Skip to main content


Volume 520: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2010

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Time and time again, the Prime Minister has said that he wants to protect the poorest and most vulnerable while reducing the budget deficit, so can he explain to me and to residents of my Lewisham East constituency why he is heaping huge cuts on local councils, which tend to spend half their overall budget on child protection, care for the elderly and services for the disabled?

Let me tell the hon. Lady what we are doing in Lewisham to protect the most vulnerable. The per pupil funding in our schools in Lewisham will be maintained at £6,951 per pupil—that is the 10th highest in the country, recognising the level of deprivation. On top of that, for the first time in our history we will be adding a pupil premium of £430 per child. That is an excellent policy.

Q2. The BBC reports that the German Finance Minister wants to set an interest rate to punish Ireland. Will the Prime Minister confirm that this country wants to help Ireland? (30542)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be setting out the details of the loan on Second Reading of the Bill today, but I think that it is worth standing back and asking ourselves, “Why is it that we are able to make a loan to Ireland? Why is it that people are asking us to do that?” It is because Britain’s economy is out of the danger zone and recovering. If we had listened to the Labour party, we would still be in a hole.

May I start by paying tribute to our troops serving in Afghanistan? We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for everything that they are doing for us, and our thoughts will be with them and with their families, who will be apart from them at this time of year.

Does the Prime Minister recognise the concern that there will be about the rise in unemployment of 35,000 that we saw this morning? Does he understand that for all those families around the country, his confidence and indeed his restatement today that Britain “is out of the danger zone” will seem very hollow?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to our forces in Afghanistan, whom I visited last week, and to all their families, who will be missing them at Christmas time. To be fair, under the Government of whom he was a part and under this Government we are making big improvements on their contact home—on fax time, telephone time and all the contact that they need—and that is absolutely right.

On the unemployment figures, of course everyone should be concerned—and I am concerned—by a rise in unemployment. When anyone loses a job it is a tragedy for that person, and we must do everything we can to help people into work. With the Work programme we will be launching the biggest back-to-work programme in this country for 70 years. To be accurate, although part of the figures are disappointing, they are mixed because we see that the claimant count has come down in the unemployment figures and we are also seeing an increase in the number of vacancies in our economy—every day there are another 10,000 vacancies. So, yes, we have to get the private sector going and increase the number of jobs available. Over the past six months, we have seen 300,000 new private sector jobs. We need more of them, and keeping our economy out of the danger zone is the way to get them.

The Prime Minister slightly sounds as though he paints himself as an innocent bystander in relation to the unemployment figures. He should not be pressing ahead with a rise in VAT on 4 January and £20 billion of public spending cuts.

I want to turn to another aspect of the Prime Minister’s financial plans. Can he confirm that the Government are now set to break the promise made in the coalition agreement:

“We will guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the Parliament”?

Being a bystander would mean having no plans to deal with our economic problems. This Government are cutting corporation tax, abolishing Labour’s jobs tax, reducing national insurance and increasing our jobs programme. No one should be complacent; complacency is having no answers. No one should be complacent, but we do see retail sales up, exports up, manufacturing up, interest rates coming down since the election and growth higher than expected. I am not in the slightest bit complacent about what we need to do, but let us not talk down the performance of our economy.

Turning to the NHS, we have increased the NHS budget by £10 billion in this Parliament. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that only one party stood at the election on saving the NHS and its spending and that was this party right here. I am confident that we will fulfil our goal of real-terms increases every year in the NHS.

It is very interesting that the right hon. Gentleman says that he is confident. He should listen to what the Conservative-led Health Committee said only on Monday. It said that with inflation now higher,

“the Government’s commitment to a real terms increase in health funding…will not be met.”

We all remember those posters during the election and we all remember his face, airbrushed, on those posters. Will he now admit that he is breaking that promise?

We are not breaking that promise. We want to see NHS spending increase by more than inflation every year. Let me be clear about who supports this policy. The shadow Chancellor—this is not vague, but pretty clear—said, when asked whether it is right to protect NHS spending:

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

Let us be clear: on this side of the House, we want real-terms increases in health spending to ensure that we improve the health of our nation; the Opposition are committed to cutting the NHS.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is good at the broad brush, that he is good at the airbrush and that he does not do detail, but he should read the report, which says that health service spending will be cut next year in real terms.

Let me turn to his next broken promise on the NHS. He pledged, and the coalition agreement says:

“We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care”,

but that is exactly what the Government are forcing on the health service. Fewer than one in four doctors think that it will improve patient services and independent experts say that it will cost £3 billion. After six months, is not an old truth being confirmed? When it comes to the NHS, you cannot trust the Tories.

There are moments when I think I am up against Basil Brush. When it comes to protecting the NHS, only one side of this House is committed to protecting NHS spending and that is this side.

Now we come on to reforming the NHS. We are not reorganising the bureaucracy of the NHS; we are cutting and abolishing it. Because we are making a 45% saving in the bureaucracy of the NHS, that will save £1.9 billion. Because we are increasing the spending on the NHS, that money will go into hospitals, beds, nurses and doctors. All those things would be cut if it was up to the Opposition because they do not have a commitment to maintaining NHS spending.

The Prime Minister is breaking his promise and he does not want to admit it. What does he want to do? He wants to leave it to the back end of the pantomime horse, the Deputy Prime Minister, to break the promises. It is time that the front end of the pantomime horse took some responsibility.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about another broken promise, on the education maintenance allowance. Why does he not go a couple of miles away from here—I know that he does not talk to students, or only to those in China—to Southwark college and talk to the students and teachers there? The business teacher there wrote to me and said—[Interruption.] I would have thought that Government Members would want to listen to the fate of students and young people up and down this country. The teacher said:

“I see the benefits that the EMA provides for many of my learners. I see how they struggle to pay for transport…books and other essentials. How can we expect them to aspire to a better life if we deny them the means?”

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk pantomime. I am afraid it will not be long before he is thinking, “Look behind you!”

The problem with the education maintenance allowance is that research shows that 90% of those who receive it would stay on at school anyway. As we are raising the school participation age to 18, it is right that we replace the education maintenance allowance with something that is better targeted. The right hon. Gentleman has to look at the bigger picture, which is that we inherited a completely wrecked set of public finances. His questions are always about this cut or that cut; we know which cuts he is against, but he has not made one single suggestion about how to dig the country out of the pit of debt that he left us in.

The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman began the year making promises and now he is breaking them. The promise on NHS spending—broken; the promise on the education maintenance allowance—broken; the promise on universal child benefit—broken; the promise on knife crime—broken; and the promise on new politics—broken. Should not his new year’s resolution for 2011 be to keep the promises he made in 2010?

It can be put quite simply: Labour started the year with a leader who was dithering and had no answers on the economy and it has ended the year with a leader who is dithering and has no answers on the economy. I suppose, in Labour terms, that is what passes for progress.

Q3. The Bletchley Park Trust in my constituency hopes to buy for the nation the personal papers of Alan Turing, the heroic wartime code breaker. It is confident of raising the funds to buy the papers, but there is a danger that the auction might take place before it has the chance to do so. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to give Bletchley Park a fair chance to secure those important documents for the nation? (30543)

I would certainly like to do that, because I think my hon. Friend is entirely right—Alan Turing was a remarkable man. Many of the people who worked on cracking the enigma code at Bletchley Park during the war are still alive and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They made a decisive difference in winning the second world war and we should praise all of them. Of course I hope that private donors will generously support the fundraising campaign and I am very happy to work with my hon. Friend and do anything I can to make that happen.

Earlier, the Prime Minister expressed concern about unemployment. Unemployment in his constituency is 1.5% whereas in my constituency it is 7.3%. A full Jobcentre Plus service is available in Witney, but he has decided to close down the Deptford jobcentre. That cannot meet any test of fairness, so will he personally review that disastrous decision?

I will very happily look at the distribution of jobcentres, but the fact is that, through local government and other spending, we put a lot more money into deprived areas in our country. [Interruption.] Yes, we do. I had a little check before coming to Question Time and if we look at what is happening to grant changes—for instance, comparing my constituency with that of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—the cut in grant in my constituency is 27% greater than in his. I simply do not accept that the Government are not being fair and helping those who need help the most.

Q4. All of us in the Chamber will have had tragic cases of late diagnoses of cervical and breast cancer in our constituencies—cancers that should and can be survived. The Prime Minister promised to do more when he was in opposition. Now that we are in government, what is he doing about the unacceptably low survival rates? (30544)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The first thing we did was to make good on our promise of a cancer drugs fund. We put money into that fund so that thousands of people who were without the drugs they needed can now get them. We want to see further improvements on cancer screening and much more focus on cancer outcomes, and unlike the Labour party we are prepared to put the money in to make sure it happens.

According to the latest statistics, children of asylum seekers have been placed in detention centres on 665 occasions in the past year, which means that it is highly likely that there will be children in our detention centres this Christmas. This is not a party-political point. May I ask the Prime Minister, on behalf of the whole House, to give a commitment that by next Christmas, in 2012, there will be no children of asylum seekers in detention centres, and that there never will be again?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. In our coalition agreement we made a commitment to address the issue, and the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement tomorrow about how we will end this scandal.

Q5. As naval aviation celebrates its centenary, will my right hon. Friend guarantee that the promised transfer of 20 Merlin helicopters from the RAF to the Fleet Air Arm will indeed take place? Otherwise critical mass may well be lost, and the first 100 years of a service that has defended us in peace and war may be the last 100 years. (30545)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. Of course I will look into the issue of the Merlin transfer. However, we should be clear about the fact that Britain will still have the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world. The Navy will have seven Astute class submarines, 19 destroyers and frigates, 14 minesweepers and other vessels, the Royal Marines—obviously—and our nuclear deterrent. We will have a large and fit-for-purpose Navy of which the country can rightly be proud.

The Prime Minister will be aware that there are two great football clubs in north London, Tottenham Hotspur and Enfield Town. He will also be aware that Spurs are considering moving across London to the east end—to the Olympic park. Will he join me, and the Spurs fans who signed a petition entitled “Say NO to ‘Stratford Hotspur’”, in urging the Spurs chairman to put the club and its history before shareholder value?

My recent experience has taught me to stay out of international football management. While paying tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s club, to Enfield Town and, of course, to Arsenal as well—I think it right to do that—I will let the club make the decision. However, it is true to say that on the Olympic site there will be a fantastic stadium of which I hope one football club will take advantage.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking and expressing appreciation to the postal service workers across the United Kingdom—including those whom I visited in Inverurie, Dyce and Ellen—who are struggling through snow and ice to make their deliveries? Does he agree that the mail order firms that are cancelling Christmas in Scotland by refusing to accept orders should recognise that they cannot and do not match the universal postal service, and that for that reason it should be secured and protected? (30546)

The right hon. Gentleman has made an extremely good point. I am sure that all Members in all parts of the House—many of whom will take the opportunity to visit sorting offices this Christmas—will want to record our support and thanks for the very good work that postal workers do throughout the country in ensuring that everything is delivered in time for Christmas. I know that they are having a particularly difficult time in Scotland. Additional air and rail services have been laid on to speed the movement of mail in and out of Scotland, and Royal Mail itself has made a big investment—of £20 million—to try to deal with the most severe weather that it has faced for 30 years.

Again, let us all pay tribute to those who will ensure that cards and presents are delivered on time.

Q7. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) is right. The situation has been horrendous in Scotland, and indeed in the north of England. The only people who are delivering are those in Royal Mail, as the private companies have offloaded their commitments on to it. The £20 million invested by Royal Mail is important. Will the Prime Minister give a straight answer to this question? Will he guarantee that universal service, and will he and his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is sitting next to him, review Royal Mail’s privatisation and step back from it? (30547)

The whole point of trying to get private capital and management involved in Royal Mail is to make the service better, and to ensure that it can go on doing all the things that we want it to do. Opposition Members—including the Leader of the Opposition—shake their heads, but the fact is that they were going to present plans in the last Parliament, because even they realised that this needs to be done.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the service of the Gurkhas and, especially, to my Chiswick constituent, Havildar Lachhiman Gurung, who died on 12 December aged 92? He won the Victoria cross while serving with the Gurkha Rifles in Burma in 1945, where he demonstrated

“outstanding gallantry and extreme devotion to duty, in the face of almost overwhelming odds”.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Gurkhas both past and present. Anyone who goes to Afghanistan and sees how many Gurkhas there are not just in the Gurkha Rifles but in some of the logistic regiments, serving our country extremely well, will know that we owe them the greatest debt of gratitude, and we must always make sure that it is paid in full.

Q8. This has been a momentous week, with the trebling of tuition fees for students and the average decrease of 10% in grants for local councils. We have also been told this week that the Chancellor has to build up a war chest of £50 billion just in time for the general election—paid for by working people and their families. [Interruption.] That is right; that is the question. (30548)

I am not quite sure what the question is. Let me just answer the point about fees by putting this point on the record. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked carefully at our plans, and it finds:

“By decile of graduate lifetime earnings, the Government’s proposals are more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne. The highest earning graduates would pay more on average than both the current system and that proposed by Lord Browne, while lower earning graduates would pay back less.”

I say to the Opposition, including the hon. Gentleman, if they want a progressive system for tuition fee reform, that is what we offer. In terms of dealing with the deficit, it is absolutely vital that we get on top of it. That is good for everyone in this country, his constituents included.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister ensure that primary care trusts, strategic health authorities and all NHS bureaucracies serve patients, not their own interests? Will he further ensure that the Secretary of State for Health intervenes to stamp out any excessive failures caused by that unnecessary bureaucracy? (30549)

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the key is to try to get rid of so much of that bureaucracy. Under the previous Government, the number of managers went up faster than the number of nurses, and our aim is to reduce that bureaucracy, get rid of that bureaucracy and put power in the hands of GPs and their patients, so that the decisions taken in our constituencies about hospitals and services are driven by the choices our constituents make, rather than by bureaucrats. That is the key to those reforms and why I hope everyone in the House will support them.

Q10. Is there any truth in the rumour that tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will move the writ for the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election for 13 January, thus denying the good people of Oldham a politician-free Christmas and new year? Is that unseemly haste over the festive season a cynical attempt by the Government to avoid the wrath of the public and especially students on tuition fees, school cuts and police cuts? (30550)

Do I gather that the Opposition are frightened of having an election? I would put the question the other way: why should the people of that constituency put up with not having a Member of Parliament, and what have you lot got to be frightened of?

Will the Prime Minister outline to the House the steps that the Government are taking to cut through the legacy of red tape and bureaucracy that we inherited from the previous Government in order to deliver real value-for-money front-line services?

There is no doubt that regulation has got out of control in this country. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is introducing a new one-in, one-out rule—so that any time the Government want to legislate or regulate they have to remove a regulation first. That sort of discipline can make a real difference.

Q11. May I put on the record my appreciation, and the appreciation of many, of the goodwill and practical neighbourly support that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have shown to Ireland at this difficult time? It makes very good sense, because the Irish economy, the Northern Ireland economy and the British economy are closely intertwined. But the economic indications are that Northern Ireland is still in decline and the economy is in serious need of a boost. May I ask the Prime Minister for his assessment of the possibility of a boost to the Northern Ireland economy by reducing corporation tax to 12.5%? (30551)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the economy in Northern Ireland. We want to see it recover and grow, but everyone in Northern Ireland knows that the size of the state—the size of government—in Northern Ireland has become too big, and we have to see a private sector recovery. We are looking at all sorts of ideas, including the enterprise zone to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred. I should also like to put on record my thanks to those Northern Irish Members who are going to support what we are doing to help the Republic of Ireland in its time of need.

Q12. The people of Bromsgrove are immensely proud of our brave servicemen and women. That is why Bromsgrove district council has decided to give the freedom of the district to the Mercian Regiment next month. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the decision of the council, and does he believe that we can all do more to honour our heroes? (30552)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. Bromsgrove is absolutely right to honour the Mercian Regiment in that way. He brings out an important point. Yes, we have responsibility, as a Government and as a House of Commons, to deliver on the military covenant for our personnel in the armed services, but there is a broader responsibility on businesses, on the media, on us as individuals and on the whole country to work out what more we can do to recognise the bravery of these people who do so much on our behalf.

Q13. There are 1,238 students at York college who come from families poor enough to qualify for a full education maintenance allowance. That is one in three at the college. The chair of governors describes the Government’s plans for EMAs as “totally unacceptable” and the replacement funding as “woefully inadequate.” I know that the Prime Minister visits North Yorkshire from time to time, will he show that he cares about social mobility and that he really is a one-nation Tory by meeting people from the college to discuss— (30553)

I absolutely accept that we have got to do more to help people to get from the very bottom to the very top. That is why we have saved the per pupil funding and why we are increasing the pupil premium. When we look at what happened over the last few years, since 2004, child poverty rose by 100,000, inequality reached the highest level since 1961, and 5 million people were stuck on out-of-work benefits. That is why we need to change the way that we help people to get on in life, and that is exactly what we are committed to doing.

Q14. As we approach Holocaust memorial day, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will generously donate to the Auschwitz-Birkenau restoration fund? (30554)

I can do that. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a very powerful reminder of the ultimate consequences of intolerance, and it is only right that it should be preserved to bear witness to the deaths of the millions of victims who perished there and to act as a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation has recently visited the UK to discuss funding with a number of Government Departments, and we are also involved in EU discussions. I think everyone in this House knows how important it is to maintain these memorials. We obviously remember the holocaust, but we must also remember that there have been other acts of gross inhumanity more recently. We have to go on remembering to stop that happening again.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether, when he appointed the ex-Member for Arundel and South Downs to the other place, he knew his thoughts on state benefits being an incentive to breed? Is that another example of the new politics the Prime Minister promised the country?

I do not know how long that one took to think up. The former hon. Member, who is now a Member of the House of Lords, completely withdrew those comments and apologised for what he said, which was completely unacceptable. I am prepared to leave it at that.

Q15. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern of many people at reports in the press that he plans to support high-speed rail regardless of next year’s consultation? Will he spread a bit of Christmas cheer by reassuring my constituents that he will keep an open mind and that he will not be railroading through a railroad? (30555)

I completely understand the concern that there is all the way along the proposed line. Obviously, people are worried about it and, yes, this is a proper consultation—it must be a proper consultation and it will be. As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, for 50 years we have been trying to deal with the north-south divide and have a more effective regional policy. I do believe that high-speed rail has a really effective role to play in bringing our country closer together and spreading economic benefit throughout all our country.

Students in Wirral tell me that they need their education maintenance allowance for travel to go to the sixth form or college of their choice. Catherine McCormack, the head of South Wirral high school, says:

“Without EMA, choice and diversity are not supported.”

Does the Prime Minister think that a choice of courses is only for those who can afford it?

I have to say to the hon. Lady that we looked very carefully at the study that was completed under the Government of the Labour party and it showed that nine out of 10 of those people receiving education maintenance allowance would have stayed on at school anyway. This is why the Labour party landed us in such a mess over the economy. We have to ask the question about value for money and whether we are spending money in the correct way. We are not abolishing EMAs: we are replacing EMAs with something more effective. At a time—[Interruption.]

At a time when we are legislating to raise the participation age to 18, we have to ask whether it is it is right to spend so much money on asking people to do something that by law they will be asked to do anyway.

Time and time again, we seem to be exporting extreme Islamist terrorists and suicide bombers to Afghanistan, Israel and now Sweden. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to drain the poison of extreme Islamism from our country?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. If we are frank on both sides of the House, we have not done enough to deal with the promotion of extremist Islamism in our country. Whether it is making sure that imams coming over to this country can speak English properly, or whether it is making sure that we de-radicalise our universities, we have to take a range of further steps, and I am going to be working hard to make sure that we do. Yes, we have got to have the policing in place; yes, we have got to make sure that we invest in our intelligence services; yes, we have got to co-operate with other countries—but we have also got to ask why it is that so many young men in our country get radicalised in this completely unacceptable way.

We come now to the 10-minute rule motion. I call Nadhim Zahawi. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would just wait for a moment, may I, as always, appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that the same courtesy is extended to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon as they would want to be extended to them? [Interruption.] I hope that Members are on their way out, but large numbers of Members will of course be staying to listen to the hon. Gentleman.