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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—

Big Society Initiatives

1. What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the Welsh Assembly Government on big society initiatives in Wales. (45731)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have discussed a wide range of issues concerning the big society in relation to Wales with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for civil society, and Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government in the Welsh Assembly Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he comment on the important role that local authorities in Wales can play in encouraging the big society?

Local authorities can do much to help roll out the big society. Smart and intelligent councils are already doing so by recognising that big society initiatives can complement services that they provide and vice versa. I recently visited Pembrokeshire, where many good neighbour schemes have been set up to provide help and support for individuals who would otherwise be isolated. Pembrokeshire county council has appointed a scheme co-ordinator who offers advice to groups that want to establish such schemes.

On Saturday, I saw the big society in all its glory in Anglesey with the opening of the scouts and guides hall. That project brought together the public and private sectors and volunteers, but public funding was key. Will the Minister ensure that funding is given to the Welsh Assembly so that such schemes can carry on? Next Tuesday, he will be able to see the big society in all its glory on Anglesey day here in the House of Commons.

As I said, I have held discussions with Carl Sargeant, who is the Minister responsible for such matters in the Welsh Assembly Government. We are taking that work forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the big society bank will be available for the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no reason why Welsh groups should not apply to it for funding.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many people in Wales want to take advantage of the opportunities that the Government are offering, but that they may need mentoring. Will he appoint somebody in his Department, perhaps by seconding a civil servant, to assist people who have ideas to take forward the big society?

All ideas are gratefully received. The Government will ensure that there is a network of big society facilitators throughout the country. As many as 5,000 will be appointed in due course.

The WCVA has reported that half the 750 charities in Wales state that they will see a drop in their income next year. Is not investment from the big society bank just a matter of jam tomorrow?

There is no doubt that we are going through difficult economic times, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Unfortunately, third sector organisations are affected by that. I believe that the £200 million that will be available through the big society bank will be of immense benefit to third sector organisations in Wales.

The Welsh people are a shrewd lot, and they have quickly seen through the big society scam. Since £1.8 billion was cut from the Welsh Assembly budget, leaving councils with a shortfall of many millions of pounds, charities such as People First, which works with people with learning disabilities in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area, have been on the verge of closure. That is throwing more people on to the record unemployment numbers in Wales. As Dawn Price of People First put it to me:

“How can we take part in a Big Society when our funding is being so cruelly cut?”

I realise that some Opposition Members have huge difficulty with the proposition that people should be allowed to organise their own lives in the way that best suits them, rather than such matters being delivered top-down by big Government. However, there are signs that it is slowly dawning on the Leader of the Opposition at least that the big society may be rather a good idea. When he launched Labour’s policy review recently, in which I think the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) played a part, he said:

“We have got to take that term ‘big society’ back off David Cameron”.

Devolution of Powers (Referendum)

2. What assessment she has made of the outcome of the referendum on devolving primary law-making powers to the National Assembly for Wales. (45732)

4. What assessment she has made of the outcome of the referendum on devolving primary law-making powers to the National Assembly for Wales. (45734)

I welcome the clear yes result announced on 4 March. The vote in favour of primary law-making powers for the Assembly will enable the Welsh Assembly Government to get on with the job of delivering better public services in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State. I note that there are now 20 devolved areas of policy for the Welsh Assembly and that Scotland has had similar powers for many years. Has she had conversations with other Ministers about the commission that we have been promised, or preferably legislation, so that only English MPs can vote on English laws that affect English residents, and thereby maintain the parity—

I think my hon. Friend is referring to what is known as the West Lothian question, or as we sometimes call it in Wales, the West Clwydian question. I have had words with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and as he informed the House on 15 December, the Government will make an announcement this year on plans to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question.

Can the Secretary of State provide a timetable for the introduction of a Calman-style inquiry, as per the coalition agreement, and will she undertake a full consultation on the matter?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When we established the coalition Government, we committed in the coalition agreement to establishing a Calman-like process for the Assembly. I will announce further details on that in the coming months.

The Secretary of State has just said that there will be a commission on the so-called West Lothian question. Does she personally believe that Welsh Members of Parliament should have fewer voting rights in this place, particularly bearing in mind that her Government have cut the number of Welsh MPs by 25%?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is important that every vote is of an equal weight in this country. I am sure he would not want me to revisit arguments that have been well made and exhausted in the House.

When the commission is established, it will need to take into account the Government’s proposals for House of Lords reform, the changes to the way in which this House does business and the changes to the devolution settlement in considering potential solutions to the West Lothian question.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the resounding yes vote in the referendum on 3 March? As she knows, I legislated on behalf of a Labour Government for primary powers for the Assembly in 2006, and we are delighted at this historic day for Wales. I hope she is too.

The shadow Secretary of State must have been asleep when I answered the question in the first place and said that I welcomed the yes vote. I said that specifically during the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006, when I sat in his position. I am also delighted that, despite prevarication, it was a Conservative-led coalition Government who delivered that referendum for the people of Wales.

Does the Secretary of State accept that given the nature of the yes campaign, it is clear that the vast majority of people in Wales wish to remain part of the Union? As a proud Welshman and a proud Unionist, I believe as strongly as other Members that something must be done about the West Lothian question, to stop Welsh MPs voting on matters for which they have no responsibility.

I, too, am a devoted Unionist, but I recognise that the yes vote does not mean that the Welsh devolution settlement will stand still. It is a living object, which is why we are establishing a Calman-like process to examine the future of the Welsh Assembly and how we are governed across the UK, specifically in Wales.

Broadband Projects

3. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on expenditure on broadband projects in Wales. (45733)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues on issues that affect Wales, including broadband projects. I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome, as I do, the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 10 February that we are providing £10 million of funding to support the extension of superfast broadband to Pwllheli and the surrounding areas.

I thank my right hon. Friend. Does she agree that due to the remote and rural nature of many parts of Wales—like many parts of my constituency—it is vital for businesses in rural communities to have effective broadband?

Yes, I agree that broadband is extremely important for rural communities. Indeed, it is arguably more important in the countryside than in our towns and cities. It enables people to run businesses from rural locations with no competitive disadvantage, and farmers in particular urgently need broadband to file their returns.

Although I appreciate and welcome the announcement of the broadband pilot, bizarrely made at Wrexham and not in the House, I represent the Pwllheli area among other parts of west Wales and I have no doubt that it was to due to pressure from the Deputy First Minister. Can the Minister tell me precisely which areas of my constituency will be included in the pilot and which will not?

The right hon. Gentleman gives the pilot a rather strange welcome—a rather curmudgeonly one, I would suggest. As he knows, the rural area around Pwllheli is intended to be included in the pilot, from which we hope to gain important knowledge on the further roll-out of broadband across Wales.

The economic renewal plan in Wales set out to provide high-speed links to all businesses by 2015 and all houses by 2020, and as the Minister knows, under the “Wi-fi Wales” initiative, there are plans to enable free wireless connection to all publicly owned buildings in Wales. What support will the Minister and the Secretary of State give to those plans? There is currently huge criticism of the Wales Office, but if they get stuck in on that, they might silence some of their critics.

It is fairly clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not keep in touch with his colleagues in the Assembly, because very recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hosted a trilateral meeting between the Deputy First Minister and the Minister with responsibility for broadband via video link from the Wales Office in Gwydyr house. We are fully engaged in this process, and it is quite wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that we are not.

The Welsh Assembly Government have offered a grant to people in not-spots throughout Wales. Can communities get together to use such facilities to provide a community solution, rather than individuals finding their own solutions?

Yes, indeed. The proposal is that hubs should be provided in communities, but the technology that may be used thereafter will not be specified, so wi-fi or other appropriate solutions can be used depending on the nature of the area.

Inward Investment

5. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. (45735)

7. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. (45737)

Clearly, with so many of our companies in Wales having strong links with Japan, and given that some of our inward investment comes from there, I am sure the whole House would like to join me on behalf of Wales in sending our deepest condolences for the appalling tragedy.

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. Last month I hosted a trilateral meeting between the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the UK Minister responsible for trade and investment to discuss how we can work together to bring much-needed investment to Wales. We will be meeting again shortly.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Wales has much to offer business, as the Welsh Affairs Committee heard yesterday from Sir Terry Matthews? Can she also tell us what she is doing to work with the Welsh Assembly to bring inward investment to Wales?

Although it is too early to prejudge the outcome of the Committee’s inquiry on inward investment, a clear message on skills emerged in oral evidence last week. That message was consistent with the conclusions of the earlier cities report. Certainly, I will see how the UK Government can work with the Welsh Assembly Government to encourage more inward investment, because Wales is a great place to do business.

In the last couple of weeks, a number of strong foreign trade and investment visits have been made to Wales, particularly from India and the US. Does the Secretary of State agree that those are vital for Wales, and that we should maximise the opportunities that they present?

It is very easy to agree with my hon. Friend on that, because we need to maximise the opportunities that such visits present. Wales’s share of UK inward investment projects halved in the past decade from 6% to 3% and we need to act quickly to reverse that. It is therefore important to work across Government Departments in Whitehall, together with the Welsh Assembly Government, so that we have a cohesive programme for attracting inward investment.

With unemployment reaching a 17-year high this morning—up to 8.7% in Wales—where is the Secretary of State’s plan for growth?

I am tired of Members talking Wales down. The message that has just gone out from the hon. Gentleman is not a positive one. The unemployment figures were announced this morning. Although I have given them a cautious welcome because the economic inactivity rate continues to fall, I want people to know that we have a willing and able work force and that Wales is open for business. It is about time the hon. Gentleman joined me in talking Wales up.

It emerged in the Welsh Affairs Committee’s visit to Germany that vital inward investment opportunities were not being taken up by UK Trade & Investment because of the abolition of regional development agencies in England. Does the Secretary of State accept that this may represent a major opportunity for Wales and if so, what is she doing about it?

I had a particularly good meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister responsible for trade. I am keen that we should have some joined-up government, because we have not been taking advantage of all the opportunities that exist. After the Assembly elections we shall have to take that forward with the new Welsh Assembly Government, and I know the current Welsh Assembly Government have been looking at rationalising their offices abroad and having a more comprehensive programme—one that is engaged with UKTI, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office, and the Wales Office. Together, we will have a stronger presence.

Block Grant Settlement

6. What recent representations she has received on the mechanism for calculating the block grant settlement for the Welsh Assembly. (45736)

I thank the Minister for that reply. In 2009, the Holtham commission concluded that the Barnett formula was no longer fit for purpose and was in need of urgent reform. Does the Minister agree that the Barnett formula should be replaced with a mechanism based on need?

It is fair to say that everyone recognises that the Barnett formula is nearing the end of its life. However, it is necessary to stabilise the public finances before we consider the formula. In the wake of the vote in the Welsh referendum, the coalition will establish a Calman-like process for the funding of the Welsh Assembly.

Earlier the Secretary of State said that the devolution settlement was a moving object. Will the commission to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred consider whether the Welsh Assembly should be given tax-varying powers?

It is important that the Welsh Assembly should be accountable for its activities, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that nothing is ruled out.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber and they are very noisy. It is most discourteous. Let us have a bit of order.

Fuel Prices

8. What assessment she has made of the effect on the Welsh economy of recent trends in the cost of fuel. (45738)

Over the last few months I have made an assessment of the impact of the recession on rural areas, including the effects of rising fuel prices on businesses and families in Wales. We recognise that businesses, individuals and families are struggling with the rising cost of fuel, and we are looking at how we can help.

Following on from the Minister’s assessment, what representations has he made on extending the Government’s fuel duty rebate for the islands of Scotland and Cornwall to large tracts of rural Wales, where sparsity, economic dependence and inadequate public transport make this a pressing issue?

I agree that it is a pressing issue in large parts of rural Wales, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can tell the House that I have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to press for the extension of the pilot to rural areas in Wales.

In April last year the price of a litre of petrol in Flintshire was 116p. Can the Minister tell me what it is today and how much of the increase is due to the VAT that he imposed?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the last time I filled up in Colwyn bay the price was approximately 133p. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has indicated that these are matters that will be considered in the Budget next week.

But is the Minister aware that the dramatic rise in petrol and diesel prices is crippling motorists in Wales, especially those on low or middle incomes? In many Welsh communities people have absolutely no choice but to drive, and with wages frozen or falling, inflation high and today unemployment in Wales surging up, they are getting desperate. Will the Government reverse the VAT rise on fuel? It is what business wants, what motorists are crying out for, and what Wales and the whole of Britain needs.

Given that I come from a rural constituency, I am acutely aware of the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I would remind him that the escalator that is due to kick in next month is Labour’s escalator, and this is a matter that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be looking at.

Upland Farming

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on upland farming in Wales. (45739)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government on a range of issues affecting Wales, including the farming industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I recognise how important the rural economy is to Wales and take a close interest in matters affecting it, including farming on the Welsh uplands.

Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Assembly should work well with the Government to ensure that we have a clear strategy for upland and dairy farming, and that that objective would be more easily met through the introduction of an adjudicator to examine abuses of power in the retail sector?

Yes, indeed; I agree that the Welsh Assembly Government should work closely with the Government here in Westminster. My hon. Friend will be aware that it is the Government’s intention to establish a groceries code adjudicator to oversee disputes between retailers and suppliers.

Getting animals to market is important for upland farmers in Blaenau Gwent. Does the Minister agree that east-west road improvements are vital for boosting the heads of the valleys economy? Will he update us on the road improvements between Brynmawr and Abergavenny, and tell us when they will start?

It would appear to me that those are matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me, I will consider the matter further.

Energy Policy

10. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government on energy policy in Wales. (45740)

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including energy policy. Last week, I was pleased to call the first Welsh Grand Committee debate on energy since 2008, which gave right hon. and hon. Members a chance to debate in detail that issue, which is of vital importance to Wales.

As a result of the last Government’s policy of burying their head in the sand when it came to energy, we are facing the real prospect of power cuts. Does the Secretary of State agree that building new power plants in Wales is essential for energy security, industry and job creation?

Energy is certainly a key priority of this Government and we are working hard to ensure that the UK, including Wales, has an energy infrastructure that is fit for the 21st century.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the exciting plans of the Welsh Assembly Government to generate enough electricity for every home in Wales from non-barrage marine sources offers Wales an energy future, like that of Ireland and Scotland, that will be nuclear free and renewables rich?

I am not sure that I caught the drift of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I have always welcomed the work that is being done to enable Wylfa A to continue to generate low-carbon electricity for a further two years until 2012. I was also delighted that Wylfa was chosen as the site for a potential new station in the future.

This Government have put the environment at the heart of their energy policy. Last week, I attended the launch of Norman Electrical Ltd, a small business in my constituency that is working with households and businesses to invest in renewable technologies. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming such start-ups and do what she can, with colleagues, to help Wales to become central to the renewable technology sector in the UK?

Yes, I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the company in her constituency. If all 26 million households in the United Kingdom take up our green deal over the next 20 years, employment in that sector could rise from its present level of 27,000 to something approaching 250,000, working all around the UK to make our housing stock fit for a low-carbon world.

Public Sector Job Losses

11. What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs to be lost in the public sector in Wales as a result of the reductions in public expenditure in 2011-12. (45741)

A forecast of public sector job losses was published last year by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. This was based on UK-wide macro-economic data, and no regional breakdown is available. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I remain committed to working with ministerial colleagues to minimise the impact of the reductions in public expenditure that we are having to make on Welsh workers and their families.

The Government’s impact assessment relating to the closure of Newport passport office includes the statement that

“we will also pay £3m redundancy…which may create a short term boost in trade for the local economy.”

Is this the Government’s new alternative growth strategy?

The line to which the hon. Lady refers is in every economic impact assessment that has been prepared in connection with the current process. That consultation will not be finished until Friday, and all options remain open.

Rail Network (South Wales)

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on electrification of the rail network in south Wales. (45742)

The statement made on St David’s Day by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport was excellent news for all parts of south and west Wales. This £1 billion investment will deliver all the benefits and improvements of an electrified railway to Wales, with faster acceleration, greater comfort and cleaner and greener travel. The decision to extend electrification to south Wales recognises that improved rail infrastructure and lower journey times are vital components for delivering a successful economic recovery in Wales.

What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of new jobs that will be created in Wales as a result of the electrification programme?

I hope that the electrification of the rail line, which was launched and announced with full funding by this Government, will bring the much-needed inward investment into Wales, resulting in the many jobs that we need.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who died last Wednesday. He was a highly respected, selfless and committed soldier who will be sorely missed by all those who served with him. Our deepest sympathy is with his family and friends.

From September, military repatriations will no longer pass through the town of Wootton Bassett. I know the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett. Their deeply moving and dignified demonstrations of respect and mourning have shown the deep bond between the public and our armed forces. It is more than 100 years since the title “royal” was conferred on a town. I can today confirm that Her Majesty the Queen has agreed to confer the title “royal” on the town of Wootton Bassett as an enduring symbol of the nation’s admiration and gratitude to the people of that town. The town will become Royal Wootton Bassett later this year, in a move that I believe will be welcomed right across our country.

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

May I associate Labour Members, and those of all parties, with the Prime Minister’s condolences to the family and all who knew that brave serviceman?

The previous Government put in place the overseas victims terrorism compensation scheme. When will British victims of overseas terrorism receive compensation?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is something that we are looking at, reviewing and want to get right. I remember the debates that took place at the time of the Bali bomb and recall that hon. Members on all sides of the House spoke about it. We will bring forward our proposals shortly.

The Prime Minister is to be commended for his leadership in trying to achieve a no-fly zone but, sadly, it is unlikely that it can be implemented in time to prevent a final onslaught in Libya. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best response to this urgent crisis would be for the international community, with the support of the Arab League, to urge the Egyptian Government to send a brigade of its army as a peacekeeping force into eastern Libya—to protect their own citizens, to stop Gaddafi in his tracks and to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi?

I have great respect for my right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with great expertise on these issues. The points he made on Monday about the arms embargo were extremely important. We will, of course, look at any suggestion, but the problem at the moment is that there is no peace to keep. What I can report is that yesterday evening, after extensive discussion with Lebanon, France, the US and others, the UK tabled a new draft Security Council resolution in the UN. It includes a no-fly zone, banning all flights except humanitarian ones, an extension of the travel ban and the asset freeze and tougher enforcement of the arms embargo, particularly on the Libyan Government. Of course there are a wide range of views in the UN; I urge all to take the right steps so that we show some leadership on this issue and make sure that we can get rid of this regime.

Let me begin by echoing the Prime Minister’s tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen McKee of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment. He showed exceptional courage and bravery, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. Let me also echo the Prime Minister’s remarks about the community of Wootton Bassett, and the very fitting award of the “royal” designation. It is a tribute, and a sign of the way in which that community has responded to our armed forces.

Following the Liberal Democrat conference at the weekend, is the Prime Minister planning any new amendments to his Health and Social Care Bill?

First of all, let us be clear about the fact that the reforms are about cutting bureaucracy and improving patient care. They were drawn up by us as a coalition to improve the NHS. Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question very directly. We have already made some real strengthenings to the Bill. First, we have ruled out price competition in the NHS. Secondly, there is the issue raised by the Liberal Democrats, with which I completely agree: we must avoid cherry-picking by the private sector in the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman might care to reflect that under the Labour Government, the private sector was given £250 million for operations that were never carried out. Perhaps he would like to apologise for that cherry-picking, and support our anti-cherry-picking amendment.

Let us give the Prime Minister another go at answering the question that I asked. The question that I asked was this. Following the Liberal Democrat conference at the weekend, are any further amendments to be tabled to the Health and Social Care Bill—yes or no?

The problem with pre-scripted questions is that they do not give you the opportunity to respond to the first answer. I gave a very clear answer about price competition and about cherry-picking.

What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that he should not set his face against reform in the NHS. The fact is that we support extra money going into the NHS—money that the right hon. Gentleman does not support—but we recognise that with an ageing population, more expensive treatment and new drugs coming on stream, we need to reform the NHS, and that reform must accompany the extra money that is being provided. Why is the right hon. Gentleman setting his face against that?

The Prime Minister really must get away from these pre-scripted answers. [Laughter.] I will tell him why no one trusts what he says about the NHS. What used he to say about NHS reorganisations?

“There will be no more of those pointless re-organisations that aim for change but instead bring chaos…it’s profoundly disruptive and demoralising.”

I agree with what the Prime Minister used to say. Why doesn’t he?

We are not reorganising the bureaucracy of the NHS. [Interruption.] We are abolishing the bureaucracy of the NHS. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to listen to what the adviser to the Labour Government said about our NHS reforms. He said:

“most of these reforms are very much where”

the last Government

“and indeed I, would like to have gone if we had not encountered some of the road blocks that one did.”

We know that the roadblock was the last leader of the Labour party. What a pity it is that the current leader of the Labour party is “son of roadblock”.

I am proud of our record on the NHS. We have 100 new hospitals, more doctors and nurses than ever before, the shortest waiting times in history, and the highest level of patient satisfaction ever. But the Prime Minister is wrecking our record on the NHS, and what is his answer? The Bill creates a free-market free-for-all and threatens existing NHS services. Let me ask the Prime Minister a very specific question. Will he confirm that this Bill makes health care subject to European Union competition law, for the first time in history?

I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman is beginning to sound like the last leader of the Labour party. If he will not listen to the adviser to the Labour Government, perhaps he will listen to his own health spokesman, who said this:

“"No-one in the House of Commons knows more about”—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but the answers from the Prime Minister must be heard, and that is all there is to it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. If I can take the trouble to read out the Opposition health spokesman’s speeches, the Opposition should at least have the decency to listen to them.

The Opposition health spokesman said this:

“No-one in the House of Commons knows more about the NHS than Andrew Lansley—except perhaps Stephen Dorrell. But 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…in the NHS.”

He went on to say:

“these plans are consistent, coherent and comprehensive. I would expect nothing less from Andrew Lansley.”

Talk about pre-scripted answers again! Why does the Prime Minister not answer the question? Does he even know whether the health service will now be subject to EU competition law? It will be. Let us look at the Health and Social Care Bill: chapter 2, “Competition”; clause 60, “Functions under the Competition Act 1998”; clause 66, “Reviews by the Competition Commission”; clause 68, “Co-operation with the Office of Fair Trading”. Can the Prime Minister explain to the British people what that has got to do with health care?

The Opposition are the party that rigged the system so there was cherry-picking by the NHS. The point I would make is this: at the last election Opposition Members all stood on a manifesto that said—[Interruption.] I am answering the question. This is what the Opposition said in their manifesto:

“Patients requiring elective care will have the right, in law, to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality”.

They were in favour of competition in their manifesto. All that has changed is that they are just jumping on every bandwagon, supporting every union, blocking every reform and opposing the extra money being put into the NHS.

He just does not get it: he is threatening the fabric of the NHS. This Bill shows everything that people do not like about this Government: broken promises, arrogance, incompetence, and ignoring people who know something about the health service. Does this not show once again that, as the British Medical Association said yesterday and as the Liberal Democrats said on Saturday, you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS?

The right hon. Gentleman should remember that the BMA opposed foundation hospitals, GP fundholding and longer opening hours for GPs’ surgeries. Is it not typical that, just as he has to back every other trade union, and just as he has no ideas of his own, he just comes here and reads a BMA press release? How utterly feeble.

I call Gavin Williamson. [Interruption.] Order. Be quiet, Mr Simpson; such behaviour is bad for your health.

Q2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Has the Prime Minister seen the recent comments of the Labour Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee? She said that over the last 10 years productivity in NHS hospitals had been in continuous decline, and that the taxpayer was getting less for each pound spent. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that that trend will be reversed? (46688)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I would have thought Opposition Members would listen to the Labour-dominated Public Accounts Committee and its Labour leader, who said this:

“Over the last ten years, the productivity of NHS hospitals has been in almost continuous decline”


“the health service has improved as a result of this increase in spending. But the taxpayer has been getting less for each pound spent.”

That is what we have to look at, and the fact that we are not getting even the European average on cancer outcomes, and that people here are twice as likely to die from a heart attack as people in France. We have an ageing population and more expensive treatments, and the Opposition’s answer is to do absolutely nothing. How utterly, utterly feeble.

Today’s statistics show that unemployment has gone down in Scotland but has gone up in the rest of the UK. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the trend of lower unemployment in Scotland is not endangered by ridiculously high fuel prices and fuel duty, in what is still the largest oil-producing nation in the European Union?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. Clearly, today’s figures are a very mixed picture. The youth unemployment figures are disappointing, once again, but overall what is interesting is that employment is up and the number of claimants nationwide is actually down: the number of claimants has fallen by 32,000 since last year.

On fuel duty, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have a Budget coming up. I do not want to speculate as to what will be in it, but I know the pain that families and small businesses are feeling from the huge number of fuel duty increases put through by the previous Government. In their last Budget they put through seven fuel duty increases—one for before the election and six for afterwards. What a surprise that Labour did not even have the brass neck to raise that one today.

Q3. Hundreds of residents across the Selby district are up in arms at the prospect of having a Traveller site imposed on their villages. Can the Prime Minister tell me what can be done—and when—to remove the top-down Traveller site targets currently imposed on local authorities? (46689)

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are abolishing the top-down Traveller pitch targets that were imposed on local authorities, and instead local councils will determine the right level of site provision in consultation with their local communities. It is also important that we recognise that one law should apply to everyone in terms of planning policy in this country, Travellers included.

Q4. Blackpool has an above average number of residential homes for disabled people, including for hundreds of my constituents. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister why he still plans to scrap the disability living allowance mobility component in his Welfare Reform Bill, thus potentially marooning people in those homes? In his reply, will he not compare these people to patients in hospitals? They are in their homes, and they are not ill. (46690)

I would urge the hon. Gentleman to look very carefully at the Bill and at our plans, because what he will see is that we are putting the question of mobility into the reform of DLA, as we change that benefit and improve it. What we will do is avoid the double counting that has happened in the past, and sort out this issue, as I have said.

Earlier in the week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister received representations on the Government’s deficit reduction plans from, on the one hand, the credit rating agencies, and on the other hand, the Leader of the Opposition and others from the previous Administration who got us into this mess. Whose advice is the Prime Minister going to follow?

We should listen to the advice of Fitch, the credit rating agency, which this week reconfirmed our triple A credit rating status. I also think we should listen to the OECD, which is here today giving a presentation on the British economy and which strongly supports our deficit reduction plans. The point I would make is this: those people who think that there is some difference between deficit reduction and getting growth at the same time should look at the current interest rates in Ireland, in Greece and in Portugal. In Portugal, market interest rates are 7.5%. What is the genius plan of the Opposition? It is to halve the deficit in four years, which would get us in four years to where Portugal is today. What a brilliant plan!

Q5. Is the Prime Minister aware that Southern Cross, which runs 750 old people’s homes up and down the country, nine of which are in Coventry and Warwickshire, is in great difficulties? Some 31,000 old people could be affected by this, so will he talk to the Qatari parent company to see whether a solution can be found? This is a very serious situation. (46691)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, and I will ask the Health Secretary or one of his Ministers to contact him urgently to discuss this. It is vital that we have good residential care provision in our country and that there is competition and choice in that residential care provision; many private providers provide an excellent service. I shall make sure that one of my Ministers gets in touch with the hon. Gentleman straight away.

I welcome the UK’s strong leadership at the UN on Libya. Can the Prime Minister tell me what message he thinks it will send to every tyrannical dictator if, against the urgent desire of the Libyan people, against the wishes of the Arab League and against the UN principle of the responsibility to protect, the international community fails to stop Gaddafi crushing the spirit, the hopes and the lives of the Libyan people?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Every world leader has said that Gaddafi should go and that his regime is illegitimate. If at the end of this he is left in place, that will send a terrible message—not only to people in Libya, but, as she says, to others across the region who want to see greater democracy and greater openness in their societies. That is why it is right for Britain to play this leading role at the UN and elsewhere. I am not arguing that a no-fly zone is a simple solution to this problem—of course it is not—but I do think that it is one of the steps we need to take to isolate and pressurise that regime, and to say that we stand with people in Libya, who want to have greater democracy and greater freedom, such as we take for granted in this country.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister have any sense of the current mood of bewilderment and betrayal felt by rank and file police officers? (46692)

I strongly support the British police. They are the finest force in the world. What the police and other public servants know is that we were left a deep Budget deficit that we have to deal with. If we want to keep police officers on the streets, it is necessary to have the pay freeze that we are talking about. It is necessary to look, as Tom Winsor has done, at the allowances that they receive and to work out how we can make sure that we have well-paid, well-motivated police officers doing a great job in our country. Again, if the Labour party is just going to stand against every reform, every change and every improvement and say there is nothing we can do about any one of these problems, not only will it be irrelevant, but the British public will work out that it is irrelevant.

Last night there was a violent double murder in Beck Row in Suffolk, which was the most serious in a series of incidents in the area. Will the Prime Minister assure me, and the residents of west Suffolk, that these crimes will be fully investigated, that their perpetrators will face justice and that everywhere in this country must be subject to the rule of law?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. This is a very disturbing case, and I am sure that hon. Members will all have heard about it this morning on the news. I think the police will want to do everything they can to get to the bottom of this dreadful crime and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Q7. People in all parts of the House appreciate that there is a mammoth crisis in Japan. Our hearts go out to the people there and we all want to do everything we can to help, including the UK. I appreciated the Prime Minister’s comments on Monday, but will he investigate reports that a British rescue team has recently been turned away from Japan? (46693)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I have asked for a briefing about this, so I can tell the House what happened. The official rescue team that was sent from the UK, in good time, arrived in good time and has already started work. There was also an extra, independent rescue team that did not have the correct documentation and encountered some problems, but we are doing everything we can to make sure it can get access.

Q8. This week tickets for the London Olympics went on sale. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the people buying tickets saw an athlete cross the finishing line in first place only to end up on the bronze medal podium, they would demand a refund? Does he agree that that example highlights the absurdity of the alternative vote, and the reason why we need a no vote? (46694)

That was an ingenious way of weaving the alternative vote into a question in this House. Clearly there is support for the no campaign on both sides of the House, and I am sure that there are also those who support the yes campaign, so we should have this argument out in the country and make arguments like that. My hon. Friend mentioned the Olympics, and I hope that as many people as possible will be able to get to see the Olympics, which will be a fantastic festival of sport in our country.

Q9. The Prime Minister stood on Ark Royal last year and said that he wanted a new military covenant written into the law of the land. The Royal British Legion has said that the proposals made by Defence Ministers in the Armed Forces Bill do not honour that pledge. Will the Prime Minister follow the legion’s advice, define the covenant in law and keep the promise he made to our brave armed forces? (46695)

I am having discussions with the Royal British Legion about this. It seems to me that the right thing to do is to reference the covenant clearly in law, but to have a debate in the House every year about the covenant and make sure we can update and improve it, because it is not a static document. It needs to take into account changing health and education needs, and to make sure that it is the very best it can be for our armed service personnel.

Q15. Does my right hon. Friend support the following statement:“The reason I've never supported AV is that it would have given”—Labour—“an even bigger majority in 1997, and it would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in 1983, and…1987 as well…If…we want reform…to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics…AV doesn’t deliver that.”Is he as surprised as I was to learn that those are the words of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is the director of Labour’s Yes to AV campaign? (46701)

Q10. I draw the attention of the House to the interest that I have previously declared. There are very few people outside the House—or, I suspect, inside it—who think that Northern Rock would have got into as much trouble if it had still been a mutual building society. Given the considerable scepticism about whether the coalition really wants to change the culture in the banking industry, will the Prime Minister now insist that his City Minister requests a serious and detailed assessment of the case for remutualisation of Northern Rock? (46696)

We are prepared to consider all options, and the City Minister will do that. I would make two points. First, we think that mutualisation should go much further than just the banking industry, and are considering options for mutualisation within the public sector to give members of staff in public sector organisations far more control over the organisations that they are in. On banking, it is about looking at not just mutualisation but the whole issue of responsibility and trying to link in again the idea of taking deposits and making loans, as building societies used to.

Q11. Given the Lockerbie bomb and Gaddafi’s continuing murder of his own people, does the Prime Minister think it was wrong for British universities to sign deals with Libya, and wrong for the previous Government to help facilitate some of those contracts? Will he take steps to learn the lessons and ensure that that never happens again? (46697)

I think that there are lessons to be learned. As I have said, I think that it was right to respond to what Libya did in terms of weapons of mass destruction, but I do not think that the way in which that response was handled was right. Too much credulity was shown, particularly over issues such as that of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man who was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history. Universities will also want to ask themselves, as they are doing, some pretty searching questions about what they did.

Q12. The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said that the Government’s economic policy is going in precisely the wrong direction. Does the Prime Minister really wish to be remembered as a reincarnation of President Herbert Hoover, whose policies led directly to the great depression of the 1930s, and to leave the future open to our leader to be a new Roosevelt and lead us away from that? (46698)

As a job application, that was at the greasy end of the spectrum, I think. I prefer to listen to the head of the OECD, who is in London today, and who has said:

“I think dealing with the deficit is the best way to prepare the ground for growth in the future.”

When it comes to the question of who supports this Government’s policy, we have the OECD, the International Monetary Fund, the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and the Bank of England. When the shadow Chancellor was asked recently, “Who supports your economic policy?”, there was a long pause and he finally replied, “The Guardian.” I will keep my supporters, and you can keep yours.

The people of Wootton Bassett have sought neither thanks nor praise for what they have done on so many hundreds of occasions over the years, but they will be deeply honoured and very pleased by the great honour that Her Majesty has shown them. Will the Prime Minister now lead the people of Carterton, in his constituency, in filling their place?

First, may I say to my hon. Friend what an honour it is for me to be able to make the announcement about Royal Wootton Bassett, and how I enjoyed meeting him, the mayor of Wootton Bassett and others connected with the town? Let me make it absolutely clear: they did not ask for any recognition or any form of preferment. They believed that they were honourably and honestly doing a job that the whole country wanted to see done. Now that the route will be different, we need to consider the issues raised by my hon. Friend. Already, quite a demonstration of solidarity and support takes place outside the John Radcliffe hospital, but I will certainly bear in mind what he says.

Q13. Following the emphatic yes vote in the referendum on law-making powers, a series of UK Government Ministers have proposed a Calman-like process for Wales. Will the Prime Minister confirm that reform of the Barnett formula, as advocated by the independent Holtham commission, will be a cornerstone of any wider changes to how the Welsh Government are funded? (46699)

We are looking at a Calman-like process for Wales; we think that is right, and we will make some announcements and proposals. Let me just say that because the spending reductions in Wales are less than the spending reductions in England, we will find at the end of this Parliament that the difference in spending per head in Wales will be even greater than it is today, so I do not accept the contention that somehow people in Wales are being unfairly targeted with cuts; they are not. They are getting a better deal than some other parts of the United Kingdom.

Q14. A report published today by the End Child Poverty campaign shows that when Labour left office, it left 30% of Norwich’s children living in poverty—the worst figure in the east of England. Does the Prime Minister agree that such a complex problem demands a cross-Government response to tackle the causes of poverty and deliver greater social mobility? (46700)

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and if we think of combating child poverty simply in terms of moving people a little bit above or below the line we will never deal with the underlying causes of child poverty, which are worklessness, family breakdown, and other problems linked to it. I am determined that we will try our hardest, with expertise from across the House of Commons—the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is involved in this work, as is the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field)—making sure that we really look at life chances, as well as poverty itself.

Earlier this month I joined my constituents and many others from across the east end in commemorating the 68th anniversary of the 1943 Bethnal Green tube disaster. It was one of the worst civilian disasters of the second world war: 173 people were killed and 90 injured, while seeking shelter. Does the Prime Minister agree that there should be a fitting permanent memorial to those who perished, and will he lend his support to the Stairway to Heaven memorial campaign?

I will certainly look very carefully at what the hon. Lady says. She speaks very powerfully on behalf of her constituents about something that, yes, happened many years ago, but people will still have strong family memories of what happened at that time. I will look carefully at what she says and see what support my office and I can give.

Does the Prime Minister agree that nuclear power stations in the UK, such as Dungeness in my constituency, have an excellent safety record, and that new nuclear power will be an important part of our energy needs in future?

I do think that nuclear power should be part of the mix in future, as it is part of the mix right now. Obviously, I am sure that everyone watching the dreadful events in Japan will want to make sure that we learn any lessons. Of course there are big differences: we do not have those reactor designs in the UK, nor do we plan to, and we are not in a similar seismically important and significant area. Nevertheless, I am sure that there will be lessons to learn, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has asked the head of nuclear inspections and safety to learn the lessons, and to make sure that we do so in our country.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Clydebank blitz, in which 528 people lost their lives. Hundreds more were seriously injured, and 35,000 people were made homeless. Clydebank suffered the worst devastation and loss of life in Scotland during the second world war. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to all those who lost their lives, all those who still carry their injuries with them today and, crucially, the people who rebuilt Clydebank after those terrible events 70 years ago?

I will certainly join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to those people. It is important, as we reach the 60th and 70th anniversaries of these events, that we recognise that many people who lived through them are coming to the end of their lives. It may well be our last opportunity to commemorate what happened and to remember those who died. It is particularly important, as we come up to these anniversaries, that we get that right.

bill presented

London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Secretary Hunt, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mrs Secretary May, Mr Secretary Pickles, Mr Secretary Hammond, Mrs Theresa Villiers, Hugh Robertson and Norman Baker, presented a Bill to amend the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 165) with explanatory notes (Bill 165-EN).

I ask Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that I can hear and respond to points of order.