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Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Liam Tasker from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, who died on Tuesday 1 March. The whole country has been touched by the story of this true hero, who selflessly worked with his search dog, Theo, to locate improvised explosive devices, weapons and bomb-making equipment to save many, many lives. He will not be forgotten, and our deepest condolences should be with his family, his friends and his colleagues.

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.

I am sure the whole House will join me in passing on their condolences to the family and friends of our fallen service personnel.

The Prime Minister will be aware that today is no-smoking day. Will he join me in congratulating the organisers of the “Making Smoking History” lantern parade which takes place this evening in Wrekenton, a part of my constituency that is particularly blighted by that addiction? Will he also comment on British Lung Foundation research that shows that more than half of children surveyed across the UK have been exposed to cigarette smoke in cars, and that 86% of children want adults—

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point with great passion. I certainly support no-smoking day, and unlike in some previous years, I hope to meet its requirements in full this year. His point about smoking in front of children and babies and smoking in cars is a good one. Whatever people have done in the past, the facts show that they really should change their behaviour. I am not sure whether it is possible to legislate in that area—we need a change in attitudes, which he is helping to lead with the British Lung Foundation and others.

Yesterday was international women’s day, and today great trade figures and export growth were announced. Does the Prime Minister agree that we would have even better figures if we managed to get more women on the boards of companies across the UK?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to today’s trade figures, which show a big increase in exports, which is exactly the sort of rebalancing that our economy needs. It is absolutely right that we need to get more women involved in the work force and at board level. In addition, in terms of entrepreneurialism, if we had the same rate of women setting up small businesses as America, we would have tens of thousands of extra businesses creating wealth and jobs.

I start by paying tribute to Lance Corporal Liam Tasker from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. He was doing a job that put him in such danger, and he showed extraordinary bravery and courage. We remember him, and we pass on deep condolences to his family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us who authorised the mission in Benghazi last weekend?

The Foreign Secretary set out the position absolutely in full in the House on Monday, but let me say clearly that I take full responsibility for everything that my Government do.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for saying that, and I want to support him on Libya wherever I can, but there is increasing concern about the Government’s competence on the issue. We have had the flights fiasco, talk of Colonel Gaddafi heading to Venezuela when he was not, overblown briefing about potential military action, and the setback last weekend. Does the Prime Minister think that it is just a problem with the Foreign Secretary, or is it a wider problem in his Government?

I am not sure that I particularly want to take a lecture from Labour about dealing with Gaddafi and Libya. The first thing that we should have from the Labour party when it comes to Libya, Gaddafi and the release of Megrahi is an apology, which we still have not had. When it comes to this Government’s conduct, we have led the way in getting a tough UN resolution on Libya, getting Libya thrown out of the Human Rights Council and making sure that the world is preparing for every eventuality, including a no-fly zone.

Everybody will have heard the deafening silence about the performance of the Foreign Secretary. There is an issue of competence at the heart of this Government, and I want to turn to another example of incompetence. Does the Prime Minister think that people will notice the loss of 12,000 front-line police officers?

First, the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the Foreign Secretary. Let me tell him: I think we have an excellent Foreign Secretary. When it comes to it, there is only one person around here I can remember knifing a Foreign Secretary, and I think I am looking at him. [Interruption.] Right, I think we have dealt with that.

We want to see police on the streets fighting crime, not stuck behind their desks fighting paper. That is what we want to achieve. Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that whoever was standing here right now would have to be reducing the Home Office budget and the policing budget. Labour was committed to a £1.3 billion cut. The question is not “Are you reducing the budget?”; the question is “What are you doing to cut the paperwork, freeze the pay, deal with the allowances and make sure the police are on the streets?”

The more that the right hon. Gentleman brings my relatives into this argument, the more that we know he is losing the argument. I have a second cousin in Belgium he will be going after next, I am sure.

On the question of crime, the Prime Minister says that he wants to improve front-line policing, but the West Midlands is losing 1,000 officers, Bedfordshire has scaled back gun licence checks, and now we hear that companies that have been burgled are to be sent fingerprint kits in the post. I know that he believes in the big society, but solving your own crimes is a bit ridiculous, even by his standards. You have to ask, Mr Speaker: does the Prime Minister actually have a clue what is going on out there?

I think the leader of the Labour party is getting a little bit touchy about this issue.

The point that I would make is that if we listen to what chief constables are saying about what they want to do—[Interruption.] Here is the chief constable of Thames Valley:

“what I haven’t done at all is reduce the number of officers who do the patrol functions, so the officers you see out in vehicles, on foot, in uniform, on bicycles. We haven’t cut those numbers at all.”

Listen to the chief superintendent in Surrey, who says:

“We are determined to increase our frontline capability by recruiting…extra”

police constables. The fact is that all the leadership of the police is engaged in the exercise of keeping costs under control to make sure that we get more officers on the beat. Whether we have to divert them to protect the right hon. Gentleman’s relatives, I do not know, but they are going to be on the beat.

Ten months, and so out of touch with people up and down this country. The Prime Minister talks about police officers; in case he had not noticed, it is the Association of Chief Police Officers that says that 12,000 front-line police officers are going to be lost. Why are they being lost? It is because he chose to go beyond the recommendation by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of 12% cuts. If he had made 12% cuts, the savings could have been found from the back office, but he went too far and too fast, and insisted on 20% cuts in policing.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. The Association of Chief Police Officers is not talking about front-line officers, so he is simply wrong about that. Let me remind him what his home affairs spokesman said at the time of the election, when asked

“Can you guarantee if you form…the next government that police numbers won’t fall?

Alan Johnson: No”.

That was the position, and this is what he said after the election:

“if Labour had won the general election, the Home Office budget would have been cut and the police would have had to make savings”.

What we see today, once again, is jumping on a bandwagon and total opportunism. The right hon. Gentleman has no plans to reform welfare, no plans to reform the NHS and nothing useful to say about policing.

We know that the Government are out of touch, and now we know that they are incompetent as well: incompetent on Libya and incompetent on policing. The Prime Minister may act like he was born to rule, but the truth is that he is not very good at it.

The usual pre-scripted questions that he dreamt up earlier. The question is: has he got a reform plan for the NHS? [Hon. Members: “No!”] Has he got a police reform plan? [Hon. Members: “No!”] Has he got a plan to cut the deficit? [Hon. Members: “No!”] It is no wonder that the former Foreign Secretary has just said that

“the…Left is losing elections on an unprecedented scale because it has lost control of the political agenda…it is also losing key arguments”—

and it has a

“deficit in ideas”.

That is what he said, and he is absolutely right.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the people of Suffolk, who, in less than a year, have raised more than £3 million to build a new children’s hospice through the Treehouse appeal? This is an example of the community coming together to support a local project that will really make a difference. It is also supported by BBC Suffolk, the Evening Star and the East Anglian Daily Times.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that Members right across the House back the hospice movement, with its hospices for adults and for children. The Government have put extra money into hospices, but that is a great example of the big society, where people come together and make sure that there is real provision to look after those who need it most.

Q2. The coastguard stations, our maritime insurance policy, have been treated badly by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which has started threatening to close stations without carrying out any risk assessment whatever. The proposed savings were not even highlighted in the comprehensive spending review, and they will be very small compared with the huge risks involved. Will the Prime Minister ensure that our coasts, islands and mariners are protected by saving our stations? As the campaign says: SOS! (45188)

I will look at this issue carefully, because it is being raised by Members across the House. What I would say, however, is that this is not about the UK’s front-line rescue capability. The key changes are about how the coastguard service co-ordinates services and rescue missions, so the aim of the consultation is to get the resources on the front line, to those people who are actually carrying out the rescues and to those in the voluntary sector who are helping. That is what the consultation is about, and I would urge the hon. Gentleman to engage in the process.

Q3. The alternative vote system is unfair, expensive and discredited. Even members of the support team for the yes side do not really want it. What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that we defeat this system, because it can produce distorted outcomes? (45189)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I will be campaigning hard for a no vote in the referendum. I think that it is a relatively simple argument to make. We have a system that is simple, clear and easy to explain. The alternative vote is used in only three countries. They are Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea—and Fiji is beginning to change its mind. There are clear arguments, and it is a referendum, so people in the coalition will be able to make those different arguments.

At Prime Minister’s questions on 27 October, the Prime Minister agreed that Ministers would work with me and with our leading children’s charities on an affordable alternative to the child trust fund for looked-after children. I can confirm that, since then, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Children’s Minister have both worked constructively with us on that issue. However, the time has come to turn good intentions into action. Today, Barnardo’s and Action for Children have published a report that sets out a compelling case for a new system of savings accounts for children in care. I know that the Prime Minister wants to do more for such children. Will he read the report, then write to me to confirm that provision for such a system will be made in the Budget?

I will certainly read the pamphlet, if the right hon. Gentleman will leave me a copy. We are looking at whether we could replace funds, particularly for children in care, with some form of child ISA, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have something more to say about that in the Budget.

Q4. The coalition Government’s principal objective is to cut the eye-watering deficit that we inherited from the previous Government, yet we want to support people on low and middle incomes. [Interruption.] Can the Prime Minister confirm how many people will see their incomes—[Interruption.] (45190)

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt. Members must be heard when asking their questions, and the Prime Minister heard in answering them. It is a very simple principle. I think that the hon. Gentleman has completed his question, and we are grateful to him.

The truth is that Labour Members do not like being reminded of the massive deficit and the huge mess that they left this Government to clear up. My hon. Friend makes a good point—that in spite of difficult decisions, we will lift the tax threshold for income tax payers in April this year, and 880,000 people will be removed from income tax altogether. That is a major step forward, a big help with the cost of living, and will be welcome to families up and down the country.

Many parents in my constituency are worried sick because a number of school bus services are being withdrawn, with no guarantee of an equivalent replacement—meaning that timetables, routes and fares will be at the discretion of commercial operators. What is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that families are not subject to big fare hikes just to get their children to school?

What we are doing—it was one of the difficult decisions we took in the spending round—is to make sure that the per pupil funding in place is not going down; it is being maintained. That meant taking difficult decisions elsewhere in the Budget, but we took that decision for the good of the country’s schoolchildren.

Q5. Do the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recognise the severe impact of exceptionally high petrol and diesel prices on rural communities in England such as Northumberland, where prices tend to be 5p to 10p a litre higher than in the cities, where people have long distances to travel to work and where public transport is very limited? May we hope for some relief in the Budget? (45191)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The argument has been made about high fuel costs, and we are listening to it very carefully. He will have to wait for the Budget. I know that prices for heating oil are also a big issue in rural areas like the ones that he and, indeed, I represent. We have asked the Office of Fair Trading to look at it, but I make the additional point that we have maintained the cold weather payments at £25, which has meant that something like £430 million has been spent this winter on helping people with their heating bills.

However serious the situation in Libya—no doubt Gaddafi is now using arms sold to him by British companies—will the Prime Minister give an assurance to the House today that no military action will be taken regarding Libya without direct authorisation from the United Nations Security Council?

What I discussed last night with President Obama is making sure that we plan for every eventuality, including planning for a no-fly zone. If that becomes necessary, everyone would want it to have the widest possible backing, which is why we are currently drafting a UN Security Council resolution. I think that is absolutely the right thing to do.

Q7. It is no secret that council tax doubled under the last Government. In my constituency, both local councils—Selby district and Harrogate borough council—are freezing council tax this year. Will the Prime Minister tell me and the House how many other councils have chosen similarly to help hard-pressed council tax payers? (45193)

I am delighted to say that a huge number of councils have done that. I think it was right to announce a freeze in council tax, which will bring real help to households across the country, saving the average family up to £72 a year at a time when they face difficulties with the cost of living. That compares, as my hon. Friend said, with a doubling of council tax under the last Government. As to whether they have learned any lessons from that, I have to say that Labour’s shadow Local Government Minister, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) attacked this freeze as

“nothing more than a gimmick”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 531.]

Yet it is bringing relief to hard-pressed families up and down our country and it is absolutely the right policy.

Is the Prime Minister aware of a commitment in the programme for government of the coalition Government who are taking office in Dublin today to move to an opt-out system for organ donation? As well as whatever consideration his Government might give to that proposal, will the Prime Minister undertake to work with all other Administrations in these islands through the British-Irish Council to increase the number of organ donors and to improve networks for sourcing and sharing donor organs and transplant services for people who need that life-saving and life-changing treatment?

I will certainly agree to do that. It is important that we try to increase the amount of organs available for donation. In the last Parliament, there was a debate about whether we should move formally to an opt-out system, and there are difficulties with that, but there is a huge gap between where we are now and a formal opt-out system, in encouraging patients and talking to them about what can be done. I am sure that we can make steps forward, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will do that.

Q8. Mr Speaker, 373,000 Daily Express readers want it, 80% of Conservative Members support it, the Deputy Prime Minister would love it, and my wife demands it. The British people, Conservative supporters, the leader of the Liberal party and especially Mrs Bone cannot all be wrong. Prime Minister: may we have a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union? (45194)

I wish that my wife were as easy to please. I was worried about where that question was going.

I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend and Mrs Bone. I think that we are better off inside the EU but making changes to it, in the way that we are setting out.

Q9. There are 1.5 million individuals throughout the United Kingdom who suffer from involuntary tranquilliser addiction, which is not a misuse of drugs by the individual but prescription addiction. It has horrendous side-effects. Can the Prime Minister ensure that special withdrawal programmes are set up across the country to give those people their lives back? I understand that the Government are reviewing the situation, but the reviews keep being put back. These people are victims of the system, and they are suffering all the time. (45195)

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter with me before. He speaks very powerfully on behalf of people who have that addiction, which is an extreme problem in our country.

We published a drugs strategy which set out an ambition to reduce drug use, including the use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. That should include programmes to help people to withdraw from and come off those drugs. However, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, I think that we must deal with the problem at source. That is part of the purpose of our health reforms, which is to ensure that the national health service is genuinely concerned with the health of the whole person rather than being a national drugs service in which there can sometimes be too much prescribing of drugs.

The German company Storck UK, which owns and makes Bendicks chocolates in my constituency, has announced that it is consulting on plans that could involve production being moved to Germany. In the area that I represent, 115 jobs depend on that factory. Will the Prime Minister ask one of his Ministers in the relevant Department to meet me and representatives from the company as soon as possible to establish whether we can help?

I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend is right to speak up for his constituency and for that business. Through the growth review—we will confirm this in the Budget—we are taking steps to ensure that this country is the best place in Europe in which to do business. We have set out plans for the lowest rate of corporation tax anywhere in the G7, but we will also take further steps to ensure that we encourage companies to stay here, come here and invest here.

Q10. The Prime Minister is beefing up his office to help sell the Government’s unpopular and wasteful £2 billion reorganisation of the NHS. Does it concern him that Baroness Williams of Crosby feels that she is“under no obligation to support policies outside the agreement”?The Prime Minister’s Back Benchers do not want this; no one wants it. Is it not possible for the Prime Minister to halt— (45196)

The questions drafted by Labour Members have got a bit longer. I think that those in the Labour Whips Office need to go to remedial writing school.

If the hon. Gentleman was asking a question about the NHS—as I think he was—and asking who supports the NHS reforms, let me say this. I think that one of the greatest proponents of the NHS reforms is Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has said:

“The general aims of reform are sound—greater role for clinicians in commissioning care, more involvement of patients, less bureaucracy and greater priority on improving health outcomes—and are common ground between patients, health professions and political parties.”

If life gets too tough for the right hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench, there is always plenty of room over here.

Q11. This month, soldiers from 3 Mercian (Staffords), including many from my constituency, are being deployed to Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with them. Will the Prime Minister ensure that if our brave soldiers are injured while serving our country, they will receive compensation that recognises their sacrifice? (45197)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The bravery of our servicemen and women, who are often deploying to Afghanistan for the third or fourth time now, should be uppermost in our thoughts. I think the whole House can unite on that, and on the results of the review of the armed forces compensation scheme carried out by Admiral Boyce. That will lead to significant increases in the value of awards—on average in excess of 25% to all lump sum payments, except for the top award which was recently doubled to £570,000. We are also trebling the maximum award for mental illness to £140,000. We can never compensate people for their injuries in battle, either physical or mental, but we can, as a generous, tolerant, warm and welcoming nation to our armed forces, do so much more, and I am glad that we are doing this.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister appreciate that the 1,500 women in Newport who are now going to have to work for up to two years longer because the Government have accelerated the introduction of the increase in the state pension age feel very angry that they are not being given long enough to plan properly for a delayed retirement? (45198)

I know this is a difficult reform, but as well as dealing with the short-term problems of our deficit and making spending reductions across Government programmes—which, frankly, any Government would have to do right now—it is also right to try to make some long-term changes to reduce the long-term costs of our pension system, and as life expectancy is increasing, I think it is right to ask people to retire later. This is a difficult and long-term decision, but I think the arguments for it are absolutely right.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the good news on jobs announced this morning by KPMG: that February saw the fastest rate of permanent positions being filled for 10 months and that those jobs came from the private sector?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that as well as the trade figures. We are engaged in a very difficult operation to rebalance the economy, which for too long was dependent on government, housing, finance and, frankly, on immigration as well. We need an economy that is based more on manufacturing, technology, exports, enterprise and small business. It is going to be difficult, but there are good signs that the private sector economy is growing, and growing well.

Q13. Last year, Newcastle citizens advice bureau dealt with more than 26,000 cases, supported by 75 volunteers, yet its budget has been slashed and there is no clarity from Lib Dem Newcastle city council on funding from the end of this month. How can this shambolic situation possibly contribute towards the big society? (45199)

The Government have made sure that the national funding for the CAB debt service has been maintained, and that is a vital part of it. I urge all local councils, whoever controls them—I have had this conversation with my own council—to make sure we do as much as we can to support CABs, which do such a vital job in our communities.

I am sure all Members agree that one of the most important jobs we perform every year is to represent people who have lost their lives in war on Remembrance Sunday. It is certainly something I do with great pride in my constituency. With that in mind, does the Prime Minister think a £50 fine is an appropriate punishment for those who burn poppies and chant during the silence?

My hon. Friend will have spoken for many people in their reaction to that court case. It is difficult unless we are sitting in the court and making that decision ourselves, but many of us look at such cases and feel that as a country we should be making a stronger statement that that sort of behaviour is completely out of order and has no place in a tolerant society.

Q14. May I take the Prime Minister back to the question on AV, and ask him to look at early-day motion 1550 tabled yesterday, which challenges the funding from the Electoral Reform Society? As, like me, he is a firm supporter of first past the post, will he look at that and write to me afterwards to tell me that there will be an investigation? (45200)

I have to admit that I have not got round to early-day motion 1550, but it sounds as if I should. We have been looking for all these years for something for the hon. Gentleman and I to agree about, and it is a delight to have this issue. I think some people will be surprised to find that what they thought was an organisation running elections is funding a campaign, but in the interests of coalition unity, I will leave it at that.

I recently met a number of manufacturing businesses in Cradley Heath in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Government must do all they can to support manufacturing, particularly in areas such as the black country, to drive private sector jobs growth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, we need a rebalancing of the economy whereby we see more technology, more aerospace, more manufacturing and a greater emphasis on such things. We are seeing recent figures showing good strong growth—up to 5% a year—in manufacturing output and even stronger figures for manufacturing export. What the Government can do to encourage that is ensure that we are delivering what manufacturing businesses want: less regulation, lower taxes and a real boost in apprenticeships, which this Government are providing—an extra 75,000 apprenticeships over and above what Labour planned.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that the bankers do a bad job in lending to small businesses and the real economy and that the police do a good job in helping to cut crime? Can he explain, therefore, why he is cutting police pay while letting the bankers walk away with millions? (45201)

What we are doing is introducing a £2.5 billion levy on the banks each and every year, which will raise more in every year than Labour’s bonus tax raised in one year. We are getting money out of the banks into the Treasury. We are seeing the bonus pools come down and bank lending go up. None of those things happened under the last Government.

The law courts have agreed with Basildon council that the illegal Dale Farm Travellers’ site should be cleared, but because the previous Government stopped the council taking action, the site has mushroomed in size. Would the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the case to ensure that justice is done?

My hon. Friend has persistently raised this case and this issue in the Commons. I know he speaks for many people about the sense of unfairness that one law applies to everybody else and, on too many occasions, another law applies to Travellers. What I will do is arrange a meeting between him and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government so that they can look at what more can be done to ensure that we have real, genuine fairness for all communities in our country.