House of Commons
Wednesday 17 November 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent assessment he has made of the developmental situation in Yemen; and if he will make a statement. (24336)
Yemen is of the highest priority to the coalition Government. Subject to the Department for International Development’s bilateral aid review and the security situation in Yemen, DFID is inclined to increase its commitment to that country. We believe strongly in the power of development to give solid foundations to a country that faces threats to its stability and economy.
The UK is playing a leading role in the Friends of Yemen process, in which our partnership with Gulf states is an essential element. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to exchange views on Yemen and to build our common approach. That will help to ensure that the commitments made in New York in September are delivered in time for the next Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh in February.
DFID’s programme is part of the UK strategy to address instability and conflict in Yemen and to develop the economy. We engage with the Government and other donors to create the political will needed for action on reforms. Our work helps to make people’s lives better by delivering basic services such as health, education and justice to the poorest communities, and to provide jobs and short-term employment through cash-for-work schemes. We also provide life-saving humanitarian support for the 300,000 displaced people in Yemen.
At the last International Development questions, I raised the importance of Yemen in the war on terror, which the subsequent ink cartridge plot underlined. The Gulf states are obviously key to addressing Yemen’s challenges. What are the Government doing to engage with those states?
The security situation is obviously of the utmost importance. The most important Gulf partner is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which co-chairs the Friends of Yemen process, but more than $3 billion-worth of pledged financial support has remained unused since 2006. We are therefore pressing for better donor co-ordination, in which the Gulf states are obviously crucial partners.
I welcomed the Minister’s speech at Chatham House—he set out the challenges facing Yemen and spoke of putting development and diplomacy at the heart of our response. Will he inform the House what progress has been made to implement reform through the Friends of Yemen process?
In my speech at Chatham House, I outlined the importance of development in Yemen. The Government want to underpin that country now rather than have to step in later should things get worse. Through the Friends of Yemen process, we are helping the Government of Yemen with the implementation of an International Monetary Fund financial reform programme. I stress very strongly that we are not telling Yemen what to do; we are working as a partner to support it in facing its challenges.
Mr Speaker, you very recently met the Speaker of the Yemeni Parliament, and President Obama and the Prime Minister spoke about Yemen last week at the G20. Processes are very welcome, as is Britain’s leadership role in this whole endeavour, but we need positive action. Will the Minister ask the Foreign Secretary to issue an invitation to the Yemeni Foreign Minister and other Yemeni Ministers, so that they can come to London as a matter of urgency—before Christmas—and we can implement the very good words that the Minister has just spoken?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion—he has a strong interest in, and knowledge of, Yemen. His suggestion is constructive. There will be a further Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh. If we are to get anything out of that meeting, we have got to get cracking now, which means that constant purposeful engagement with our Yemeni counterparts is essential. I will certainly ask the Foreign Secretary to take up his suggestion.
It is obviously important for us to do all we can to help to tackle poverty and instability in Yemen, but where there is instability, it is even more difficult to get aid to people who need it. The expertise of DFID officials in that regard is widely respected around the world. Will the Minister assure us that as the work of his Department is reviewed, nothing is done to undermine its ability to play its part in ensuring that aid in conflict zones really gets to those who need it?
May I say what a pleasure it is to be up against the right hon. and learned Lady once again, after a little gap? What she says is absolutely right. We are, as I said, inclined to increase our support for, and spend in, Yemen, but obviously the security situation will determine whether we can put enough boots on the ground to deliver the aid and assistance that we wish to deliver. Crucially, however, we are looking on our work there as a pioneering exercise in trying to address the challenges of a fragile state before its condition gets worse.
British Charities (Funding)
3. What funding his Department provides to British charities with international developmental goals operating overseas. (24338)
In 2009-10, the Department for International Development provided £362 million to UK charities and civil society organisations to assist in poverty reduction overseas. The global poverty action fund, which will increasingly shape partnership with charities and non-governmental organisations, was launched on 27 October.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that we need to get funding to the right place. On improving women’s health overseas, does he agree that the focus should be on making interventions in the right place, which is during delivery and childbirth, which account for over 50% of deaths among women? That is where we should be focusing our resources when we fund overseas aid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Reproductive, maternal and newborn health care is the subject of a business plan discussion that is under way. With his expertise, I very much hope that he will contribute to our thinking on that. The plan will be published in January. As he said, we need to focus on the continuum of care, up to birth and beyond. We are quite clear about the importance of the issue, but he will know that placing women’s choice over whether and when they have children is at the heart of all the overseas programmes that we run.
Let me declare an interest in that I recently went to Bangladesh as a guest of Oxfam. I am sure that I join the whole House in paying tribute to the excellent work of British development non-governmental organisations around the world. In Bangladesh, I saw Oxfam’s work in raising awareness of the impact of climate change on some of the world’s poorest. Although the Government’s commitment to continue the work on development and climate change is welcome, the commitment of the international community still falls short. Ahead of Cancun, what steps will the Government take to push for a greater commitment on climate finance from other countries?
I thank the hon. Lady for what she said about the quality of the programme and those who staff it in Bangladesh. I am glad that she was able to visit our programme last week. She has seen a country where climate change affects the everyday lives of millions of people, and she is quite right to underline the Government’s commitment to ensuring new and additional mechanisms for raising international finance to tackle climate change. I will be making a speech on the subject tomorrow, and the Government will be pressing hard in the run-up to Cancun and beyond to see that we make significant progress in this area.
British development NGOs are world class and do a fantastic job, but has my right hon. Friend noticed that they all have their own advocacy departments and produce their own glossy publications? Would it not be better if they co-ordinated themselves slightly more, so as to cut out unnecessary duplication and competition?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have noticed that the global poverty action fund that we launched is principally a matched fund, in order to enable the taxpayer to piggyback on the brilliant development outcomes that many of our NGOs produce. That is the right principle, whereby taxpayer support can focus on results, outputs and outcomes, and not on inputs.
HIV (Maternal Transmission)
The Government are committed to a comprehensive approach to eliminating paediatric AIDS by focusing on where we have a comparative advantage—that is, on primary prevention of HIV among women of child-bearing age and on prevention of unintended pregnancies among women living with HIV through our investments in family planning.
Does the Minister agree that it is important that children who have already contracted HIV should be able to access medicines to stay alive? If so, will he join me in calling on pharmaceutical companies to make their patents available to the patent pool, so that there can be affordable HIV drugs for children?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government definitely support the UNITAID patent pool, which is, as he knows, a mechanism to facilitate the development of new, particularly fixed-dose combination drugs, partly to ward off the danger of monotherapies. That can be a key means of addressing the treatment challenge. We welcome UNITAID’s decision to create a separate foundation to manage the pool’s activities, and we recognise that that is an important step. We now need the milestones to be put in place as rapidly as possible, so that we can convert it to a working programme going forward.
We believe that about 1.4 million pregnant women globally are infected with HIV, and about 1,000 babies are infected every day. We also believe that worldwide funding for HIV treatment is on the decline. Will the Government commit to making a strong contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and also to prioritising not just keeping those pregnant women alive, but taking steps to prevent those babies from being infected?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I know from the number of her questions that I have answered that she takes a keen interest in these issues. The UK has been a good supporter of the global fund to date, and its replenishment is subject to current negotiations and the multilateral aid review.
On the hon. Lady’s particular concern, the reproductive, maternal and newborn health business plan is the coalition Government’s key mechanism to prioritise the health of women and babies. It will support service delivery across the continuum of care needed to improve the health of women and girls, and will scale up the prevention of mother-to-child transmission—PMTCT—of HIV. That will address the underlying causes of the AIDS epidemic, gender inequality, gender-based violence and poverty. We will certainly—
As the Minister said, the current Government strongly support, as did the previous Government, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. What is the Minister’s assessment of the success of the country co-ordinating mechanisms, and particularly the efforts to ensure that co-infection of HIV and TB is well managed on a country basis?
The hon. Gentleman makes an informed point. One way of ensuring that the global fund, which scores well on its effectiveness, gets even better is to ensure that when there are conflicts in the country co-ordinating mechanisms, they are addressed. The co-infection of HIV and TB is an increasingly well understood area of research and practice, and that understanding is shaping the programmes through the multilateral aid review, and will therefore inform those programmes going forward.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House what his Department is doing to support the Glion call to action, whereby consensus has been reached on the importance of family planning in preventing the spread of HIV, particularly maternal transmission from mother to child?
My hon. Friend makes the vital point that family planning is at the heart of ensuring that we prevent the transmission of these diseases. I assure him that we are putting women’s and children’s health at the core of our international development agenda, and will contribute to saving the lives of at least 50,000 women and 250,000 babies, and to providing 10 million more couples with access to family planning.
Access to Basic Sanitation
Reducing the number of people in developing countries without access to basic sanitation is a key priority of the coalition Government. The review of our aid programme will determine how we scale up our efforts and results in this area.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. As Friday is world toilet day, what is his Department doing to raise the international agenda’s priority to improve sanitation, particularly as 1.5 million children under five die every year from poor water hygiene and sanitation, which is more than die from malaria, AIDS and measles combined?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue in those terms. Diarrhoea is the biggest killer of children in Africa. This is a core subject for the coalition Government, and we are looking at it in our bilateral aid review. Although I do not wish to pre-empt that review, I can tell the House that I am confident that we will be able to ensure that, over the next four years, tens of millions of people will be able to gain access to clean water and sanitation who are currently unable to do so.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his remarks at the millennium development goals summit earlier this year, in which he emphasised the importance of sanitation, but will he explain to the House why, when the United Nations passed an historic resolution on 30 September affirming that access to water and sanitation were human rights and that Governments had a legal responsibility to deliver that access, the United Kingdom voted against it?
The hon. Gentleman needs to look carefully at the words that I used at the summit, about which he has just made his nice remarks. The fact is that 2.5 million deaths are caused by a lack of sanitation and 39% of people in our world do not have any access to a basic hygienic latrine. That is why we are focusing not on rhetoric but on results in trying to achieve specific outcomes in this very important area.
In the last Parliament, the Department for International Development acknowledged that it had refocused its priority on sanitation in the wake of the report by the International Development Committee. Given that, according to figures from the “Water, Sanitation and Health 2008” report, 79% of rural homes in India have no access to sanitation, what will the Secretary of State do within the programme for India to ensure that sanitation is a key priority?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to say that my predecessor admitted that the Government had taken their eye off the ball on this important matter. We are looking carefully at the Indian programme as part of the bilateral aid review and, as part of our examination of the programme, we will be looking specifically at our support for sanitation.
The sanitation situation in Haiti remains critical after the earthquake in January this year. Following that earthquake, many of our constituents sent donations to support relief efforts there, and they are now very concerned about the outbreak of cholera, which is having a devastating impact. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the delivery of aid in Haiti, and on how the help is getting through to those who need it most?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important subject. Britain has helped to bring clean water—the specific point that he raised, I think—to 380,000 people in Haiti. I sent a senior humanitarian expert last week to look at the situation on the ground, and to help specifically with co-ordination there. We are working with other United Nations agencies to ensure that this is prioritised and we are of course considering the recent appeal that the UN put out in that respect.
Global Fund Projects
The global fund is assessed annually against key performance indicators. The programmes of the global fund have saved 5.7 million lives since 2000. The review of all our multilateral spending, including on the global fund, is designed to ensure maximum impact and value for money.
Does the Minister recognise that other countries look to the United Kingdom for leadership on HIV strategy? If so, does he agree that a strong UK contribution to the global fund will encourage other countries that have not yet made their financial contributions to step up to the plate? [Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is very unfair to the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State and unimpressive to those following our proceedings. The Secretary of State is champing at the bit; let us hear him.
The hon. Gentleman is right to underline the importance and success of what the global fund has achieved. This includes circulating 2.8 million people with antiretrovirals, diagnosing and treating 7 million people with tuberculosis and distributing more than 122 million bed nets to help to prevent malaria. We have sent a clear signal to the global fund of strong support in this replenishment round. The precise level of that support will be dictated by the multilateral aid review.
8. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that funds allocated for development programmes by his Department are not used to purchase imported asbestos products. (24343)
Asbestos is banned in 52 countries, including in the EU and the UK. We are totally opposed to its use anywhere, and would deplore its supply to developing countries. We are not aware that DFID funds have been spent on asbestos products, and we would take urgent action, should we be so advised.
I thank the Minister for that response, but can he assure the House that UK assistance to improve health standards in developing countries is not compromised by asbestos mining in Quebec? He may be aware of the multimillion dollar guarantee for development in Quebec, which might mean millions of tonnes of asbestos being dumped on unsuspecting populations in the years to come, with more than 4,000 people killed a year.
I note that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned tirelessly on asbestos and pleural plaques, and I studied his debate on the subject in Westminster Hall last year. I understand that Canadian exportation of asbestos is a cause for concern, and I will pass the issue he raises to my colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. From my Department’s point of view, we will take all necessary steps to ensure that we do not use dangerous asbestos products anywhere in the world.
Global Plan to Stop TB
I know the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in the terrible suffering caused by tuberculosis around the world. I am happy to confirm that the Government welcome the Stop TB Partnership’s revised global plan, which sets out a clear road map to achieve ambitious targets, including to halve TB deaths by 2015. This will require making progress on the underlying causes.
I thank the Minister for his response. As I am sure he knows, TB needlessly kills 1.7 million people a year, yet no new treatments or vaccines have been developed for 30 years. What are the Government doing to ensure that the UK plays its part in eradicating this disease by funding TB control measures and supporting the development of new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines?
The UK is committed to reducing unnecessary deaths and suffering from TB. My Department is currently reviewing its aid programme to determine how to achieve better value for money for the taxpayer and accelerate progress towards achieving all the millennium development goals. We will certainly review the forward approach to TB, including research, once we have the findings from the bilateral and multilateral aid reviews. As of 2009-10, we estimate that about £55 million was spent on direct programmes, and health system strengthening also needs to be taken into account.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to identify the fact that TB ravages countries, not least in conflict states. As we design programmes that will have an effect in conflict states, it is vital that TB is right there among the very top of interventions. As we go through our bilateral aid review and focus on hard-to-reach people in conflict states such as Somalia, we must ensure that TB is one of the pre-eminent issues to be tackled. [Interruption.]
G20 Summit (Seoul)
G20 leaders endorsed the Seoul development consensus on shared growth and agreed to a multi-year plan to tackle the obstacles to growth in poor countries. As part of this plan, leaders also agreed to take measures to increase trade within Africa.
At the summit, the Government rightly stressed the need for a free trade area for Africa. At present, only 10% of trade in Africa is between African countries. Does the Secretary of State agree that knocking down the trade walls between African countries will deliver economic benefits far outstripping the amount of aid that developed countries can give?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the point about the importance of having a pan-African free trade area—one of the four specific areas championed by the Prime Minister at the G20 summit in Seoul. Knocking down those trade walls, having one-stop border posts and promoting trade within Africa is the key area in helping people to lift themselves out of poverty throughout Africa.
My right hon. Friend raised the matter not only in private but specifically at the table. He pointed out that it was hard to expect leaders in the developing world to stand by their commitments to their people if leaders in the G8 and others did not stand by the commitments that they had solemnly made at Gleneagles and beyond on the importance of increasing our support for the poorest in the world.
UN Relief and Works Agency
UNRWA is performing well against agreed performance indicators and delivering value for money with United Kingdom funding. For instance, it is delivering teaching to nearly half a million children, and social services to more than a quarter of a million. During my recent visit to the Palestinian territories, I announced an extra £8 million to reward UNRWA’s good performance and ease its budget shortfall.
During a recent visit to Gaza, it was obvious that UNRWA was struggling to obtain the construction materials that it needs to rebuild schools and find housing for refugees. Does the Minister agree that DFID would derive greater value for money if the partial blockade were completely lifted?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am glad that he was able to see the situation in Gaza for himself.
Although some progress has been made since Israel eased access restrictions, UNRWA is still unable to import the volume of reconstruction materials that it needs. Any restricted access enhances the tunnel economy and risks putting revenue straight into the hands of Hamas, which in itself is entirely counter-productive.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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?
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.
Constituency Visit (Central Ayrshire)
I note that the Prime Minister did not say that he was coming to Central Ayrshire; he does not know what he is missing. If Mohammed will not come to Ayrshire, is it possible, given the reports in the national press about Irvine, the largest town in my constituency, having the highest unemployment in Scotland, that he would meet a small delegation to discuss the question of unemployment?
The hon. Gentleman raises what will be one of the defining issues of the next few years, which is how we get people out of unemployment and how we ensure that losses of jobs in the public sector are made up for by growth in the private sector. That is an absolutely key area. That is why bank lending matters, why helping SMEs matters, why tax rates matter and why the regional growth fund that we are introducing helps. I am certainly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman—I wanted to keep him in a bit of suspense—just in case I do not make it to Central Ayrshire.
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.
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.
Finance Ministers’ Meeting (Ireland)
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a statement to the House about Ireland.
The House will understand that the Chancellor is currently in Brussels at the meeting of the Council of EU Finance Ministers. I understand that hon. Members are concerned about the events that have unfolded.
Ireland has been facing difficult economic and banking challenges for some time, and as a member of the euro area its ability to use policy to respond to economic shocks is less flexible than our own. As a result, there are ongoing market concerns about Ireland’s economic and financial resilience.
Let us be clear: there has been no formal request for assistance from Ireland, or for that matter from any other member state. I hope the House will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to engage in any speculation on what might happen in Ireland, given that it has made no request for assistance. It is not for me to say whether Ireland should request assistance, just as I would not tell it how to run any part of its economy. Its large financial institutions have obviously got themselves into difficultly, and we very much hope it will be able to resolve those pressures.
Ireland is one of our biggest export markets. We have very close economic ties with it and, as the Chancellor said this morning, it is in Britain’s national interest that the Irish economy is successful, so we stand ready to support Ireland in the steps that it needs to take to bring about stability. I am sure that our fellow EU member states will share that sentiment, and I assure the House that we will keep it informed of developments.
I thank the Minister for his response. At a time when the United Kingdom is already contributing extra funds to the European Union—over the next five years our net contribution will be £41 billion, an increase of more than £21 billion compared with the past five years—and when we are making drastic cuts in the UK’s economy, does he think it is acceptable that any further funds should be committed to the EU?
The coalition Government have made it clear that we will not join the euro during this Parliament, arguing that the euro, with its single interest rate but diverse economies, cannot work. Will the Minister confirm that we will not be joining the euro?
The Government have also made it clear that the UK will not support the euro. Will the Minister therefore rule out the UK participating in any bail-out of the Irish economy? Will he also confirm that the €440 billion special-purpose vehicle facility—a voluntary intergovernmental agreement between eurozone countries —should be used for any such bail-out?
Does the Minister further agree that the use of the stabilisation mechanism, which the United Kingdom guarantees up to £8 billion, was not intended to be used to bail out eurozone countries facing financial pressure? Finally, does he agree that what is required from the EU is support for member states’ policies when, like Ireland, they are trying to do the right thing? Instead, the EU has undermined Ireland and created a crisis.
May I first reassure my hon. Friend that it is not the Government’s intention to join the euro during this Parliament? I am not entirely sure what the Opposition’s view is, but we have ruled that out.
My hon. Friend mentions the two mechanisms that are available for stabilisation. The stabilisation facility is purely for eurozone member states, outside the auspices of the current treaties and a bilateral, Government-to-Government arrangement. The mechanism that he refers to is available to all members of the European Union. The previous Government and the previous Chancellor decided to join it in the days prior to the formation of the current Government, and I believe that they need to be held to account for that decision.
Clearly, these are difficult times for the world economy, and Ireland is the current focal point of market concerns. Although the Minister offered little in the way of detail today, is it not clear that, stepping back, the overall long-term lesson to learn from these developments is that economic growth matters?
Ireland is a vital trading partner, to which 7% of our exports are sold, and the current situation matters because its economic strength has a significant effect on our own growth prospects. Will the Minister accept that the emerging global recovery is fragile, and that to rely as heavily as the Government do on export-led growth in the years ahead is a risky gamble?
Will the Minister confirm that this issue extends beyond trade, and that UK banks have lent about £83 billion directly to Irish households and companies? We saw at the G20 last week that the Government need to show stronger leadership on economic growth here and abroad, so can he reassure the House that any forthcoming package from the EU will address fundamental and underlying economic issues rather than act as a sticking plaster, merely tackling symptoms that may recur again and again in future?
The previous Government were clear that the problems facing countries adopting the euro would need to be solved first and foremost by member states within the euro area. Will the Minister confirm that the principal fund designed for any loan to support the Irish or other eurozone countries would be the European financial stability facility, which is envisaged at about €750 billion? Are reports in today’s Financial Times correct that the UK is spending time and effort spinning any future action as “bilateral support” rather than co-ordinating with the EU? Would it not be better if the Government were straight with the public about what they plan?
Does the Minister accept that, although we were right to stay out of the euro, it is essential that the euro is stable and successful for the long term? Will the Minister say categorically that the Treasury’s position will be driven by the best interests of British growth and jobs and not designed to pander to the Eurosceptic political instincts of those in his party who might circle the eurozone in its time of difficulty?
In 2006, the Chancellor wrote in The Times that Ireland’s economy provided a “shining example” to us all. Is it not clear now that, rather than being an example, it provides a warning of the dangers of a one-track economic strategy, built around austerity alone, that endangers growth and puts jobs at risk? Both abroad and at home, what matters is a strong strategy to rebuild jobs and growth.
The Chancellor made it clear this morning that we will do what we need to do in accordance with Britain’s national interest. Ireland is our closest neighbour, and it is in our interests to ensure that the Irish economy is successful and that it has a stable banking system. He said that we stand ready
“to support Ireland in the steps it needs to take”
to bring about that stability. The reality is that Ireland has got some things right. It has a flexible labour market and low taxes. None the less, it made the same mistake as the previous Government—it failed to regulate its banks properly. The problem in Ireland is driven not by high public spending but by a banking crisis. If we listened to the Opposition, the UK would be the only country that was weakening rather than strengthening its fiscal position.
It is clear that the actions we have taken have been welcomed by a range of bodies at home and abroad. What is happening at the moment demonstrates that concerns about sovereign debt issues have not disappeared. We should be grateful that, thanks to the actions of this Government, Britain has moved out of the fiscal danger zone.
The €440 billion eurozone facility can be used without infringing either UK liability or sovereignty. The Darling guarantee mechanism with qualified majority voting involves, unnecessarily, both UK liability and sovereignty. Where it is in our national interest and we can afford it, why not provide a UK-Irish but non-EU loan?
I have a large number of Irish constituents, and I am naturally concerned about their families and livelihoods back in Ireland. The fact is that the Irish crisis is part of a wider crisis in the eurozone, affecting a number of countries that will be unable to sustain long-term membership of the euro. Is it not time to have discussions—privately, perhaps—about the possibility of reconstructing national currencies, particularly the punt, so that the Irish can join the sterling zone, where they belong, and not the eurozone?
As the Irish Government need a workout and not a bail-out to deal with their risks and credit problems, should not the British Government support them and resist the foolish intervention by Germany, which is trying to use this as part of a power grab for the EU?
Given that Chancellor Merkel’s comments have caused such turbulence in the bond market in the past week, I welcome the measured and respectful terms in which the Financial Secretary and the Government have addressed the crisis in Ireland. Does the Financial Secretary accept the judgment of EU Commissioner Olli Rehn? He said:
“In the case of Ireland in particular, we need to recall that sovereign debt has not been at the origin of the crisis. Rather, private debt has become public debt. The financial sector has misallocated resources in the economy and then stopped working. It needs reform.”
The problem does not apply only in Ireland. I remind the Financial Secretary that, if the national pension reserve fund is counted, Ireland’s debt to GDP ratio is not that far wide of the UK’s currently.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The crisis is around the banking system in Ireland—it is not a fiscal crisis. Of course, we almost had to learn the lessons of failure to regulate the banking system. The Government therefore introduced radical reforms to strengthen the stability of the banking sector in the UK.
May I welcome the statement of the Financial Secretary and the Chancellor, and their offer of £6 billion of UK taxpayers’ money to help stabilise the eurozone? We must all welcome the contribution to consolidating the eurozone as a sound economic area. However, what has happened to moral hazard? Most of the money will go to the banks. When will they pay anything—any price—for the crisis they caused?
Irrespective of our obligations under the new European mechanism, which the Labour Chancellor agreed, will my hon. Friend confirm that there is a strong British national interest in securing a stable banking system on both sides of the Irish sea?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have strong economic ties with Ireland, which is one of our biggest trading partners. Our economies are closely interlinked, and it is therefore in our national interest to ensure that the Irish economy and banking system are stable.
Does not the Financial Secretary think it worrying that, when the Irish Government consistently say that they do not require a bail-out, the speculators in the bond market—the hyenas who used to attack our currency—try to bring down the Irish Government’s financial position? Is not it right to support Ireland and the euro, of which it is part?
Will the Financial Secretary tell the House about the strong interest being shown across the world in the Government’s positive approach to tackling fiscal consolidation? Does not that further confirm that this country is now on the right path to tackling the economic crisis?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The crisis reminds us of the continuing focus on sovereign debt. The Government have taken clear measures to tackle our fiscal problems, and international bodies have recognised that. It is one of the reasons for Standard & Poor’s reporting our credit rating as stable compared with its negative outlook under the previous Government. We are taking the right steps to secure our fiscal position, bearing in mind that the crisis in Ireland is around banking, not the fiscal position.
It is in no one’s interests for the Irish Republic’s economy to go down even further, but taxpayers in the United Kingdom are worried that the Irish Republic could be next, followed by Portugal, Spain and Italy, and that the full and true extent of what we might have to pay is not known.
I do not want to engage in speculation about the eurozone; I do not think that that is very helpful. The hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and their colleagues, will know from experience in Northern Ireland that we have very strong interests in the stability of the Irish economy, and it is important that we stand ready to help the Irish Government in stabilising it.
Does the Minister agree that the problem in Ireland is not so much the fiscal measures that it is taking, or global growth, but the fact that it is in the euro, and that as long as Ireland is in the euro it is hard to see how it can work its way through these problems? Would the Minister like to pay tribute to all those on this side of the House who fought to keep this country out of the euro?
Indeed, and my hon. Friend makes an important point. We have access to a wider range of economic tools to resolve our problems as a consequence of our being outside the euro. It is also worth bearing it in mind that this crisis flows from the banking sector, not from public spending in Ireland.
It is right to support our near neighbours in Ireland and their economy. The problem over the past 18 months has been twofold: severe austerity measures and the collapse of the construction industry. Will the Government ensure that we do not follow that path? Will the Minister use the flexibility the Government have outside the euro to ensure that we slow the cuts and do not have the mass unemployment and depopulation that we have seen in Ireland?
I thought that the hon. Gentleman almost had it. The crisis in Ireland is around the banking sector, not the fiscal position. I believe that we are taking the right measures to stabilise the UK economy—the cuts we are making in public spending—to get our deficit under control and to keep interest rates as low as possible for as long as possible. Labour Members are the only ones calling for a weaker fiscal position when the world is moving to stronger fiscal stances.
If we are to spend taxpayer money dealing with this crisis, rather than bailing out the euro should we not be helping Ireland to bale out of the euro or, at the very least, to retain her economic independence against the Van Rompuy system of pan-European economic governance?
I thank the Minister for the reassurance he has already provided in not ruling out intervention or assistance should it be required. Will he provide further reassurance that he will give special consideration to the situation in Northern Ireland, where many of the Irish banks to which he refers are operational and indeed on which many of our businesses rely?
The Government spent six months telling us that Britain was very much like Ireland and had a similar sovereign debt crisis. Now we hear that we are in a very different position because we are not in the euro and we have other economic tools. Which is right?
We have taken action in the UK to tackle our fiscal position to avoid a sovereign debt crisis. [Interruption.] Opposition Members need to recognise that the problems facing Ireland stem from a banking crisis—the banking sector was poorly regulated. We are learning lessons from that in the UK, but it is very clear that because we are outside the euro we have the flexibility to engage in economic policy by setting interest rates that meet our economic needs, and we have the flexibility that our exchange rate brings in stimulating exports. We are in a much better position as a consequence of being outside the euro.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is noteworthy that Opposition Members have made yet another call for us to put off making difficult decisions. We see in Ireland what will happen if we do not make difficult decisions now and sovereign debt ratings come under pressure.
Does the Minister agree that we should thank goodness that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom? Scottish banks were bailed out by the UK as a whole rather than being left to float loose as those in Ireland have been? Does he agree that if, when they are making cuts, the Government can find billions of pounds to bail out Ireland, they could better use that money to ameliorate the effect of the cuts in the UK?
Does not the crisis in Ireland and across Europe underline how right the Government have been to take the tough but necessary action to save us from bankruptcy? Will the Minister condemn the siren voices in Europe that are talking down Ireland, and will he be a friend in need, as we, as a country, should be?
My hon. Friend makes a number of very valuable points. If we had not taken tough action when we came into government, when rating agencies had our credit rating as negative, we would not have managed to narrow the spreads on UK debt compared with German bunds and reduce the yields on British debt. All that is testament to the strength of the action we have taken to tackle Britain’s fiscal problems and the legacy we inherited from the Labour party.
As I said earlier, a number of aspects of Irish economic policy created growth, but I remind my hon. Friend, and Opposition Members, that the problems facing Ireland stem from a banking system that was not well regulated, which led to an asset price bubble. We have taken the right action in this country to tackle our deficit and to avoid having our credit rating put at risk.
The mechanism established to address bad banking debt in the Republic of Ireland, the National Asset Management Agency, known as NAMA, holds several billion pounds of properties in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly here in London. What representations are the Government making to protect our economy from NAMA deciding to float that property at the cheapest possible price to meet the needs of the banking sector in the Republic of Ireland, thereby damaging our economy?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the banking crisis was caused, in large part, by poor regulation? Will he take into account comments made by the City of London corporation to the Treasury Committee yesterday that UK banks believe that the regulatory regime we are putting in place in the UK has elements that are not compatible with the European regulatory regime? Will he take those comments very seriously and try to make sure that Britain’s banking sector is properly regulated and not incompatible with the European regime?
I have not seen in detail the comments made by the City of London corporation yesterday in evidence to the Treasury Committee, but I am determined that the regulatory reforms that we introduce will lead to a more stable and sustainable financial services sector—and a more stable and sustainable economy.
Does the Minister agree that the test of any currency is in the tough times, not just the good ones? That was explained to all the countries that joined the euro, many of which, in my view, did so with their eyes wide shut. Is it not abhorrent that this liability, and the failure of the euro, should become a liability to the UK taxpayer at this time?
I do think that we have an interest in having a strong, stable eurozone and eurozone economy. Member states will reflect on the measures that need to be taken to strengthen the eurozone; that is part of the thinking behind some of the measures in the economic governance paper proposed by Herman Von Rompuy just a few months ago.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that you are aware that on 19 March 1997, the House passed a resolution that included various provisions, one of which is that it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, and another that Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and refuse to provide information only when disclosure is not in the public interest.
Yesterday evening for some hours, we debated whether the next general election should be held in 2015 or 2014. Of material relevance to that debate were the Government’s intentions in relation to the combining of polls in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with the general election in 2015. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), sat in the Chamber throughout the debate but said nothing until the very last moment at 9.30 pm, when he revealed that he intended to write to the devolved Administrations—I understand that that has already happened—to ask whether they would like a new power.
That materially affected every single aspect of yesterday afternoon’s debate. I believe not only that it was a gross discourtesy to the House for the Minister to have operated in that fashion, but that it offends directly the resolution of the House of 19 March 1997. He said that he will write to the devolved Administrations, and therefore relied on that for part of his argument. Will you, Mr Speaker, ensure that he makes all such letters available in the Library of the House? I realise that it is not within your power to tell him that we cannot have Report stage of the Bill until such time as amendments on elections can be tabled in the elected House—before they can be made in House of Lords—but can you look into whether there has been a breach of that resolution?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that ordinarily—as he would expect—the precise contents of the resolution of 19 March 1997 are firmly imprinted on my mind almost as firmly as they are on his. Nevertheless, I am happy to refresh my memory on that matter.
On the face of it, however, I have a slight suspicion that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very assiduous parliamentarian, is continuing the debate. I am not saying that there is not something upon which I need rule, but that I am not clear whether there is. Ministers can speak when they wish in relation to those matters, including when winding up debates. I sense that the hon. Gentleman is extremely dissatisfied with ministerial silence when he expected a ministerial response. That may be a matter of a point of frustration, and there might even now and again be discourtesy, but it is not apparent to me as yet that there has been a breach of order.
I know how persistent a terrier the hon. Gentleman is, and I will look into the matter and revert to him, but I do not think that he needs to make another long point of order just yet.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would be the first to make a point of order had my hon. Friend the Minister released in writing something that should properly have been put before the House—as it was—by him in a debate on the relevant subject. I can think of no better illustration of the proper way for Ministers to behave in relation to the House.
I hope that colleagues will understand if I say that at this point, pending any further study, I feel confirmed in my suspicion by that exchange that we are having a continuation of the debate. That may be stimulating, but it is not really within the realms of points of order. Someone who I am sure knows about the realms of points of order on the strength of his 26 years’ service in the House is the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you for reminding me of that.
What happened last night was somewhat affected by the fact that the Minister’s statement came at the end of the debate. Would it not have been far more convenient and courteous to the House if he had made that announcement at the beginning of the debate? The announcement affected proceedings and the status of amendments that were not debated.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that may or may not be so, but unfortunately, it is not a matter of order. If he or other hon. Members are seeking to increase the powers of the Chair, they must find ways to do so—if he is asking whether I would strenuously resist, the answer is almost certainly no—but within the powers that I have, I cannot do anything about the matter other than to allow him, within limits, to expatiate, which is what he just did.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today we heard the Prime Minister pledge that the Government would stand ready to help the flood victims in Cornwall. That pledge is similar to one that he made to my constituents when we had a terrible gas explosion two weeks ago—200 households were evacuated, and a dozen people were injured, including one very seriously.
When I tried to follow up on the Prime Minister’s pledge to my constituents, his officials said that no help was forthcoming. Is it in order for the Prime Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box in Prime Minister’s questions pledging the Government’s support to victims of explosions or floods when his officials have no intention whatever of offering any support?
Of course, action should always follow words, but if we were to establish that as a total precedent in the House, it would probably create some difficulty. The hon. Lady has put her thoughts very clearly on the record. It was not really a point of order, but she is a pretty ingenious Member, and I have a feeling that she will find other ways, in debate and questioning, to air her views on that subject. I look forward to her doing just that.
Onshore Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give powers to local planning authorities to specify the minimum distances permissible between onshore wind turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest habitation; and for connected purposes.
I am proud to be a Back-Bench Member of a Government who truly believe in localism and removing the top-down, centre-knows-best approach to government that grew out of hand in the past 13 years. Nowhere was that malignant approach more visible to the people who elect us than in how the previous Government forced their views on local areas and imposed massive changes on localities, such as large, controversial housing developments, or even more controversial wind farms.
My Bill would simply give local people and communities in areas where there are such wind farm proposals a real say on whether they take such developments. Numerous communities up and down the UK will be happy to take on such development, and I strongly believe that this Government’s approach of much more carrot, compared with the previous Government’s stick, will ensure that more proposals are passed.
I strongly contend that such developments should be allowed only when the local residents in the affected community have actually had a say—not just when they have been consulted—on the development that will change the nature of the place where they live. I also strongly contend that the best way to save so many communities up and down the country an enormous amount of strife, and at the same time save developers a reasonable amount of money, is to allow each local planning authority to set such minimum distances. Thus everyone will know exactly the state of play in each area.
That will hopefully eliminate the huge number of speculative proposals in areas where, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to get planning permission even for a double garage. Many Members will know of the angst that is caused by proposals for massive turbines that are completely out of keeping with the local environment.
In my constituency, the usual height of a turbine applied for is 126.5 metres. Let me put that into perspective. The tower that supports Big Ben is 96.3 metres or 316 feet to the top of the spire. The London Eye is 135 metres tall. Those two structures dominate the local cityscape. Imagine what a number of structures twice the size of Nelson’s column situated close together do to the landscape in the rolling countryside of Northamptonshire or similar, but not quite as beautiful, parts of the country. If hon. Members consider that alongside the problems associated with flicker and noise from turbines, they will understand why local planning authorities are best placed to judge whether areas within their boundaries are suitable for such large-scale developments. Wind turbine operators say that if there is a minimum distance between turbines and dwellings—a distance of 2 km, say—there would be very few areas in the United Kingdom where turbines could be sited. That might be the case, but my Bill does not state what the minimum distance should be; it simply gives local planning authorities the opportunity to determine such distances—hopefully after consulting the people who live in an area—based on local knowledge and local conditions.
Many hon. Members feel the same way, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), who have all followed me on this matter with great interest. In an Adjournment debate in October, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) reflected on the direction of current Government policy, saying:
“We have seen the benefits from offshore wind, but we recognise that communities often feel concerned that proposed wind farms in their areas will destroy the environment or have other negative impacts. We are convinced that, in the policy of localism that we are going to drive forward, local councils should be the driving force in deciding how they want their communities to develop. That is a fundamental part of the planning changes we are making.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 137WH.]
I would like to think that the Government will see this ten-minute rule Bill as a helpful nudge in the right direction, and perhaps even try to encompass it in the forthcoming localism Bill, and in doing so put some public confidence back into the planning system.
I agree with the commitment to localism shown by the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), and I suspect that there is barely a wafer between us on issues such as regional spatial strategies. However, I rise to oppose the Bill on the grounds that it is unnecessary, unwise and very unlikely to encourage the shift that we need in this country towards renewable energy. Instead, it runs the risk of feeding the irrational objections of a minority who have decided that wind power is bad and who will use almost any excuse to oppose it.
If hon. Members are in any doubt that this group is a minority, market research is remarkably consistent, with 70 to 80% of the UK population expressing support for wind, partly because wind turbines are probably the most beautiful and graceful form of energy generation, and because they are certainly prettier than the average nuclear power station—something that I understand the hon. Gentleman supports. Interestingly, support for wind power increases with proximity to wind farms. One piece of research showed that among people living near existing wind farms, support rose as high as 94%. That is entirely consistent with the experience in Denmark, which has the highest proportion of onshore wind and wind power in general, at nearly 20%, and the highest public support for wind power, at 93%. Indeed, that figure will probably increase as designs improve and wind turbines become quieter and possibly even more beautiful, as well as probably larger and more efficient.
The Bill is unnecessary because planning policy statement 22, which is already in force, says that local authorities already have the power to set minimum distances on a case-by-case basis. Paragraph 22 of the statement says quite clearly:
“Plans may include criteria that set out the minimum separation distances between different types of renewable energy projects and existing developments.”
Indeed, our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), whom I am pleased to see in his place, confirmed the position in a reply to the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), saying:
“Under current planning policy distances between wind turbines and dwellings are decided on a case by case basis so that local factors can be taken fully into account. Local planning authorities are already able to set out the criteria they apply in assessing applications for renewable energy development in their local plans provided this does not rule out or place constraints on development without sufficient reasoned justification.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 544W.]
That seems to strike exactly the right balance between localism and our commitment to renewable energy. The Government’s localism Bill will, I hope, increase and enhance the freedom of local authorities to look at such matters freely, on a case-by-base basis. Bills such as this run the risk of undermining that by once again trying to get Parliament to hand policies to local authorities that they are better able to decide for themselves.
That is unwise, because blanket bans based on proximity are likely to lead to bad policy. If a ban had been in place in my constituency last year, it would almost certainly have prevented our very first wind turbine, which has been placed in Springfield park. It is much smaller than the ones that the hon. Member for Daventry talked about, but it is much closer to human habitation. A blanket rule might have prevented that wind turbine, which will now generate 9,500 kWh of electricity a year, save 4 tonnes of CO2 a year and shave £1,000 a year off the energy bill of the nearby neighbourhood project. If a borough-wide policy had been in place, it would have complicated the process. Presumably the hon. Gentleman might argue that the local community could have tried to overturn that policy, but if it could be overturned, what would be the point of having it in the first place?
There is also the unintended consequence that might result, which is that the more we restrict wind turbines near to human habitation, the more we encourage them in more rural and more sparsely populated areas. I can see the planning appeals now, in which somebody cites what would be known as the Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation) Act 2010 as evidence that a wind farm should go ahead in an area because it falls outside the set distances. The Bill might therefore have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by the hon. Gentleman.
I am sad to say that I suspect that the real purpose behind the Bill is probably to appeal to the anti-renewable lobby, which seems to be growing. I would have hoped that, in the new situation, both coalition parties had moved on from this kind of politics. We are intending to be the greenest Government ever, and the Bill would sit badly with that ambition. Luckily, as a ten-minute rule Bill, it has little chance of success, so I will not trouble the House with a Division. However, I remain opposed to the Bill.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Chris Heaton-Harris, Andrew Percy, Sarah Newton, Natascha Engel, Matthew Hancock, Nigel Adams, Karen Lumley, Alec Shelbrooke, Andrea Leadsom, Mark Pawsey, Mr Richard Bacon and Andrew Griffiths present the Bill.
Chris Heaton-Harris accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June 2011, and to be printed (Bill 108).
[6th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government is pursuing a reform agenda in health that represents an ideological gamble with successful services and has failed to honour the pledges made in the Coalition Agreement to provide real-terms increases each year to health funding; further believes that the Government is failing to honour its pledge in the Coalition Agreement by forcing the NHS in England through a high-cost, high-risk internal reorganisation as set out in the health White Paper; is concerned that the combination of a real cut to funding for NHS healthcare and the £3 billion reorganisation planned by the Secretary of State for Health will put the NHS under great pressure and that services to patients will suffer; supports the aims of increasing clinician involvement and improving patient care, but is concerned that the Government’s plans will lead to a less consistent, reliable and responsive health service for patients which is also more inefficient, secretive and fragmented; and calls on the Secretary of State for Health to listen to the warnings from patients’ groups, health professionals and NHS experts and to rethink and put the White Paper reforms on hold, so that in this period of financial constraint the efforts of all in the NHS can be dedicated to improving patient care and making sound efficiency savings that are reused for frontline NHS services.
The motion is set in similar terms to the motion standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), the shadow Education Secretary, which we will debate a little later. That is because in both health and education we are seeing many of the same broken funding promises, much of the same free market ideology, many of the same problems of big changes forced through without considering or caring about the consequences, and many of the same risks that the poorest and most vulnerable will lose out and that comprehensive, consistent public services will be broken up. Beyond the spending cuts, we are starting to see the pattern of what public service reform means in Tory terms.
The Prime Minister told Britain before the election:
“We are the only party committed to protecting NHS spending.”
In his coalition agreement with the Deputy Prime Minister, he went further, saying:
“We will guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of…Parliament”.
The Government whom the Prime Minister leads are now breaking the promises that he made to the British people. The Secretary of State has been caught out double-counting £1 billion in the spending review as both money for the NHS and money to paper over the cracks in social care. Let me quote from a Library research paper, which confirms:
“Including the (social care) funding is critical to the description of the settlement as a ‘real terms increase’; without it, funding for the NHS falls by £500 million—0.54% in real terms.”
There we have it—the facts in the figures. There is no real-terms rise in NHS funding, but a real-terms cut over this Parliament by this Government—[Interruption.]
The Secretary of State says “Nonsense” from a sedentary position. If he wants to deny the figures in the Green Book, deny the report in the Library research paper, and take issue with the Nuffield Trust, who all say the same, he should do so. He should by all means take credit for funding social care, but he should not double-count the credit by including it for both NHS funding and social care funding.
I do indeed deny that. It is very simple. The total NHS budget will rise in real terms. Resource funding will rise by 1.3% in real terms over four years. Even if the money to be transferred to local authorities were taken out, that is an increase in resource funding for the NHS in real terms.
The right hon. Gentleman must consider that if a health service buys rehabilitation for patients returning home after being in hospital so that they do not need another emergency hospital admission, or puts telehealth in someone’s home so that their independence at home is maintained, that is health spending. It is the normal approach of the NHS to providing preventive services.
There is a good case for more funding in social care, but the truth is, as Age UK says, that in this Parliament it will be cut by an average of 7% in real terms. Social care may help the health service, but if money is spent on social care, it is not spent on NHS services, and it cannot be double-counted as NHS funding. When that is taken into account, and when the Secretary of State stops fiddling the figures, we see that the country and the NHS will get a real-terms cut, not a real-terms rise during this Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said in response to the Chancellor’s spending review:
“We support moves to ring-fence the”
“budget”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 968.]
People saw Labour’s big investment in the NHS bring big improvements—50,000 extra doctors, 98,000 more nurses, deaths from cancer and heart disease at an all-time recorded low, the number of patients waiting more than six months for operations in hospital down from more than 250,000 in 1997 to just 28 in February this year, and more than nine in 10 patients rating their experience of hospital care as good, very good or excellent.
We still have a lot further to go. There have been big improvements in international comparisons, but we must go further. It beggars belief that the Government have decided not to press ahead with plans to give patients a guarantee of, for example, receiving test results within one week, especially as hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise the importance of early diagnosis for cancer, and the cancer specialist, Mike Richards, said that this contribution to early diagnosis could save 10,000 lives a year.
Instead of building on those great gains, I fear that the NHS will again go backwards under this Tory-led Government. It is already showing signs of strain. The number of patients waiting more than 13 weeks for diagnostic tests has trebled since last year, 27,000 front-line staff jobs are being cut, and two thirds of maternity wards are so short-staffed that the Royal College of Midwives says that mothers and babies cannot be properly cared for.
This is not what people expected when they heard the Prime Minister say that he would protect NHS funding. In fairness, a proper, long-term perspective is needed on NHS financing. Year-on-year funding just below or even 0.1% above inflation is way short of the 4% average increase that the NHS has had over its 60 years. During the last Labour decade, it averaged 7% in real terms.
There are, and have been for many years, built-in pressures on the NHS: the cost of staff, drugs and equipment rises by about 1.5% above general inflation, and the demands of our growing and ageing population adds £1 billion to the bill each year just to deliver the same services.
It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman omitted from his list any mention of the escalating costs of administration in the NHS. Does he agree with us that what is really important is to reduce the cost of administration?
The hon. Lady is right, and there is plenty of scope to do that. We recognised that, and we had plans to take out many of the managerial costs. I will come to that later, but it is hard to understand how creating three or even four times as many GP consortiums doing the same job as primary care trusts is likely to reduce rather than increase bureaucracy in the NHS. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh says that in Wigan there is one PCT, but it is set to have six GP consortiums. The same job will be done six times over in the same area. How is that a cut, or an improvement in the bureaucratic overheads and costs of the NHS?
In the spending review, the NHS is set for the biggest efficiency squeeze ever. On 12 October, the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, told the Health Committee:
“It is huge. You don’t need me to tell you that it has never been done before in the NHS context and we don’t think, when you look at health systems across the world, that anyone has quite done it on this scale before.”
Money is tight, and something must happen, but that can be done by building on Labour’s big improvements in the NHS over the last decade. It will be tough, but I will back the Government, as long as all savings are reused for better front-line services to patients.