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Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Ranger Aaron McCormick of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who died on Remembrance Sunday. His commanding officer has described him as

“the epitome of the Irish Infantry soldier: tough; selfless; good-humoured and full of compassion.”

He showed astonishing bravery, leading the way in clearing improvised explosive devices for the safety of local civilians and his fellow soldiers. We send our sincere condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in sending our warmest congratulations and best wishes to Prince William and Kate Middleton on their engagement. I am sure that everyone agrees that it is wonderful news. We look forward to the wedding itself with excitement and anticipation.

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 comments.

Possibly the best piece of news to emerge from the unemployment figures this morning is the rise in the employment count, but small businesses in Milton Keynes are still concerned about both the cost and the bureaucracy of taking on extra workers. What can the Government do to help them?

My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. We must do more to make it easier for small businesses to take people on. However, this morning’s figures are good news. The claimant count is down by 3,700 on the month, unemployment as defined by the International Labour Organisation is down by 9,000 on the quarter, and crucially, as my hon. Friend has said, employment is up by 167,000 on the quarter.

We are helping small businesses by cutting the small business rate of corporation tax, we have the “one in, one out” rule so that new regulations will be limited, and we have a new enterprise capital fund to provide additional equity finance. We need to do all those things, but I think we also need to do more to help small businesses to take people off the unemployment register and put them back into work.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to ranger Aaron McCormick of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who died on Sunday. His brave service in our armed forces will be remembered, and we send our deepest condolences to his family.

I also join the Prime Minister in sending our warmest congratulations to Prince William and Kate Middleton on their engagement.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House how many fewer police officers there will be as a result of his 20% real-terms cut in the police budget?

It will be up to individual police forces—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] This is very important. It will be up to individual police forces to try to ensure that they maximise resources in the front line. What we said in the spending review was that it was possible to retain the high level of visibility and activity of police on our streets. That is the challenge to every police force in the country, and I think that when we look across police forces and see how many officers there are in human resources and information technology and performing back-office functions, it is clear that we can succeed.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says that while there are, of course, efficiencies, cuts of beyond 12% will inevitably result in cuts in the number of front-line police officers, yet the Prime Minister is asking not for 12%, but for 20% cuts. As usual, he has ducked the question, and he will not admit how many front-line police he is cutting. He used to be very clear about protecting front-line services. This is what he said on 2 May:

“any cabinet minister if I win the election…who comes to me and says, ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”

So what did he say to the Home Secretary?

This question has been asked of the right hon. and learned Lady’s own former Home Secretary—now the shadow Chancellor—and this is what he said. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] He was asked—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister’s answers will be heard. [Interruption.] Order. What Opposition Members make of them is up to them, but they will hear them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Andrew Neil asked the shadow Chancellor a very simple question:

“Can you guarantee if you form the next Government that police numbers won’t fall?

Alan Johnson: No.”

That is what Labour said. It can engage—[Interruption.] If the right hon. and learned Lady wants to, why do we not engage in a proper debate about how we try to make sure we maximise resources on the front line? That is what we are asking the police force to do, and that is what the Opposition should be involved in, instead of this cheap game.

We were absolutely clear in our manifesto, and the former Home Secretary was absolutely clear, that we would guarantee central Government funding to protect front-line services. No wonder the Prime Minister’s Back Benchers are so silent: he is planning to cut their police forces by 20%. [Interruption.] Their constituents will be astonished to see them cheering 20% cuts in the police budget.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the report of the chief constable of Greater Manchester setting out how front-line police numbers will have to be cut. What does the Prime Minister say to the people of Greater Manchester, who will be deeply worried about the cut in police numbers?

First, let me answer the point the right hon. and learned Lady made about what Labour said after the election. The shadow Chancellor was asked about—[Interruption.] Well, the right hon. and learned Lady raised the point about what was said after the election, and the Shadow Chancellor said:

“If Labour had won the general election, the Home Office budget would have been cut and the police would have had to make savings.”

That is what it said.

The right hon. and learned Lady asks about Greater Manchester, so let me answer specifically about Greater Manchester. First, the chief constable of Greater Manchester has said that his plans are putting “the maximum resources” on front-line policing, and I am not surprised he is able to say that, because here are the figures for the employment levels in the back-office functions: human resources, 187 people for that force; fleet vehicle maintenance, 106 people; finance, 106; IT—[Interruption.] Well, Opposition Members want to know the facts about Greater Manchester police, and these are the facts about Greater Manchester police. Guess how many people are involved in IT in Greater Manchester police: 225. This is the debate we ought to be having: how do we get resources from the back office on to the front line? How do we do it when right now only 11% of police officers are on the streets at any one time? That is the mess we have inherited; that is the mess we are going to clear up.

But the chief constable’s report is clear. As well as cutting important back-office staff, front-line police will have to be cut; that is what the report says. The Prime Minister says—he always says this—that all this is unavoidable because of deficit reduction. In that case, can he explain why he is spending what the Association of Police Authorities says is £100 million creating new elected police commissioners at the same time as cutting police numbers?

The police commissioners will replace the police authorities—that is the point. The key issue, which the right hon. and learned Lady has now addressed, is that we are doing this because we inherited the biggest budget deficit in the G20. It is no good Labour talking about cuts, because it was planning 20% cuts. We are just having to introduce measures to deal with the mess that Labour made, but instead of just top-down cuts, we want to work with these organisations and say, “How do we help you to maximise the impact on the front line?” That is why we are scrapping the stop form—Labour introduced that— and that will save 450,000 hours of police time. We are going to limit stop-and-search reporting, and that will save another 350,000 hours of police time. This is the nonsense, the bureaucracy and the form-filling that Labour put in place. We are freeing the police officers to get out to do the job that people want them to do.

By the way, it is an extra £100 million and the Prime Minister is spending it on elected police commissioners when that extra £100 million is the equivalent of hundreds of police officers. Police numbers do matter in tackling crime—of course they do. Will he drop his proposal for elected police commissioners and give the police the resources they need to protect front-line policing?

The straight answer to that is no, I will not, and I will tell you why. It is about time we had more accountable police forces in our country. I want there to be police commissioners so that when they do a good job calling the police to account and they are fighting crime in the way that local people want, they get re-elected. If they do a bad job, they will get thrown out. We all think that democracy is a great thing in here; what about a bit of democracy in policing as well?

What local people want is to see their local police on their local streets. There he is posing as the guardian of probity in public finances. It cannot be denied that he knows a thing or two about posing. Why, at the same time as he is cutting police numbers, did he choose to use public money on not only a vanity photographer, but on putting staff from Tory headquarters on to the public payroll, with taxpayers footing the bill. Why did he do that?

Even the jokes are lame this week.

Let me tell you a few people we will not be employing. We will not have special advisers ordering around civil servants like Labour did. We will not be employing Damian McBride to smear the wives and families of politicians. We will not be employing Alastair Campbell to sex up dossiers to make the case for war. I have got a list—[Hon. Members: “More, more.”] Do you want some more? There is plenty more. I have got a whole list of people here who were employed by the last Government. Here is one, Ruth Mackenzie. She was a Labour party employee. She then became an expert adviser in the Department. What was her qualification? Well, according to The Guardian, “She speaks new Labour”. Well, there we are, that is a great qualification. There is another one here—

Order. I think I got the gist of it. We do not need to hear any more. Let me just say to the House, and that includes every Member of the House, that it is now time that we got back to questions and answers about the policies of the Government. That is what the public expect and that is what the public are entitled to get.

Q2. More than 41% of all loans drawn from the enterprise finance guarantee scheme were issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland and a further 30% were issued by Lloyds bank, yet 27 banks are operating in the marketplace. No matter how we look at the figures, that means that 25 banks are simply not doing their job and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. What will the Prime Minister do to ensure that those dilatory banks do all they can to help SMEs have the working capital— (24322)

My hon. Friend has spoken up very passionately—and rightly—about that issue, because one of the keys to securing recovery is to get bank lending going. His points are extremely valid. A bank-led £1.5 billion business growth fund is providing finance to SMEs and we have added to that with the enterprise capital funds programme and the enterprise finance guarantee. That should secure an extra £2 billion of lending, but I agree with him that we need to be vigilant on the issue and to keep pressurising the banks to do more to help those small businesses.

Q14. Reports suggest that as many as 1,700 of my constituents will lose their jobs as a direct consequence of the Government’s spending cuts. What action will the Prime Minister take to ensure that unemployment in West Dunbartonshire does not reach the levels that it did under the last Tory Government? (24334)

What we have to do—the hon. Lady is right—is make sure that there is a private sector-led recovery. That is why we have low interest rates, corporation tax coming down, cuts in national insurance for new firms that are hiring people and less regulation. We have all those advantages as an economy and we need to engineer a private sector-led recovery. The unemployment figures today, which I notice that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) did not go anywhere near, are a good sign that that private sector-led recovery is under way.

Q3. In September, Ofsted raided Powers Hall infant school in Witham, despite an outstanding head teacher making a formal complaint about the inspector and the poorly constructed report by Ofsted. Two teachers have resigned from the school and the head teacher is now asking for the school to be re-inspected. Will the Prime Minister visit that tremendous school to hear at first hand the disgraceful and bureaucratic way in which it has been treated by Ofsted? Will he press for Ofsted to withdraw this flawed report while an independent inquiry is launched? (24323)

My hon. Friend speaks up powerfully for her constituency. I can understand the concern. Obviously, it is important that school inspections are carried out to the highest possible standards and I do not think that it would be right for me to comment in detail on an individual case. There would be dangers in automatically withdrawing a report because a complaint has been made—some might use that to frustrate the process—but we need to ensure that reports are done in a good and professional manner.