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Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who died on Friday after being injured in Helmand province on 23 August. We are for ever indebted to him for the sacrifice that he has made. We send our sincere condolences to his family, friends and comrades who all miss him very much. He will not be forgotten.

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 sympathies to those of the Prime Minister?

At a time when we need to maximise growth and restore our public finances, is it not the height of irresponsibility that the unions are planning to go on strike, and should not former Ministers be ashamed of themselves for encouraging it?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Everyone in the country—the trade unions included—knows that we have to cut public spending, that we have to get the deficit down and that we have to keep interest rates down. It is the height of irresponsibility for shadow Ministers to troop off to the TUC and tell it that it is all right to go on strike. They should be ashamed of themselves.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment? We honour his bravery and we think of his family and friends as they mourn their loss. May I give my condolences to the Prime Minister and his family on the loss of his father? The words he used to express his love for his father touched everyone. Today, as we welcome the Prime Minister back to his place, I also congratulate him and Mrs Cameron on the birth of their new baby.

Let me ask about an issue that is of great concern on both sides of the House—the trafficking of women and girls for sex. This week, a gang was convicted here in London of bringing girls as young as 13 to this country to be sold for sex. The work of the police and prosecutors has protected young women from that gang, but this evil trade is growing. All parties in the House are united in their abhorrence of it. Will the Prime Minister update us on the work that is being undertaken to stop it?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady not only for what she said about the serviceman whom we lost in Afghanistan but for her very kind words about my father and our new daughter. I am very grateful for what was said last week by the shadow Lord Chancellor and for the letters that I have received from Members right across the House. It is very touching and heart-warming that people think about one at times like these, so I thank them for that.

Let me take this opportunity to say something about the right hon. and learned Lady, as I think this will be the last time that we face each other across the Dispatch Box. She is the third Labour leader with whom I have had to do battle—she is by far the most popular—and she has used these opportunities to push issues that she cares about deeply such as the one she raises today. She has been a thorough credit as the stand-in leader of the Labour party and I thank her for what she has done.

The issue of the trafficking of women and girls is an extremely important, sensitive and difficult one. I have been to see some of the exhibitions that have been run, including the one by Emma Thompson, about how bad the problem is. We are committed to working across the Government to do everything we can to help the police, to help at our borders and to make sure that we have in place all the laws and systems to bring this evil trade to an end. It is something that, tragically, has grown over recent years. We often talk about how we have ended slavery in our world, but we have not; it is still with us and this is the worst manifestation of it.

I thank the Prime Minister for his complimentary words—it is just as well that I am not wearing a hoodie.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about human trafficking, and I am grateful to him and the Deputy Prime Minister for working with us on it when they were in opposition. Will the Prime Minister help to build on that work by agreeing that the United Kingdom will opt in to the new European directive on trafficking in human beings, which the Commission proposed in March?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for raising that point. We are looking carefully at the issue. From looking at the directive so far, we have discovered that it does not go any further than the law that we have already passed. We have put everything that is in the directive in place. I am happy to go away and look again but, of course, as we do when thinking about all the things that we have to consider opting in to, we have to ask ourselves not only what is in this directive and whether we are already doing it—the answer in this case is yes—but what might be the consequences for our security and borders, and our ability to take decisions in the House. That is the consideration that we have to make, and I give absolutely no apology for saying that this Government will look at these things very carefully before signing them.

But the difficulty is that the Government have already indicated that they will opt out of the directive. If we are already complying with it in this country’s laws and practices, as well as working internationally, we should be proud of that and step forward to sign the directive. Will the Prime Minister reconsider?

I have already answered that, but let me make some additional points: first, the directive itself is still being finalised; and, secondly, there are opportunities at any stage to opt in to something of which we approve. However, the key point is that we must examine the directive and then ask whether opting in would add anything to what we already do in this vital area—[Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Hon. Members say yes, but the fact is that we do all the things that are in the directive today, so we then have to ask whether opting in would in any way endanger our borders and immigration system. That is a question that a responsible Government ought to ask, and it is a question that this Government will ask.

The right hon. Gentleman is hanging back on this—he should step forward and sign the directive. The point is that trafficking is an international crime. The traffickers work across borders, so we have to work across borders to stop them. Will he reconsider and opt into the directive?

I have answered the question. The fact is that we have to work internationally. We are working internationally as well as making sure that we have what we need at our borders and in our police service here in the UK. We are also looking at something that the previous Government did not put in place: a proper border police force, which would make a real difference to securing our borders. However, as I said, when looking at such directives, it is right to ask not just whether we are already doing the things that are in them, but what might be the other consequences of signing up. That is a sensible thing to do; the previous Government signed far too many things without ever thinking about what the consequences would be.

I am disappointed by the Prime Minister’s answer. I know that some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe, but he should not let them stand in the way of stopping human trafficking.

I have one last question before I go. When the Conservatives were in opposition, they regularly complained that we had Prime Minister’s questions only once a week. Now that the right hon. Gentleman knows just how enjoyable the experience is, does he plan to bring it back to twice a week?

It is one of the few things that Tony Blair did of which I thoroughly approve. Quite seriously, having worked for Leaders of the Opposition and Prime Ministers who did Prime Minister’s questions, I think that a half-hour session once a week is good not only so that Parliament can grill the Prime Minister, but so that the Prime Minister can grill everyone in his or her office to find out everything that is going on in government. That is the right way to do these things.

I know that we are not saying goodbye to the right hon. and learned Lady—it is only au revoir—and that she will be the deputy leader under whichever leader the Labour party elects. I note that she can spend some time over the coming days contemplating what to do with the four votes that I think she has in the election, because she is of course a member of a trade union, a Member of Parliament, a member of the Labour party and a member of the Fabian Society. Her position can be combined with her husband’s, whom I believe has another three votes—democracy is a beautiful thing!

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the saddest legacies the Government inherited is the fact that one child in five grows up in a household in which nobody is in work? Does he agree that it is not just an economic but a moral imperative that we should, to coin a phrase, move from a handout to a hand up?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want to tackle poverty, we must go to the causes of poverty. The chief cause of poverty is people being out of work generation after generation and, as he says, young people growing up in homes where nobody works, where there is no role model to follow. That is why we are pursuing the welfare reform agenda so vigorously, because we want to help people to get out of unemployment and into work. We want it to be worth while for everybody to work or to work more than they do now. That is what our welfare reforms, so scandalously neglected by the previous Government, have set out to achieve.

Q2. The proposed £400 million Mersey Gateway project, which will create up to 4,000 new jobs in the area, is under threat because of the spending review, despite the fact that it is strongly supported by business and by all local authorities across Cheshire and Merseyside, including the Chancellor’s local authority. How will cutting projects such as the Mersey Gateway help economic growth in the north-west? (15258)

We are not making any further cuts in capital spending. The hon. Gentleman ought to ask the question of those on his own Front Bench. The Labour party went into the last election with a 50% cut in capital spending in its figures, and did not tell us one single project that would be cut. We have said that that is far enough; we should go no further. We will be protecting capital spending to help to boost the recovery in our country.

Q3. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his excellent speech on parliamentary reform, promised far more free votes in the Committee stage of major Bills. Can he confirm that this bold and courageous policy will apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? (15259)

We have already taken some big steps to pass power from the Executive to Parliament—[Interruption.] Someone shouts “Rubbish.” We established the Backbench Business Committee. The Opposition had 13 years; they never did that. We gave the House of Commons control over electing Select Committee Chairmen. The Opposition had 13 years to do that. It never happened. We will be giving Select Committees further powers over selecting and looking at appointments in the public sector, and I am the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right to call a general election. As for major parts of legislation set out in our coalition agreement, I regret to inform my hon. Friend that I will be hoping for all my colleagues to support them with head, heart and soul, if I may put it that way, but should there be greater opportunities for free votes, yes, there should be. I remember the previous Government, even on topics such as embryo research and experimentation, whipping their Members, particularly in the House of Lords. That was quite wrong and it will not happen under this Government.

Q4. Given the strategic defence importance of the aircraft carriers, on which work has already started, will the Prime Minister undertake to meet urgently with me, other parliamentary colleagues and workplace representatives so that they can put to him their concerns about reports that the aircraft carriers will be cancelled, before it is too late? (15260)

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and his Ministers are happy to meet anyone who wants to discuss the state of the defence budget and the appalling legacy that we have been left. Of all the budgets that I have looked at, that is the one where we were left the biggest mess—£38 billion over-committed, and decisions taken that made very little sense at all. But the hon. Gentleman will be seeing a strategic defence review in which we properly review how we can make sure that we have forces that are right for our country, right for our interests and ensure that we protect our interests around the world.—[Interruption.]

I am afraid I have no props.—[Laughter.]

With only five years to go to achieve the millennium development goals, which are still way off track, what will the Prime Minister do to ensure that those critical promises are kept?

My apologies for missing the joke. Next time I will look more carefully. I did not know that we were allowed props, Mr Speaker, but obviously you take a more relaxed view of these things.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point and the conference—[Interruption.]

Order. I may take a relaxed view about some things, but not about excessive noise. The Prime Minister must be heard.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the millennium development goals, set in 2000 and meant to be completed by 2015, and there is a vital conference, which the Deputy Prime Minister will be attending next week, on that specific issue. This country—this applies to parties on both sides—can hold its head up high, given that we are going to hit the 0.7% target of gross national income going to aid. That means that we will be playing our part in making sure that those vital MDGs are met. It is important, although spending decisions are going to be difficult, that we hold our head up high not only overseas but at home and say, “This is right, to help the poorest in our world, even when we have difficult budget decisions at home.”

Q5. May I join the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the family of Kingsman Darren Deady, who was a constituent of mine and sadly lost his life last Friday, having been injured in Afghanistan three weeks ago? His senior officer said that Kingsman Deady “was a superb soldier—trusted, respected and an example to others.”He will be sadly missed. Bolton Community and Voluntary Services has already lost £89,000 of grants this year for small voluntary groups—groups often working with the most vulnerable. Many organisations are on the brink of closure because of those cuts. If the Prime Minister believes in the big society, what will he do to save those groups? (15261)

What I would say to the hon. Lady’s local council is what I would say to every council in the country, which is that we all know—and Opposition Members know—that we have to make spending reductions. The Opposition were committed to £44 billion of spending reductions at the last election, and we should say to every single council in the country, “When it comes to looking at and trimming your budgets, don’t do the easy thing, which is to cut money to the voluntary bodies and organisations working in our communities. Look at your core costs. Look at how you can do more for less. Look at the value for money you get from working with the voluntary sector.” The hon. Lady should take that message to her local authority. That is the message that I would take to her local authority, and everyone should try to work in that direction.

Q6. Has the Prime Minister received any representations from Fidel Castro on deficit reduction? Is there any possibility of arranging a trade union conference pass for Mr Castro so that he might be able to enlighten the trade unions on cutting the size of the state? (15262)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This week it was revealed that even Communist Cuba has got with the programme that we need to cut budget deficits and get spending under control. So we have Comrade Castro on the same planet as the rest of us; we just have to get the Labour party and the trade unions on that planet at the same time.

Q7. Burma and Iran were signatories to the universal declaration on human rights, but there are some men and women who cannot exercise those rights. In particular, Sakineh Ashtiani awaits death by stoning, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned because she won an election. Will the Prime Minister make urgent and renewed representations to the Governments of Burma and Iran in order to free those brave and courageous women? (15263)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue, and I shall do precisely as she says and continue to make those representations. It is important that we make them not just to those Governments, but to Governments who sometimes take a slightly different view. When I was in India I raised the issue of Burma with the Indian Government, because I think it is important that we talk to the neighbouring states of those countries and make sure that they are campaigning in the same way.

The human rights record in Iran is absolutely appalling. The person to whom the hon. Lady refers is being treated in a completely inhuman and despicable fashion, and we should be absolutely clear that the situation in Burma is an affront to humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention is an outrage. She has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest, and her example is deeply inspiring. All of us like to think that we give up something for democracy and politics; we do not. Compared with those people, we do nothing. They are an inspiration right across the world, and we should stand with them.

Like the last Government, we have promised to act on the litter that defaces our towns and countryside. Unlike the last Government, will we take some real practical action, such as starting a bottle deposit and refund scheme, which a Campaign to Protect Rural England report launched today shows will protect the environment and save local authorities millions of pounds?

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion. Bill Bryson has made this suggestion to me as well because of the success that schemes like this have had in other countries. I will certainly ask his right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary to look at this issue and see if we can take it forward.

Q8. Back in June, Andrew Cook boasted that he was the largest donor to the Conservative party in Yorkshire, yet it turns out that his registered main residence is on the island of Guernsey. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that when he accepted free plane flights from Andrew Cook, he did so having satisfied himself that such a donation was both legally and morally acceptable? (15264)

Obviously it is up to every party leader to make sure that when they accept a donation they make proper checks and do so in the proper way. All the donations that the Conservative party has received are properly set out with the Electoral Commission and other bodies, and we do everything we can to make sure they are accurate; I hope that the Labour party does the same thing.

Q9. Two weeks ago, Bola Ejifunmilayo and her three year old daughter Fiyin burned to death in an unregistered house in multiple occupancy. Often poorly converted, with enormous fire risks, the majority of HMOs in Milton Keynes and elsewhere remain unregistered. What more can the Government do to end this plight and hopefully prevent another tragedy? (15265)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about an absolutely tragic case. As he knows, local authorities are responsible for licensing houses in multiple occupation, and they have the power to prosecute landlords who fail to apply for a licence—and they should do so. There have been too many cases like this. The law is there; it should be used. Our whole approach is to give local authorities the power they need, and the discretion they need, to take action for the good of their communities; that is the change we want to bring.

Q10. Building work is already under way on a new campus for Skelmersdale and Ormskirk college in my constituency, so it was a real shock to find that £4 million committed to the project will now not be available because of the Government’s decision to stop the budgets of the regional development agency with immediate effect. Will the Prime Minister please meet me and those at the college to try to find a way through? The building is already going up, and this would be a real embodiment of a hand up to the young people of Skelmersdale and the start of the regeneration of Skelmersdale. (15266)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this specific case, and I will go away and look at it. In the Budget, while we did make difficult decisions, and some spending reductions were made, we actually put some money back into college building projects because so many schemes had suffered from the overspending and lack of control over the past couple of years. I will certainly look at her case and see whether a Minister can meet her to see what progress can be made.

In Great Yarmouth, one of our Labour legacies is that we still have one of the more deprived wards in the country. Will the Prime Minister outline the plans he has to deal with one of the legacies he has inherited, which is the shocking breach in the achievement levels of deprived schoolchildren?

There are many things we need to do to tackle deprivation. We have spoken today about the importance of tackling long-term unemployment and joblessness that goes back through generations. Clearly, one of the other things is making sure that children from less well-off backgrounds are getting access to the best schools available. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has announced this week how we are going to try to help children on free school meals to get access to the very best schools in our country, and we want to expand the number of good schools by allowing academies and free schools to go forward. I hope that Labour Members will back those plans. The problem we have is that there are not enough good school places. It does not matter how many different schemes are devised for lotteries or anything else for getting kids into good schools, we need more good school places, not least in Great Yarmouth.

Q11. Talking of schools, on 2 September the Department for Education sneaked out the equalities impact assessment associated with the Building Schools for the Future decision. That assessment showed that the scrapping of that policy had a disproportionate impact on poorer children in our society. Can the Prime Minister explain what is progressive about that? (15267)

One person’s announcement is another person’s sneaking out; I do not quite understand that. Let me tell the person who was largely responsible for designing Building Schools for the Future what a completely shambolic and disastrous programme it was. It took three years and £250 million before a single brick was laid; well, maybe we should assess that. The other thing that we could perhaps assess—it is worth reminding people of this—is the bureaucracy of Building Schools for the Future. There were nine meta-stages to putting in a bid. Each of the nine stages had further sub-stages. This is what a local authority had to do—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman was responsible for the programme; I am sure this will be a trip down memory lane for him. [Interruption.]

Thank you very much.

Local authorities that wanted to get involved needed a partnership for schools director, a director of education project adviser, a 4Ps adviser, an enabler from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—[Interruption.] I am sorry the list is so long, but it goes on and on. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] The answer is that it was a disastrous programme, completely overspent and totally out of control. The last Government had announced 50% cuts and had not told us where a penny was coming from, and the hon. Gentleman is largely responsible for it.

Could the Prime Minister confirm that the Minister for Immigration will in the next few days come up with a solution for the English language schools in the UK, so that the good schools can move forward productively while bogus colleges and bogus students are dealt with?

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is working extremely hard on that issue. We all want the same thing, which is to ensure that Britain benefits as a provider of great education courses, universities and colleges that can attract talented people from around the world. But at the same time, we all know that there have been too many bogus colleges and too many bogus students coming here not really to study but to work or for other reasons, and we have to crack down on that. That is what my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister is trying to do, and I am sure he will be in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) to ensure that that is the outcome of the policy.

Q12. I want to help the Prime Minister to reconsider the fact that we are not signing up to the directive on human trafficking, which, as he may understand, I know a little about. As a consequence, we rely on sections 57 and 59 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That means that we cannot, for example, pursue or have any jurisdiction over someone who is normally a resident of the UK but is not a UK national, who is involved in human trafficking. More importantly, we cannot have jurisdiction when a UK resident in another EU country is trafficked by a non— (15268)

I will obviously listen very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, and perhaps he would like to set out in detail why he thinks this is so important. The point is that the UK’s victim care arrangements are already in line with internationally agreed standards, as set out in the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. The UK already does what is required by the proposed directive on assisting victims, so the proposed directive would not improve the provision of victim care. Those are the facts, and Opposition Members need to engage with that point.

If the Prime Minister were invited to lecture at Harvard university, like the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), on what subject would he care to speak?

Q13. What is the Prime Minister doing to protect manufacturing in the west midlands, and in Coventry in particular? Equally, what is he doing to protect the research and development that a lot of manufacturing companies rely on? (15269)

The most important thing that we can do is make Britain a great place to do business, to set up a business and to manufacture. That is why we showed in the Budget that we are going to cut corporation tax to one of the lowest levels in the developed world, why we are cutting national insurance for every new business that sets up, and why we are dealing with the appalling economic inheritance that we were left by the Labour party so that this economy can grow, have low interest rates and get moving to provide good jobs for all our people. That is what this Government are all about, and that is what we are fixing.

Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that the last Government took £30 million a year out of our social housing budget to give to their friends elsewhere? Because of that under-investment, one in 10 people in my constituency are on the council housing waiting list. Does he agree that social housing money raised in Harlow should be spent in Harlow, and that Harlow housing money should be for Harlow people? (15270)

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, which is that in our relations with local government, at a difficult time in terms of budgets, we should be giving it money and taking away the ring-fencing and complications and all the different grants. We should say, “There’s the money. You’re democratically elected, you decide how that money is spent.” That is what people are going to see from this Government, and I think it will be welcomed by local government up and down the country.

Before the election, the Prime Minister said:

“If I am Prime Minister a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with”

the Northern Ireland

“Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS”—

the Presbyterian Mutual Society—and continued:

“you’ve done the right thing and you deserve for that to be recognised and rewarded.”

How soon will that pledge be honoured?

I am determined that we will honour that pledge. This is important. I know how angry people in Northern Ireland are when they hear British politicians say, “Of course, nobody lost any savings in the crash.” People did lose money, including in Northern Ireland, and they are right to be upset and angry.

A working group is trying to go through those issues and to find an answer. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is involved in that, and the Chancellor is engaged in the issue. It is not easy, but we are determined to find a solution so that we can give satisfaction to people who lost money in Northern Ireland and who currently feel that they have been let down.