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Prime Minister

Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

During this Parliament, our contributions to the European Union will increase by £17.5 billion, so yesterday’s cuts to the defence budget will not go to reduce the deficit, but to subsidise our European partners. This is obscene. What would the Prime Minister like to say to the European Union?

First, the point is that the previous Government gave away some £8 billion of rebate and got nothing in return. I am clear that we will not accept any increases in the EU budget in the next seven-year financial perspective. We have called for a cash freeze in the size of the EU budget for 2011 and we are working hard to make this case across Europe. Just yesterday, I spoke to the new Dutch Prime Minister as he is another ally in trying to ensure that, as we make difficult decisions at home, we do not spend extra money on the EU budget.

I want to start by asking the Prime Minister about something that the Justice Secretary said. Unfortunately, he has become part of the “squeezed middle” due to the logjam on the Tory Front Bench. Three weeks ago, the Justice Secretary—a former Chancellor—said:

“I do not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession”.

On the same day, the Prime Minister said that the UK economy was out of the danger zone. Which of them is right?

First, let me compliment the Justice Secretary because he has something that I am not sure the Leader of the Opposition has yet acquired, which is bottom.

If the Leader of the Opposition read out the full quotation from the Lord Chancellor he would find that it referred to western Europe as a whole. That is the point. Perhaps he would like to read out the whole quote now.

The—[Interruption.] Let me be very clear about this. The Justice Secretary said:

“I do not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession”

because of global fear and crisis. He was talking about the United Kingdom. It is a very simple question for the Prime Minister. Who is right? Is it the Justice Secretary when he does not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession? Or is the Prime Minister saying that the Justice Secretary has put his foot—or his Hush Puppy—in it? Is he saying that the Justice Secretary was wrong to say that there was a risk of double-dip recession in the UK?

Of course, the Leader of the Opposition must ask the questions and I must answer them, but he must—if I may say so—ask a complete question which should include the complete quotation. Have another go.

Order. I want time for Back Benchers, especially those on the Order Paper. Let us make some progress.

Look, the Prime Minister knows as well as I do that there are risks in the global economy, including to the United Kingdom. The Chief Secretary revealed yesterday that half a million jobs will be lost as the result of the Chancellor’s announcements today. What people who are in fear of losing their jobs will want to know is what the consequences of the spending review will be for them. They will think that this spending review will be a failure if it leads to rising unemployment next year. Will the Prime Minister say that he agrees with them that the spending review will be a failure if unemployment were to rise next year—yes or no?

That is a much better question; I think we are making some progress. The whole point of the Government’s approach is to take the British economy out of the danger zone, which is where it was left by the last Government. This is very important: the choice that we were left with when we came into power was to accept what the last Government had set out, but this is what was said about that. The Governor of the Bank of England said that it was “not a credible plan”, the CBI said that it was not a “credible path”, the OECD said that it was a “weak fiscal position”, and the IMF said that it was not good enough. We had a choice: should we keep what we were left with or should we take bold action to get Britain out of the danger zone? That is what we have done. That is what today is all about, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman asked something relevant to that.

The Prime Minister began by saying that it was a good question, then he said that it was irrelevant. Which is it? Let me give him another—[Interruption.] I know that he is getting advice from the Chancellor; he can answer the questions himself. Let me try the Prime Minister on another question, because he did not answer that one.

The Energy Secretary, who does not seem to be around—[Hon. Members: “He is here!”] Oh, he is there. Excellent. I am glad that he is here. The Energy Secretary says that the Government should not be “lashed to the mast” of the Government’s tax and spending numbers were economic circumstances to change. Does the Prime Minister agree? In particular, if at the end of November the Office for Budget Responsibility were to forecast a rise in unemployment next year, does the Prime Minister think that the tax and spending judgments of the Government should change? Yes or no?

First, to respond to what the right hon. Gentleman said about me and the Chancellor, I know that it is a novel concept, but in this Government the Prime Minister and the Chancellor speak to each other.

On unemployment, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility—which we have established and which is fully independent—is forecasting that unemployment will fall next year, the year after and the year after that. It is forecasting that employment—[Interruption.] One question at a time, please. The right hon. Gentleman is very eager. The Office for Budget Responsibility also forecasts that employment will rise next year, the year after and the year after that. That is the independent forecast, and one of the reasons for that is that we have taken the economy out of the danger zone. He asks about the Energy Secretary, but what is interesting about this Government is that two parties have come together in the national interest to sort out the economic mess that was left by the other. That is what has happened, and that is why there is real unity in this Government in dealing with the mess that we inherited.

Let me give the Prime Minister another chance, because the truth is that the global economic outlook is uncertain, as the former Chancellor admits—the Prime Minister does not really want to admit it—and it could affect the UK. The question that people will be asking as they watch these exchanges is this: if things change, and if unemployment were to rise next year, will the Government revise their tax and spending plans? It is a simple question; the Prime Minister can just say yes or no.

Where the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right is that we live in a dangerous world economy, and the outlook for the world economy is choppy and difficult. That is what the Justice Secretary was talking about and what the Chancellor has been talking about. The question for the Government is this: in an uncertain world economy, are we taking the British economy out of the danger zone? Are we doing the right thing to protect the long-term interests of people’s jobs and livelihoods? That is what we are doing. What the right hon. Gentleman is doing is thoroughly irresponsible, and I think he probably knows it.

This is very interesting, because the Prime Minister used to say that he was a different type of Conservative, but I have given him the chance to say that he will change his plans if unemployment rises, and he has ducked the chance to do so. We all remember the catchphrases: “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”; “Unemployment is a price worth paying.” He sounds exactly like that. What we have is a Prime Minister lashed to the mast of the tax and spending plans. Should he not admit it? He is taking the biggest gamble in a generation—with growth, with people’s jobs and with people’s livelihoods.

We all remember some catch phrases: “No more boom and bust”—remember that one?—and “Prudence with a purpose”, which left us with the biggest budget deficit in the G20. We remember that, and who was the economic adviser at the Treasury at the time? He is sitting right there—[Interruption.]

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one simple piece of advice that I learned sitting in his seat for five years: if you have not got a plan, you cannot attack a plan. He has not got a plan, so he has got nothing to say—[Interruption.]

Charnwood borough council has completed the online publication, three months early, of all its expenses over £500. In the light of today’s announcements, is it not right that taxpayers want to know exactly how much is spent in their name and what the money is spent on?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one of the ways that we will try to save money while not losing too many jobs in the public sector is by making sure that we are more efficient. One of the best tools for efficiency is transparency: putting online what is spent and how it is spent, and what people’s salaries are can help to drive down costs in a way that makes public services better while saving money at the same time.

Q2. Many of my constituents fear for their jobs. Will the Prime Minister reassure them by explaining how cutting science funding is part of a strategy for growth? Germany is increasing its science funding by 7%. On jobs, is the Prime Minister’s message to Newcastle: “Auf wiedersehen, pet”? (18064)

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, which is that, in making spending reductions—whoever had won the last election would have had to make spending reductions—it is vitally important that we try to protect economic growth. The last Government were committed to 20% departmental spending reductions, and I can say—without, I hope, pre-empting all of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement—that I hope she and the whole House will find that we have struggled hard but we have been able to freeze the science budget in cash terms, which is a good outcome for science.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of Save the Children and other charities that deal with development work in some of the most difficult places in the world? Does he share my delight in today’s news of the release of Frans Barnard in Somalia?

I do, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this case. We have been in close contact with Save the Children over the kidnap of Frans Barnard, who is doing vitally important work on its behalf in Somalia, and we are delighted by the news that he has been freed by his kidnappers. Let me praise the professionalism of Save the Children and thank the Somali clan members who were involved in his release. I am sure that it will be good for him to be back with his family after what must have been a very frightening and difficult few days.

Q3. On the day when more than 2,000 supporters of Christian Aid, including some from my own constituency, have come to Parliament in support of a cross-party consensus on protecting the aid budget, does the Prime Minister agree that we should be leading a global crackdown on the tax-dodging that costs poor countries more each year than they actually receive in aid? (18065)

I do; on a day when I am sure that there will not be cross-party agreement on everything that is discussed, we should just take one moment to celebrate the fact that this country, almost alone among other countries, is going to meet the United Nations target of 0.7% of gross national income for overseas aid by 2013. We have made difficult choices under this Government in order to deliver that, and to keep our international promise to some of the poorest people in the world. Every party in the House can be proud of the role that it will play in ensuring that Britain stands up for aid in our modern world, and we can put pressure on other countries to do the same thing.

Will the Prime Minister join me in backing the supporters of Ilkeston Town football club in my constituency who are working hard to put together a bid to save the club? If they are successful, it will be the first supporter-owned football club under the new coalition Government, and a real asset to us in Erewash.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many hon. Members will have football clubs in their constituencies that sometimes struggle financially, and seeing one owned by its supporters is a very positive move. I hope she will not mind if I spend more of my time on another football bid, which is the very important bid to make sure that England hosts the World cup in 2018.

Q4. I have already briefed the Prime Minister on the likely impact of the interim cap on migrant workers on a leading-edge company in my constituency. The one graduate sponsorship licence issued has suddenly been withdrawn. Can the Prime Minister assure me that he will review this case urgently, as this expert is pivotal to growth and jobs in our community? (18066)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. I will arrange for the Minister for Immigration to look urgently at this case. The point is that we have consulted business and other interested parties on how the limit should work. We have also asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consult on what the actual limit should be. The consultations are closed and we will announce the findings in due course. The reason for an interim cap is that it was important to have a temporary limit to ensure that there was no closing-down sale, as it were, before the final limit was introduced. I will make sure that the Minister for Immigration gets in touch with the hon. Gentleman about this case.

Q5. May I ask my right hon. Friend a question of which I have given him prior notice? Will he tell the House why he believes that the first-past-the-post system for election is far fairer than the alternative vote system? (18067)

My hon. Friend tempts me into answers that will not delight everyone on this side of the House. I am clear that I have always supported the first-past-the-post system. I like to have the individual link between constituency and MP. In some cases, the alternative vote would have led to even more disproportional outcomes in national elections. Let me thank my hon. Friends who I know have misgivings about this referendum for allowing the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to go through. I think we should make this argument in the country rather than try to wreck the Bill in the House.

Q6. Now that the final day of the Chancellor’s judgment has arrived, can the Prime Minister assure me by confirming that the decision taken on the 50,000 savers of the Presbyterian Mutual Society will be both fair and equitable? Will he assure us that no sleight of hand will be used in delivering the full financial package promised by the previous Administration to the Northern Ireland Executive? (18068)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Having already announced one of the Chancellor’s nuggets from his speech, it would be testing our friendship if I announced another. I gave my word about finding a settlement for the PMS. I know how important this is in Northern Ireland. I know that people lost money and that there was frustration that Ministers would stand at the Dispatch Box and say that no one had lost money during the financial crash—they did in the PMS. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied by what the Chancellor has to say in a moment.

Last week, I joined a parliamentary delegation to China, where I was able to pick up a copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Is the Prime Minister interested to learn that Chairman Mao said:

“Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure.”?

If Mao Tse-tung supports coalition policy, does that not mean that the Labour party is in a minority of one?

I am glad that my hon. Friend is travelling the world and learning so much. We learned a few weeks ago that even Cuba is making reductions in public spending, so I think this puts the modern Labour party somewhere between China and Cuba—but I am not quite sure where.

Q7. Following a meeting with the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners yesterday, it is clear that this Government intend to breach the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday and the St Andrews agreements by refusing to bring in a Human Rights Act specifically for Northern Ireland, as recommended by the commission and supported recently by more than 80% of the Protestant and Catholic communities. How can the Prime Minister possibly excuse this betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland? (18069)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will look at that carefully; I know that it has been discussed. It is a difficult issue and there are some problems that we need to resolve, but I will look at it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable that the European Union is expanding its bureaucracy while here in the UK we are cutting ours?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This is a point that I have made at the European Council in the past and that I will make again at the next one. There are allies for these views in Europe. I talked about the Dutch Prime Minister; the Germans are also unwilling to see increases in the budget in future. We need to work with these allies to try to explain that it is just unacceptable. When we are making difficult decisions at home, Europe should be doing the same with its own budget.

I think that that issue was fully raised by Channel 4, and fully answered by the Government. Everyone should obey the law; everyone should pay their taxes.

Q9. Despite the Prime Minister’s earlier answers, can I tell him that at a time when we are cutting budgets in this country, it is absolutely unacceptable that the Government rubber-stamped an increase in the budget of the European Union? Given that he pledged at the general election that only two budgets would be ring-fenced—those for the health service and overseas aid—will the Government go to the European Union and say that we are not only talking about freezing the budget, but want it to take the pain and cut its budget? (18071)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but the fact is that we opposed the increase in the budget that he voted against the other night, and will go on opposing increases in the budget. The key is the next financial perspective: that is the best way in which to control the budget. We need to build allies for that, we need to build our argument for that, and we need to make sure that Europe starts to live within its means.

Q10. The North East chamber of commerce has reported that 17,000 construction jobs are at risk as a direct result of proposed cuts in local councils. For some of us in the House, unemployment is not just a subject for theoretical discussion. Some of us have lived through and experienced the real desolation that unemployment means. Will the Prime Minister now tell us clearly whether he believes today what he believed in 1992—that unemployment is a price worth paying? (18072)

I do not take that view at all. I take the view that we must do everything we can to get our people into good and well-paid jobs. I have to say, however, that if we do not tackle the deficit, every job in the country will be under threat. That is the point. We are not doing this because we want to; there is no ideological zeal in doing this. We are doing this because we have to.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British Chambers of Commerce. What the British Chambers of Commerce said at the time of the Budget was that this

“will have positive effects on business and investor confidence”


“will be welcomed by companies the length and breadth of the country—and across the globe.”

That is what the chambers of commerce think. They think that we are right to take this action, and they think that the Labour party is wrong.

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that you do not need a basic economics primer to know that when there is a £44 billion black hole in the public finances, you should not propose additional commitments of £10 billion in speeches made outside the House around the country? (18073)

And in speeches after which they will not answer any questions, which is a novel approach.

My hon. Friend is right. We have a problem with the deficit in this country, and we have got to deal with it. We have set out the ways in which we are going to do that, and we have set out a plan. The Opposition do not have a plan, and you cannot attack a plan unless you have one yourself. If all you can do is come up with extra taxes for extra spending, you are completely irrelevant to the debate in the country today about how we pay down our debts. That is the question, and we have the answer.

Q12. Given the Prime Minister’s repeated assurances that the north-east has nothing to fear from him, his Government, and public sector job cuts because he believes that the private sector will thrive in the vacuum, can he name just three businesses in the north-east that he believes will be expanding their work forces in the next 12 months? (18074)

This week 38 businesses wrote to the papers backing the action. Those businesses were spread right across the country, but let me give the hon. Lady some satisfaction in terms of the north-east. I believe that the north-east has a great future in renewable energy, and she is about to hear that we are protecting capital spending so that the carbon capture and storage projects will go ahead and the investment in wind power will go ahead. As for the green investment bank, which lots of people have talked about, we will be putting proper money into it so that it can invest in the north-east and elsewhere in the country.

Q13. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents who rely on the excellent hospitals in Grantham and Stamford that he has rejected the advice of the shadow Chancellor, and will protect spending on our NHS? (18075)

I can absolutely give that guarantee. That is something on which we fought the election, something that is in the coalition agreement, and something that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be delivering.

We will have to make difficult decisions, including difficult decisions about the NHS, but what I can say is that we will fulfil our promise that national health spending will not be cut in real terms under this Government. That is a big contrast with what we hear from the Labour party, which has said in terms—particularly the shadow Chancellor—that protecting the national health service is wrong. We do not agree: we think that it is right.

When the Prime Minister accused Labour Members of scaremongering during the general election for highlighting the Conservative threat to take security of tenure from council tenants and impose massive rent increases on them, was he goading us to use unparliamentary language or was he simply being economical with the truth?

The right hon. Gentleman will hear in a minute what our plans are for bold housing reform that will lead to more social homes being built, but it does not actually involve changes to tenure. I do think that we have to look at new ways to get houses built. The fact is that under the last Government we had housing targets and vast amounts of investment in social housing, but house building was lower in every year of the last Government than it was under the previous Conservative Government. That is a common story: vast amounts of money spent, with very poor results.

Q14. Last week, a special day was allocated to raising awareness of secondary breast cancer. There is an urgent need to collect good data on people living with secondary breast cancer in order to improve the outcomes for people living with that incurable disease. Would the Prime Minister be prepared to meet a delegation from the all-party group on breast cancer and a few people from the relevant charities? (18076)

I will be very happy to do that, and the hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We do have a good record on cancer in this country, but it needs to be a lot better if we are to get it up to the best level in Europe. Part of that is about early diagnosis, which I have spoken about and on which I know the Health Secretary is taking action. However, as she says, all of us will have met in our own constituencies people with secondary breast cancer and we need to give the issue more attention. I will be happy to have the meeting she suggests.

Q15. Four years ago, Gary Dunne, from my constituency, was murdered in Spain. His parents, Lesley and Steve, have fought a long and ultimately successful campaign to have his body returned for burial in this country. Would the Prime Minister agree to meet Mr and Mrs Dunne to discuss proposals for changes in the law, so that no other family has to go through the ordeal that they went through? (18077)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important case. Anyone who has lost a relative who has died overseas knows the enormous worry about how to deal with these issues and how to get things sorted out. On behalf of the whole Government and the House, I send my condolences to Mr and Mrs Dunne. I know that they have dealt with this case with great dignity and courage. I hope that the fact that they have now been able to bury their son in the UK will help them to start to come to terms with their terrible loss. I am very happy to meet them and try to work out what we can do to deal with sad situations such as this. There is a problem when different countries have different rules, particularly where the death has occurred some time before, but we should try to work it through and I am happy to meet them.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, if graduates are to be asked to make a greater contribution to the cost of their education, in order to be fair those with the greatest ability to pay should make the greatest contribution?

Yes, I completely agree. In the end, I think that almost everyone in this House wants the same thing: we want well-funded universities; we want universities that are able to exercise some independence; we want a growing higher education sector; we want people from low-income backgrounds to be able to go to the best universities in the country; and we want a proper element of progressivity. That is what Lord Browne proposes, and we are going to amend that to make it even more progressive. In particular, I think that moving the salary before you start to pay back from £15,000, which we had for many years, to £21,000 is a really big step forward. I hope that we can get all-party agreement for what would be a good and proper reform of higher education for the long term in our country.

I am sorry for not giving the prior notice to the Prime Minister, but I am confident that, given his reassurance on the NHS, he will be able to answer my question this afternoon. Does he agree with me and the Secretary of State for Health that it makes no sense to close Ealing hospital’s accident and emergency department, given that 100,000 patients use this service each year? Will the Prime Minister also take this opportunity to end rumours of coalition plans to close the entire Ealing hospital?

I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the detail of his question, but we believe that those top-down reorganisations that took place in the NHS, in which many accident and emergency units were closed without taking into account what local people wanted, were wrong. The whole point of the reform of the NHS is to put power in the hands of patients and doctors, so decisions about hospitals will be made on the basis of what local people want and not on the whim of Ministers.

Many of my constituents are gravely concerned that when young people are found guilty of serious crimes and offences and get off with a caution no action is taken against their parents. Will the Prime Minister agree to consider that matter and perhaps to have words with the Justice Secretary about what could be done?

I am very happy to look into that issue. As we seek efficiencies and savings in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, we are going to have to be reformers. We are going to have to be more thoughtful and creative about how we have a criminal justice system that carries out punishment in which the public are confident, but that is not so wasteful of public money as what we have now. It is a challenge for us and it is a challenge that we will have to rise and meet.

It looks as if there is a possible end to the current industrial dispute at British Airways. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a clear message to senior management at British Airways that should the cabin crew decide to return to normal working, there should be no harassment, no bullying and, most importantly, no recriminations?

I think the most important thing is that this strike ends—that this action ends—and that British Airways gets back to working properly. The fact is that there is a hugely competitive airlines sector out there and those of us who love our national carrier and want it to be a success want to see people go back to work and work out how to make it compete with others that are striving ahead in the world. That is what we need, and the last Government did not really say that.

Order. Before the Chancellor comes to the Dispatch Box to make his statement, let me say to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that points of order come after statements.