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Prime Minister

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Ranger David Dalzell, from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who died on Friday, and Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Saturday. They were both highly respected soldiers who served with the utmost dedication and pride. They will be hugely missed by their colleagues and by all who knew them, and our deepest sympathy should be with their family and their friends.

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

I know that the whole House will want to join the Prime Minister in his expression of sympathy for the recent loss of life in Afghanistan. Training establishments in my constituency, such as the Sennybridge ranges and the infantry battle school, have built up very good relationships between the community and the military, which are ongoing and strengthening.

UK universities have a worldwide reputation for teaching and research. Many foreign students wish to attend those universities, and they are important not least because of the £5 billion that they contribute to the national economy. Many universities are very concerned that Government proposals—

Can the Prime Minister give an assurance to the universities that any proposals will not discourage the recruitment of genuine students?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. Our universities in this country are world-class, and we want students from around the world to come to those universities to study, not just for the contribution that they bring financially but because of the links they will make between our country and their country in years to come.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are not currently looking at limits on tier 4 immigration visas, but I make this point to anybody who is concerned about the issue: I profoundly believe that we can have excellent universities, open to foreign students, and control immigration at the same time. The reason I am so confident is that last year there were about 91,000 students who did not go to the trusted universities but went to other colleges—some 600 colleges. I am sure that the extent of the abuse is very great, and if we crack down on that abuse we can make sure that there are many students coming to our excellent universities.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Ranger David Dalzell, from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, and Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. We should all remember both men for their heroism, their dedication and their sacrifice, and our deep condolences go to their family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us, how is his big society going?

I actually believe that almost every single Member of this House of Commons backs what we are talking about. Let me just explain what it is. The idea of devolving power to local authorities, and beyond to communities, was in his manifesto, in my manifesto and indeed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I think we all support it. The idea of opening up public services to more local involvement and control, again, was in all our manifestos, and we support it. I believe that probably every single Member of the House spends time in their own constituency encouraging volunteering and philanthropic giving, and wants people to play a bigger part in a bigger society. I think the whole House is united on that.

We all support thriving communities, which is why there is such concern from charities up and down the country. Why does the Prime Minister not listen to people who know a lot about volunteering, such as Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the chief executive of Community Service Volunteers, which is the largest volunteering charity in Britain, who says that his policies are “destroying the volunteer army”?

Obviously, I do not agree with what Dame Elisabeth Hoodless has said, but I want to work with all those involved in charities and voluntary bodies to encourage them to play a strong part. We are putting £470 million into charities and voluntary bodies across this spending review. We are also establishing a £100 million transition fund to help charities that are affected by cuts. I can today tell the right hon. Gentleman for the first time that because of our deal with the banks the big society bank—[Interruption.] Wait for it. The big society bank will be taking £200 million from Britain’s banks to put into the voluntary sector. Labour would have got nothing out of the banks, so I am sure that he will want to stand up and welcome that.

The Prime Minister does not mention that he is cutting billions of pounds from voluntary sector organisations up and down this country. Let us take an example of where parents volunteer and of a crucial part of local communities: Sure Start. Before the election, he promised to protect Sure Start, but in fact he decided to cut funding by 9%, and the Daycare Trust says that 250 Sure Starts are expected to close. Can he tell us how that is helping the big society?

First, let me just say this: Labour put money into the banks; we are taking money out of the banks and putting it into the big society.

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically about Sure Start and the Daycare Trust. I must say that, not for the first time, he has not done his homework, because the chief executive of the Daycare Trust, Anand Shukla, said:

“The Government has allocated sufficient funding for the existing network of Sure Start Children’s Centres to be maintained”—[Interruption.]

Order. These exchanges are excessively rowdy—[Interruption.] Order. Again, I must ask Members on both sides to consider what the public think of this sort of behaviour. The Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Order. Questions will be heard, and the answers from the Prime Minister will be heard.

I look forward to the answer to this one. We have maintained the money for Sure Start and the money for children’s centres, and the head of the Daycare Trust backs our view rather than the right hon. Gentleman’s.

No, the Prime Minister has cut the funding and we will judge him on whether Sure Start centres close over the coming months.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s argument on local government, and with the nonsense peddled by the local government Secretary, is that they say they can make 28% cuts in local government funding and not affect any front-line services. What does the Conservative head of the Local Government Association say about that? She says that the local government Secretary is “detached from reality”.

Let us ask about libraries. Four libraries are threatened with closure in the Prime Minister’s own constituency, and hundreds are threatened up and down the country. Can he explain to people who are concerned about that how he expects people to volunteer at the local library if it is being shut down?

Let me just deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s question on Sure Start. I know he got that wrong—[Interruption.] We will come to libraries in a minute. On Sure Start, the budget is going from £2.212 million to £2.297 million. That budget is going up. That is what is happening.

The right hon. Gentleman gave a particular example, so let me put one to him—[Interruption.] We will come to libraries. Let me take the case of one council: Liverpool council. The cuts will mean that, by 2013, Liverpool council will go back to the level of grant it received in 2009, so what we are seeing is politically motivated moves by Labour councils. I remember the times when Labour leaders stood up to Labour councils that made those decisions.

On the issue of libraries, because we are taking council spending back generally to the level of the grants in 2007, I see no reason why they should not continue with a very well funded network of libraries. We all know a truth about libraries, which is that those which will succeed are those that wake up to the world of new technology, the internet and everything else, and investment goes in. That is what needs to happen. Should councils look at community solutions for other libraries? I believe that they should. Instead of sniping and jumping on every bandwagon, the right hon. Gentleman should get behind the big society.

Only this Prime Minister could blame the libraries for closing. He needs to understand why his big society idea is in such trouble. It is because libraries, Sure Start centres, citizens advice bureaux, community centres—including in Hammersmith and Fulham, his flagship council—which are at the heart of our society, are threatened with closure up and down the country. If it is going so well, why does his big society adviser, Paul Twivy, say that this idea

“is increasingly loathed by the public”?

We were all waiting for the right hon. Gentleman’s big idea, and we have now got it. Labour has published its fresh new ideas. The tree was chopped down, but there is nothing in the book. We all knew that we wanted a blank page, but no one thought that he would publish a whole book of them. What are his plans? What are his great ideas? He has not got a single idea for making this country a better place. Instead of sniping, why does he not join in and work out how we could build a bigger society in our country?

The Prime Minister should not get so angry: it will cloud his judgment. He is not the first Prime Minister I have said that to—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Did not the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) get to the truth behind the Prime Minister’s motives? The right hon. Gentleman said:

“If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.”

After what the Prime Minister is doing to charities up and down this country, no one will think he is Mother Teresa. Is not the truth being exposed day by day—he is cutting too far and too fast, and society is becoming smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger?

The problem with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said is that all the cuts that we are having to make are because of the complete mess that he made of the economy. That is the background for this whole debate. We now know what they think of the inheritance that they left us, because the shadow Chancellor has said:

“I don’t think we had a structural deficit at all in that period”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says:

“By the eve of the financial crisis…the UK”

had

“one of the largest structural budget deficits in the developed world.”

May I advise the right hon. Gentleman that the first stage of recovery is to recognise that you have a problem? The truth about the Opposition is that they doubled the debt, let the banks rip and bankrupted the country, and their only message is, “Let us do it all over again.”

Q2. My constituent, Rifleman Jack Otter, lost both his legs and an arm while serving in Afghanistan more than 15 months ago. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the whole House understand the debt that we owe Jack and others like him who have served our country. With the number of British soldiers losing limbs having increased by 40% from 2009 to 2010, does the Prime Minister agree that it is important that we find access to new resources to ensure that patients and staff at Headley Court can continue their excellent standard of work, which is sadly coming under greater pressure? (39062)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about what is happening in terms of the number of people returning as single, double and sometimes treble amputees, and about what we as a society must do to support them. I have visited Headley Court, and I know that many others have done so. It is an absolutely magnificent facility. A new ward opened in September last year and it now has a capacity of 111 trauma beds. Because of what Help for Heroes has done, there is a 25-metre swimming pool, a Battle of Britain gym with a sprung sports floor and a centre for mental and cognitive health. But we must go on ensuring that that magnificent facility is continually improved and that we do everything for our brave returning soldiers.

Just over a year ago the Prime Minister visited a maternity unit and found our midwives to be overworked. As a result, he promised that, with a Conservative Government, he would bring about 3,000 more midwives. A year on, could he tell us how he has gone about that?

The first thing that we have done is ignored the advice from Labour and increased the NHS budget. We would not be making progress on any of these health issues if we had followed the advice of the hon. Lady’s party and cut the NHS. We do need more midwives and more resources; we are making sure that those are going in.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister reflect on the decision taken in the House of Lords on Monday, which was supported by many senior Conservatives and Cross Benchers, to enable Parliament to have a review in the event of fewer than four in 10 people participating in the AV referendum? Will my right hon. Friend consider this compromise to be a reasonable one and to be consistent with the coalition agreement? Failing that, will he trust his own Back Benchers in a free vote to make their own judgments? (39063)

I have to say to my hon. Friend that we have not had thresholds in previous referendums, but I do not think that he should be so down on this. I am sure—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister’s answer must be heard. All this noise is—[Interruption.] Order. All this noise is damaging colleagues’ chance of getting in.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will work with me to get the turnout up, particularly for the no vote.

Last week a cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee report criticised the Government’s proposal to close Newport passport office, which will see the loss of 250 jobs, be devastating for the economy of Newport and does not appear to be saving any money. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), so that we can put the case to him personally?

I am looking at this decision. It is an important decision, and I know that there is great work being done in reflecting on what jobs can be saved in Newport and Liverpool, where the two competing offices are. I am very happy to arrange for the hon. Lady to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, because he is the one who will have to make the decision, so that he can hear from her and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) directly.

Nuclear Deterrent

Q4. What assessment he has made of the effect of coalition politics on the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. (39064)

We have made it clear that we are committed to maintaining a nuclear deterrent based on Trident. That is why it was excluded from the strategic defence and security review, and why we commissioned a separate value-for-money study. The replacement of Trident is going ahead, and initial gate will be passed soon. As set out in the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.

When the coalition was being formed, my right hon. Friend promised a meeting of all Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats would support the replacement of Trident. As we know, the key decision has been postponed until after the next election, and the Liberal Democrats, from their president downwards, have been boasting that this was their achievement. Will the Prime Minister give a pledge to this House and to the country that in the event of another hung Parliament, if the Liberal Democrats demand as the price for another coalition the scrapping of Trident, he will refuse to pay that price?

First of all, let me make this point. The replacement of Trident is going ahead. The investment is going in; the initial gate will soon be passed. The reason for the delay is that we had a value-for-money study because we desperately need to save some money in the Ministry of Defence, so that we can invest in front-line capability. That is the argument there. In terms of the future, all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am in favour of a full replacement for Trident, a continuous at-sea deterrent and making sure that we keep our guard up. That is Conservative policy; it will remain Conservative policy as long as I am the leader of this party.

But with due respect, the Prime Minister chose to break his word on the education maintenance allowance and matters such as reorganising the NHS, so why will this pledge prove any different?

I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and I know how important this issue is for him. I profoundly believe that we should maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. I have looked at all the alternatives over the years, and I am completely convinced that we need a submarine-based alternative—a full replacement for Trident—in order to guarantee the ultimate insurance policy for this country. That is my view, the view of my party and the view of most of the people sitting opposite me. I believe that there is all-party support for the move.

Engagements

Q5. Lord Carlile, the official reviewer of terrorism legislation, said last week that this country had become a “safe haven” for terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that this Government will do all that they possibly can to deport foreign nationals who are suspected of involvement in terrorism? (39065)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. I have been concerned for many years that we have not been able to deport people we suspect of plotting against us in the way that we should be able to. Lord Carlile has spoken and written about this extremely clearly. We have negotiated return agreements—so-called deportation with assurance agreements—with Algeria, Jordan, Ethiopia, Libya and Lebanon, but I want us to negotiate many, many more. In the end, we must do whatever is necessary to ensure that we can keep this country safe.

Q6. Northern Ireland is still being held back by some dissident republican groups. To deal with this, the Chief Constable has asked for up-front access to the reserve allocation over the next four years. Does the Prime Minister agree that, if the threat is not dealt with, it will quickly spread to the rest of the United Kingdom? Will he grant the Chief Constable’s request? (39066)

I have met the Chief Constable on several occasions since becoming Prime Minister. He came to the meeting of the National Security Council at which we discussed the security situation in Northern Ireland. We will do what is necessary to ensure that security, the police and everything else are properly funded. I think that it is right, now that these issues are devolved, that there is greater decision making and greater efforts to put money into the front line in Northern Ireland itself, but of course we always stand ready to help where necessary.

The Prime Minister might recall visiting the maternity department at Fairfield hospital in Bury when he was Leader of the Opposition. Last week, despite our pledge to keep it open and despite the very useful new criteria issued by the Department of Health, the NHS in the north-west decided to continue with the closure decision that was taken by Labour. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Secretary of State for Health the ways in which we can keep our pledge on this matter?

I am very happy to discuss that issue with my hon. Friend and with the Secretary of State for Health. As he knows, we have introduced far tougher steps before these decisions can be taken, to ensure that local needs, and the views of patients and local GPs, are respected. The whole point about the new system, which is GP-led, is that hospitals will thrive when local people use and value them.

Q7. In the past few weeks, the Government have rebranded antisocial behaviour orders as criminal behaviour orders, renamed control orders as terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and rechristened curfews as overnight residence requirements. Does the Prime Minister not realise that no amount of rebranding will disguise the fact that a Government preparing to cut police numbers by 10,000 will be seen as nothing other than weak on antisocial behaviour, reckless on terrorism and soft on crime? (39067)

I notice that the Labour party is going a long way to rebranding new Labour as old and irresponsible Labour, and I have to say that the project is going very well.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the quality of the debate on the future of Britain’s debt burden is enhanced by the deficit denial on the Opposition Front Bench?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The Opposition were beginning to understand that they had left us with a debt burden, and beginning to own up to it, but now, with the new shadow Chancellor, they are in complete and utter deficit denial. They have not even taken the first step to being a responsible Opposition.

Q8. Around the country, driving test centres such as those at Arbroath and Forfar in my constituency are being closed without any consultation whatever with the local community or instructors. Surely that is the complete opposite of localism. Will the Prime Minister lean over and instruct his Transport Secretary to put a stop to such closures until there has been at the very least consultation with the local community and consideration of alternative ways to provide the service? (39068)

I understand the importance of these facilities in rural communities. As I understand it, the chief executive of the Driving Standards Agency has said that she will explore further how to continue to offer facilities in these locations. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), to contact the hon. Gentleman to discuss this important issue with him.

Last week, there was a memorial service in Gloucester cathedral for Tom Walkinshaw, a constituent of the Prime Minister and a legend in my city for all he did to revive Gloucester rugby. Does the Prime Minister agree that Tom, and many others like him who have invested so much of their own money in our great sports, have done a lot to increase self-belief and pride in our cities?

My hon. Friend speaks very well of someone who lived in my constituency and invested not only in rugby, but in Formula 1, which has been an absolutely world-beating industry for our country. We should celebrate that, particularly in my region, where so many people are employed in this incredibly high-tech endeavour.

Q9. Does not the Prime Minister’s plan to sell off the forests show once again that he knows the price of everything but the value of nothing? (39069)

Let me say to the hon. Lady and to all hon. Members who I know are very interested in this subject that we are having a consultation; we are listening to people’s views. Let me make a couple of things clear. First, we will not do what happened under the last Government, which was the sale of forests with absolutely no guarantees of access. [Interruption.] Yes, that is exactly what they did. We also have a good opportunity to bust a few myths about this situation. The idea that all Forestry Commission forests are open to the public and do not charge is simply not true. Many forests, such as the New Forest, are not owned by the Forestry Commission and have much better access, no parking charges and very good records on habitat. While we are having this consultation, we should bust some of the myths that have been put around about this idea.

The latest US Department of Defence report to Congress states that the Taliban’s strength lies in the Afghan people’s perception that the Taliban will ultimately be victorious. Is it not now time for fresh thinking on Afghanistan, which must include getting the Americans to open talks with the Taliban, because as we proved in Northern Ireland it is possible to talk and fight at the same time?

I would say two things to my hon. Friend. First, of course there has to be a political process; almost every insurgency in history has ended through some combination of military might and a political process. I accept that, but where I disagree with my hon. Friend is that I think that this year the Taliban will see that there is no meaningful removal of US forces from Afghanistan. This will be another year in which the Taliban are going to be heavily defeated on the battlefield, which will make a political solution more rather than less likely.

Q10. Why is the Prime Minister cutting benefits and pensions for the armed forces? Does he intend to honour the agreement with our armed forces? (39070)

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Indeed, the armed forces are excluded from John Hutton’s report, which is looking at increasing people’s contributions. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of what we have done for the armed forces. We said we would double the operational allowance for people serving in Afghanistan, and we have done that. We said that we would introduce a pupil premium, for the first time, for soldiers’ children who go to our schools, and we have done that. We have said that leave for the armed forces should start when they land back in the UK, not when they leave Afghanistan, and we are doing that. This Government are very pro our armed services and their families, and want to ensure that we give them a good deal.

The whole House will regret the regular reports of tragic knife-crime incidents in this country. Does the Prime Minister agree that anyone who takes to the streets carrying a knife does so with the capability to commit grievous bodily harm or murder? What sort of punishment does he feel that these people should receive?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We must ensure that people who carry knives know that the result of that is likely to be a prison sentence. We must get tougher on what happens in terms of knife crime. Under the last Government, knife crime after knife crime was met with a caution rather than with proper punishment in courts. Labour Members can talk about knife crime as much as they like, but they were as soft as anything on it.

Q11. The provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill were not costed before or after the election. Given the extension of commercial providers, is it the case that the NHS is not safe in the hands of the Government, but that the hands are in the safe of the NHS? (39071)

On the NHS, I can do no better than quote the shadow Secretary of State for Health. This is what he said about our plans:

“No-one in the House of Commons knows more about the NHS than Andrew Lansley… Andrew Lansley spent six years in Opposition as shadow health secretary. No-one has visited more of the NHS. No-one has talked to more people who work in the NHS than Andrew Lansley… these plans are consistent, coherent and comprehensive. I would expect nothing less from Andrew Lansley.”

That was said by Labour’s shadow Health Secretary. I could not have put it better myself.

Q12. Last week the Government committed more than £100 million of investment to the M6 Heysham Port road link, promising to bring much-needed new jobs and businesses to my part of Lancashire. Can the Prime Minister reassure me that, despite our economic difficulties, the Government will continue to invest in major capital schemes, particularly in northern areas such as mine, which were much neglected by the last Labour Government? (39072)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have prioritised, in a difficult spending round, spending on capital infrastructure, including the scheme that he mentions. It is important, as we go for growth in our country, that we put capital expenditure into our roads and railways, and things that will help our economy to grow. That is exactly what we are doing in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and in many other constituencies across the country.

Q13. The Prime Minister insists that the financial crisis was caused by a lack of regulation, but even after the collapse of Northern Rock he complained that the last Government had subjected the banks to excessive bureaucracy and too much regulation. He promised to give them an easier ride, saying,“government needs to do less taxing and regulating”.Is that why donors in the City have given the Tory party so much money? (39073)

I remember a time when the hon. Gentleman used to write the last Prime Minister’s questions. Given what he has said, I think that the last Prime Minister is writing his questions. The fact is that Labour left us the most indebted households, the most bust banks, and a deficit—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister’s answer will be heard, and with some courtesy. That is what the public want to see. They are sick to death of this sort of behaviour.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me just make one point. The person who was the City Minister when the City blew up is now your shadow Chancellor. Great pick.

Q14. Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that Parliament will have the final say on whether prisoners will have the right to vote? In view of the public’s disdain for the unelected bureaucrats in Strasbourg, will he defend our country from any further sanctions from Europe on the issue? (39074)

I think the hon. Lady knows that I have every sympathy with her view. I see no reason why prisoners should have the vote. This is not a situation that I want this country to be in. I am sure that you will all have a very lively debate on Thursday, when the House of Commons will make its views known.