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Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper William Blanchard from 101 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who died on Saturday. The work that our sappers do to make areas safe both for our soldiers and for local people requires unbelievable acts of personal courage and selflessness; they are the bravest of the brave. William was a talented and caring soldier who will be sorely missed by all those who knew him. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and we will not forget what he did.

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, as do my hon. and right hon. Friends, with the Prime Minister’s comments. Our soldiers and armed forces deserve our greatest respect, particularly at this time. They will not be forgotten.

Although it is not the Prime Minister’s fault that 555 of my constituents may lose out when the education maintenance allowance is done away with in Scotland, the fact is that he made a promise in January, at a Cameron Direct event, to support EMAs. How many more promises to this country will he and this Government break?

What we are having to do is deal with completely broken public finances and sort them out. On the issue of the education maintenance allowance, we are committed to ensuring that every young person remains in education and training until they are 18. Also, we will be replacing the EMA with a learner support fund which, crucially, will be administered by the schools and colleges themselves, which are far better at identifying those young people who need help to stay in education.

Does the Prime Minister agree that RAF Marham should be retained as a base for the Tornado? It makes economic sense, as there is a strong skills base in west Norfolk. West Norfolk also has higher unemployment and higher deprivation than the area of the alternative base under consideration in Scotland.

My hon. Friend makes a good plea for her area, and she is absolutely right to do so. She will know that we are committed to retaining the Tornado, which has been a very effective ground-attack aircraft. We have not made the final decisions about basing, but I am sure that her remarks will be closely listened to.

I first join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper William Blanchard from 101 City of London Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). As the Prime Minister said, he died doing the bravest and most heroic work, and we send our deepest condolences to his family.

We fully support the actions that the Government are taking to tackle the terrorist threat that we saw re-emerge last week. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the review of air freight and passenger security, and tell us when he believes that it is likely to be complete?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. As he knows, several steps have already been taken: stopping freight transport from Yemen and Somalia; suspending the carriage of toner cartridges in passenger hand luggage on flights departing the UK; and prohibiting the carriage of toner cartridges by air cargo into, via or from the UK unless they originate from a known consigner. As he said, we are reviewing all aspects of air freight security. It is a complicated and difficult issue, there is a meeting with the industry tomorrow, and we will update the House as soon as we can.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. May I take the opportunity to ask him about the wider context of the incident? Does he agree that, as well as the right measures on counter-terrorism, we need to tackle its roots? He knows that Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the middle east. That is why the Friends of Yemen conference was held earlier this year, and one is organised for next February. Will he update the House on the progress of the Friends of Yemen talks, and also the progress on the crucial International Monetary Fund plan for Yemen to deliver much needed economic reform?

What the right hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right. As well as good intelligence sharing and tough anti-terrorism legislation, we must deal with the root causes, and there is now a worrying strain of al-Qaeda terrorism coming out of the Yemen. One of the problems is that we need to ensure that that is the priority for the Yemeni Government, who are also dealing with other problems in their country. The Friends of Yemen process, which the former Prime Minister did a great deal to establish, is up and running. It is working well. The British are co-chairs of it with the Saudis, there was a meeting at the UN General Assembly, there will be further meetings, and the whole aim is to try to pressurise and work with the Yemeni Government to deal with the issues that affect the wider region and, indeed, as recent events show, us too. We will go on with that and we will continue, as we have committed, with our development budget to ensure that development aid goes to the Yemen. There is therefore a short-term issue of getting the Yemeni Government to concentrate on what matters, and a longer-term issue about economic development in the Yemen, which badly needs to improve.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and thank him and the Home Secretary for keeping the House updated on those issues. I know that they will continue to do so.

Let me turn elsewhere. The Prime Minister has talked a lot about restoring trust in politics. What does he expect of members of his Government who gave cast-iron guarantees to their voters six months ago that they would vote against a rise in tuition fees?

What I would say to everyone who is part of the Government is that I think that they have all taken some courageous and difficult decisions to deal with something that, frankly, we all want. I think that every single person in the House of Commons wants strong universities that are well funded and have greater independence. We want to ensure that people from the poorest homes can go to the best universities in our country. The proposals will achieve that. They grew from a decision by the previous Government to set up the Browne report. What a pity that opportunism has overtaken principle.

The Prime Minister used to think that trust mattered. What did he say in his joint foreword with the Deputy Prime Minister to the coalition agreement?

“We both want a Britain where our political system is looked at with admiration, not anger”.

Does the Prime Minister not understand the anger that there will be among the constituents of all the Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches? Does he not understand the anger that will be felt in Sheffield, Twickenham, Eastleigh—all their constituencies—about promises made and about to be broken?

Along goes the Milibandwagon, and on we jump. The right hon. Gentleman talks about trust. What did he write in the Labour manifesto about the Browne report, which he set up? The Labour party has completely broken its word. There is a debate now in Britain about how we get strong universities and people able to go to them without being put off. That is what we propose and he opposes. He should listen to the former Labour Trade and Industry Secretary, who was part of the Browne process. He said:

“The truth is there are many tax elements to the Browne plan. You only pay when you are earning above £21,000… Browne is essentially right”.

Why not join the consensus instead of just playing political games?

I ask the questions at Prime Minister’s questions. The Prime Minister talks about hard choices—he claims to be making a hard choice on tuition fees. I cannot believe that he is talking about hard choices this week, because whom has he chosen to put on the civil service payroll this week? His own personal photographer. There is good news for the Prime Minister—apparently he does a nice line in airbrushing. You can picture the scene, Mr Speaker, of the Cabinet photo: “We’re all in this together; just a little bit more to the right, Nick.”

Let me ask the Prime Minister in all seriousness, is it really a wise judgment when he is telling everybody to tighten their belts to put his own personal photographer on the civil service payroll?

The right hon. Gentleman asks the questions because he has no answers to anything. Is this what his Opposition leadership is reduced to? Let me give the House this figure. The previous Government—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] This is the answer. [Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister will be heard. There is far too much shouting going on, including by some very senior Members who ought to know better.

The last Government last year spent half a billion pounds on communications. We are cutting that by two thirds. That is what is actually happening. We will be spending a bit less on replacing mobile phones as well in No. 10 Downing street. Honestly, why not engage in the issues? We say that we need a new system to fund higher education, and that is what we are backing. The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants a graduate tax, the shadow Chancellor says, “Don’t do it,” and the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary is against it. What on earth is the Leader of the Opposition reduced to?

The Prime Minister cannot even defend his own decision. Is not the truth that we are learning that this Government are a Government of broken promises—broken promises on tuition fees, broken promises on VAT and broken promises on child benefit from the Prime Minister? That is what they meant by broken Britain. The Prime Minister used to say that he wanted to restore trust, but all he is doing, day by day, is destroying trust in politics.

The right hon. Gentleman can come here every week and have a succession of lame soundbites or engage in the substance about the future of our country. We know what he is against—he is against a housing benefit cap, against taking child benefit away from millionaires and against a benefit cap—but I think everyone is beginning to ask, “What on earth is he for?”

I am sure that the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole House, will join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Marvin Henry, a young man who was shot and killed in my constituency just last week. What practical encouragement can the Prime Minister give to organisations such as the Watling boys club in Burnt Oak, which is attempting to direct young people towards positive role models and experiences rather than the fate that befell Marvin?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As we are making difficult decisions about public spending, we need to make sure that we go on funding organisations that divert young people away from crime. That is one reason why we have set up a special fund of £100 million this year and next year—to make sure that those organisations that need help get it, so that we keep giving young people things to do and divert them from crime.

Q2. May I give the Prime Minister another opportunity to answer the question? Does he think that the 500,000 public sector workers facing the axe will be pleased to know that he has hired his own personal vanity photographer? (21198)

The last Government—half a billion pounds wasted on communication. That is being axed by this Government. That is what is happening. Opposition Members have a choice when they come here. They can read out the Whips’ handout or think of a good question. Try again.

Q3. Can I encourage the Prime Minister to work with Members on both sides of the House who recognise the need for welfare reform, starting with the shadow Health Secretary, who has broken ranks to support a housing benefit cap? (21199)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do need a debate about how we tackle the welfare system and get it under control. One of the best places to start with housing benefit is the Labour manifesto, personally written by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). It said clearly—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Well, they all stood on it, so they should be reminded of it. It said:

“Housing Benefit will be reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford.”

The level of opportunism is so great that even when we introduce their policies they oppose them.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the horrific explosion that took place in Salford this week. Our thoughts are with Marie Burns, the elderly lady who has been severely injured and is in hospital, and with the other people in hospital. Some 200 families have had to be evacuated from their homes and I wish to pay tribute to all of the emergency services and the city council, but most of all to the ordinary men and women of that community who have stepped forward. A grandfather rescued a child from the rubble, and neighbours opened the local pub and the leisure centre to give people comfort and shelter. They have done a fabulous job.

The costs of this event will be enormous and, like every other service, our council is facing significant reductions in its budget. Will the Prime Minister seriously consider what extra help he can give to those families to ensure that they are supported? My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley)—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend, in whose constituency this took place, is with the community now—

I think that the House is being unfair to the right hon. Lady. She is speaking powerfully on behalf of her constituents on an important issue. It was a dreadful accident, and we should think of all those people who have lost their homes and are in temporary accommodation. She is right to pay tribute not just to the emergency services but to ordinary people who have gone out and done extraordinary things.

As I understand it, the City West housing trust, which owns the properties, is working closely with the local authority to ensure that residents are able to return to their homes as soon as possible. The right hon. Lady raises the issue of funding, and of course there is the Bellwin scheme, but we will ensure that we respond as we can to Salford’s needs.

Q4. The East Anglian coast has some of the highest levels of deprivation in England and an urgent need for infrastructure development, but it has huge potential for creating jobs in the offshore renewables sector. Will the Prime Minister look again at the exclusion of the East Anglian coast from the £60 million allocated to establish offshore wind manufacturing at port sites, announced under the grant for business investment scheme last week? (21200)

There is a great opportunity for communities, especially coastal communities, to make the most of offshore wind, and I have spoken to several leading industrialists, who are thinking of investing in Britain, to ensure that the grants are there. As my hon. Friend will know, this grant scheme applies only to assisted areas. East Anglia is not an assisted area, but that does not rule out development taking place, and other sources of funding, such as the regional growth fund, can be applied to. I hope that he will look into those as he stands up for his community.

Following the statement last week by the Secretary of State for Transport, will the Prime Minister give a commitment to the people of Leeds that the much needed new generation transport system, the trolleybus, will receive the Government funding that it has been promised for so long?

This issue is currently under consideration, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be one of the first to find out the result.

Q5. In the year to March, more than 1,000 foreign nationals in Northamptonshire applied for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom, and a massive 80% of those applications were approved. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that, in this Government’s legitimate efforts to reduce the backlog of asylum claims left by the previous Government, people will not simply be waved through and offered indefinite stays? (21201)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is always a danger when there is a big backlog—we have been left one of 400,000 to 450,000 of asylum records—to just wave them through, but I assure him that there will be no amnesty. All cases will be considered on their individual merits. We are committed to getting immigration and asylum issues under control. We are looking at the last Government’s points system, and even under their tier 1 of highly skilled people, it turns out that around 30% of those given leave to remain are in low-skilled roles. The current system is not working, and we are going to sort it out.

I would like to return to the education maintenance allowance. In March, the Prime Minister came to Lewisham college and spoke to students about his plans. He said:

“We’ll keep it. We’ve taken a look at it. We think it’s a good idea.”

Will he explain to me and the 1,150 students at the college who are currently receiving EMA why his Government are scrapping it?

Because we face the biggest budget deficit of any country in the developed world. That, frankly, is the prism through which such decisions must be seen. In politics there is a choice: either confront the problems in front of you and deal with them—that is what this Government are doing—or run away from them, like the Labour party. We are putting in place something that will be more targeted and more effective, but we must deal with the mess that we were left.