] Opposition Members have got to start getting serious about the task that we face. We want to do everything that we can to keep police officers on the streets, to have money going into our schools and to keep up spending on our hospitals, and the only way that we are going to be able to do it is if we deal with the problems of excessive welfare spending. So if hon. Members want to see police on the streets and if they want to see well-funded schools, they have got to back us on housing benefit and on welfare reform. That is the way that we can keep spending up.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Daily Mirror on highlighting the terrible 172% increase in unemployment in Tamworth during the recession? Further, will he encourage that august journal to place the responsibility for that grizzly legacy squarely where it lies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I think that I am right in saying that it was in Tamworth that I came face to face with the Daily Mirror chicken, which was one of the most enjoyable episodes of the election. He is right about the unemployment figures, and one of the most important things that we have got to do is to introduce our work programme, which will be the biggest, boldest scheme in the history of this country to get people back to work. That is what needs to be done, and that is the best route out of poverty.

Q4. A 25% cut in public spending in Wales, together with a hike in VAT, will hit Wales especially hard. Does the Prime Minister now accept that he and his Liberal friends have let Wales down? (3685)

I do not accept that at all. The worst thing for Wales would be to continue with the budget deficit and rising debt, and to see our economy slide down. The choice in terms of the Budget is the road to recovery from this party, or the road to ruin offered by the Labour party.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the interesting progress in the European project for fusion research, of the opportunity for a materials testing facility to come to the United Kingdom, and of the suitability of Dounreay to deliver that work? Will the Government support such an application?

My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge about scientific issues. It is important that we lead in such areas. His constituency, with Dounreay, obviously has a huge technical edge, so I shall take his representations seriously.

Q5. I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of the send my friend to school campaign, in which my young constituents at Victoria primary school in Airdrie are involved and about which they will be writing to him this week. The campaign aims to ensure that the Government direct the £8.5 billion that was committed by the previous Labour Government towards universal primary education by 2015. The matter will be discussed on 7 July at the education summit in South Africa, which is tied in with the World cup. Has the Prime Minister personally spoken to President Zuma and other African leaders about their pledges, and will he confirm that a review of the Department for International Development’s funding will not compromise our pledge? (3686)

First, I welcome the hon. Lady following her election; I think that I am right in saying that she is the youngest Member of the House of Commons. She is quite right to talk about the millennium development goals and aid spending. It is good that it is common cause across the House of Commons that, despite the difficult decisions that we will have to take, we should meet the target of 0.7% of gross national income. We are committed to doing that, which means that we can continue to support the poorest people in the poorest countries. We will be addressing such issues this weekend at the G8 in Canada.

Q6. Yesterday, there was support on both sides of the House for raising the income tax threshold by £1,000. Does the Prime Minister agree that a Government who do that have to explain where the money is coming from? (3687)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I noticed yesterday that everyone in the House supported the idea of raising the income tax threshold so that we take 880,000 people out of tax altogether. If people are going to support such a pledge, which could cost as much as £4 billion, they have to say where the money is coming from, but so far we have not heard about one penny piece of one saving from any Labour Front Bencher. In terms of Labour’s election for leader, it does not matter who that is, because they are not giving any figures to show where they would find cuts. Until they do that, they simply will not be taken seriously.

Q7. The building work for the new £20 million maternity supercentre in Bolton is pretty well finished, but may I be assured that the Government’s decision to review the making it better programme in Greater Manchester will not affect the expansion, and particularly the funding, of Bolton’s Princess Anne maternity unit? (3688)

Absolutely nobody is proposing closing the new unit that has been set up. The hon. Gentleman will know that decisions that were taken about Greater Manchester in the previous Parliament caused a huge amount of pain in that vital part of our country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is asking the NHS to ensure that we meet the needs of patients locally, instead of just conducting top-down reviews that lead to the closure of much loved units.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what discussions he has held with the US Administration to ensure that BP remains a strong and viable company?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I have had two discussions with President Obama so far, including a very good telephone call last night. I made the point, especially in the earlier phone call, that of course BP wants to pay for the clean up and to stop the oil gushing into the gulf, and recognises that it must pay money in respect of fishermen and others who have lost their livelihoods, but we want to ensure that the company remains strong and stable for not only our benefit, but the benefit of the United States. I believe that 40% of the company’s shareholders are in the US, while 39% are in the UK, and it employs more people in the US than it does in the UK, so it is in all our interests that it is strong and secure in the future.

Q8. Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House that, in April 2012, there would be no more children living in poverty than there are today. Unfortunately, two thirds of the cuts in tax credits and benefits come after that date. Will the Prime Minister give the House his forecast of the number of children who will be living in poverty by the end of the Parliament? (3689)

What I would say to the hon. Lady is that, for the first time in any Budget—certainly since I have been in the House—we have actually published the distributional tables on what happens to income. Labour never did that; we have done it for 2012-13. As for what happens towards the end of the Parliament, I am pleased to say that there will be at least another three coalition Budgets, which we look forward to introducing, to make sure that we go on to protect the poorest in our country.

In the closing days of the previous Parliament, Anthony Steen trafficked through the House the Anti-Slavery Day Act 2010 to highlight the problems of human trafficking. The Government are required to announce a day for anti-slavery day. What progress has been made on that front?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I admired the work that Anthony Steen did. We have not set a date and he gives me an important reminder that I must get back to my office and make sure that we do.

Q9. For more than 20 years, Sky News has provided an excellent source of impartial news and analysis. Can the Prime Minister give a guarantee that, whoever ends up owning BSkyB, it will not be allowed to turn into Fox News, and that there is no room here for shouty, reactionary propaganda passing itself off as fair and balanced news? (3690)

The very idea of shouty, reactionary propaganda being passed in the House of Commons is an appalling thought. As I am sure we all recognise, these are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who will be looking at them very closely.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that, until yesterday’s Budget, the benefits for some of the poorest in society were to be increased at a rate less than inflation, and therefore cut in real terms?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Labour Government’s plans were to increase benefits by less than consumer price inflation next year. They left a £300 million—they do not know this, the dupes behind the Front Bench—[Interruption.] I think dupes is an accurate description of what I am looking at. There was a £300 million black hole, and you do not have to be a “Star Trek” fan to know that when you are in a black hole, you should stop digging.

Q10. In the interests of informing the dupes behind either Front Bench, and in response to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), will the Prime Minister agree to publish the tables for the years following the one that has been published in the Red Book, which is very welcome, so that we can advise him on how to improve the impact of his policies on child poverty? (3691)

What a pity the hon. Lady never made that point in 13 years of Government. Where were the distributional tables in the Budget after Budget that we—the poor dupes who were sitting at the back—had to listen to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) give over and over again? We have published the table for the first time. Between now and the years the hon. Lady talks about, there will be further Budgets, where we will make further progress in helping the poorest families in our country.

Does the Prime Minister agree with several generals, many members of the public and me that Trident should be included in the strategic defence and security review? Does he agree that if there is a case for retaining it, that would come out in the review; and if there is not a case, it should not be kept?

My hon. Friend will know that that matter was carefully negotiated in the coalition agreement between our two parties. My view is clear: Britain should retain the nuclear deterrent and we should always keep that insurance policy against great danger. Although I think that there is a case for looking at the costs of the Trident system and seeing how we can bear down on them, I do not believe that we should have the wider review that he suggests.

Q11. Yesterday, we were told that resolute action was necessary to deal decisively with our country’s debt. Does the Prime Minister believe that it is acceptable that Members’ allowances are being paid to Members of the House who neither take their seats nor participate in the work of the House? When will that injustice be remedied, as he promised before the election? (3692)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My views about this issue are on the record, and they have not changed. I would like to see if we can make the argument. There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this.

Q12. Saturday is Armed Forces day. In my constituency of Hexham in Northumberland we have hundreds of Royal Artillery servicemen who have recently returned from Afghanistan and will receive the freedom of the town. When they are off duty, they will receive multiple discounts from dozens of stores, restaurants and pubs that are doing their bit locally. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is everyone’s duty, not just in the House but all around the country, to go the extra mile and show the gratitude that we all have for our brave troops? (3693)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, this is something that the whole country needs to do, not just the Government. Yes, we have our responsibilities to make sure that we are living up to the military covenant and are doing all that we can for our armed forces and their families, but it is something that communities, individuals and businesses can do, too. I understand that in Hexham, there will be a nine-hour forces celebration. When those servicemen and women are off duty, there will be discounts, as he said, from restaurants and pubs, so I expect that it might get a bit lively, and I am sure that he will join in the fun.

A consequence of yesterday’s Budget and VAT rise is £26.5 million of new overheads for the NHS in Scotland. Having promised to ring-fence health spending, will the Treasury now cover those costs, or will this be another broken promise, just like Lib Dem opposition to a VAT rise before the election?

Of course, our action on national insurance contributions has saved the NHS money, which would not be available under a Labour Government. The point I would make is that that benefits Scotland. The fact that we are protecting the NHS and NHS spending means that money will be available in Scotland as well. The shadow Health Secretary has said that health should not be protected, and that the NHS should be cut. That is now, take note, the official position. The Leader of the Opposition is nodding—cutting the NHS is now official Labour policy.

Afghanistan (Military Patrols)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are conducting a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan. He asked specifically about the military purpose of routine foot and vehicle patrols in Afghanistan. If we are going to win the counter-insurgency and succeed in what is called “war amongst the people”, we have to be among them, protecting them from the insurgents. That is how we are going to create a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan, from which we will be able to return, leaving the Afghan forces in control.

Does the Prime Minister accept that there are other ways of fighting counter-insurgencies that do not involve sending out uniformed personnel along predictable routes, day after day, to be sniped at and blown up? Will he request that his military advisers focus on long-term strategies that could achieve our strategic aims without having to pay such an unnecessarily high price?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these matters, and I have arranged for him to meet senior officials and military advisers, so that he can explore his ideas with them. All that I would say is that the team that President Obama has put in place, and the team that we have in place of military and civilian leaders, have brought great impetus to the campaign. It is difficult to see, if we are trying to fight a counter-insurgency, how we can do so without having a number of active patrols to protect the people from the insurgents.

Order. I gently remind the House that this is a closed question on Afghanistan. Does anybody wish to come in? No. I call Mr Jonathan Evans.


Q14. Bearing in mind the Opposition’s claim that in Europe, Britain is now isolated, will my right hon. Friend indicate how on earth he managed to secure both French and German agreement to the announcement in relation to the bank levy in the Budget yesterday? (3695)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In the Budget yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced unity between the French, the Germans and the British on introducing a bank levy. The one group of people who are isolated, and who say that we have to wait for the rest of the world before we can ask our banks to make a proper contribution, are the Opposition. Once again, they have no proposals to fill the enormous black hole that the Government are getting to grips with.

The Office for National Statistics reported that while the richest 10% spent £1 in every £25 of their income on VAT, the poorest 10% spent £1 in every £7 of their income on VAT. How, then, can the Prime Minister justify his oft-repeated refrain that we are all in this together?

What I would say to the right hon. Lady—it is an important point and the Red Book sets it out—is that the richest 10% will pay in cash terms 15 times as much in VAT as the poorest 10%. The important point to take into account and look at is the Budget as a whole. In the Budget as a whole, we can see that the richest pay the most both in cash terms and as a percentage of their income. What we have done, by massively increasing child tax credits, is to ensure that there is no increase in child poverty. What a contrast that is with the figures since 2004. The Labour party put up child poverty by 100,000. That is the difference.