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Prime Minister

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron from 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who died on Thursday 31 March as a result of injuries he suffered while serving in Afghanistan last April, and Captain Lisa Head from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, who died on Tuesday 19 April. Colour Sergeant Cameron was an inspirational figure to his regiment, providing support to injured colleagues and their families even while he was being treated in hospital for his own injuries. Captain Head demonstrated great bravery in her work making safe improvised explosive devices to protect both her colleagues and the local population. They will not be forgotten, and our wishes and best condolences should be with their families and friends.

I am sure that the whole House will also want to join me in sending our condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of Police Constable Ronan Kerr. Those who murdered him must not be allowed to deter the wishes of the overwhelming majority of people who want a peaceful and shared future for Northern Ireland.

On a happier note, people across the country—and, indeed, the world—are getting excited about the events on Friday, and I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our best wishes to Prince William and Catherine Middleton ahead of their wedding this Friday, and to wish them a long and happy life together.

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

I would like to associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments and condolences to those people who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I also welcome the Irish Rangers and the Irish Guards back home after their tour of duty in Afghanistan.

On Easter Monday, dissident republicans held a commemorative parade in Londonderry and threw down the gauntlet to all the law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland. The murderous thugs that are dissident republicans threatened to kill Police Service of Northern Ireland officers, both Roman Catholic and Protestant; they threatened the churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic; they threatened politicians, both Unionists and nationalist; and they threatened Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and MPs in this House. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that this attack on the democratic process will be met forcefully, and that those republican terrorists must be brought to justice?

I can give that assurance. I am sure that everyone in the House and the country would agree that scenes of people dressed in balaclavas in Londonderry are completely unacceptable. We have funded the PSNI appropriately. It is now properly devolved and working well, and I urge it to do everything it can to hunt down these people. Above all, the words that should ring in our ears are those of the mother of PC Ronan Kerr, who said she hoped that this would not prevent more Roman Catholics from joining the PSNI and doing a great job policing Northern Ireland.

Does the Prime Minister recognise that lending to business by banks was down £3.4 billion last month in March, and that the construction industry was down in productive terms by 4.7%? Does he see a connection, and if so, what will he do about it?

My hon. Friend is right about the figures today and that what is happening in the construction industry is disappointing. We need to get Britain building again, which is why we are introducing the new homes bonus. However, what is encouraging in the figures is that the British economy is growing once again, manufacturing is up, exports are up, and we are seeing a rebalancing of the economy so that we are not over-reliant on private consumption. That is good news. We also have an agreement with the banks that they must increase their lending to businesses large and small. That needs to happen.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron and Captain Lisa Head. Both demonstrated enormous courage and bravery, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. I also pay tribute to Police Constable Ronan Kerr, who was senselessly murdered simply for doing his job. We should all be encouraged by the expressions of outrage that we have seen across all communities in Northern Ireland in response to this act.

I also join the Prime Minister in sending best wishes to Prince William and Catherine Middleton on their happy day on Friday. I am sure that I speak for the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and myself when I say that we will all do our best to be suitably attired for the occasion.

On the economy, does the Prime Minister think that it is a mark of success or failure that the economy has flatlined over the last six months?

It is clearly a success that the economy is growing. The figures out this morning show the economy growing in the first quarter of the year. They show manufacturing and exports up, and we have 400,000 more people in work in the private sector than we had a year ago. However, the right hon. Gentleman predicted a double dip. He said that we were going to get two quarters of negative growth, so when he gets to his feet, perhaps it is time to apologise for talking the economy down.

What world is the right hon. Gentleman living in? What extraordinary complacency. His hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) asked what was happening to small business lending. What terrible complacency from this Prime Minister. Six months ago, what did he tell us? He told us that we were out of the danger zone. Since then there has been no growth at all in the British economy. Yesterday the Chancellor was reported to have told the Cabinet that the economy was on track, but it is not even forecast to meet the Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures published last month by the Chancellor. Is it not the case that it is his cuts that are too far and too fast, and that are squeezing living standards, undermining consumer confidence and holding back growth in our economy?

The right hon. Gentleman was desperate for the economy to shrink today. He had written his questions and come to the House; the only problem was that the economy was growing, not shrinking. He and the shadow Chancellor said that there would be a double-dip recession. They had talked the economy down. Now that the economy is growing, why can they not find it in themselves to welcome the growth in the economy? We should be talking up the fact that manufacturing is increasing and we are exporting more, with 390,000 more people in private sector jobs than a year ago. These are welcome developments.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the danger zone. I will tell him what the danger zone is: it is countries such as Portugal, Greece and Ireland, which did not deal with their debts, and as a result have interest rates rocketing and real problems. We have debts, tragically, because of what we inherited and a deficit the same size as Greece’s, but we have interest rates like Germany’s. It is time for the right hon. Gentleman to admit that he was wrong about the deficit and wrong about the economy.

It is not me who is talking down the economy; it is the Prime Minister’s austerity rhetoric that has led to the lowest levels of consumer confidence in history in this country. He has been Prime Minister for a year. He cannot blame the Greeks, he cannot blame the Bank of England, he cannot blame the last Government—he cannot even blame the snow. Why does he not admit that we have had six months of no growth because of his decisions, his Chancellor’s decisions and his Government’s decisions?

The economy has grown by 1.8% over the last year, but let me tell the right hon. Gentleman this. I did a little research, and all the time that he was in the Cabinet, there was not a single quarter when the economy grew more than 0.5%—not one. That is his great record. Let me tell him something about the need to make public spending cuts. We are now in a new financial year—the year in which the Darling plan was going to start the process of cutting the deficit by half. For every £8 that we are proposing to cut this year, Labour would be cutting £7. Have we heard a single sensible proposal for making any cuts, or have we just heard blatant opportunism and talking the economy down? I think we know.

Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the appalling, disgraceful, untruthful and misleading leaflet that is being distributed by the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, which is being chaired by the Electoral Reform Society? The leaflet seeks to diminish Parliament and therefore damage democracy, which, given the content of the leaflet, can be the only objective of the Electoral Reform Society.

What matters, in the week that we have left before we vote in this vital referendum, is that we get back to the real arguments about competing electoral systems. I am very clear that first past the post is simple, fair and effective and that it has worked for our country. I have to say that it is not often that I like to look out on a sea of red badges, but today it looks quite good.

Order. This is very discourteous and it is very unfair. It is unfair on the Prime Minister and it is unfair on me. I want to hear the answer.

Let me draw a little contrast between what the Health Secretary is delivering here—real-terms increases in health spending—and what is happening in Wales. The Labour-led Administration in Wales are cutting the NHS in real terms. Everyone in Wales needs to know that if they get another Labour-dominated Assembly, they will get cuts in the NHS, whereas in England we will see increases in the NHS because of the magnificent work of my right hon. Friend.

Q3. People have been shocked at the scale and extent of the phone hacking allegations against some of our most popular newspapers. In order to uncover the truth, will the Prime Minister instigate a full judicial inquiry and, in particular, look at the relationship between the Metropolitan police and News International? (52610)

What is absolutely clear is that phone hacking is not only unacceptable but against the law. It is illegal; it is a criminal offence, and I would urge the police and the prosecuting authorities to follow the evidence wherever it leads. That must happen first, and we must not let anything get in the way of criminal investigations.

Will the Prime Minister explain why, if there is a genuine pause in the enactment of the Health and Social Care Bill, the inception of cluster primary care trusts that are preceding the GP consortia, including the Greater Manchester cluster PCT, has been brought forward from 1 June to 3 May? Is not this pause nothing more than window dressing? It is political manoeuvring before next week’s elections.

No, I think the hon. Lady is wrong. This is a genuine exercise in trying to ensure that we get the very best out of these reforms. We are looking specifically at areas such as public accountability, choice and competition, education and training, and the patient involvement aspects of the reforms. Of course we have to go ahead with driving out the bureaucracy and additional costs from the NHS. We inherited from Labour, I think rightly, a £20 billion efficiency programme, and we have got to take that through, but there is a genuine opportunity to make these reforms better still.

Q4. Suffolk is among the worst-served areas of the country for broadband, and the commonly cited final third of premises beyond the reach of commercial broadband deployment is more like a final two thirds in that area. Given that nearly one fifth of all Suffolk premises receive a speed of less than 2 megabytes per second, does the Prime Minister agree that investment in broadband in Suffolk is essential to boost our economic recovery? (52611)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must put this investment in. We are spending, I think, £530 million investing in broadband. Particularly in rural areas, broadband is going to be absolutely vital in driving the creation of the small businesses and growing businesses that will be so important to keep the growth of employment in our country.

Can the Prime Minister tell us why 98.7% of nurses have no confidence in his health reorganisation?

Inevitably, when you make changes in public services, it is a challenge taking people with you. But that is the whole point of pausing the reforms and then trying to get them going again with greater support from doctors and nurses. What we are finding is that 90% of the country is covered by GP fundholding practices that want to see these reforms succeed. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants to make some constructive suggestions, why not have a try?

Dearie me, that wasn’t a very good answer, was it? I asked the Prime Minister why 98.7% of nurses have no confidence in his policy. It is because it is a bad policy, a policy nobody voted for. It is a policy that was not in the Prime Minister’s manifesto, it was not in the Deputy Prime Minister’s manifesto either at the general election, and it was not even in the coalition agreement. Perhaps one of the reasons why nurses have no confidence in his policy is that two years ago, he went to the Royal College of Nursing and said there would be no more pointless, top-down reorganisations.

Next question: why is it that hospital waiting times fell year on year under the last Labour Government, but have risen month on month under this Government?

That is simply not the case. If we look at out-patient waiting times, we find that they fell in the last month, so the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about that, as he usually is. I have had the opportunity to study his representations about the reforms, and I have had a good look at them. He says that we are introducing EU competition policy for the first time; we are not. He says we are allowing GPs to charge; we are not. He says that patients will be left without services; they will not. Why does he not realise that instead of frightening people, he ought to make a constructive contribution.

Another totally hopeless answer! I asked about waiting times. The Department of Health figures are these: waiting times are 20% up for those waiting more than 18 weeks, and A and E waits are at a record level compared to six years ago. One of the reasons why waiting times have gone up is that the right hon. Gentleman is diverting billions of pounds from patient care into this costly reorganisation. Let me make this suggestion: just for once, why does he not listen to the doctors, the patients and the nurses and scrap his reorganisation?

The right hon. Gentleman asks me to listen to doctors, so here is one doctor I am definitely going to listen to. I hope Opposition Members will remember Howard Stoate, who was the Member of Parliament for Dartford. He is no longer an MP because he lost the election—because of the Conservative candidate, I am afraid. He is now a GP—[Interruption.] Calm down, dear. Listen to the doctor. Howard Stoate, GP, says:

“My… discussions with fellow GPs… reveal overwhelming enthusiasm for the”—

[Interruption.] I said calm down. Calm down, dear—and I will say it to the shadow Chancellor, if he likes. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us briefly have the answer and move on to Back Benchers, whose rights I am interested in protecting. I want a brief answer from the Prime Minister.

This is a very brief quote from a Labour MP who is now a GP. He said:

“My… discussions with fellow GPs… reveal overwhelming enthusiasm for the chance to help shape services for the patients they see daily”.

That is what Labour MPs, now acting as GPs, think of the reforms. That is what is happening.

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. [Interruption.] Order. It makes a very bad impression on the public as a whole, and others are waiting to contribute. I think the Prime Minister has finished.

During the recess, a number of European issues have arisen: the Portuguese bail-out, the increase in the European budget and proposals for corporation tax at the European level. Will the Prime Minister re-coin a phrase and simply say to all those matters, “No, no, no”?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the European budget. The idea of a 5% increase at a time when member states are having to make reductions in difficult public spending programmes at home is completely unacceptable, and we will make sure it does not happen.

Q5. On the proposal to build the largest wind farm in England in my constituency with 45 wind turbines 100 metres or more high, just less than a mile away from two big conurbations and on beautiful landscape in the area, can the Prime Minister tell us what influence my constituents will have under the Localism Bill on the planning decision concerning this massive intrusion on the landscape? Will he ask the relevant planning Minister to meet me and a delegation of constituents to discuss it further? (52612)

I am happy to arrange that meeting. I think it important for local people to have a greater say in planning decisions, and that is what we are enabling them to do. However, I also believe that when wind farms go ahead, local people should see a greater benefit in terms of the finance that goes into the area, and our plans will achieve that as well.

In 2007, the Labour Government implemented the Medical Training Application Service, or MTAS. Junior doctors will remember what a disaster it was. That large-scale, disruptive and untested system had disastrous consequences for junior doctors in training. Is the Prime Minister aware that there are concerns that the current proposals to reorganise medical training and work force planning could have similar unforeseen consequences?

I must say to my hon. Friend that she is a lot better at getting them to shut up than I am. I think that she is a future Speaker in the making.

I can absolutely guarantee to my hon. Friend that we will not make the mistake that the last Government made in respect of medical training. They created an utter shambles.

Q6. Eddie Kay from Maghull received excellent treatment when he was in hospital recently, and I am glad to say that he is recovering well. However, while he was in hospital his operation was cancelled four times, and he was also told of bed closures and nursing redundancies on his ward. Does not Mr Kay’s experience show that the Prime Minister was wrong to claim that he would not cut the NHS? (52613)

Of course things go wrong in our national health service, which is one of the reasons why I think that we need to reform and modernise it. The fact is, however, that at the last election only one party said that it would increase the NHS in real terms, and that is exactly what we are doing. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about NHS cuts, he should have words with his colleagues in Wales who are proposing to cut the national health service—not in cash terms, but in real terms—and he should help us to put a stop to that.

Q14. Across the country, 2 million families are on waiting lists for social housing. Nearly 1 million homes lie empty, and the average age of a first-time buyer is 37. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that there is a housing crisis in Britain, and will the Government publish a strategy to tackle it? (52621)

We do acknowledge the very difficult situation that we inherited. House building was at a 60 or 70-year low. We need to introduce ways of ensuring that local communities see more houses built. The old top-down system did not work, but I believe that the new homes bonus and the incentives that we are giving local authorities will mean that extra housing goes ahead.

Q7. Rather than losing his rag because he is losing the argument, will the Prime Minister explain why waiting times have been rising in my constituency and across the country? (52614)

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about waiting times. I quoted the figures. Waiting times have been broadly stable over the last couple of years—that is a fact.

The key point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman, who is meant to be a moderniser, is that if he wants to see waiting times come down and stay down, the best answer is a system that involves greater choice, and enables patients to choose where they are treated and establish how quickly they can be treated. The hon. Gentleman used to be a moderniser; there is still time to get on board.

Q15. I am engaged in a consultation with my constituents in east Cheshire on an issue that is of great concern to them: the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. As a parent, does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents that action needs to be taken to find real solutions to this challenging issue, and to give every child the childhood that it deserves? (52622)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. As a parent of three little ones, I know that it is incredibly worrying to see what is becoming available in some shops and other places. We are, effectively, asking our children to grow up too early. I think that there is a lot more that we can do, which is why we have asked the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union to conduct an independent review of this vital area. We are looking at a range of specific issues including television, video and other pressures that are put on people, and we expect the report to be published in a few weeks’ time.

Q8. The Prime Minister has described hospices as one of the great successes of the big society, so why, as a result of his Government’s increases in VAT and cuts in gift aid, is Nightingale House hospice in my constituency paying an extra £20,000 to his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer this year? Will he give it the money back? (52615)

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that the hospice movement is a fantastic example of the big society and we should see it expand, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has increased gift aid so that more people can give more money more effectively. As the hon. Gentleman is another Welsh Member of Parliament, let me put this point to him: why is he supporting an NHS cut in Wales that will hit not just hospices but hospitals, GPs and community services? That is what is coming out of this Question Time. Labour is cutting the NHS; you cannot trust Labour with our national health service.

Q9. The whole House will be aware that younger women drivers face a massive hike in their insurance premiums next year as a direct result of a European Court judgment. In that context, does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that this judgment has been warmly welcomed by London’s Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, who has indicated that she considers it to be admirable and the price of equality? (52616)

Well, I have to say to my hon. Friend that that shows that some of the loony left is still alive and well in our country. [Interruption.] I think you’ll find it’s over there. Frankly, insurance premiums ought to reflect risk, and my hon. Friend is, as ever, displaying common sense, whereas the European Court did not.

Q10. It is now almost 12 months since the Prime Minister visited the West Cumberland hospital in my constituency in the wake of the shooting atrocities that took place there. It is, I believe, a matter of profound regret to Members on both sides of the House that the Government have chosen to do nothing on gun laws in the intervening period, but while the Prime Minister was at the hospital he also visited the accident and emergency clinicians and other clinical service providers, who are now facing the prospect of their services being removed as a result of GP commissioning. Will he do them and my constituents a favour by removing GP commissioning from the Health and Social Care Bill? (52617)

First, I well remember visiting the hospital in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is a fantastic hospital and it did brilliant work during those incredibly tragic times about which he spoke. I can absolutely reassure him that he does not need to worry about the future of the West Cumberland hospital. I understand that he has met the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), to discuss the concerns, and they are in agreement that issues need to be resolved swiftly. The Department of Health is working closely with the local NHS to produce proposals to redevelop the hospital. That is what is going to happen: investment will be going into the NHS because of the commitments we have made, whereas, sadly, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s party—[Interruption.] Luckily, he is not in Wales, where Labour is cutting the NHS, but I suspect it would do the same in England as well.

Q11. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that this country lost 1.7 million manufacturing jobs under the last Labour Government. Will he explain what plans the Government have to make sure this decline is reversed? (52618)

We have already seen over the last year an increase in manufacturing output and in manufacturing exports. I was up in Bedford last week at the GM plant, which is massively expanding. It is creating more jobs and bringing £150 million of offshore contracts back into the UK. We are backing that with low tax rates, deregulation and more apprenticeships. This is a Government who are pro-enterprise, pro-jobs and pro-manufacturing and who are going to dig us out of the mess the last lot left.

Q12. Does not the nightmare of Fukushima mean that the planned renaissance of nuclear power will be stillborn? Should not the Prime Minister be planning for a future that will be free of the cost, fear and anxiety of nuclear power, and rich in renewables that are British, that are green, and that are inexhaustible and safe? (52619)

Of course we have to learn the lessons from Fukushima but, as I have said before, that is a different reactor design in a different part of the world with different pressures. The British nuclear industry has a good safety record, but, clearly, it has to go on proving that, and doing so in the light of the new evidence, such as it is, that comes out of Japan. That is what must happen, and the head of the nuclear inspectorate will do exactly that.

The Prime Minister is a vociferous opponent of the alternative vote system and reserves special disdain for the idea that someone might win after coming second in an early round. Will he therefore stand aside in favour of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who beat him to the post in 2005?

I seem to remember that my leadership contest ended up with the two of us touring the country and it was a popular vote. I am pleased to say that, unlike in some parties around here, the person who won actually won.

Q13. Given that our recovery has, in effect, stalled since he became Prime Minister, does the right hon. Gentleman stand by what he said to this House after his first Budget last June, which was that unemployment will fall “every year” in this Parliament? (52620)

I was quoting the Office for Budget Responsibility, but the fact is that 390,000 more people are in private sector jobs than there were a year ago. I would have thought with the economy growing, with exports up, with manufacturing up and with more people in work, the right hon. Gentleman should be welcoming that, instead of joining the doom-mongers on his Front Bench, who can only talk the economy down.

Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for an independent international review following the UN report into the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are still unanswered questions from that period, and I will look closely at what he says and write to him.

The service of our armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere deserves to be recognised at the highest level and all the time, as the Prime Minister has often said. Why on earth, therefore, have the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards been denied a homecoming parade in Belfast? Will the Prime Minister intervene and talk to colleagues to ensure that this process of recognition for our troops and appreciation by the citizens of Northern Ireland can rightly take place as soon as possible?

First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, because the bravery of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards in Afghanistan has been outstanding and, sadly, both regiments have suffered loss of life during their recent deployments. As I understand it, a number of homecoming events will be taking place across Northern Ireland. We are discussing with Belfast city council and others how we can give recognition to their tremendous bravery. No decision has yet been made and I will make sure he is fully involved in those discussions. It is also worth noting that because they are actually stationed in north Shropshire, they have already had a very successful homecoming parade in Market Drayton, and I am sure that they will have many others besides.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Crawley borough council on freezing its council tax this year? Can he say how many other local authorities across the country have frozen their council tax, against the advice of the Labour party, which described that policy as a “gimmick”?

I am pleased to announce that in spite of the fact that Labour dismissed it as a “gimmick” and that the leader of the Labour party said that councils ought to be able to charge more, every single council in the country has given their hard-pressed council tax payers a council tax freeze. We all remember what happened over the last 10 years when council tax doubled. It was the tax of choice of the Labour party, taking money out of people’s pockets. We are freezing that council tax to give people a break, and they deserve it.

Order. We must now move on and we come to the ten-minute rule motion. I ask right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, extending the same courtesy to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) as they would wish to be extended to them in such circumstances.