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Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan in the past few weeks. They were Sergeant Andrew Jones of the Royal Engineers and Trooper Andrew Howarth of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died on 18 September; Corporal Matthew Thomas from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who died on 25 September; Rifleman Suraj Gurung from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died on 2 October; and Sergeant Peter Rayner from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died on 8 October. They were incredibly courageous and selfless individuals who gave their lives in the service of our country and for the safety of the British people, and we should send our deepest condolences to their families and to their loved ones.

In the weeks since the House last met, UK forces have completed the latest stage of restructuring in Helmand province. There are now more than 8,000 UK troops and 20,000 American troops there. We now protect one third of the Helmand population, and in my view that is the right proportion.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Brigadier Richard Felton and the troops of 4 Mechanised Brigade for their commitment and sacrifice over the past six months. They have done an outstanding job, and I am sure that 16 Air Assault Brigade, which took over command on 10 October, will carry on that effort.

The House will also wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the family of Linda Norgrove, who died late on Friday evening. She was a dedicated professional doing a job that she loved in a country that she loved.

Finally—and I am sorry for the long opening of my remarks—I am sure that everyone would like me, on their behalf, to send our best wishes to the President and people of Chile, as they celebrate the trapped miners coming to the surface. We can see the glorious pictures on our television screens.

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.

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of condolence and sympathy.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Opposition Members on their choice of leader—even though he is not on the Front Bench and did not win? Has the outcome of that election changed my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the effectiveness of the alternative vote system?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It was good to see the alternative vote in practice, if I can put it that way, although of course, to be fair to my colleagues on the Government Benches, when it comes to the referendum the trade unions will not have quite such a large involvement.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). It is an important job that he does, calling the Government to account and standing up for Opposition Members. I am sure that there will be many times when we can work together on issues of national interest, such as on Afghanistan, which I was just talking about. I hope that he will not mind me saying that, as well as wishing him well, I hope that he does the job for many, many years to come.

May I start by thanking the Prime Minister for his kind words just then, and for the kind words that he gave to me when I was elected leader of the Labour party? As he said, there will be issues on which we can work constructively, including on Afghanistan.

I join him in paying tribute to our troops who have died in Afghanistan. They were Sergeant Andrew Jones of the Royal Engineers and Trooper Andrew Howarth of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died on 18 September; Corporal Matthew Thomas from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who died on 25 September, Rifleman Suraj Gurung from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died on 2 October and Sergeant Peter Rayner from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died on 8 October. Each of them showed the highest dedication, commitment and bravery. We honour their memory and pass deep condolences to their families.

We also honour Linda Norgrove, who died doing a simple job trying to make the lives of people in Afghanistan better—a necessary part of any political settlement. She too showed immense bravery. May I say to the Prime Minister that we fully support the decision the Foreign Secretary took to authorise her rescue? We must always make it clear from all parts of this House that responsibility for her death lies solely and squarely with those who took her hostage. May I ask the Prime Minister to update the House on his phone call with President Obama about the circumstances surrounding Linda Norgrove’s death and the progress on the inquiry into those circumstances?

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says and the way that he says it, both about our troops and about the tragic case of Linda Norgrove. As he knows, I spoke to President Obama to stress the point that we think it is extremely important that this is a joint US and UK investigation. I do not think there are any further details I can give about what happened that night—the picture is still unclear—but it was right, I think, to correct the early information, which most likely was wrong, about how Linda died. This investigation is now under way. When there is new information to bring to the House, we will bring it to the House. Most important of all, though, is to keep the family informed at every stage. I will meet General Petraeus tomorrow to discuss this further. I particularly want to echo what the right hon. Gentleman says about the responsibility for this. It is an impossibly difficult decision to make about whether to launch a raid and try to free a hostage. In the end we must all be clear: the responsibility for Linda’s death lies with those cowardly, ruthless people who took her hostage in the first place.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and for undertaking to keep the House informed. He has our full support on the issue.

Let me turn to the issue of benefits and say to the Prime Minister that we will work with him on his reforms to disability living allowance and to sickness benefits, because they are important reforms and they need to be done. On child benefit, though, I think that those on his own Benches and the country at large do have concerns. May I ask him, first, how many families where one parent stays at home will be affected by the changes that he has proposed to child benefit?

In terms of the number of families who will be affected, higher-rate tax is paid by 15% of taxpayers, and the decision that we have taken is to say that child benefit should not be received by families where there is a higher-rate taxpayer. I accept that this is a difficult choice, but the fact is—

I have answered the question, “How many?” The answer is that 15% of taxpayers are higher-rate taxpayers. This is a difficult choice, because as we deal with the deficit we have to ask better-off people to bear their share of the burden. The fact is that today we spend £1 billion giving money through child benefit to relatively better-off homes. We think that has to change, and I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman why he thinks that that is not the case.

I may be new to this game, but I think that I ask the questions and the Prime Minister should answer them.

I am afraid that that the Prime Minister did not provide an answer to the specific question I asked. By my reckoning, there are hundreds of thousands of families where one parent stays at home, and the question they are asking is this: why should a family on £45,000 where one person stays at home lose their child benefit—£1,000, £2,000, £3,000 a year—but a family on £80,000 where both partners in the couple are working should keep their child benefit? That does not strike people as fair, and it does not strike me as fair: does it strike the Prime Minister as fair?

What I believe is fair is asking better-off people to make a contribution to reducing the deficit. Let me try putting it this way to the right hon. Gentleman—think about it like this: there are thousands of people in his constituency earning one sixth of what he earns. Through their taxes, they will be paying for his child benefit. Is that really fair?

I am afraid it is nought out of two on straight answers. We should try to change the tone of these exchanges, but the Prime Minister must provide straight answers to straight questions that I ask him. I am not defending the rich—[Interruption.]

Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard, and if there are colleagues chuntering away who then hope to catch the eye of the Chair, I am afraid they are deluded.

I am defending the deputy head teacher in her primary school and the police inspector, who are asking a simple question. The Prime Minister used to agree with me. Before the election he went to Bolton, in an event that I gather was called “Cameron Direct”, and he said:

“I’m not going to flannel you. I’m going to give it to you straight. I like child benefit. . . I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means test it, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I agree with the Prime Minister: why doesn’t he?

The problem that the right hon. Gentleman has to face up to is that he left us the biggest budget deficit in the G20, and he has absolutely no proposals to deal with it. He opposes our changes on housing benefit, yes? You oppose those? He opposes our changes on a benefit cap—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Gentleman opposes our changes on a benefit cap, yes? Just nod. And he opposes our changes on child benefit. He quoted something to me; let me quote him something back:

“We have to be frank with people and show our mettle. In times of plenty, giving child benefit to high earners is a luxury the country”

cannot afford. That was Alan Milburn, someone who cared—[Interruption.] Ah, he’s gone. I love this—all the Labour politicians who used to win elections have been thrown out of the window. The right hon. Gentleman has to face up to the truth. We have a big budget deficit, and we have to ask better-off people to make their contribution. We say higher earners should not get child benefit. Their child benefit is being paid for by some of the poorest people in our country, and it is about time he protected them.

I really want the Prime Minister to face up to the scale of the changes he is proposing, and I say to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches that they should face up to the scale of the loss. Take a family on £33,000 after tax. If they have three kids, they will be losing £2,500 as a result of these changes. That is the equivalent of 6p on the basic rate of income tax. That is an enormous loss that the Prime Minister is inflicting on a particular group in the population. If he wants to take people with him on deficit reduction, he has to show that his changes are fair and reasonable. I come back to this point: I do not believe his changes are fair and reasonable—does he?

I do not think it is fair for the poorest constituents in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to contribute to his child benefit. That is what he is asking them to do. Let me remind him of something he said in July, which was that

“whoever is the Labour leader will, by the time of the spending review, have to show that they have an alternative plan”.

Where is the alternative plan? That was a speech he made to an organisation called Left Foot Forward. Could I suggest that he put both his left feet forward and tell us what the plan is?

Order. People should stop shouting. The public hate it, it is bad for politics and it should not happen.

The truth is that the Prime Minister has no defence of that policy. He cannot explain to families up and down the country why they will sustain that loss. I see the Chancellor sitting there. Let us be honest: the policy has been a shambles from day one. The rest of the Cabinet knew nothing about it, and the Local Government Secretary said he found out from the media that it would be announced. The Children’s Minister, whom I cannot see in the Chamber, went on the run because he was too scared to defend the policy. I bet the Prime Minister wishes the BBC blackout had gone ahead, given that his conference was such a shambles.

On child benefit, is it not time that the Prime Minister had the grown-up sense to admit that he has got it wrong and that he has made the wrong decision? He should tell middle-income families up and down Britain that he will think again.

The right hon. Gentleman has suddenly discovered middle-income families. We are now hearing about the squeezed middle, but who squeezed the middle? Who doubled the council tax and put up tax 122 times, and who taxed the pensions, the petrol, the marriages and the mortgages? Suddenly, having done all that to middle-income earners, Labour wants to stand up for them. That is a completely transparent political strategy to cover up the inconvenient truth that he was put where he is by the trade union movement. It is short-term tactics and political positioning: it is not red, it is Brown.

Q2. As vice-chairman of the parliamentary football club and a qualified football referee, I am well aware that there are just 50 days left before FIFA makes its momentous decision on the location of the 2018 World cup. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting the English bid, which is in the interests not only of football, but of the entire country? (16431)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure the whole country, and indeed everyone in the House, will want to get behind our bid for the 2018 World cup. I think we can launch and run an incredible World cup. We have the best fans, the best teams and the best stadiums, but above all this country has the biggest enthusiasm for football. We can make it a success for Britain and for the world.

I should also like to welcome Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, who will be coming to No. 10 Downing street after Prime Minister’s questions. Indeed, he is in the House of Commons today. I would like to reassure him on everyone’s behalf that behaviour in this House is always worse than behaviour either on the pitch or on the terraces.

It is sometimes easy to forget how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years, but there are still immense challenges to stability. In the light of discussions with the Chancellor on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive and the recent visit by the Deputy Prime Minister, can the Prime Minister confirm today that he will stand by the formal guarantees given to the Executive at the time of the restoration of devolution, especially in relation to the financial package and capital investment stretching through to 2018? Those are critical matters if we are to establish and embed devolution in Northern Ireland in a power-sharing Executive.

The right hon. Gentleman makes very good points on how far Northern Ireland has come. Everyone on both sides of the House wants to continue that process, make the institutions work and embed the peace that we have achieved in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my predecessors, who put so much hard work into that.

On the specific issues, the previous Prime Minister made a series of promises, particularly about policing and justice in Northern Ireland, which we discussed when we were the Opposition. We stand by those promises. On the Presbyterian Mutual Society and a group of people who did lose money in the financial crunch—I know how angry it can make people in Northern Ireland when people say, “Nobody lost money”, because they did—we are working very hard to try to find a fair and equitable solution.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree with the previous Government’s policy of part privatisation of Royal Mail? Will he urge those on both sides of the House to work together to help to revitalise that great British institution? (16432)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. The fact is that Royal Mail is a business that has falling volumes of mail and a £10 billion pension fund deficit, and it badly needs investment, modernisation and change right now. The last Labour Secretary of State supported such reform, the Conservative party supports that reform and the Business Secretary supports that reform, and we are publishing the Bill today, which includes a minimum of 10% employee share ownership and participation in this important move. I hope that the Opposition will not turn their backs on the future, but will back this change, rather than stepping back into their comfort zone.

We were all deeply saddened, especially in the Hebridean community, by the death at the weekend of Linda Norgrove, the aid worker from the Isle of Lewis. It was welcome that the Prime Minister took time to speak to her father on Monday. The family have asked me to convey that they are pleased that the US Administration corrected accounts of the events surrounding her attempted rescue and did not attempt to sweep information under the carpet. At a difficult time, the family are grateful for that openness, as they are for the care and support of the wider community in Uig at this time of grief. As Linda’s remains are expected to arrive in the UK this week, may I ask the Prime Minister that if the family need any help, independent or otherwise, in coming to a true understanding of what happened to their daughter in Afghanistan, they will receive it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and the way in which he put it. Linda’s family must have all the help that they need, and I have said that we will do anything that we can to help them and get them any information that they need. Tragically, nothing will bring Linda—that wonderful daughter who led an incredible life—back, but it can help to get all the information about what happened. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, William Patey, has met the family and will meet them again. Along with others, I hope that he can give them information on the background of what happened and why so that they, and the community that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, can try to find some closure to this terrible episode.

Q4. Lord Adonis said that a pure graduate tax would be unworkable and a catastrophe. Will the Prime Minister take the advice of the shadow Chancellor, who said:“Oh, and for goodness’ sake, don't pursue a graduate tax.”? (16433)

I thank my hon. Friend and she is right. We looked at this policy carefully over the summer—I am glad to see that the shadow Chancellor is laughing. I gather that at a lively shadow Cabinet meeting they could not agree on their policy. We looked at this in detail, and a pure graduate tax does not work. I recommend to the Opposition the document “Why not a Pure Graduate Tax?”, published by the Department for Education and Skills under the previous Government. It points out that

“there is no guarantee universities would receive the additional funding raised. There would be no direct relationship between what the student paid and the…value…of their course.”

A graduate tax would put up the deficit as it would not break even until 2041. It is a completely flawed policy, totally unworkable and expensive. As a first choice of policy to go out on, it is a complete disaster.

Q5. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he will retain the winter fuel allowance without any changes to the criteria? (16434)

I am extremely sorry, but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman’s question. I will either write to him—[Interruption.] Short questions are a very good thing, but I am afraid that I missed it. Is it in order for him to have another go?

Will the Prime Minister retain the winter fuel allowance without any changes to the criteria used?

Q6. This year, four British scientists have gained Nobel prizes, confirming their position in the premier league of world science. The comprehensive spending review gives an opportunity to identify areas for investment as well as reducing costs. Does the Prime Minister agree that, with the US, Germany, France and other countries increasing their expenditure on science, it would be prudent for Britain to do likewise? (16435)

It is vital that we retain a good science budget and invest in our science base, but I cannot hide from the hon. Gentleman—or anyone in this House—the fact that we inherited a budget deficit of £155 billion. [Interruption.] I know that the Opposition do not like hearing it, but it is the truth. Those are the facts, and we have to deal with that. We will do what we can to ensure that as we go through this process we help to keep science and scientists in this country. That is what we must do, but it is very difficult to make all areas immune from the spending reductions forced on us by the complete incompetence of the people now sitting on the Opposition Benches.

Q7. In the past two years, Britain’s cold weather payments were increased to £25, but the small print of this year’s legislation does not contain that guarantee. Is the Prime Minister really saying that 4 million of Britain’s poorest families and pensioners will have their payments cut by two thirds and receive just £8.50 this year? (16436)

The hon. Gentleman will know, as he worked closely with the previous Prime Minister, that there was never a guarantee about the scheme. We will look at it carefully and make our announcement in the spending review. [Interruption.] He asked a question; he might wait for the answer. He will have an announcement in the spending review.

Q13. Clare Rayner, the president of the Patients Association, sadly died yesterday. Her final words were a warning to the Prime Minister that if he screws up the NHS she is going to come back and haunt him. With the enormity of the financial crisis becoming ever clearer and the comprehensive spending review getting closer, can the Prime Minister reassure the House that we will honour our commitment to spend more on the NHS and improve outcomes to match the best in Europe? (16442)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I was brought up listening to Dr Rayner on Capital Radio, and I would never want to do anything to upset her or her memory. The House will know that we have protected the national health service and will invest in it, unlike the Opposition, who proposed to cut it.

Q8. The Prime Minister is aware that many small Presbyterian Mutual Society savers are at wits’ end corner. When do we expect to have a satisfactory conclusion to this whole issue, and will he assure the House that the Government will recognise the danger of a double-dip recession in Northern Ireland when the Chancellor makes his speech next week? (16437)

I know that the hon. Gentleman knows how difficult this issue with the PMS is. Achieving a fair resolution is not easy. I believe that we will have it done by the announcement of the spending review on 20 October. That is our goal. An announcement will be made, and he will be able to explain to his constituents what we are going to do.

Q12. This past summer, my constituents in Bromsgrove have had to endure Travellers trespassing on their land, vandalising it and causing thousands of pounds of damage. Will my right hon. Friend consider bringing forward legislation to create a new offence of intentional trespass, so that people who go on to land without the owner’s permission can be prosecuted without the need for a court order? (16441)

We will certainly look at the issue. The basic point is that this is an issue of fairness. If everyone else in the country has to obey planning laws, that should be the same for the Traveller community as well. We should have one law that everybody obeys. That is what we will aim for, and we will look at the proposal that my hon. Friend makes.

Q9. When the Prime Minister did the deal with the Deputy Prime Minister on the coalition, was it sealed with a traditional gentleman’s handshake or was there some kind of written pledge involved? If a written pledge was involved, why does the Prime Minister think that the Deputy Prime Minister is any more likely to honour his pledge to him than he was to honour the pledge that he gave to students and their families in this country? (16438)

What we fundamentally agreed between us was that it was going to take two parties to dig the country out of the mess that the hon. Gentleman’s party left us in.

Q10. One of the most short-sighted mistakes of the previous Labour Government was the repeal of business rate relief on empty commercial property. What measures can the Prime Minister take to reverse that decision or at least have a moratorium, to give a boost to regeneration, investment and business in the urban west midlands and my constituency of Wolverhampton South West? (16439)

I am afraid that I have to disappoint my hon. Friend a little bit. This was a bad tax. Properties were being left empty not because business people chose to do that; they were being left empty because of the recession. However, we are not in a position, with this massive budget deficit, where we can undo all the bad things done in one go. What we have focused on is getting a lower rate of corporation tax, cutting national insurance on new businesses and giving small business rate relief. Those are all things that will help to get our economy growing. As evidence of that, we can welcome today’s fall in unemployment figures and the growth in employment that we have seen over the past three months.

After years of falling as a result of Labour policies, unemployment in my constituency rose by 80% during the global recession. Will the Prime Minister therefore explain why his Government are going to close the only jobcentre in my constituency?

I want to take the right hon. Lady up on the way in which she put her question. She talked about falling unemployment under Labour, but omitted to point out that it rose under Labour in the past three years. What matters is helping people back into work, and what she will see with the Work programme is the biggest, boldest effort to get people out of benefits and into work that this country has ever seen.

Q11. My constituents very much welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is leading by example in these difficult economic times by taking a 5% reduction in his prime ministerial salary. Is he aware that the chief executive of Suffolk county council is paid a salary of £220,000 a year? Will he join me in calling on her and other senior public sector managers to set an example through leadership by taking a reduction in their salaries, especially given the fact that they are paid 15 or 20 times more than front-line public sector workers? (16440)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is right to have complete transparency in pay levels throughout the public sector. For the first time in a long time, we have been able to find out what all these people are being paid and, as a result, there is downward pressure and better value for money throughout local government. I think that this revolution in transparency should continue.

Bill presented

Postal Services Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Vince Cable, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mrs Secretary May, Mr Secretary Paterson, Secretary Michael Moore, Mrs Secretary Gillan, Mr David Willetts, Mr Edward Davey and Mr Edward Vaizey, presented a Bill to make provision for the restructuring of the Royal Mail group and about the Royal Mail Pension Plan; to make new provision about the regulation of postal services, including provision for a special administration regime; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow; and to be printed (Bill 78) with explanatory notes (Bill 78-EN).