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Volume 520: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2010

Q3. While temperatures drop across the UK, profit margins for the energy companies have risen by an unacceptable 38%, compelling people on limited incomes to turn their heating down. What will the Prime Minister do to force these privatised companies to pay back some of their excessive profits to customers before more pensioners freeze to death? (29133)

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask this question. Two things need to be done. The first is that the regulatory authorities need to be tough with the energy companies—and that is exactly what I expect Ofgem to do. The second thing that needs to happen is that the cold weather payments need to kick in. We have already spent £173 million since the start of the particularly cold weather. One reason why this is working so well is that we have made permanent what was only a temporary increase from Labour before the last election.

This morning, I spoke to one of my constituents—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] It might come as news to Labour Members, if they were quiet, and they should try it. Mrs Lowther, who is 76 years of age, is disabled and has been housebound for 11 days now, because of the snow and ice in Stapleford. Does the Prime Minister agree that in such inclement weather it is imperative that we are good neighbours, especially to the elderly and the frail?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course the Government should be there with cold weather payments, and we are. We should be there with winter fuel payments, and we are. It is also important that local government plays its role, ensuring that grit supplies are there. By being good neighbours, we can all help those who could suffer in the cold weather, and she is quite right to raise the point.

Q4. As someone who claims to be an avid fan of The Smiths, the Prime Minister will no doubt be rather upset this week to hear that both Morrissey and Johnny Marr have banned him from liking them. The Smiths, of course, are the archetypal student band. If he wins tomorrow night’s vote, what songs does he think students will be listening to: “Miserable Lie”, “I Don’t Owe You Anything” or “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”? (29134)

If I turned up, I probably would not get “This Charming Man”. If I went with the Foreign Secretary, it would probably be, “William, It Was Really Nothing”.

Order. There is simply too much noise. It is very unfair. I want to hear Mr Stewart Jackson.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a badge of shame, for which the Labour party should apologise to taxpayers, parents and pupils, that having doubled education spending during their term in office, they managed to drive down educational attainment standards to the bottom of the international league, according to the OECD?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The tables published today make depressing reading. We are falling behind countries such as Poland and Estonia, which we should be well ahead of. Frankly, this comes down to the choice we have to make. We made the choice of putting an extra £3 billion into the schools budget during this Parliament, because we want more done in early years and primary education so that we get the social mobility about which the Leader of the Opposition was posing earlier.

Q5. Over half the students at the university of Wolverhampton come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This morning, the University and College Union said that Wolverhampton was one of the universities at high risk, owing to the Government’s massive 85% cuts to its teaching grant. Will the Prime Minister explain to students and local businesses exactly why he is putting Wolverhampton university at risk in that way? (29135)

The hon. Lady stood for election on a manifesto that supported the Browne commission—[Interruption.] She did; she can deny it now, but that is what the manifesto written by the Leader of the Opposition said. The fact is that we have to make a decision. Is it right for taxpayers to continue providing the predominant support for university education? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] They say yes now, but that is not what they stood on at the last election. Many taxpayers do not go to university or benefit from a university education, so it is fairer and better to ask students to contribute, but only when they are successful. No one will contribute until they earn £21,000, which is £6,000 more than under the system that the hon. Lady’s party introduced.

Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as concerned as I am about absurd health and safety legislation, which has reached such dizzy heights in this country that the chief executive of Sainsbury’s told me last week that Christmas crackers are now category 1 fireworks, and cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16 without the risk of a six-month sentence of imprisonment? Will he put a firework up the health and safety legislation?

Q6. The Prime Minister told the House in June that he had been treated not too badly on his last visit to Gateshead—we are, by nature, a very friendly bunch. Will he return to discuss with regional political leaders of all parties their real concerns and fears that the Government’s current strategy is undermining the potential for economic recovery in our region, particularly through the slashing of support for the tourism industry? Before he mentions it, we are already trying to squeeze a few gallons out of a pint-sized regional growth fund pot. (29136)

There is big Government support for the north-east. There is big support for Nissan and its electric car, and we are supporting the National Renewable Energy Centre, which is building the world’s biggest testing facility for wave and tidal technology. We have also awarded a £7 million contract for the construction of the first advanced bioethanol plant in the Tees valley. So we are investing in the north-east.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a fragile economic recovery. If we had listened to his party, there would not be a recovery; we would be queuing up with Ireland to go to the International Monetary Fund.

Drunks and binge drinking have fuelled an economy that has sadly seen people the victims of knife crime. May I ask my right hon. Friend to stiffen the Justice Secretary’s resolve in dealing with those who carry knives and those who commit knife crimes?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. If she reads the Green Paper, she will see that adults committing a crime with a knife should expect to go to prison. That is absolutely right, because there are far too many people committing knife crimes today who do not go to prison, and they should.

Q7. The dissident terrorist threat is a continuing problem in Northern Ireland, and we have seen some evidence of the terrorists’ capabilities in recent months. Will the Prime Minister ensure that if additional resources that were not previously envisaged are deemed necessary by the Chief Constable to deal with such a threat, he will ensure that they are provided without delay? (29137)

Of course we keep a very careful eye on the situation in Northern Ireland, and on whether additional resources are required. We stuck to the pledges made by the previous Government about properly funding the devolution of policing and justice. I think that decisions are better made locally, which is why that was the right step to take. I know how difficult the security situation is in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to police on both sides of the border for the brilliant work that they do. Of course we always stand ready to help, but we did make quite a generous settlement in terms of devolving law and justice, and that should be the first call for resources.

In Afghanistan on Monday, the Prime Minister said that British troops could start coming home from Afghanistan as early as next year, which is a major policy shift. With which of our allies did he discuss that decision, and does he envisage the gap being filled by the Afghan army or the US army?

What I said in Afghanistan was what I said before I went to Afghanistan and what I will happily say again today, which is that the whole of NATO and all the nations of the international security assistance force that are involved in Afghanistan are committed to transition to Afghan control between the start of 2011 and the end of 2014. As that happens, there will clearly be opportunities either to reinvest troops in training missions or, indeed, to bring them home. What the Chief of the Defence Staff and I both said at a press conference in Afghanistan was that it might be possible to bring some of our troops home next year.

Q10. Tomorrow the Deputy Prime Minister will vote to break his election promise on tuition fees. This Prime Minister has also broken his election promise to maintain the child trust fund for the poorest in our society. What message does that send to young people about trusting Government? (29140)

I seem to remember that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the last Government, who commissioned the Browne review. [Interruption.] Yes: the Government who went into the election committed to cuts of 25% in the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. If they were committed to that, what were Opposition Members going to do? Were they going to cut the number of people in universities, or were they going to cut the money going to universities? We have had absolutely no answer. The people who are actually behaving in a way that I think drags politics through the mud are people who introduced tuition fees, introduced top-up fees and commissioned the Browne review, and who then, as soon as they are in opposition, behave irresponsibly and run away from it.

Q11. There are currently plans to regenerate Camborne and Redruth, which would create 6,000 new jobs and allow the building of a modern, state-of-the art mine in Redruth. However, the work depends on transport infrastructure improvements which are currently being reviewed by the Department for Transport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in difficult times when capital is scarce we should prioritise projects that create jobs and deliver growth, and that the Department for Transport should review its assessment criteria? (29141)

My hon. Friend speaks very well for his constituency and fights very hard for the economy in Redruth and Camborne, and he is absolutely right that of course we should give priority to transport projects that have the greatest economic return. That is what the Department for Transport does; it also has to look at environmental and other factors, but decisions should be based on where we can show economic benefits from transport—and remember that we are putting more money into transport capital infrastructure than the previous Government planned to do.

In light of his experience of the World cup bid in Zurich last week, can the Prime Minister tell us what his view now is of an organisation that engages in the most convoluted and bizarre voting arrangements, that says one thing and then votes exactly the opposite way, and that has a leader who seems more interested in power and prestige than accountability—and after he has finished with the Lib Dems, can he tell us what he thinks of FIFA?

I certainly learned one thing: when it comes to breaking promises, politicians have got nothing on football management—there is no doubt about that. [Interruption.] Before Labour Members all start pointing, we should just remember who it was who said, “We will never introduce tuition fees.” Who said, “We will never introduce top-up fees”? Who said “We will back the Browne review”? Who is now an organised hypocrisy?

Q12. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan and the review of the military covenant published today, will he reassure me that his Government will go that extra mile to support our troops, who have given so much to our country? (29142)

I am sure the whole House is grateful for what my hon. Friend said about our troops. On my visit to Afghanistan, I was again struck by just how hard these people are working, and how courageous, professional and brave they are. They are genuinely the best of British, and we owe it to them that we support not just them, but also their families. One thing I am pleased we have been able to do is introduce a pupil premium for the children of forces families. I know from my own constituency that many children at schools dominated by forces families leave and go to a different school within each year. I think giving extra support to forces families in this way is absolutely right, and I am sure it will be supported by all.

In a tragic incident yesterday at the Sonae factory in my constituency, two people working at the plant were killed. I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in expressing deepest condolences to the families of those who were killed, and does he agree that when the Health and Safety Executive and police investigations into what happened have been completed, whatever action is necessary will be taken?

I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in what he says about his constituents and the dreadful accident that took place. It is important that we have procedures in place for the HSE and others to investigate these issues and, as he says, they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree that foundation schools are already free from local authority control, and will he meet me to discuss the cancelled innovative project to join foundation school Redcar community college with Kirkleatham Hall special school, to replace their dilapidated classrooms and provide facilities for the community? (29143)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that. The point is that all schools now being given this greater level of independence—whether as foundation schools or the new academy schools—should have greater ability to get together and collaborate to invest in their future, rather than always having to rely on a drip-feed from Government Ministers.

Is the Prime Minister aware that Parliament may have been infiltrated by an imposter? The Deputy Prime Minister—[Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister has said he will vote to treble tuition fees and abolish the education maintenance allowance. Before the general election the leader of the Liberal Democrats said he would vote to abolish tuition fees and keep the EMA. [Interruption.] Can the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to finish his question without chuntering and shouting from a sedentary position. The last sentence please.

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has the unique qualification of being one of the brothers who was selected on an all-women shortlist—next time he comes in he should dress properly.

Q14. Within the next couple of years the Ministry of Defence will relocate a further 1,300 jobs away from Bath, allowing two major sites in the city to be redeveloped. Given the urgent need for 3,000 additional affordable homes within the city, will the Prime Minister give me the assurance that the MOD will work with the Homes and Communities Agency and the local council to ensure that the sites can be used for those houses, rather than merely to get the best price in the sale? (29144)

I discussed this with my hon. Friend this morning, and I certainly agree that the Ministry of Defence should work with the HCA to try to bring this about. Sometimes the wheels can turn quite slowly when it comes to Defence Estates. I know that he will work hard, and I will ask the MOD to work hard, to get this fixed.

The Prime Minister will be aware that a week is a long time in politics. Having had all that time, could he now update the House on his rethink on the future of school sport partnerships?

I think that there is quite a common position between both sides; I read the debate where the shadow sports Minister said that clearly we could not afford the current level of commitment. He also said that the current way of doing things was not particularly efficient. So we are reviewing it and making sure that we do provide money for school sport from the centre, but that we do so in a better way because, frankly, too many children in too many schools do not have access to sport after 13 years of a Government who talked an awful lot about it.

Q15. The Browne report states that only just over 1% of UK graduates gave gifts to their former universities, compared with at least 10% in the United States. Does the Prime Minister agree that those of us who received free university education and are in a position to do this should be encouraged to do some serious giving to universities to support current students? (29145)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that other countries do better at endowing their universities and making sure that they have a wider source of income. But the fundamental issue is this: if we are going to look at how we are going to fund universities in the future, it cannot be right, and we will not get a proper expansion of higher education, if we just ask taxpayers, many of whom do not go to university, to fund that expansion. It is right that students—only when they are successful, only when they have left university and only when they are earning £21,000—should make a contribution. They should do so in the progressive and fair way that Browne and we have set out.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the Arctic conditions sweeping across central Scotland. Constituents of mine have been trapped in cars and buses overnight, they have been trapped in their own homes, and schoolchildren have been forced to spend the night in temporary accommodation. Can he assure me that the UK Government are offering all possible assistance to the Scottish authorities, up to and including the use of military personnel and equipment?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we stand ready to give any assistance in terms of how we are doing these things. Ministerial meetings at, in effect, the Cobra level, are going through what actions need to be taken. There is a bigger strategic supply of grit than there has been in previous years, the military stand ready to help and I can guarantee him that whatever needs to be done will be done.

We now come to the statement by the Minister for pensions, Steve Webb. May I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that we can hear from Minister Webb?