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Prime Minister

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Daniel Prior, from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Friday at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham having been wounded in Afghanistan on Wednesday. Tragically, Private Prior had just become a father and our deepest condolences should be with his family and friends, especially his wife and his newborn son. We must make sure that he grows up in a country where everyone honours the memory of his father and what all our armed forces stand for.

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

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and associate myself, and all on the Opposition side of the House, with his moving tribute to Private Daniel Prior.

The Prime Minister has taken the right decisions to extend the life of the Nimrods and HMS Cumberland so that our armed forces remain equipped to protect in this conflict. He knows the uncertainty we now face, so will he, in due course, extend that rethink of our defence capabilities?

Obviously we will look very closely at all the lessons we should learn from what we are engaged in: diplomatically; politically; and in terms of both foreign policy and military equipment. What I would say, though, is that the whole predication of the strategic defence and security review was that we should be able to deploy at speed anywhere in the world and have very flexible armed forces, with particular emphasis on transport and on things such as special forces. We think that we did anticipate the sorts of things we are doing now, but if there are further lessons to learn, of course we should learn them.

Q2. Our hearts go out to the people of Japan as we watch their horror unfold and see warnings today about heightened radiation in Tokyo’s water supply. It is not just earthquakes and tsunamis that can threaten the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, so does the Prime Minister agree that what has happened at Fukushima will have consequences for the new nuclear power stations proposed for the UK? (48223)

I am sure that the whole House will want to join the hon. Lady in sending our condolences to people in Japan and to express our admiration for their incredible bravery and resilience in dealing with this immense crisis. Of course we must learn any lessons that need to be learned about nuclear power, which is why the head of the nuclear safety inspectorate is looking at this issue. As I have said before, the power stations we have in Britain are of a different type from those in Japan. We are not planning to build any like those, and we are not in an earthquake zone or a zone subject to tsunamis, but of course we have always got to test against all eventualities. I am sure that there is further testing we can do on nuclear power.

Japan is doing a good job in dealing with this problem and the signs from the nuclear station are a little better than they were a few days ago, but it is certainly not out of the danger zone. What we should do is make sure that we give the correct advice to all British citizens in Tokyo—that is what we have done and what we will continue to do.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Daniel Prior. He demonstrated outstanding bravery in the line of duty and our thoughts are with his wife and young son and all his family and friends.

I am sure that the whole House will also want to think of our armed forces personnel now in action in the military operation in Libya and to pay tribute to the outstanding work they are doing. Following the overwhelming vote in the House on Monday, will the Prime Minister update the House on the progress of our military operation and the actions of British forces?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he says and for his speech in that debate on Monday, which I thought was extremely powerful. To update the House on the military operations, a no-fly zone is now in place over Libya and 11 nations are contributing more than 150 aircraft. As we discussed on Monday, there has been an early and good effect as regime forces have had to retreat from Benghazi, but there is clearly great concern about what the regime is doing in Misrata. Any idea that the second ceasefire was any more meaningful than the first is, we can see, complete nonsense. We made good progress in the no-fly zone and good progress in turning some of the forces back and protecting civilians. Everything is clearly still in the early stages, however, and a lot more remains to be done.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and for what he said about the debate on Monday. We support UN resolution 1973 to protect the people of Libya. The support of the Arab League was a key factor in securing the UN resolution. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the military contribution that Arab states will make to the operation and what conversations he has had with Arab leaders about their continued role in the enforcement of the resolution and the plan of action?

I can do that. First, the Arab League met again yesterday and reinforced its view that a no-fly zone is right and that it supports UN Security Council resolution 1973. In terms of concrete assets, I can confirm that yesterday the Qataris deployed the first of their contribution—Mirage aircraft and other support aircraft—and we will get logistic contributions from countries such as Kuwait and Jordan. I hope that further support will be forthcoming but I would like to be clear that because we had to act so quickly on Saturday it was not possible to bring forward as much Arab support as might have been welcomed by, I think, everybody in this House. There is clear support from the secretary-general of those Arab nations. I also had a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister yesterday and I believe that support in the Arab world—not just among Arab leaders but among Arab people—for saving lives in Libya is very strong.

Let me emphasise something that the Prime Minister mentioned on Monday, which is the importance of the contribution of Arab countries to the military operation. He also said that there would be a regular and more formal process with the Arab League and others. It seems to me very important that that process takes place. Let me ask the Prime Minister one other thing about our action. Will he clarify the Government’s position on the targeting of Colonel Gaddafi? It is important that we stick to the terms of the UN resolution as we seek to maintain the coalition we have built on that resolution.

I am grateful for that question and for the chance to set this out clearly to the House. All our targets must be selected to be absolutely in line with UN Security Council resolution 1973. That allows us to take “all necessary measures” to enforce a no-fly zone and to put it in place as safely as possible as well as to take action to protect civilian life. All targets should be in line with that but I do not propose to give a running commentary on targets or, frankly, to say anything beyond that.

Q3. As my right hon. Friend struggles to sort out the mess left behind by the previous rotten Labour Government, will he take this opportunity to unite the House on health matters by praising the work of Marie Curie nurses, highlighting the dangers of prostate cancer and supporting low salt week? (48224)

I yield to no one in blaming the last Government for all sorts of ills, but I think even I would probably draw the line at blaming them for the level of salt in food—[Hon. Members: “Oh, go on.”] Well, I suspect that the previous Prime Minister probably put salt in his porridge, but we will have to leave it there.

My hon. Friend mentions a very important charity, Marie Curie Cancer Care, and the work it does to help people, particularly when they are suffering often incurable conditions; it should be praised by everyone in this House. The whole point of what we want to do through our health reforms is to involve in an even greater way such great charities, which do so much to help people across our country.

North Tyneside’s Tory, elected mayor has spoken of her intention to become the council’s chief executive under new government powers. Does the Prime Minister think that the mayor, who was elected on a political ticket under the alternative vote and has no proven professional experience for such an apolitical role, should go back to the electorate in the true spirit of localism and get their opinion on this issue?

I thank the hon. Lady for reminding everyone that North Tyneside has an excellent Conservative mayor who is doing a great job. It will be a matter for her and the people and the council of North Tyneside to work out what a fantastic job she can do in future.

Q4. Croydon town centre is just 15 minutes from central London by rail, but rateable values are 60% lower. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is huge potential to save public money by relocating part of the Government estate from the most expensive real estate in the country in SW1? (48225)

I just heard a suggestion from my hon. Friend that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should be based in Croydon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) makes a very good point. We have already saved £50 million by relocating Government property. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who sits in the Cabinet and does an excellent job, has saved £2.6 billion by combining quangos and public bodies, but I am sure there is more we can do, including, perhaps, in Croydon.

Will the Prime Minister explain why he proposes to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance from 80,000 care home residents?

Not for the first time, I have to tell the Prime Minister what is in his own legislation: clause 83 of the Welfare Reform Bill proposes precisely that and people do not understand why he is doing it. If he is saying that he is going to abandon the policy, then, great, let us abandon the policy.

The review of disability living allowance and the mobility component is wrapped up in the new personal independence payment. That is what is happening. To be frank, this point has been raised right across the House of Commons and is a point that we have responded to. It is a review that the right hon. Gentleman can take part in; perhaps he can say something constructive.

It is not a review, it is a proposal—a clause—in the Bill to take away the mobility component of DLA. Some 22 disabled persons organisations up and down the country are saying that the Government should abandon the policy. I have a suggestion for the Prime Minister: why does he not complete the review now and say that he is dumping the policy? He has done it before.

The first thing the right hon. Gentleman said about disability living allowance was that he wanted to support our gateway reforms, but we do not hear much about that any more. As I have said, the review of DLA is rolled into the personal independence payment. That is how we will reform the mobility component. Instead of getting so excited about it, he should congratulate the Government on listening to opinion from across the House.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister might be aware that the Financial Times reported earlier this week that Gaddafi is sitting on $6.5 billion-worth of gold in his war chest. Although there is precious little to commend the current leader of Libya, gold has been the great inflation hedge throughout our history. Britain, on the other hand, sold off her gold reserves at the behest of the shadow Chancellor, when he worked as a bag carrier at the Treasury, in order to bolster the then failing euro. Which of those two is more psychologically flawed?

That was an ingenious question from my hon. Friend. I have to say that selling the gold was one of the many appalling decisions taken by the previous Government and was advised by the two people now responsible for their economic policy in opposition.

What we have done in the banking industry is make sure that it is paying a £2.5 billion banking levy, not as a one-off, but every single year during this Parliament, so under this Government, the taxes it pays will go up; the bonus levels have gone down; and the lending to small businesses—and large businesses—will increase. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that approach.

What conclusions has the Prime Minister drawn from the statement of the secretary-general of the OECD, who recently said

“if you don’t deal with the deficit you can be assured that there will not be growth”?

The OECD was in town last week and gave the clearest possible message: if we do not deal with the deficit, we will not get any growth. That is what it said, and it is about time that the Opposition started listening to it.

Q6. I am sure the Prime Minister is aware that unemployment in my constituency will increase as a result of public sector cuts. What is his Government doing to expand private sector job opportunities in the area, such as supply-chain jobs from the Hitachi train-building programme? Will he ask the Business Secretary to meet local businesses and Durham county council about that, to boost jobs in Durham and the north-east? (48227)

I am very happy to arrange that meeting. The point that the hon. Lady makes is absolutely right: at a time when, frankly, any Government would have to make public sector cuts, we have to make sure that the private sector grows. That is why we have the regional growth fund, which is putting money and leveraging new jobs into the north-east. That is why we will introduce things such as enterprise zones, and that is why, if she sits and waits patiently, she will hear in the Chancellor’s Budget a whole series of measures to fire up the private sector and make sure that we get growth right across our country.

After fuel duty, council tax is the most despised tax in the country, and under the Labour Government it increased mercilessly, year on year. Will the Prime Minister tell me how many councils, like Bedford borough council, have taken advantage of the offer made by the Chancellor in last year’s Budget and frozen or reduced council tax?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth while noting that we now know that every single council in the country has agreed to take part in the Government’s council tax freeze. I would have thought that would be welcomed across the House of Commons, because people do face a difficult situation with the cost of living. We have taken action on council tax; we are lifting people out of income tax; we are uprating the pension in line with earnings, instead of prices; and I hope that the Chancellor will have a few more things to say in a minute or two.

Q7. The Prime Minister knows of my passion for the no campaign on the alternative vote, and I know that he will be working day and night on that subject. However, I have another passion: legal aid. What will his Government do to protect those who are debarred from legal aid, and to get rid of all the abuse in the legal aid system at present? (48228)

Of course, this is a devolved issue for Scotland, but what we have done elsewhere in the United Kingdom is maintain the grant that we give centrally to the citizens advice bureaux to make sure that work goes ahead. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the comparative figures, he will see that this country spends way more per head on legal aid than comparator countries, and it is right that it should be reformed.

Q8. Is the Prime Minister aware of the very poor rail services between Gloucestershire and London? As a result of that problem, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and I have campaigned very long and hard for the line between Swindon and Kemble to be redoubled. Will the Prime Minister give every consideration possible to that project? (48229)

I do know the problems that there are between London and Gloucester, and also, as a Member of Parliament with a seat to the west of London, I know the problems on the Cotswold line, which has recently been improved through redoubling. I hope that my hon. Friend will sit patiently, because I very much hope that the Chancellor might have something to say about how we will make life easier for my hon. Friend’s constituents who want to get to and from Gloucester and London.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the representations that he has received from the Deputy Prime Minister on reinstating the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters? (48230)

The hon. Lady knows well that this was done on the basis of affordability, but she also knows that Sheffield Forgemasters has been encouraged to bid under the regional growth fund; that is an approach it can take.

Given the central role that RAF Marham and the Tornado have played in securing a no-fly zone over Libya, and the brave actions of our service personnel despite the ongoing uncertainty at that base, is it not time that we confirmed the future of RAF Marham as a fast jet base?

My hon. Friend makes an important representation on behalf of a vital base in her constituency. It gives me the opportunity to pay tribute again to what our brave pilots are doing, whether flying Typhoons in order to police the no-fly zone, or flying Tornadoes in order to carry out vital operations on the ground in Libya. She makes a very strong case, but I know that others will be making a case too. These decisions will be taken in due course by the Ministry of Defence.

Q10. Last week the Prime Minister told the House that people here are twice as likely to die from a heart attack as people in France, but is not the truth that survival rates are improving, we will have a lower death rate than France by next year, and we have record levels of satisfaction with the NHS? When will he stop talking down the NHS and distorting the figures? (48231)

The NHS has done extraordinary things for me and my family. I am passionate about the NHS. I passionately want it to remain free at the point of use on the basis of need and not related to people’s ability to pay. The point of reforming the NHS is to safeguard it for the future. That is what everyone in the House wants. I will never talk down the NHS, but if we really believe we cannot do better on cancer, heart disease and stroke, we are fooling ourselves. We must do better, and that is the aim of our reforms.

The coalition agreement promises the public greater accountability in NHS commissioning through directly elected individuals on the boards of primary care trusts. As PCTs are on their way out, does the Prime Minister accept that the best way now to deliver that commitment is to reserve places on GP consortia boards for locally elected people?

One of the ways we can make the NHS more accountable is through the better combination of the NHS and local government. That is what our proposals envisage. That is the best way to make sure that there is good democratic accountability for what happens in our NHS.

Q11. The Government have not yet factored into their future Budget proposals the sell-off of the bank assets that we own. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to volunteering and the dire straits that many young people face because of unemployment, will he consider an endowment fund for a nationwide volunteer programme, building on the six-week national citizen service and benefiting individuals and the nation as a whole? (48232)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely interesting suggestion. Obviously, there will be an opportunity to sell the bank assets that we own. I do not think that that opportunity is right now, or that we should wait to get national citizen service, which he rightly mentions, up and running. I want to see every 16-year-old in our country have the opportunity to take part in something like that to make them feel more part of our country and recognise the responsibilities that we all have as we move towards adulthood.

Q12. With the recent OECD report underlining the fact that the structural deficit has caused so many difficulties for our economy, does the Prime Minister agree that it is all the more important that we upgrade our industry and business by providing training opportunities for young people? (48233)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is why we are making bold and difficult reforms in education. As we stand today, less than 50% of young people at 16 are getting grades A to C in English and maths. We must make sure that people are properly prepared for the world of work, and that is not good enough. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary, who is setting a higher bar for himself and for the Government. We have to make sure that we get over it.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s U-turn yesterday with the announcement that the United Kingdom will now opt into the EU directive on sex slave trafficking, which many have campaigned on for six months. This is a cross-party issue which he takes seriously. Will he ask the Home Secretary, seated on his left, to look particularly at unaccompanied children arriving at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, as there is evidence that some of them may be trafficked? We may be able to put some block on this terrible thing with a bit of work there.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely right: this is an issue of cross-party concern. As he knows, we completely agree with what was proposed for the human trafficking directive. We decided to wait and check that it would actually be in line with what was wanted and did not have further dangers in terms of our immigration policy. I am happy to say that we will be opting into the directive, with parliamentary permission. Above all, we must ensure that our arrangements are in place to help trafficked children, including in the way he suggests.

Q13. A recent Public Accounts Committee report found that in the past hospitals were built under the private finance initiative even though it was more expensive than other forms of financing. In some PFI hospitals, it now costs £333 to change a light switch. What is the Prime Minister going to do about it, and whose fault was it? (48234)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some of the PFI deals that were entered into were extremely expensive, and the costs will rack up on taxpayers for years to come. He does not have to believe me, as we now have it from Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, who has made a number of helpful interventions in recent weeks. The latest one was in the Morning Star—not a paper I always read. Whether talking to a communist paper or backing Tory plans, he is very consistent: he is always in favour of what the Government are doing. He said:

“There is definitely a case for saying we were poor at PFI, poor at negotiating PFI contracts from the outset.”

I could not agree more.

Q14. Some £180 million of land and property assets assembled by One North East are at risk of a fire sale to benefit central Government coffers. The Association of North East Councils and the Northern Business Forum have joined forces in a bid to take on those assets for the benefit of our region. Will the Prime Minister back the bid and put his warm words on localism into action? (48235)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As we move from the regional development agencies to the new local enterprise partnerships, many of which are up and running and doing a good job, it is important that we ensure we have good consistency and continuity, and I will certainly look at the case she makes.

Will my right hon. Friend comment in advance of the Budget on this country’s current financial situation in terms that I can use to convey to my constituents the dreadful state of the economy that we inherited from the party opposite?

One way of putting that inheritance is that we had a Budget deficit that was bigger than Portugal’s, bigger than Spain’s and bigger than Greece’s. It is only because of the action we have taken in government to show how we will pay down our debts that we have interest rates in this country that are at a similar level to Germany’s. That is what we have been able to do, to the huge benefit of our economy and with absolutely no help from the party opposite.

Q15. It was reported at the weekend that the Department of Health has failed to publish research it commissioned and received last autumn showing the highest ever level of satisfaction with the NHS. Will the Prime Minister urge the Secretary of State for Health to publish that research without further delay, or, by not doing so, will he confirm that the British Medical Association was right last week when it deplored the Government’s use of misleading and inaccurate information to denigrate the NHS and justify their reforms? (48236)

This Government have published more information about the NHS than any other. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is quoting from a published report. The point I would make to him is this: if we had survival rates for cancer that were the same as the European average, we would save 5,000 lives every year. Do Members opposite want to save those lives, or are they going to stick with the status quo and say that there should be no choice, that patients should not have a say in how they are treated and that doctors should not be more involved in the health service? What a backward step, and what a backward lot.

Parents value the 15 hours’ free nursery provision they are given, but 22 nurseries I have met are concerned that the new guidelines do not give enough flexibility. Will the Prime Minister talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to see whether there is a problem?

I will certainly do that. Obviously, what we have done is to make sure that we have properly funded the extra hours of nursery education for three-year-olds and, for the first time, introduced that provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, so that is a big step forward. At a time of spending constraint and austerity, we have been able to help the poorest families in our country to have a better future, but I will certainly take on board the point my hon. Friend makes and make sure that she meets my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to ensure that it is introduced in the right way.

In a newspaper interview last weekend, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change cast doubt on the viability of investment in the civil nuclear energy industry. Given the strategic importance of the industry and the need for certainty and commitment from the Government, can the Prime Minister reassure the House and business that his policy is unaltered in that area?

I can do that, and the point I would make—the Energy and Climate Change Secretary would say exactly the same thing—is that what we have done is to create a fair playing field where that private investment can come forward. What we should not be doing is having unfair subsidies. We are making sure that on issues such as planning and carbon pricing the situation is very clear, so that nuclear, which is part of the energy mix in this country, can go on being part of the energy mix in our country.

Last Friday I visited Rawlins community college in my constituency and spoke to a very bright group of economics students. We discussed the fact that Governments cannot spend money they do not have. The students understood that; why does my right hon. Friend think the Opposition do not?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I know the Opposition do not like to hear about the mess they left, but let me give them some new published information about the mess they left. This is what we inherited: we are 72nd on wastefulness of Government spending, behind Kazakhstan and Cambodia; 108th on Government debt, behind Malawi, Lesotho and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Libya; and—this is the best one—on the soundness of banks, we are 133rd. Our banks, under Labour, were less sound than those in Serbia, Estonia, Madagascar and Chad. That is the record we inherited from the Opposition, and we will not tire of reminding them.