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Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Major Matthew Collins and Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan from 1st Battalion the Irish Guards. They died in Afghanistan last Wednesday after their vehicle was caught in a blast from an improvised explosive device. They were both hugely respected, passionate and dedicated soldiers, and they will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and deepest condolences should be with their families, friends and colleagues.

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

I pay tribute to our fallen heroes, and I am sure that I speak for many in the House when I say that we have to remember the debts we owe our brave armed forces, particularly at this time.

Is the Prime Minister aware that 14 Opposition Members signed an early-day motion congratulating UK Uncut, despite that organisation’s refusal to condemn Saturday’s violence? Will he join me in urging those Members to withdraw their names?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. First of all, we should be absolutely clear that the scenes in central London of property, shops, banks and livelihoods being destroyed were completely and utterly unacceptable. The police should have our full support for the way they policed the march and the action they took. I think that it is important for people to understand that UK Uncut refused to condemn this violence and Opposition Members should remove their names from the early-day motion.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Major Matthew Collins and Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan, who died in Afghanistan. They showed enormous bravery and courage, and all our thoughts are with their family and friends.

May I start by asking the Prime Minister about the ongoing situation in Libya? In particular, will he tell the House what his policy is on arming the rebels?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Before starting, perhaps on behalf of everyone in the House, I congratulate him and Justine on the happy news of their forthcoming wedding and, along with everyone, wish them a long and happy life together.

I can report that the situation on the ground is extremely fluid. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the ceasefire is still being breached, and it is absolutely right that we keep up our pressure under UN Security Council resolution 1973. I can confirm to the House that the coalition took action yesterday against regime forces harassing civilian vessels trying to get into Misrata. Yesterday and overnight the RAF flew 24 sorties, and Tornado aircraft destroyed artillery and an armoured fighting vehicle near Sirte.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about arming the rebels. I have said before in this House that we must do everything to comply with both Security Council resolutions. As I told the House, the legal position is clear—the arms embargo applies to the whole territory of Libya—but at the same time UNSCR 1973 allows “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas, and our view is that that would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances. As I have told the House before, we do not rule it out, but we have not taken the decision to do so.

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply and am sure that the matter will be explored further in the Foreign Secretary’s statement at 12.30 pm. I also thank him, and indeed all Members, for their kind wishes on my forthcoming wedding, which I am very much looking forward to. I might have to come to him in the next couple of months for advice, because I know that he knows how to organise memorable stag nights.

Let me turn to a different issue: tuition fees. The Prime Minister said that universities will charge £9,000 in tuition fees only in exceptional circumstances. How many of the 23 universities that have announced their plans are planning to charge £9,000?

I am sure that there will be a free exchange of advice. When I was Leader of the Opposition, I would have done anything for a honeymoon, and the right hon. Gentleman probably feels the same way. However, we wish him well.

On tuition fees, the point about the £9,000 is well made. Universities can charge £9,000 only if they go through a number of steps to prove that they really are improving access to universities. I do not have the figures available, but I am very happy to give them to him when I do.

This is an important point, because when the Prime Minister was selling his tuition fees policy he reassured people that there would be a basic threshold of £6,000, but that “in exceptional circumstances” some universities would be allowed to charge £9,000. Of the 23 universities that have announced their fees, 18—more than 80%—plan to charge £9,000. It is not the exception; it is the rule. I am afraid—not for the first time—that this policy has not been implemented competently. The next problem he faces with this policy is that it will cost the Treasury more money to fund the loans. Will he guarantee that that money will not come from university budgets or through a reduction in student numbers?

It is worth reminding the House that university tuition fees were first introduced by the Labour party. There are two important points about this threshold. First, each university will have to spend £900 per place on access requirements. Secondly, the Office for Fair Access will decide whether universities can go to that £9,000 threshold. Very tough rules have been published and placed in the House for people to see. On the additional money that will go into higher education, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: because of the system we are introducing, we will be spending more overall on universities. However, the key thing is that because of the reductions in spending we are having to make elsewhere, this is the only way to guarantee that we have well-funded universities, well-stocked libraries, well-paid lecturers and good universities to take on the world.

I asked a very simple question: where will the money come from, given that the Government have miscalculated the level of tuition fees? Universities up and down the country are worried that the Prime Minister does not think that an 80% cut in the teaching budget is enough and that he will come back for more.

Policing is another area of public services that I do not think the Government are getting quite right. The police Minister was asked eight times on the radio this morning whether the number of front-line police officers would fall. May I ask the Prime Minister whether there will be fewer front-line police officers in the years ahead?

According to Home Office statistics, if all forces achieve the current best average for visibility and availability, it would increase the number of officers available by 8,000.

I do not think that people will understand what that answer was supposed to mean. The Prime Minister should listen to the chief inspector of Lancashire police:

“We cannot leave the front line untouched”.

That is because of the scale of the cuts. Two thousand police officers are being forced out under the A19 rules. Sergeant Dave Hewitt:

“'I will be walking away from the force, unfortunately not through choice… As far as I’m concerned I’m still young and I wanted to continue being a neighbourhood sergeant.”

That sounds like a front-line police officer to me. May I ask the Prime Minister the same question? Does he expect there to be fewer front-line police officers in the years ahead? Yes or no?

There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line officers. Both parties agree that the police budget has to be cut. I heard the shadow Chancellor on the Marr programme say that

“we would have made cuts to policing”.

The Labour party would have cut policing, and we have to do so, so the question is: how do we make those cuts? We say that we have to freeze police pay for two years, reform police allowances and cut their paperwork. The Labour party opposes all those things, so it would have to make deeper cuts in police numbers. That is the case.

It is very simple: we proposed 12% cuts in the policing budget; the Prime Minister is proposing 20% cuts. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said that if we go beyond 12%, that is likely to lead to cuts in front-line officers, which is exactly what is happening up and down this country. The truth is that he used to claim that the Conservatives were the party of law and order, but now he is cutting the number of police officers up and down the country. It is the wrong choice for the police, the wrong choice for communities and the wrong choice for the country as well.

Not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The difference between a 12% reduction and what we are proposing is the freeze in police pay and the reform of police allowances, which he refuses to support. Has anyone seen a more ridiculous spectacle than the right hon. Gentleman marching against the cuts that his Government caused? I know Martin Luther King said he had a dream—I think it is time the right hon. Gentleman woke up.

From his visits to Cornwall, the Prime Minister will appreciate the high regard for the coastguard service there and around the UK. I am reassured that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has said that the current modernisation proposals are not a done deal. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is very important to get the plans right?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She is a Cornish MP, and I am sure that she and the whole of the House would want me to say how much we feel for our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who lost her husband in a tragic fishing accident. That demonstrates the extraordinary risks that people in coastal communities take, and our hearts should go out to her and her family.

We want to make changes only if they improve the coastguard support that people in fishing communities and elsewhere get. That is what the reform is about: trying to ensure that the real impetus is on the front line. If that is not the case, we will obviously have to reconsider the reforms, and that is why they are being reviewed. What I would say to everyone who cares about this issue is: work with us to make sure we get the maximum amount in those lifeboats and other ways of helping our fishing and other communities.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge the serious concerns that have been raised about the adverse implications and complications for cancer patients under the proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill of replacing disability living allowance with personal independence payments? Will he therefore investigate with Ministers the case for creating a straightforward cancer care and support allowance, which would be available to those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are either undergoing or awaiting treatment? (49647)

The hon. Lady asks an important question. We will look carefully, as the Government medical adviser is, at DLA and its interaction with people with cancer. However, I think that everyone, in all parts of the House, should recognise that DLA does need reform. The fact is that there are 130,000 people on DLA who have not had a claim revised at all since the benefit was introduced in 1992. There are 750,000 people who have had the same claim for 10 years and no contact from the Department. There are 21,000 people of working age getting DLA because they are on drink or drugs, so reform really is necessary, but making sure that we assess people with cancer properly is definitely part of that reform.

May I congratulate the Prime Minister on what appears to have been a successful London conference on Libya? What measures are being taken to ensure that we can expand the coalition of countries taking part in action to include regional players such as Qatar and others, which is vital if we are to maintain regional support?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question: it was a successful conference yesterday, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement about it later. There were more than 40 delegations, widespread representation from the Islamic world and a common message from everyone at the conference about broadening and deepening the alliance, and enforcing UN Security Council resolution 1973. There was also new support, with equipment, including from the Swedes, who are making eight aircraft available. We are on track, and there is very strong support for what is being done, but we need to keep up the support, particularly in the Arab world.

Q3. Families who have lost their jobs have been able to apply for emergency loans to tide them over, so why, when unemployment is at a 17-year high and is predicted to get worse, does information leaked to me show that the Government plan to cut the fund tomorrow, and why, just like last week’s cuts to winter fuel payments, was this not announced in the Budget? (49648)

We are putting in place the biggest and boldest programme since the great depression to help unemployed people. That is what the Work programme is all about, and the hon. Gentleman should work with us to make sure that it can help everyone, including those in his constituency.

Q4. Taking into account the high levels of deprivation in Lowestoft in my constituency, and in Great Yarmouth, coupled with the unrivalled potential of the East Anglian coast for creating jobs in the offshore energy sector, does the Prime Minister agree that those prospects would be significantly boosted by the creation of an enterprise zone? (49649)

My hon. Friend makes a very articulate case for an enterprise zone. I am delighted that we have introduced 21 enterprise zones, and clearly there is a case that colleagues can make for more. There are real strengths in his area in terms of green-tech jobs, which I know he supports, and I am sure that the Chancellor will have heard his message.

Dozens of families in my constituency were put out of their homes overnight and remain out of their homes as a result of terrorist activity, the latest in a long line of such incidents in Northern Ireland recently. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning that terrorist activity? As well as supporting the police and the Army with resources, does he agree that, as we approach the Assembly elections in a few weeks’ time and mark the first full term of uninterrupted, stable devolution in Northern Ireland for generations, the best answer that we can give to such people is to reject them, reject their policies, reject their wanting to drag us back to the past and to keep Northern Ireland moving forward?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with support from all parts of the House for what he says—with both points that he makes. First, we have to be eternally vigilant against terrorists in Northern Ireland and elsewhere; we should do that, and he knows that the British Government will give every support that they can to the Northern Ireland Executive. Secondly, the best proof of success, and that there is a non-violent path, is to show the success of our democratic institutions, which he, his colleagues and all parties in Northern Ireland are doing.

Q5. Yesterday, councillors on the Yorkshire and the Humber joint health overview and scrutiny committee were told by senior doctors that, if Leeds loses its children’s heart surgery unit, ambulance transfers will be unsafe and could prove fatal. Given that the report into the review of children’s heart units—commissioned by the previous Government, of course—contains factual errors, and given that there is a question over the impartiality of the board that made the final recommendations, will the Prime Minister now agree to halt the process? If not, does he think that the only option is judicial review? (49650)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to speak up for his constituency, which could be affected by that review, as indeed could mine. We want to make sure that the review is as transparent as possible and involved and engaged with parents and with everyone in communities. There are many times, however, when rather bogus arguments are put forward for specialisation in the NHS, but, in a really complicated case such as child heart surgery, there are cases for specialisation, and, as passionately as we all want to defend our own hospitals, we have to think about clinical safety and what is best for children. He is absolutely right to speak up for his hospital, as I am for the one that serves my constituency, but we have to have some understanding about the complexity of what we are dealing with.

Does the Prime Minister understand that unilaterally setting the minimum price for carbon in Britain will drive out inward investors such as Tata Steel in Swansea? Carbon trading by its very nature requires a common price, not a unilateral one, so will he suspend that price and send his Chancellor into the European Union to negotiate a common price and ensure that we have a level playing field for inward investment?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, but I do not agree with him. I think the steps taken in the Budget are right, and we should judge companies such as Tata by the investments that they make. I have been hugely heartened by the fact that Tata is putting more investment into the UK. Its Redcar plant closed under the previous Government, but it is going to reopen in part because of the investment that Tata is making. I will of course listen to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that Ratan Tata knows a bit more about his business than he does.

Q6. My constituent Geoff Jacobs is in Parliament for The Prostate Cancer Charity’s action day to remind us that prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. With only three out of 10 men being aware of the prostate-specific antigen blood test, and with 10,000 men each year dying of the disease, does the Prime Minister have a dream—of better outcomes for the increasing investment in the NHS? (49651)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. He is right that it is a dream we can have, but the fact that prostate cancer is such a massive killer is a nightmare for many families and many people in this country, and we really do need to do something about it. That means better early diagnosis, better testing, and better access to drugs. All those things are contained in our plans for the NHS.

Q7. The Prime Minister will be aware of the large number of women across the UK, including a number in my constituency, who are in their late 50s—58 or 59—and on low incomes, and he will be aware that speeding up the equalisation of the state pension age will affect some 2.9 million of them, with many having to wait two years and, as a result, lose up to £10,000. These are usually people on low incomes and in marginalised economies. Does the Prime Minister intend to put in place any measures to cushion the severe effects on these people on low incomes and their stretched financial circumstances? (49652)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course, the equalisation of the pension age does ask people to work for longer in their lives, and it is a big change. But I think that because people are living longer, it is right that we make this change to make sure we can have a good, strong and affordable pension system. The biggest thing we are doing is linking the pension to earnings rather than prices, which means that someone retiring today will be getting £15,000 more over the next period than they would have done under the old plans—so one is partly to pay for the other.

Q8. The last Government left us with one in five young people unemployed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new university technical colleges will help to transform the lives of young people and are a matter of social justice as well as economic efficiency? Will he support Lord Baker in supporting the strong bid of Harlow college to have a UTC so that Harlow— (49653)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for Harlow and to speak up for university technical colleges, which I think are going to be a great innovation in our country. I pay tribute to Lord Baker for the work he is doing, and to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary and to the Chancellor, who put extra money in the Budget so that 21 of these colleges can open in our country, including, I hope, in Harlow.

The coalition agreement promised that the NHS budget would increase in real terms each year. Since the spending review, inflation has spiralled very high and we now face a real-terms cut of £1 billion for the NHS. What is the Prime Minister going to do about that?

Q9. As we approach Good Friday, we might reflect on the role of Pontius Pilate. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he would never address crowds on Hyde park corner protesting about reductions in spending if he had been responsible for the economic mess that was the cause of the reductions in the first place? (49654)

My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. Far from standing on the shoulders of the suffragettes, or whatever nonsense we heard at the weekend, the fact is that the Leader of the Opposition is sitting in a great big pool of debt that was his creation, and he has got absolutely no idea what to do about it.

Q15. In 2009, the Prime Minister promised families with disabled children, in his own words, “a crack team of medical experts—doctor, nurse, physio—”to“act as a one-stop-shop to assess families and get them the help they need.” Can he tell the House how many of these teams have been set up? (49660)

What I can tell the hon. Lady is that it was very much something based on my own experience of having repeated assessments when you are trying to get help, benefits and social work, and in the special educational needs Green Paper that precise idea is rapidly becoming Government policy.

Q10. Despite some unhelpful local party political mischief-making about the future of our valuable Sure Start services, will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming Hampshire county council’s proposals to protect front-line Sure Start services while saving public money by cutting back-office costs? (49655)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key thing is that the head of Sure Start services has herself said that there is money available in the Budget to keep Sure Start open. That money is not being reduced.

On 24 March last year, six weeks before the general election, the Derby Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister had accused me of distributing inaccurate information about Conservative plans for the winter fuel payment. It turns out that I was right and he was wrong, so, unless he is going to overrule his Chancellor, will he take this opportunity to apologise to the millions of pensioners who rely on the winter fuel allowance and to me for his unfair censure?

I cannot believe that I accused the hon. Gentleman of anything because I had absolutely no idea who he was. While we are at it, we promised that we would keep the winter fuel payments and we have kept the winter fuel payments. We promised that we would keep the cold weather payments and we have kept the cold weather payments. We promised to uprate the pension in line with earnings and we increased the earnings link. We said that we would keep the bus passes and the TV licences—we did all those things. Yes, he did mislead his electors at the election.

Q11. Queen’s award-winning Norbar Torque, rally-winning Prodrive and global award-winning CTG—Crompton Technology Group—are all manufacturing businesses based in Banbury. They are all doing so well that they want to move into larger premises, but they also have immediate skill vacancies that they need to fill. What collectively can we do to try to ensure that people who are unemployed elsewhere in the country and who have skills know of the skills they— (49656)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue and the reaction of the Opposition shows that they are not interested in manufacturing, skills, technology and ensuring that we expand those things. We will have 250,000 apprenticeships over this Parliament, the university technical colleges will make a difference and it is very good news to hear about the expansion of manufacturing in his constituency.

Q12. The Welfare Reform Bill proposes to introduce a £50 civil penalty for claimants who make a mistake in completing the application form. At the same time, advice agencies have stated that they are facing a perfect storm of funding cuts and many fear that they will not be in existence to help the vulnerable in completing the forms. Does the Prime Minister think that this is fair? (49657)

I would make two points to the hon. Lady. First, it is fair to say that the Government are not cutting the money that we put into citizens advice bureaux, for exactly the reason she gives. I urge all councils to do what my local council has done and find savings in bureaucracy to ensure that they are putting money into citizens advice bureaux. As regards her point about fines for people who misclaim benefits, I am afraid that I think that it is right. Far too much in our system is lost from fraud and error and I do not think that taxpayers go to work, and work hard, in order to fund benefits to which people are not entitled.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to display extreme caution in the supply of arms to the so-called rebels in Libya? The legal position is by no means clear, as his previous answer to the Leader of the Opposition made eloquently obvious. In addition, the political consequences of doing so, particularly among the nearly 40 countries that were represented at the successful conference in London yesterday, are very difficult to predict.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to be cautious and sceptical and I think we should consider this decision with huge care. Although the legal position is clearer, there are some strong arguments like his to which we would have listen. Yesterday, however, I met Mr Jabril of the interim transitional national council and I was reassured to see that those people who are forming an alternative Government in Benghazi want it to be interim and transitional. They are democrats, they are not tribal, and they want to see a future for the whole of Libya where the people have a choice in how they are governed. I was encouraged by what I heard.

Q13. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting a group of 25 women studying English for speakers of other languages courses in Lewisham. They and I share the Prime Minister’s desire that every migrant in the UK should speak the language of their new home. Given the Prime Minister’s belief that the practical things can make a big difference to community cohesion, will he commit today to putting a stop to this Government’s short-sighted cuts to English language courses? (49658)

We will have to take some difficult decisions over student numbers, and the priority should be to ensure that our universities can go on attracting the best and the brightest from around the world. [Interruption.] I will come on to the hon. Lady’s point. That is why we have said that there should be a post-study work route. However, it does mean that we should be tough, particularly on those colleges that are not highly regarded. The fact is that over the last year, about 90,000 students were coming to colleges that did not have proper regard at all.

Q14. A multinational is applying to build an incinerator the size of a football pitch some 500 metres from the small market town of Middlewich in my constituency. There is no need for this provision; it will involve importing waste and it has been unanimously rejected by the local planning committee. Does the Prime Minister agree that the concerns of local people over the negative impact that it will have on their town should be afforded paramount importance when the proposal is considered on appeal? (49659)

I agree with my hon. Friend that local considerations should be taken into account. That is one reason why we have made the changes to the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It is important that local communities have their say, and she has put the case extremely strongly.

When all the local MPs met the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce last week, it asked us why north Staffordshire was not on the list to have a local enterprise zone. Does the Prime Minister understand the need for job creation in Stoke-on-Trent, and will he arrange for his colleagues in local government and at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to liaise with us and the Treasury to ensure that we get that investment when the new list is announced in July?

I completely understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, particularly in relation to Stoke, where the Potteries—[Interruption.] I wish that the shadow Chancellor would occasionally shut up and listen to the answer. [Interruption.]

Order. Other Members can now follow the Prime Minister’s advice to the shadow Chancellor. We need a bit of order.

I may be alone in finding the shadow Chancellor the most annoying person in modern politics—[Interruption.] No, no. I have a feeling that the Leader of the Opposition will one day agree with me, but there we are.

Where were we? The Potteries, yes. Clearly, there are massive issues because of the decline of the Potteries. I completely understand the need for Stoke to have that support. It is very important that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) is working to bring together the Potteries communities, including MPs and the local enterprise partnership. I will certainly ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to look at whether it can be in the next lot of enterprise zones, because we want to help the Potteries communities she represents.

In the light of the announcement by Statoil this week that it is cancelling £6 billion of investment in the North sea following the Budget, will the Prime Minister ensure that Ministers at the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change engage with the industry to explain how the field allowances might be adjusted to ensure that this valued investment goes ahead and that jobs are not lost?

I will certainly look carefully at the point that my right hon. Friend makes. The point that I would make about Statoil is that the regime in Norway has higher duties and taxes on petrol than the UK does. The key point is that when companies in the North sea made investment decisions, the oil price was about $65 a barrel, and it is now about $115 a barrel. I think that the break we are giving the motorist by cutting petrol tax—including for people in his constituency, many of whom rely on their cars—will be hugely welcome.

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a new Member, that points of order, without fail, come after statements. The hon. Gentleman—

Order. The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity at the appropriate time, but not at the inappropriate time.