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Prime Minister

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the following servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan: Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment and Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died last Wednesday; and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Monday. They were all brave and dedicated soldiers who were serving in Afghanistan for the safety and security of the British people. Our thoughts and deepest condolences should be with their families, their loved ones and their colleagues. They will never be forgotten.

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.

Like other Members, I associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s tribute to our fallen heroes.

One man who also served his country is my constituent Doug Hunt who, with his wife Gladys, lives in Westwood care home, which is currently being fattened for privatisation by increasing its fees by £400—not £400 a year, not £400 a month, but an increase of £400 a week. Would the Prime Minister like to answer Mr and Mrs Hunt, who are listening now, show some leadership and have these Tory cuts removed, or would he like to justify these increases to Mr and Mrs Hunt?

I will certainly look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises, but far from cutting the money that is going into social care, we have increased by £2 billion the money going into adult social care because we know how important it is. It is not right to draw a false distinction between care homes run by local authorities and those run by the private sector. There is good practice and bad practice in both, but as we have seen in our hospitals in recent days, we need a change of culture in caring for our elderly to make sure they have the dignity that they deserve in old age.

My six-year-old constituent, Millie d’Cruz, is one of just 17 people in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder, MLD—metachromatic leukodystrophy. Unfortunately, the family must try to raise £200,000 to send her for treatment in Holland, even though the treatment may be available here in the UK. Can the Prime Minister look into the case and ensure that the family get the support that they deserve?

I am happy to do as my hon. Friend asks. A big change is taking place in medicine, where far more interest needs to be directed at genetic data and genetically inherited diseases, as this is how we will reduce disease and illness in the future. We are looking, for instance, at value-based pricing, whereby we try to share between companies developing new treatments and the taxpayer the cost of developing them, which could be a good way forward to make sure we get more treatments to more people more quickly.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. All these men showed extraordinary bravery and dedication. Our thoughts are with them and their families and friends as they grieve for them.

We now know that inflation is rising, growth has stalled and an extra 66,000 young people are out of work. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks his strategy is working?

Of course today’s unemployment figures are a matter of great regret, particularly in terms of higher youth unemployment, but I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that youth unemployment has been a problem in this country for well over a decade, in good years and in bad. The level of youth unemployment actually went up by 40% under the last Government—an extra 270,000 young people unemployed. What we have to do is sort out all the things that help young people get back into work. There is a welfare system that does not help you get work, an education system that does not prepare you for work and back-to-work programmes that, under the last Government, simply did not work.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me what is happening in our economy. We are no longer linked with Greece and Ireland and those countries in the danger zone. We have a situation where market interest rates have fallen. Our credit rating is secured. There are 218,000 more people in work than there were a year ago. Above all, what I would say to him is what the Governor of the Bank of England said this morning:

“There has to be a plan A… This country needs fiscal consolidation to deal with the biggest budget deficit in peacetime”.

The right hon. Gentleman says that we are doing so well compared with the rest of Europe, but we were the only major European economy in the last quarter of 2010 that had no economic growth and where growth went into reverse. Let me ask him specifically about youth unemployment. His own former chief economist said this morning that he thought that they were wrong to scrap the education maintenance allowance, wrong to scrap the future jobs fund and that they should have been building on it. I know that he likes to make an industry out of saying that the future jobs fund was the wrong thing to do, but what did he say before the election? He went to Liverpool and said that it was “a good scheme” and that he had been “inspired” by what he saw. Why does he not listen to young people and their families up and down the country and take real action to help them?

First, the economist from the Cabinet Office whom the right hon. Gentleman has just quoted also said this:

“I would not excuse the previous Government on this; they failed to wake up to the problem early enough.”

What matters is whether work programmes are effective. I now have the figures for the flexible new deal, which was the absolute centrepiece of the last Government’s approach to this matter. Let me give the House of Commons the figures, because I think that they show what has been going wrong. Of the 279,000 people who took part in the flexible new deal, how many got a long-term job? The answer is 3,800. It is not good enough. What we have been doing on welfare, education and back-to-work programmes is not good enough. All those things need to change.

What we actually discovered today is that the right hon. Gentleman’s great new Work programme, which he is trumpeting as the answer to all the nation’s problems, will have 250,000 fewer opportunities than were provided under the last Labour Government. We know that his view of social mobility is auctioning off a few City internships at the Conservative party ball, but frankly he is going to have to do better than that. The truth is that he is betraying a whole generation of young people. He is trebling tuition fees, abolishing the education maintenance allowance and abolishing the future jobs fund. Why does he not change course and help those young people who need help up and down this country?

First, let me answer the right hon. Gentleman on the Work programme, because this is important. For the last 20 years, in this House and elsewhere, people have been arguing that we should use the savings from future benefits and invest them now in helping people to get a job, and for 20 years the Treasury has said no, including the time when he and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) were sitting in the Treasury advising. Now, for the first time, under this coalition Government, we will be spending the future benefits in order to get people training and into work. That will include, in some cases, spending up to £14,000 to get people, particularly those on incapacity benefit, a job.

The figures the Leader of the Opposition gives are wrong. The Work programme is the biggest back-to-work scheme this country has seen since the 1930s. Instead of being cash-limited and patchy, like his schemes, it has no limit and can help as many people as possible from all of those different categories. He mentions internships. I did a little research into his: he did one for Tony Benn and one for the deputy leader of the Labour party. No wonder he is so left-wing, so politically correct and so completely ineffective.

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that deregulation is an extremely powerful weapon in economic reform? Is he aware that the programme is not proceeding fast enough, and will he take personal charge to see that the whole process is hurried up?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the problems is the huge amount of regulations—particularly coming out of Europe—that we need to put a stop to before they are introduced. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing an excellent job with his one in, one out scheme, so that another regulation cannot be introduced until one has been scrapped, but I think we probably have to go further and faster and be more ambitious in scrapping the regulation that is holding back job creation in our country.

Q2. Can I invite the Prime Minister to look ahead to the summer of 2012, when we will welcome millions of overseas visitors to this country? What does he think will be the abiding images that they take home with them? Will they be images of a brilliantly, successfully staged Olympic games? Will it be a fond memory of the warm welcome to London extended by the newly elected Mayor Livingstone? Or will it be a memory of the shocking images of homeless people all over the streets of London because of his Government’s economic failure and harsh housing benefit cuts? (40933)

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman could not keep a straight face when backing Labour’s candidate for Mayor, but I have to say that, if the Member who represents Greenwich cannot speak up for the Olympics, there really is a problem. This is going to be a great festival, and something that everyone who comes to our country is going to enjoy—and I look forward to welcoming them alongside Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q3. This weekend, hundreds of people will arrive in Ripon to celebrate winning the Government’s pilot for super-fast broadband in North Yorkshire, and to work out how we can connect the rest of the county in the years ahead. What message would my right hon. Friend give to delegates about the Government’s commitment to rural broadband? (40934)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have made a big commitment to that, with £530 million going into broadband investment, and that is absolutely vital, particularly for rural parts of the country, because we do not want them to be cut off from the information superhighway. I hope my hon. Friend will advise them about the opportunities of super-fast broadband—the business creation and job creation that it can mean right across this country.

The short answer to that is no. As I have said before in this House, it is a consultation that has been put forward, and we have had a range of interesting responses to it, but what is important is that we should be making sure that, whatever happens, we increase access to our forests, we increase biodiversity and we do not make the mistake that was made under the last Government, where they sold forests with no access rights at all.

Even the right hon. Gentleman must appreciate the irony: he, the guy who made the tree the symbol of the Conservative party, flogging them off up and down this country. He says that they are consulting on the policy; they are actually consulting on how to flog off the forests, not on whether to flog off the forests. Is the Prime Minister now saying that he might drop the policy completely?

I would have thought that the whole point of a consultation is that you put forward some proposals, you listen to the answer and then you make a decision. I know it is a totally alien concept, but what is so complicated about that?

Everybody knows that the right hon. Gentleman is going to have to drop this ludicrous policy. Let me give him the chance to do so. Nobody voted for the policy; 500,000 people have signed a petition against it. When he gets up at the Dispatch Box, why does he say not that he is postponing the sale, but that he is cancelling it?

I think, once again, that the right hon. Gentleman wrote the questions before he listened to the answers, and I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree.

May I take this opportunity to inform my right hon. Friend and, indeed, the House that the Public Administration Committee is today launching an inquiry into the big society? Does he share my hope that as we consider things such as volunteering, promoting charitable giving and decentralising public services, we will receive positive evidence from all parts of the House?

I do, and I am sure that, like everything that my hon. Friend does, it will be wholly supportive of the Government’s position. He makes a very good point, which is that the big society is about more than just volunteering or support for charitable groups; it is about opening up public services, devolving power to the lowest level, and giving people the opportunity to play a greater part in the lives of their communities. I would have thought that people from across the House would recognise that the big state approach has failed and that it is time for something different.

Q4. Is the Prime Minister’s upheaval of the health service resulting in longer or shorter waiting times? (40935)

We want to see waiting times come down; that is the whole point of the reforms. I think that anyone who has watched what has been happening over the past few days, where we have seen the standards of care that some elderly people—[Interruption.] Well, I think that the country is also interested in the standards of care that old people are getting in our hospitals. This idea that everything is right and rosy in the health service after what happened under the former Government opposite has just been shown to be completely untrue. Do we need to change the system and make it more related to what GPs and patients want? Yes, we absolutely do.

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the work of the Conservative administration in my constituency, which has saved £1 million a year by cutting senior management and bureaucracy and protecting front-line services—measures unfortunately opposed by the local Labour group on the council?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we have made available all this information. Now, local councils have to set out their expenditure on every item over £500, so people can see how much money is being spent on salaries, how much is being spent on bureaucracy, and how much could be put into voluntary sector and other organisations. We have given local people the tools to hold their local politicians to account, and that is a thoroughly progressive step.

Q5. Can I first put on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for meeting a small delegation from my constituency on the whole question of unemployment in the Ayrshire area? Does he really think, however, that being part of the big society that he talks about means throwing youngsters on to the streets of the UK as a result of the cuts in housing benefit? (40936)

What we are doing in terms of housing benefit is what was set out in the manifesto that the hon. Gentleman stood on, which is to say that we should not be subsidising housing benefit for people to live in houses that taxpayers themselves cannot afford. That is the principle behind the welfare Bill, which will be coming before this House shortly, and I look forward to it getting wide-ranging support.

The Prime Minister has drawn comparisons between care homes and hospitals when discussing changes to disability allowance, which are out for consultation until Friday. Yet for those who, for reasons of disability, spend not just their latter years but their whole lives in care homes, this comparison simply is not valid. Will he ask his Ministers to look again at this?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is exactly what we have been looking at. The whole intention of the change that was announced in the Budget and the spending review was to make sure that there was not an overlap in the way that we were judging people in care homes and people in hospitals. I think that when he sees what is proposed in the welfare Bill, he will see that it meets his concerns.

Q6. Sadly, since I first asked the Prime Minister about human trafficking in September, he has collapsed every Government initiative on the issue, including the excellent POPPY project, which rescues women from prostitution. Tomorrow, when I meet my colleagues from the Portuguese Parliament who are signing up to the human trafficking directive, where will I tell them that our Prime Minister has lost his moral compass on the issue of human trafficking? (40937)

What the hon. Gentleman says is completely wrong. The Government are supporting organisations that are helping on the issue of human trafficking. We are committed to ensuring that we have the best and toughest laws on human trafficking. I know that he works on this issue, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), as have Members in previous Parliaments. It is not necessary to opt in to the human trafficking directive to give ourselves the strongest laws here in the UK. It is that that we should be doing, and that that I am committed to making sure we are doing.

Q7. Labour-led Kirklees council is still obsessed with top-down housing targets, leaving my constituents worried that the beautiful green fields of the Colne and Holme valleys will be bulldozed—quite a few trees could be chopped down too. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Localism Bill will give my constituents a real say in what developments go on in their area? (40938)

I can give that assurance, but I also make the point that under the top-down targets of the Labour party, house building in this country fell to its lowest level since 1923. The top-down, big-state solutions did not work. Through the new homes bonus and by rewarding local authorities that build houses, we are benefiting local communities that opt to have more homes and businesses, because that is part of the economic development that we badly need.

Q8. The overwhelming majority of my constituents believe that the cuts to local government spending are not only too fast and too deep, but cruel and politically motivated. Will the Prime Minister tell the House why my constituents are wrong? (40939)

I tell the hon. Gentleman directly that I think the cuts being made by Manchester city council are politically driven and too deep. Manchester city council is having its grant cut by 15%—less than my council, for instance, which is being cut by 23%—and yet it is cutting services by 25%. I notice that it still has £100 million in bank balances, and that its chief executive is paid more than £200,000 a year. I think that people in Manchester will look at their council and say, “Cut out the waste, cut out the bureaucracy, start to cut the chief executive’s salary, and only then should you look at services.”

Q9. After votes for prisoners, we now have the potential for human rights legislation to give sex offenders the opportunity to come off the sex offenders register. Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents are sick to the back teeth of the human rights of criminals and prisoners being put before the rights of law-abiding citizens in this country? Is it not time that we scrapped the Human Rights Act and, if necessary, withdrew from the European convention on human rights? (40940)

My hon. Friend speaks for many people in saying how completely offensive it is, once again, to have a ruling by a court that flies in the face of common sense. Requiring serious sexual offenders to sign the register for life, as they now do, has broad support across this House and across the country. I am appalled by the Supreme Court ruling. We will take the minimum possible approach to this ruling and use the opportunity to close some loopholes in the sex offenders register. For instance, we will make it compulsory for sex offenders to report to the authorities before any travel and will not allow them to change their name by deed poll to avoid having their name on the register. I can also tell my hon. Friend that a commission will be established imminently to look at a British Bill of Rights, because it is about time we ensured that decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts.

Q10. Given the difference in tone between “Drink Responsibly” and “Smoking Kills”, what action will the Prime Minister take in response to the heartfelt pleas of my constituent Rachel Jones, who wants to see much harder-hitting labels on alcoholic drinks following the tragic death of her boyfriend, Stuart Cable, the former Stereophonics drummer? (40941)

I think we should be looking at what action we can take through the tax system to deal with problem drinks, which we are looking at, and at tougher minimum pricing for alcohol. That is where we should be putting our attention, rather than necessarily looking at labelling. Many of the problems that we have, such as people—particularly young people—pre-loading before they go for a night out, are related to deeply discounted drinks in supermarkets and elsewhere. That is what we should deal with first.

Q11. Thousands of younger women drivers in the UK face the prospect of massive hikes in their motor insurance premiums as the result of a perverse reinterpretation of the EU gender equality directive, carried forward by those on the Opposition Benches. What will my right hon. Friend say to encourage better risk assessment to avoid such unintended consequences? (40942)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that because of how this issue has been handled, many people who face lower insurance premiums because of their risk profiles will have to pay more. I am afraid that it falls to me to speak an eternal truth to the House of Commons: on the whole, women have better safety driving records than men, but as a result of that judgment, they will not benefit from lower insurance payments. What that says to me is that we have to work much better at risk-assessing and then stopping so much of the damaging regulation coming out of Brussels.

The importance of internships in helping young people to get on in life has been much in the news lately. Will the Prime Minister therefore take this opportunity to express his support for the Speaker’s new parliamentary placements scheme? It is a cross-party initiative backed by the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that will give people from working-class backgrounds the chance to come to Parliament, get vital experience of political life and be paid a living wage; and—who knows?—they may well be the politicians of the future.

I fully support what the right hon. Lady says. This is a very important scheme. As shadow Cabinet members in opposition we worked with the Social Mobility Foundation to give internships, and we will be doing it again as Cabinet members. It is a very important initiative and I very much welcome what the Speaker is doing.

Q12. What investigation has the Prime Minister made into the allegation that the IMF was bullied into toning down its assessment of the dangers facing the UK economy? (40943)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which is that the IMF was reporting on the state of the British economy, and was arguing that we did have a structural deficit and that it was a problem. However, Labour attempted to gag the IMF when it was in power, because the previous Government did not want to own up to the mess that they had got this country into. Even now, the Opposition are still denying the fact that they left us with a dangerous fiscal deficit that is the cause of many of the problems that we face today.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of people’s concerns about the coastguard. This week a cross-party deputation from Northern Ireland consisting of four MPs from this House met coastguard officials. Is the Prime Minister aware that the figures from Bangor coastguard station show 654 responses over this past year? Does he think that one station could satisfactorily handle almost 10 times the current number of calls, should Bangor coastguard station be closed or the service be reduced from 19 coastguard stations UK-wide to an inadequate two stations? (40944)

I am very aware of this issue, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be speaking to the Secretary of State for Transport about it. The point is this: the coastguard agency has to prove in the consultation that it wants to co-ordinate the number of offices that receive calls, in order to put more money and resources into the front-line service—the number of boats, rescue facilities and helpers. That is the aim of the policy, but I fully accept that that has to be proved to people in order to go ahead with the proposals being made.

Q14. At my surgery on Saturday, a constituent explained to me that, with an ill husband and a young family, she had been told that she would be better off giving up her part-time job and relying on benefits. Will the Prime Minister assure this House that we will give people the incentive and the support to go into work and end the culture of welfare dependency left by the Opposition? (40945)

My hon. Friend speaks about this issue in an absolutely correct way. The fact is that for too long we have had a welfare system that pays people—it gives them an incentive—not to go out and work. The universal credit, which will be introduced through the welfare Bill, will mean that in every case, no matter how few hours someone works, they will always be better off in work and working more. That is absolutely right and long overdue, and I hope that it will have support from right across the House of Commons.

In a week in which we have had revelations about the appalling level of health care for our pensioners, what is the Prime Minister saying to the elderly population of this country by proposing to change the inflation link for the uprating of benefits and pensions from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, which will cost present and future pensioners millions of pounds in lost income? How is that fair? How does it protect the vulnerable?

The first point that I would make is that the state pension, under the triple lock, will be linked with whichever is highest, but we are also taking the step, which the last Government did not for 10 years, of re-linking the state pension with earnings. That is an absolutely vital step in giving people the dignity and security that they deserve in old age.

Q15. The Government are planning to ask the House to extend the control orders regime until it is replaced by terrorism prevention and investigation measures. I am sure that the Prime Minister would not want the House to act without having all the necessary information, so will he assure all hon. Members that we will have sight of the TPIMs legislation before being asked to vote on the extension? (40946)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, this is a very big change that we are making from control orders to the new system, and I am sure that the House will be consulted properly, and that proper prior sight of what is being proposed will be made. But he can get involved right now if he wants to, as the policy is being developed.

Mr Speaker, in 2008, your review into communication needs described speech therapy services as a “postcode lottery”, and, sadly, in 2010, a national survey of primary special educational needs co-ordinators showed that 57% had never heard of the Bercow review, and that services remain as inequitable now as they were then. In the national year of communication, and with “The King’s Speech” having done so much to raise awareness of this issue, will the Prime Minister clarify whether the Government are planning to implement the recommendations of your review, and how they are planning to do that when local authorities are facing such huge cuts?

The hon. Lady will shortly see the Green Paper on special educational needs, in which we are giving priority to this area because, as I know from my own experience, getting hold of a speech and language therapist is often extremely difficult. Of course, as in every other area, there will be constraints in terms of resources, but I think we can do better by having a less confrontational system and making sure that more resources actually get to the parents who need them and who want to do the right thing for their children.