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Prime Minister

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2010

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning I returned from Zurich, where I have been meeting decision makers, aiming to convince them of what a brilliant World cup England could host in 2018. On my return, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

May I give the Prime Minister Glasgow’s best wishes in the bid for England? I mean that most sincerely.

In a recent Lib Dem leaflet in Scotland, the Business Secretary compares tuition fees to the poll tax. Is it acceptable for the Business Secretary to say one thing in the House and, when campaigning for votes in Scotland, to condemn that policy?

I thank the hon. Lady for what she says about the England 2018 World cup. I know she would never mislead the House, so I know that what she said was utterly sincere, and I am sure it is shared by Members, whatever part of the United Kingdom they represent.

On tuition fees, let us look at the system that we are introducing. Under the new system, nobody pays anything up front. Every single student will pay less per month than they do currently. Half a million students will benefit from the increase in maintenance loans. It is time we started looking at the substance of the issue, rather than just the process.

Q2. The Prime Minister explained how he is shuttling between London and Zurich in support of England’s World cup bid. Can he update the House on how that bid is progressing, please? (27559)

I am grateful for that question. England 2018 has a very strong bid. With regard to the technical aspects, we have the stadiums, the facilities and the transport networks. We have the enthusiasm in our country for football and we can put on an absolutely first-class World cup. I know that many people will ask, “Are you spending too much time on something that might not succeed?” I would say, “If you don’t get on to the pitch, you have no chance of winning.” We should all get behind the bid.

I start by wishing the Prime Minister well as he plays his part in efforts to secure England’s bid for the 2018 World cup. As he says, ours is a fantastic bid and all of us will be hoping for a successful outcome tomorrow.

We note that the Deputy Prime Minister is away on official business, and left the country before the tuition fees vote, but of course we understand that he had urgent business to attend to in Kazakhstan and we wish him well in that.

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast on Monday was hailed as a great sign of success by the Chancellor, but I want to test out what it will mean for families up and down the country. The Prime Minister has been telling us for months that under his plans unemployment will fall next year, but on Monday the OBR said that unemployment would rise next year. Can he explain why that is the case?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the England 2018 bid. I know that the former Prime Minister worked extremely hard on it, and I know that there is cross-party support for it. We need to maintain that as we go into the vital last 48 hours.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the OBR forecast, which the Chancellor announced on Monday. Let me stress again that these are independent forecasts, published for the first time independently, and not interfered with by a Chancellor of the Exchequer. On unemployment, what the Office for Budget Responsibility found is that unemployment this year will be lower than previously forecast. It has not altered its forecast for unemployment next year, for which it is forecasting a rate of 8%, but it is forecasting increases in employment all the way through the forecast period. Above all, what the forecasts showed is that our policy of trying to cut the deficit and get growth at the same time is working.

What the OBR actually shows is that growth will slow next year compared with the forecast, and that is what will mean that unemployment will rise. What the Prime Minister needs to explain is why unemployment will fall next year in the USA, in Germany and in other major industrial countries, but will rise in the United Kingdom. Why is that the case?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is determined to talk down the economy, but even he will find difficulty in finding depressing statistics in the OBR’s report, because, generally speaking, what it reported was good news for the UK economy. It finds, and the last European Commission forecast report found, that average UK growth for the next two years will be higher than in Germany, France, the US, Japan, and the eurozone, or the EU average. It would be more worth while for us to debate across the Dispatch Box how we get the country’s growth rate up. What reforms do we make to try to make our economy more efficient? Has he got something to say about that, or is it another blank page?

The Prime Minister asks how we get the growth of the economy up—absolutely right. What we should not do is put up VAT next year from 4 January and cut public spending by £20 billion. That is why the OBR says that we will have the weakest recovery from recession for 40 years. I come back to my point about unemployment. Can he tell us when, over the five years of the Parliament, unemployment will return to pre-crisis levels? That tests the strength of the recovery. When will it return to the levels before the recession?

We inherited an 8% unemployment rate, and the OBR says that it will be 6% by the end of the Parliament. He asked the question, he gets the answer. Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman of something. At the last election, the Labour party, himself included, said that if we cut £6 billion out of the Budget, it would end in catastrophe for the British economy. He was proved completely and utterly wrong.

Mr. Speaker, have you ever heard a more complacent answer to a question? Families up and down the country are worried about their jobs and unemployment will rise next year, and all the Prime Minister can say is that it is some kind of rosy scenario. Let us take the rise in VAT, because that is one of the reasons why unemployment will rise next year. Can the Prime Minister tell us what impact that will have on economic growth and jobs next year?

First of all, let me deal with VAT precisely. The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) said:

“VAT would have allowed you to pay off a sizeable chunk of the deficit.”

That is the policy that the last Chancellor supported.

If we had followed over the last six months the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, we would be linked with Portugal, with Ireland—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Yes. We would not be standing here today discussing how we will get faster growth and lower unemployment; we would be sitting around discussing how to rescue and bail out Britain.

Okay, Mr. Speaker—[[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] You can rewrite history for only so long. Let us be—[Interruption.] Let us be absolutely clear about this—[Interruption.]

Order. We are wasting the time of Back-Bench Members. Let us hear the Leader of the Opposition.

The deficit was 2.5% of national income before the crisis—the recession—hit all around the world. It went up all around the world; it was a global economic recession. The question is: should we cut too far and too fast, which is what the Prime Minister is doing, so that there are four years of sluggish recovery—the most sluggish recovery from recession in 40 years? Why does the Prime Minister not answer the question? Is this the most sluggish recovery from recession in Britain for the last 40 years? Yes or no?

This is one of the fastest recoveries in Europe, and the point is, if we had followed the right hon. Gentleman’s advice we would not be discussing recovery; we would be discussing meltdown. He can have a blank sheet of paper about the future; he cannot have a blank sheet of paper about the past. We know we were left a record budget deficit; we remember “no more boom and bust”; we remember all the things that he was responsible for. I have to say to him that, after all that—and he has been doing the job for the last three months—people are beginning to ask, “When’s he going to start?”

With that answer, it is no wonder that today we learn that the Foreign Secretary describes this gang as the “children of Thatcher”. It sounds just like the 1980s—out of touch with people up and down the country. Why does the Prime Minister not admit that he is complacent about the recovery and complacent about the people who will lose their jobs? And it is they who will pay the price.

Not waving, but drowning. My mother is still with us, so she is able to testify that what the right hon. Gentleman has just claimed is not literally true, but let me say this: I would rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Prime Minister will be aware that British citizens affected by the 7/7 bombings were supported by the criminal injuries compensation scheme. However, when such attacks take place abroad, such as in Bali, Mumbai or Sharm el Sheikh, no such compensation for things such as prosthesis and long-term care exists. Does the Prime Minister agree that any Britons caught up in terrorist attacks deserve our support, no matter where in the world that attack takes place?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that issue. People who are victims of terror, whether at home or overseas, deserve our support, as he says. People might not know, but my hon. Friend’s brother was tragically killed in the Bali bombing—that horrific attack that took place some years ago. We are looking at this very difficult issue of trying to make sure that, when we consider criminal injuries compensation and what has been proposed for injuries overseas, we have a fair and reasonable system. The Justice Secretary is looking at that, and we will come forward with proposals.

Q3. The Prime Minister’s Government are spending £4 billion so that councils can promote wellness, £2 billion on reorganising the NHS, £100 million on electing police commissioners and £2 million on a happiness survey. Does that not demonstrate that the Prime Minister has lost touch with reality? (27560)

No, it does not. Let me take—[Interruption.] Generally speaking, I think the hon. Gentleman should cheer up a bit. Let me take the issue of NHS reform. Even with the settlement that we have set out for the NHS, which involves real-terms increases each year, if we stand still with the NHS and keep the current system, we will find it running into very severe problems each and every year. So, it is necessary to reform the NHS, it is necessary to cut out bureaucracy and it is necessary to reduce management costs, so that we have a system where we actually try to create a healthier nation and, therefore, reduce the demands on our NHS. That is what our reforms are all about.

Q4. Along with Jamaica, Nigeria and Vietnam, the Irish Republic has one of the largest groups of foreign national prisoners in the UK. Given that we are about to lend it more than £7 billion, could the Irish Republic be persuaded to pay for the incarceration of those people by taking them back to jails in their own country? (27561)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We are looking at how we can transfer prisoners who are foreign nationals from the UK to other countries. Obviously with Ireland the situation is slightly different, because of the long relationship between our countries. The previous Government announced that they would not routinely support the deportation of Irish nationals from the UK; that was announced in February 2007. Since then, there has been a European directive that is helpful, because it makes more automatic the removal of prisoners to other countries. But there is still the specific issue with Ireland, and I will ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary to look at it to see whether we can do a little better.

The Government are cutting their teaching grant to Liverpool university by 30%, to Liverpool John Moores university by 70%, and to Liverpool Hope university by 97%. Is this a policy for closing down opportunity?

No, this is a policy to make sure that we have a strong university sector in this country. [Interruption.] Opposition Members can object, but it was the Conservatives and the Labour Government who set up the Browne review. I would recommend that hon. Members read the Browne review, because with the alternative of staying where we are now, we would either have to cut student numbers or find universities struggling. What Browne has come up with is a proper answer for a strong university sector for the future.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that when this Government are devising policy they should look at the evidence of what works in tackling reoffending, substance abuse and youth crime, rather than relying on the tub-thumping, shroud-waving, ambulance-chasing antics that pass for a policy-making process in the Labour party? (27562)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The fact is that with the difficulties of the budget deficit and the spending problems that we have, we do not have any choice but to look at the evidence and make sure that what we do works and is cost-effective. I think that we should start with the issue of drug rehabilitation, because if we can reduce drug-related crime and cut those costs we will make very great progress.

Will the Prime Minister carry out an urgent check on the satellite navigation system used in ministerial cars? My concern is that just a few short months ago the Deputy Prime Minister could not be stopped from driving himself from university campus to university campus, but since he has got his chauffeur-driven ministerial car, he has not been seen near a student union. Is the sat-nav broke, or has he simply lost his political direction?

That was a wonderfully involved metaphor. At least the Deputy Prime Minister can make up his mind whether to join a demo or not—the Leader of the Opposition cannot even decide whether to sit on the fence.

Q6. Last week the governors of Christleton high school in my constituency made the decision to apply for academy status. However, before they made that decision, they faced a barrage of opposition from trade unions and local Labour party activists. What message would the Prime Minister send to those who seek to undermine much needed reforms of public services in order to fulfil old-fashioned, outdated, left-wing ideology? (27563)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The academy movement—just like the city technology colleges before it—has brought greater independence and greater authority to head teachers and has led to an improvement in educational standards. If Labour Members have got any sense, they will not back off from it, and they should tell their friends in the trade union movement to stop objecting to new academies.

Q7. I have recently come across workers in Wigan who were forced by gangmasters to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, below the minimum wage, and were threatened and bullied when they complained. Why have the Prime Minister’s Government failed to take any action to tackle this issue? Will he join me in supporting the Gangmasters Licensing (Extension to Construction Industry) Bill and help to bring an end to this appalling abuse? (27564)

This is a problem, and it is not one that has arisen suddenly under this Government—it has been a problem for many years. There are problems with gangmasters not paying the minimum wage, and we need to make sure that this is properly policed.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Olympics offer a golden opportunity to encourage more disabled people to take part in sport? Would he like to pay tribute to the Welsh Paralympic team, who we hope will be visiting the Welsh Affairs Committee in February? Should my right hon. Friend be available on that day, he would be very welcome to come and give his best regards. (27565)

I am happy to endorse what my hon. Friend says. As to his invitation, as he is an amateur boxer, I should probably say yes immediately. It is great that the Paralympics are returning to their birthplace for London 2012, and I am sure that it will be a great showcase for sporting talent. Obviously, I wish the Welsh team well.

As the happy son of Paisley, may I too wish the Prime Minister well in his bid to bring the World cup to the United Kingdom? Will he support the campaign of the historic town of Ballymena in County Antrim to achieve city status during Her Majesty’s jubilee year?

The hon. Gentleman is not only metaphorically, but biologically the son of Paisley—he is on safe ground there. I shall certainly look at the matter that he raises. I know that campaigns for city status can gain great traction. Before I start endorsing every single one, I shall look at what he has said, but I am sure that there is a strong case.

Q9. The Prime Minister may have noted that the Leader of the Opposition approaches economic questions with the acumen of a novice out of his depth. By the next general election, families in my constituency will each have paid back £21,000 in Government debt. Will the Prime Minister resist Opposition demands to scale back on the deficit-reduction measures? (27566)

I will certainly resist those demands. The fact is that we inherited a situation that was completely unsustainable. Not just the Conservative party made that point; the Governor of the Bank of England, the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the OECD and the IMF were all saying that the previous Government did not have a proper plan. We needed a plan, we have got a plan and we should stick to that plan.

I wish the Prime Minister well in his efforts in Zurich and hope that we will get the right result tomorrow. There was a great debate in the House yesterday on school sport partnerships and there was consensus that something needed to be done. There was an offer from the shadow Front-Bench team to try to come to an arrangement on the issue. Will he look at it urgently with the Secretary of State for Education? I am sure that we can resolve this matter, because it is important that sport is available to all.

I know that the hon. Gentleman was a very successful Sports Minister in the previous Government. I thank him for his endorsement of the 2018 bid and all that we are doing to win for England.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about school sport is important. I am looking carefully at yesterday’s debate. We all have a shared interest: we all want good sport in schools and more competitive sport, and we all have to ensure that money is spent well. Everyone accepts that not every penny was spent well in the past. There is a quite bureaucratic system. The Secretaries of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and for Education are working hard on this issue. We are talking with head teachers to ensure that what we come up with works on the ground. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement soon.

Q10. The plans to link London and Manchester by high-speed rail will bring huge economic benefits to my constituency and the greater north-west. Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who wants to eliminate inequality between north and south should support High Speed 2? (27567)

My hon. Friend makes the right point in the right way. I understand that there will be difficulties with High Speed 2 in terms of the impact on some hon. Members’ constituencies and on some neighbourhoods. However, it is true to say that Governments of all parties for 50 years have tried to deal better with the north-south divide and to bring our country closer together. I profoundly believe that high-speed rail and good transport links are a really good way of making that happen. This measure could succeed where others, frankly, have failed.

Q11. The community of Collyhurst in Manchester has waited patiently and stoically with its insecure doors and draughty windows, while it has seen huge regeneration across large parts of Manchester. The Prime Minister will understand the sense of anger and despair in that community last week when the Minister for Housing and Local Government announced that its regeneration will not go ahead. Will the Prime Minister or the Minister for Housing and Local Government meet my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) in Collyhurst with tenants’ representatives to see how the matter can be taken forward? (27568)

I will make sure that the Minister for Housing and Local Government does as the hon. Gentleman says. The regional growth fund will be available for investment in those sorts of areas, and the replacement of regional development agencies—the local enterprise partnerships—will, partly because they will be more locally based, have a finer-tuned ear to local problems such as the one that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Q12. With the renewed prospect of travel chaos for British Airways passengers, will the Prime Minister condemn the leader of Unite’s implied threat to families when he said to them, “Don’t go on holiday”? (27569)

Opposition Members do not seem to think it is serious that we now have trade union leaders who actually say that there is no such thing as an irresponsible strike. There is such a thing, and those who are bankrolled by the unions ought to speak up about it.

Q13. Every year, about 25,000 people die from thrombosis in hospitals, which is two to three times greater than the number of people who die from hospital-acquired infection, yet many of those deaths are avoidable if hospitals follow the NHS guidance on blood clot risk-assessment. What are the Prime Minister’s Government doing to ensure that the UK’s No. 1 hospital killer becomes the NHS’s No. 1 health priority? (27570)

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, and I know that he is chair of the all-party group on thrombosis. In answer to his question about what we are going to do, the first thing is to make available more information. It was a freedom of information request by the all-party group that showed that only 14 acute trusts in England were even close to meeting the goals for risk-assessing patients submitted to hospital for the dangers of thrombosis and blood clots. He is right, and the best thing that we can do is provide more information. That will help us to ensure that hospitals are coming up to the mark.

The Prime Minister will be aware, I am sure, that today is world AIDS day. What are the coalition Government doing to ensure that the tide of HIV is stemmed both at home and abroad?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue, and to say that we need to look at what is happening both at home and abroad. Abroad, the biggest decision was to maintain the commitment to 0.7% of gross national income going to our aid budget, and we make a very big contribution out of that budget to the battle against AIDS globally and to ensuring that antiretroviral drugs are made available. We also have to look at home, where there are worrying signs of infection rates that are still extremely high. We need to get the message out today and on other days about the importance of safe sex and the precautions that people should take.

Q14. I have just got back from a visit to Israel and the west bank, and I was shocked to witness with my own eyes 13-year-old Palestinian children in leg irons and manacles in Israeli military prisons. That is one of numerous breaches of the UN charter and of article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention. Whether or not the Prime Minister is the legitimate son of Thatcher, I am sure that as a father he would join me in condemning that appalling practice, but what will the British Government do to put pressure on the Israeli Government to comply with their obligations under international law and to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people in both the west bank and Gaza? (27571)

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Every country should obey the Geneva convention and the other conventions that it has signed, and Israel should be no exception to that. Ministers in the Government I lead raise those issues with Israeli Ministers, as we should, and that is extremely important. The fact is, what we really need is a long-term settlement of the Palestinian issue, and we want a two-state solution. It is very important that we put pressure on both sides at all times to ensure that we make progress. The lack of progress only plays into the hands of the extremists, and we can see that all the moderates in the middle east who are trying to make progress are being undermined by our failure to do better.

Q15. If the Human Rights Act is “a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country”,when will the Government put the human rights of the law-abiding majority above those of dangerous convicted criminals? (27572)

It is right that we should be replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. I have personally looked at the matter long and hard and believe that there is no better solution than that. We are committed to starting a process of looking at that to see whether we can remove some of the nonsenses that have grown up over recent years and show that we can have a commitment to proper rights, but they should be written down here in this country.

The Government have announced an injection of £50 million of new money into the interim cancer drugs fund. Can the Prime Minister say whether there will be Barnett consequentials for Scotland, because that is new money?

We have not made any changes to the Barnett formula, so if that is Barnett-able, as it were, there will be consequentials, and if it is not, there will not be.

My hon. Friend raises a very good point. We need to look at all those sorts of issues under the work that we are doing on the military covenant—there are very complicated issues of pensions and interaction with taxes. I do not want to give a flip answer from the Dispatch Box; we have a proper process of looking at the military covenant, which is the right way to do things.

Climate finance will be critical at the ongoing climate summit at Cancun. Although I welcome the fact that the Government have pledged £2.9 billion to the global climate fund, will the Prime Minister confirm that any future money pledge will be additional to existing aid budgets, and can he say what further innovative funding mechanisms he plans to employ to deliver the UK’s share of the annual $100 billion pledged at Copenhagen?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that. Although Cancun will not achieve the binding global agreement that we want, it can make important steps towards that, so we can stay on track. On climate finance, first, we will stick to what was set out previously on the limit in the aid budget for money used for climate change purposes, although there are very real connections between climate change and poverty; and secondly, there is a commitment, which we will keep to, of £2.9 billion for climate change finance. Britain is a leader on that, but as she said, we must look at innovative ways of levering in more money from other parts of the world, including—frankly—from some fast-growing areas which, when Kyoto was first thought of, were very underdeveloped and are now fast-developing countries. We need to help them, but the finance should not flow only from us.

Will the Prime Minister have urgent talks with the Leader of the House and the Business Secretary on introducing legislation for a national regulator or ombudsman for supermarkets before more suppliers are decimated by their conduct?

We have new arrangements in terms of ensuring that supermarkets treat farmers fairly. All of us as constituency MPs have heard stories about supermarkets behaving very aggressively towards farmers, and it is right that there is a proper way of trying to police that independently, so that our farmers get a fair deal for the food that they produce.