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Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2010

The Prime Minister will no doubt be aware that my constituency has suffered from severe flooding overnight. Many hundreds of people are affected and there has been significant damage and disruption in central Cornwall. Will he join me in commending the professionalism of the emergency services and their response to the incident and will he further commit the Government to doing all they can to help support the affected communities in the coming weeks and months?

I can certainly do that. I have just spoken to Alec Robertson, the leader of Cornwall council, about the situation in Cornwall. There was a very difficult night in central and south-east Cornwall. The emergency services—the police, the coastguard, the fire services and search and rescue—have been working around the clock and they have done a fantastic job, and I am happy to send that message loud and clear from this House. There are no reports of casualties yet, but there have been some medical evacuations. The train line is still blocked and the A38 is still closed, but I know that everyone is working around the clock to try to get this sorted. We have said that we stand ready to help in any way we can and what the hon. Gentleman says is important—we have to remember that when the flood waters start to recede, many of the biggest problems arise with insurance and getting people back into their homes. We must ensure that we help people in every way we can.

Q5. Writing in The Sun in January this year, the Prime Minister said that“midwives are stretched to breaking point…So we will increase the number of midwives by 3,000…This is the maternity care parents want…And under a Conservative Government, it is what they’ll get.”This morning, the Prime Minister stands accused by the Royal College of Midwives of reneging on that promise. Does he want to take this opportunity to differentiate himself from his Deputy’s attitude to such solemn promises, and honour that pledge to midwives and mothers? (24325)

We do want to see an increase in the number of midwives and, unlike Labour, we are actually funding the health service in a way that makes that possible. The hon. Gentleman’s shadow Chancellor said, when asked about our pledge to increase funding in the health service:

“There is no logic, sense or rationality to it at all.”

I know the hon. Gentleman used to work on the “Today” programme, so let me give him a thought for the day: “The health service is better off with our Government.”

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister take this opportunity to assure my constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey that planning circular 01/06 will be scrapped in the near future, and that Travelling communities will then be treated in the same way as settled communities with regard to planning law?

I am not fully up to date with that particular planning circular, but I reassure my hon. Friend that, as I have said here before, Traveller communities should be treated in a similar way to other communities, in that they cannot have planning permission retrospectively granted when they have not obeyed the rules. That is not right. Everyone should obey the law.

Q6. I wrote to the Prime Minister about my constituent, Scott Sheard from Formby. Scott suffered severe brain damage when he was assaulted in July, and he needs a wheelchair so that he can go home. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the good news that Scott’s wheelchair will be ready next week, and will he intervene to help others in Merseyside and elsewhere who have been on the waiting list for wheelchairs for far too long? (24326)

Yes, I am certainly happy to do that. The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. MPs of all parties in all parts of the House, and anyone who has ever tried to get a wheelchair for anybody, will know that the delays and the lack of choice and the lack of power people have is incredibly frustrating. It must be possible in this day and age to put more power in the hands of patients or parents to make sure we have better choice, faster wheelchairs—[Interruption.] Sorry. We should get the wheelchairs a bit faster.

With Ministers taking 5% pay cuts and Departments facing a reduction of 19%, does the Prime Minister share my dismay that the Labour party is to receive an extra £1 million of taxpayers’ money—an increase of 20%? If we are all in it together, should it not pay it back?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. A lot of people on the Opposition Front Bench do not seem to understand that the taxpayer provides Short money and the amount that goes to Labour is going up by 21%. As other Departments are having to take such severe cuts—the cut in No. 10 Downing street, for instance, is 25%—I look forward to an offer from the Labour party.

Q7. I welcome the commitment the Prime Minister made two weeks ago to a new silicon valley in east London, but will it be like the promise to the midwives? Can he tell us how many jobs he wants to see created in east London, and what specific steps he and the Government will be taking to make that happen? (24327)

First, I praise the people who put together the idea of “tech city” in east London, in terms of the number of businesses they have actually encouraged to commit to going there—Google, Intel and others. I do not think it is right for the Government to try to identify the precise number of jobs that will be created, but we have seen a huge level of enthusiasm, great commitment from Ministers, and a number of businesses committing to going to Shoreditch and the Olympic park, where there is a fantastic space for an incubator for new businesses. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will help us to get behind that and create what could be a silicon valley for the east end.

Q8. One of the keys to securing economic growth in areas such as Staffordshire Moorlands is the promotion of vocational education and apprenticeships. Can the Prime Minister assure students and staff at further education colleges, such as Leek college in my constituency, of the Government’s continued commitment to this area? (24328)

Yes, absolutely. My right hon. Friend the Skills Secretary produced the skills strategy yesterday, and yes, we are having to make difficult decisions, but in the middle of that, we are increasing the number of apprenticeships by 75,000 over what was planned, as well as putting more money into building FE colleges, which is vital for the future skills of our country.

I endorse the sentiments expressed earlier by the Prime Minister in relation to the tragic death of Ranger Aaron McCormick of the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who was tragically killed on Remembrance day. His service and that of others will never be forgotten. Many troops from Northern Ireland are serving in Afghanistan.

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Prime Minister’s expression of best wishes to the happy couple—the royal couple? We wish them well for the future and I hope they will enjoy a visit to Northern Ireland in due course.

On Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister give us an update on the training and equipping of Afghan security forces, a process allowed only by the service and sacrifice of our troops?

The right hon. Gentleman is right. The training mission and the equipping and training of Afghan soldiers and police officers is not only essential for the future of Afghanistan, but is the way in which we will be able, over time, to draw our own soldiers down and bring them home. We have the NATO summit this weekend. That will be one of the most important issues on the agenda. The training mission is now being well supported. We are giving huge support, but other countries are coming in behind us. The performance of the Afghan army is improving, but we have to keep working at that and making sure that it has all the equipment that it needs.

Q9. Last week Warner Bros announced £100 million investment in Leavesden Studios in my constituency. That is very welcome, as it will provide more than 600 jobs and a real boost to the local economy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the producer tax credit for the film industry, which was significant in Warner Bros’ decision to make the investment, will continue, and that the Government will consider ways to get British investors to invest in British films made here so that the profits remain in this country? (24329)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. What Warner Bros is doing is very welcome. We are committed to supporting the film industry. We are committed to continuing with the tax credits that he speaks about. One of the keys to Warner’s success in his constituency is the Harry Potter film franchise that it has been making. It has been incredibly successful. There is a great tip and key to filmmakers, which is that we must make films that people want to watch, and films that will have a benefit beyond themselves—that also encourage people to come and visit our country.

Q10. Can the Prime Minister be very precise and tell the House whether he is honestly saying that if one in four police officers are taken out of Greater Manchester, as well as one in four of the police community support officers, that will have no impact on deterring and detecting crime? If he will say that, will he come to Manchester and explain it to people whose fear of crime is still a major issue? (24330)

What I say to the hon. Gentleman is, first, that the chief constable has said:

“We have been working for some time on plans to ensure the Force provides the most efficient service and the maximum resources are focused on frontline policing.”

When one looks at the figures for how few police officers really spend their time on the beat because of the paperwork and the form-filling, and when one looks at how we are managing our police forces and at the numbers in human resources, finance, IT and training, I say that we must do better. There is a choice. We can either say, “All reductions in public spending are a disaster and we can’t deal with them,” or we have to try and find a way to get more for less. That is what we are doing in the coalition Government. The Opposition are just not engaged in the debate.

Does the Prime Minister agree that as an international trading nation and a leader in international development, it is vital that we can attract key people from around the world to this country for short and long-term stays? When will he be able to tell the House how the Government are finalising the criteria for the visa and immigration cap, to end the uncertainty that could damage investment in the UK as a preferred location?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that we are working on the issue. I do not think there will be any difficulties in achieving the two goals that we have. One is to get the immigration system that we inherited under control. The current level of net immigration into the UK of 200,000 a year—2 million over a decade—is too high. It needs to be brought down, but we should do that in a way that is business-friendly and helpful to the economy. When we look at the rules that we inherited and the fact that people were coming into this country under tier 1, but often had no skills at all or were not working in skilled jobs—some were even working in pizza restaurants—it is clear that the system was not working properly. That is what we have to get right.

Q11. What does the Prime Minister have to say to my constituents on the Ings estate on Preston road in east Hull, who will now be left in unfit housing because his Government have scrapped the flagship housing market renewal programme, the Gateway pathfinder scheme? Over the past few days, I have been inundated with constituents who are desperate, living in properties surrounded by properties that are boarded up. I am seeing them tomorrow night at a residents meeting—what message of hope can I give them? (24331)

There are schemes like the regional growth fund that people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will be able to apply for to help to deal with issues such as improving the level of housing. That is one of the schemes that we have. We also have a huge programme for upgrading and building new homes through the new rent scheme. All these can make a difference, and he can talk to his constituents about them.

Sandwell metropolitan borough, part of which I represent, has very high levels of deprivation. Can the Prime Minister reassure the children and parents from schools in Sandwell that the Government, particularly with their pupil premium policy, are on the side of children and families in Sandwell?

I absolutely can do that, because we made some difficult choices in the spending review to say that we are going to put more money into early-years education for two-year-olds from deprived families. That was previously not available. We are going to fund extra hours for three and four-year-olds in nursery education. We are going to make sure that there is a pupil premium, never dreamed of by a Labour Government in 13 years in office, that is over and above the per-pupil funding in our schools. Then we are going to carry that through to university so that children on free school meals will get some time at university for free and will not have to pay the student premiums. All those things will make a big difference, and they show that this is a Government who have made some progressive choices in education, even though we inherited a mess that we had to clear up.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Business Secretary that the scrapping of regional development agencies has been “Maoist and chaotic”? (24332)

Given that my right hon. Friend is implementing the policy, that is not his view. We all take the view that the RDAs wasted a vast amount of money. Many of them were not popular with the businesses in their area, and the local enterprise partnerships will do a much better job. I suggest to the hon. Lady that instead of complaining about it, she works with her local authorities to get a good local enterprise partnership in her area to start backing business, jobs and economic revival.

On a day when employment is at the top of people’s minds, could I ask the Prime Minister to join me in congratulating the Saga Group on its wise decision to move into Hastings, which has very high public sector employment, with up to 800 new jobs for the town?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Saga and the very good work that it does. I am sure that in choosing Hastings it has made an excellent decision. There is good news in today’s unemployment figures, and we should celebrate that. There is a lot more to do to get this economic recovery under way, but it would help if we did not have so many people determined to talk down the performance of the British economy.

Q13. Does not the devastation in Cornwall illustrate the false economy of the Prime Minister’s recent decision to slash investment in flood defences? (24333)

That is simply not the case. The fact is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be spending over £2.1 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management over the next four years; that is roughly the same as what was spent over the past four years. We made some difficult choices in the spending round, but we protected flood defences because that is important. But all the while we had to bear in mind the absolutely wretched and rotten inheritance we had from the lot over there.

We now have an Urgent Question. I call Mr Peter Bone. [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for Wellingborough gives the House the benefit of his thoughts, can I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly? Mr Bone wishes to be heard, I wish to hear him, and I hope that the House wishes to hear him.