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Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011

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

The abolition of council tax, the scrapping of student debt, the £2,000 endowment for first-time home buyers and, of course, the referendum on separatism were all promises made by the Scottish National party prior to the last Scottish elections, all of which were never kept. Will the Prime Minister inform me, the House and the country whether certain political commentators are correct when they say that he would prefer to see the separatists returned in Edinburgh for one reason only—to avoid a Labour victory?

I am happy to confirm that what I would like to see in Scotland is the greatest possible showing for Annabel Goldie, who has led the Conservatives with such distinction. I do not think I want to intrude on the private grief between Labour and the SNP, but one thing I will say: whatever the outcome of that election, I, for one, will always stand four-square behind the United Kingdom.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the significant fires raging in Swinley forest in my Bracknell constituency? I am sure he would like to join me in congratulating the fire and police services on the sterling work that is being done, and hope he will guarantee that the Government will be there if any requests are made by those services.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising the fire and other services taking part in this difficult endeavour. As he knows, there are well tried and tested procedures to make sure that central Government stand behind local government when there are excessive costs. I will happily write to my hon. Friend about that issue.

Will the Prime Minister tell us how many experienced police officers are being forcibly retired as a result of his 20% cuts to police budgets?

The decisions about police officer numbers will depend on the decisions made by chief constables in individual parts of the country. The point is that we can see in case after case that there are far too many police officers in back-office jobs, doing paperwork and carrying out corporate development work who should be on the front line. Responsible chief constables are getting those officers out on the front line to fight crime—and crime is falling under this Government.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister does not know the answer to the question or whether he chooses not to answer it. Let me tell him the answer: 2,100 experienced police officers with more than 30 years’ experience are being forcibly retired. Let us take the case of former beat officer, Martin Heard, who was forced to retire from Wolverhampton police. He is now being asked to come back to the force as a volunteer special constable—unpaid—to fill the gaps left by the cuts. What does the Prime Minister have to say to Martin Heard?

What is absolutely clear is that what we are getting from the Labour party is complete and utter hypocrisy. We know at the time of the last election that Labour was specifically asked, and I quote the interview:

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

The Home Affairs spokesman at the time, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), said “No”, he could not guarantee that. The question is not whether the budget should be reduced—of course it has to be—but who is going to cut the paperwork, who is going to get rid of the bureaucracy, who is going to trust the local managers to make sure we get police on the front line. Those are steps we are taking; those are steps his Government never took.

He is the guy who came along and said that cuts not of 12% but of 20% were necessary for efficiency savings in the police budget. It is his choice; why does he not defend it? Perhaps one reason people are so angry is that a year ago the Prime Minister said on the eve of the election:

“Any cabinet minister who comes to me…and says ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent”

packing. What does he say to the Home Secretary about cases such as that of Martin Heard—or has he just broken another promise?

What the Home Secretary is doing is what police leaders up and down the country are doing: trying to get more police on the beat. In my own force in the Thames valley, that is exactly what is happening.

When it comes to defending front-line services, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman talked to Labour local authorities such as Manchester city council, which, although the average cut in local government spending power is just 4.5%, is cutting services by 25%? Are not Labour local authorities playing politics with people’s jobs?

The Prime Minister knows that he cannot defend his broken promises on policing. Let us talk about the other broken promises led by the Deputy Prime Minister. We know that the majority of universities are proposing to charge tuition fees of £9,000 a year. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many of them he expects to have their proposed fees cut by the Office for Fair Access?

That decision will depend on the Office for Fair Access.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about broken promises. The fact is that it was the last Government who introduced tuition fees and top-up fees—but we have a new doctrine on the leader of the Labour party’s attitude to the last Government, which he announced in an interview with The Sun. He said:

“I am not going to defend what happened in the past just because I happen to have been in the last Government.”

Presumably we should not listen to him now just because he happens to be the Leader of the Opposition.

Once again, the Prime Minister has not answered the question. We know from the Office for Fair Access that it is not going to cut the fees of the universities. The assistant director said at the weekend:

“We are not a free pricing regulator: that is not our role...we wouldn’t say to an institution we would only allow a fee of ‘X’ or ‘Y’.”

Will not the Prime Minister admit that on top of a broken promise not to raise tuition fees and a broken promise that £9,000 would be the exception, he is now breaking another promise on the capping of excessive fees?

The fact is that we will have to wait until July, when the access regulator—[Interruption.] Let me make this point to the right hon. Gentleman. Degrees have not suddenly started to cost £7,000, £8,000 or £9,000. Degrees have always cost that much. The question is, who will pay for them? We say that successful graduates earning more than £21,000 a year should pay for them rather than taxpayers, many of whom do not go to university.

I have to say this to the right hon. Gentleman. He made a promise: a promise that he would have a fully costed alternative to our fees programme by the end of the last year. Where is it? Another broken promise!

That is what we have come to expect from this Prime Minister. He is hazy on the facts, and unable to give a straight answer to a straight question. I know how the Energy Secretary must have felt in Cabinet yesterday. Remember what was said a year ago about two parties working

“Together in the national interest”?

Now what do we have? We have two parties threatening to sue each other in their own interests. That is what has changed in the last year.

What the public are saying, in relation to police cuts, tuition fees and the NHS, is “This is not what we voted for.” Given that the Government have broken so many of the promises that they made a year ago, how can the public believe anything that they say at the elections tomorrow?

Even the jokes have been bad this week. The fact is that what this coalition Government have done over the past year is freeze council tax, cap immigration, lift a million people out of income tax, introduce a pupil premium, link the pension back to earnings, cut corporation tax, and set up more academies in 10 months than the last Government set up in 10 years. At the council elections tomorrow, people should remember the mess that Labour left us in, and resolve not to let Labour do to their councils what it did to our country. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister for Children is under no obligation to behave like a child. It is not required.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree with the comment of Lord Glasman, special adviser to the Leader of the Opposition, that the last Government lied to the British people about the extent of immigration? (53893)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is that the last Government did not tell it straight to people about what was happening on immigration and that it has fallen to this Government to take the steps to get the numbers under control. Indeed, Lord Glasman said something that I have said many times, which is that under the last Government there was

“very hard rhetoric combined with a very loose policy”

and that was the worst approach of all.

Does the Prime Minister share my profound anxiety about the recommendation of the advocate-general to the European Court of Justice for a European-wide ban on the patenting of stem cell research based on human embryos? Does he agree that were such a ban to be confirmed by the ECJ, it would have profoundly damaging effects on our science base and our pharmaceutical industries? Is he able to say what contingency plans the Government are putting in place to minimise the effect of any such ban?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I thank him for giving me some notice of this issue. The point I would make is that this House and the House of Lords have had extensive debates to arrive at the policy that we have. I believe that it is right to try to maintain the UK as a world leader in stem cell research. Under European law, uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes are exempted from patent protection. As I understand it, the legal opinion of the advocate-general at the ECJ on the scope of this exemption is advisory and does not bind the Court. As such, the opinion currently has no impact on British researchers, but we should keep this position under review.

Q4. Several manufacturing businesses in Staffordshire, including Alstom in my constituency, have recently committed to significant investments and are increasing their work force. What measures does my right hon. Friend believe are necessary to ensure that the welcome growth in manufacturing in the UK continues for the long term? (53895)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we do want growth in manufacturing, which is very strong at the moment and has been over the past year, to be maintained. I well remember visiting the Alstom plant, although I was slightly less successful in winning Stafford than he was at the last election. Such plants will benefit from our policies of cutting taxes, boosting apprenticeships, investing in capital projects and doing everything we can as a Government and as a country to support our export industries and sell Britain around the world.

On 25 June last year, speaking on the Ark Royal, the Prime Minister told our armed forces that he would enshrine the military covenant in law. Why is he watering down that commitment to a useless referencing?

I do not believe for a minute that that is what is being done. What is going to happen is that we are going to clearly reference the covenant in law and then the covenant will be published and debated in this House every year. It is vital that we are able to update and improve it every year, because our military personnel face so many changing circumstances. We are looking across government at all the things we can do, for example, on health care, on education, and on things such as council tax for soldiers serving overseas—these are many of the things that the last Government failed to do—to look after our armed service personnel.

Q5. Later this month, Edward Lister, the Conservative leader of Wandsworth council for nearly 20 years, moves on to be the chief of staff to the Mayor of London. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to him for his leadership in consistently delivering the UK’s lowest average council tax along with top-rated front-line services? Will the Prime Minister urge more councils to follow suit? (53896)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It gives me the opportunity not only to praise Edward Lister, who has done a fantastic job over many years, but to pay tribute to Sir Simon Milton, who occupied that position and is admired on all sides of the House for the work he did at Westminster and then at the Mayor’s office. What Wandsworth has shown over many years is that it is possible to combine low taxes with good services if all the time you are trying to improve efficiencies. That is what councils up and down our country should be focused on, particularly in a year when we have to make spending reductions.

One of Scottish Labour’s key manifesto commitments is the First Foot initiative, which will help thousands of first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder. What is this Prime Minister doing to help this generation of home buyers, who are crippled by unemployment, student debt and rising living costs, and therefore cannot save a deposit for a House?

The proposal in Scotland sounds quite like our proposal in the Budget for Firstbuy, which will help tens of thousands of young people to get on the property ladder by helping them with the deposit that many families find it extremely difficult to raise. There is a real worry in our country that the age of the first-time buyer is getting older and older, and that many families are finding that unless they have family help behind them they simply cannot get on the housing ladder. We must ensure that that is not the case and Firstbuy is a very good proposal that we are introducing in England. I will be interested to see what happens in Scotland.

Q6. Conservative-run Cheshire West and Chester council is saving millions by cutting waste, boosting efficiency and selling surplus property to help protect front-line services. Meanwhile, in next-door Labour-run Halton, the council is cutting back on bin collections and road maintenance instead. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done to help councils reach fair and sensible decisions? (53897)

I would encourage all councils to look at costs that can be cut that are not on the front line. Many Conservative councils are sharing chief executives with their neighbouring councils and cutting councillors’ allowances and chief executive pay. There are too many examples, particularly in Labour councils, of chief executives being paid far too much and of not nearly enough attention being paid to cut the back-office costs so we can keep the services going.

The Government are cutting the police and Birmingham city council is cutting care to the elderly and disabled. There is dismay in my constituency that high-need, high-unemployment Birmingham is being hit far harder than the leafy shires such as Surrey. Will the Prime Minister therefore answer the question put to me by my constituents—why have the Tories got it in for Birmingham?

A coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has been doing a great job for Birmingham, ensuring that council tax is kept down, investing in housing and ensuring that there are good public services. Many of the things we have done, such as the regional growth fund, are targeted at areas such as Birmingham. The hon. Gentleman should go back to his constituents, and after he has apologised to them for the fact he was the winner of an all-woman shortlist he should tell them that coalition government between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is working at Westminster and working well in Birmingham.

Q7. In 2005, the previous Labour Government agreed to hand back part of the UK’s EU rebate at a cost to UK taxpayers of £9.4 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament. Has my right hon. Friend seen any evidence of what precisely was obtained in return for that remarkable generosity? (53898)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Part of the rebate was given up and it was not given up for any proper promise in return. We were told that there would be a promise of real reform of the common agricultural policy and that did not appear. That shows me that we have to be incredibly tough in the budget negotiations this year and next so that when we go into the financial framework for the next seven or eight years we ensure that we keep the costs of this organisation under control.

Q9. The Government’s savage cuts are set to destroy some half a million jobs in the public sector and, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, a similar number in the private sector. With thousands more on the dole, paying no taxes and dependent on benefits, the deficit will increase rather than reduce. As sure as night follows day, we will see a collapse in the housing market, a collapse in support for the Tories and a return to Labour government. Will the Prime Minister enjoy saying goodbye to most of his colleagues and sitting on this side of the House? (53900)

I thought the hon. Gentleman was from Luton, but he sounds like he is from fairy dairy land. Let me remind him that compared with this time last year 400,000 more people are in jobs in the private sector. That is what has happened through our getting the deficit under control, getting the economy growing and ensuring that we deal with the mess we were left by the Opposition.

Q10. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative-run Central Bedfordshire council has been rated as the highest performing council of all its statistical neighbours by PricewaterhouseCoopers for value for money, effectiveness and service delivery? Is this not the type of example that we should encourage more councils to follow? (53901)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Well-run councils that ensure they are cutting back-office costs can provide good services. When one looks at the figures, one can see that those Conservative councils are not just costing less for a band D property but doing better on measures such as recycling and other service delivery. It is simply not true to say that by cutting costs councils harm services. They have to be effective at keeping their costs down to provide good services.

Q11. Next Wednesday, the Hardest Hit campaign will be lobbying MPs in Parliament through constituents of ours with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses who are bearing the brunt of this Government’s attack on welfare benefits and public services. Will the Prime Minister have the courage to meet some of those campaigners face to face next week so that he can hear from them at first hand about the devastating impact that this callous and uncaring Government are having on their lives? (53902)

I make two points to the hon. Lady. First, the most important line of defence to help people with severe disabilities and severe need is the national health service and it is this Government who are putting more money into the national health service—£11.5 billion extra. That money would not have been available if we had a Labour Government; we know that because we can see Labour cutting £1 billion off the NHS in Wales. In terms of reforming benefits, I thought we had the support of the Labour party to reform benefits to make sure they are helping those who need the help most.

Q12. Last week, I joined 170 other Huddersfield Town fans in cycling from Huddersfield to Brighton to raise £200,000 for the Yorkshire air ambulance. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Huddersfield Town for raising that money and will he also look into why the air ambulance has to pay VAT on its fuel although the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—another emergency charity service—does not? (53903)

First, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend on his bicycling feat, as well as all those who took part from Huddersfield Town. I also pay tribute to our air ambulance crews across the country, who do an amazing and brilliant job. I have looked specifically at this issue. As he probably knows, the EU VAT directive does make an exemption for lifeboats, but there is no equivalent provision for supplies used by other charities and we are not able to change that. However, we are able to do more for charities, as we did in the Budget, including with the inheritance tax exemption, which I think is going to make a huge difference for charities up and down our country. I hope that he will do everything he can to encourage them to make use of that.

Q13. Child poverty is a cancer that means that children in our society go to bed hungry in homes that their parents cannot afford to heat. The Prime Minister will be aware of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report that says that the great progress that was made has now stalled and that the numbers are once again due to go up. If the Prime Minister agrees with me, as I think he will, that this is a moral imperative for any Government, will he tell the House what he will do now to change policy and make sure that our innocent children will not be the victims of Government cuts? (53904)

I do believe it is a moral imperative and I have looked at the OECD report carefully, which does show that things stalled under the previous Government in recent years. What I would say is that despite having had to take difficult decisions in the Budget we did make sure that there has been no increase in child poverty as a result of the Budget. I think it is time, frankly, for a more mature, cross-party debate on how we can make sure that we get people out of poverty rather than just looking at the transfer of money between rich and poor. That is why we are looking at things such as the pupil premium, free nursery education for deprived two-year-olds and making sure that Sure Start is working properly, because it is all those things that will help children out of poverty in a more sustainable way.

Q14. This week, the three top-rated councils of Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster are discussing extending their combined services to save £35 million a year while still improving front-line services. What can the Prime Minister do to encourage this approach rather than that of Labour-run Hounslow, which is closing day care centres, squeezing parks maintenance and cutting mental health services in a slash-and-burn approach? (53905)

I think this is a very important point and I hope that councils up and down the country will look at it. Three large councils are coming together and saving £35 million because they are sharing back-office services, executive teams and so on. Frankly, if they can do it, as large councils that have big responsibilities, many other councils should be doing it in London and elsewhere. Until we see that happening, I do not think it is realistic to say that it is necessary for councils to cut front-line services.

More than 100 years ago, Parliament legislated to make sure that local authorities provided allotments. Healthy local food is a very good part of good British values. Why therefore are the Prime Minister’s Government scrapping the obligation on local authorities to provide allotments?

I was as concerned as the hon. Gentleman when I read that report. I immediately checked, and found that that is not the case. It is extremely important that allotments are made available. Many Members will find that when they ask about that in their constituencies there are massive queues for allotments, as many people want to grow their own vegetables and food and understand more about where food comes from. It is a great movement, and it has my full support.

Q15. The chief executive of Conservative-run Fylde borough council has taken a 5% pay cut, whereas Labour-run Blackburn has cut services to young and vulnerable people while increasing its reserve to £12.7 million. What can the Prime Minister do to encourage councils to behave more responsibly like Conservative-run Fylde? (53906)

One of the most important things that we can do is make all that information available. This Government have massively increased transparency. Every council in the country has to declare its spending on any item over £500, and people have found that useful in seeing how much council executives are paid, how much councillors are paid, and making sure that they bear down on those costs. I commend what is happening in Fylde, and it is a matter of great regret that there is still one council—Labour-controlled Nottingham—that will not make that information available.

Given that private borrowing was falling at the last election why, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, do the Government plan to ramp it up by half a trillion pounds to a total of more than £2 trillion by 2015?

What the Government are doing is getting control of Government borrowing—that was the real crisis at the last election. It is an important point to make, particularly on a day when we read about Portugal going for an enormous bail-out. It is worth reminding ourselves that today we have a bigger budget deficit than Portugal. The reason we are not in Portugal’s position is that we took action in two brave Budgets and a spending round to clear up the mess left by the right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you and the Prime Minister have enjoyed the good weather, especially last Friday, the day of the royal wedding, and perhaps visited tourist hot spots such as Southwold and Aldeburgh. Just down the road from those hot spots, farmers might be about to suffer a drought, and are genuinely concerned about the lack of rain, as their ability to abstract water may be limited. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss those genuine concerns about restricting water for our farmers?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. Everyone has been enjoying the recent weather, and it was fantastic that the weather was so good for the royal wedding. However, farmers face real issues because, at a time of year when they expect a lot of rain, they have had virtually none.

With the strong likelihood that the Lib Dems will come off worst in tomorrow’s local elections, and hopefully the rejection of the alternative vote in the referendum, what political words of comfort will the Prime Minister have for his by then beleaguered deputy on Friday?

Of course, we do not agree about the future of our electoral system. We are having a referendum and a debate about it, but the reason for having a coalition Government coming together and sorting out this country’s problems in the national interest is as good an argument today as it was a year ago, when we came into government to clear up the mess made by the Opposition.

In the light of the success of the royal wedding for public diplomacy, does the Prime Minister believe that it reinforces the importance of a different narrative for the diamond jubilee from the Olympics, in terms of what it can do for Britain’s international reputation?

We have a fantastic opportunity next year to show all faces of Britain, both modern and traditional. We are going to celebrate the jubilee, and I think that people will want to celebrate the incredible public service that Her Majesty the Queen has given over many years as an absolutely amazing model public servant. People will also want to celebrate the Olympics as a celebration of sport and all that is best about Britain. The royal wedding, as the Major of London said, was in many ways a dry run for how we handle some of those events, and everyone in the country has a lot to look forward to next year.

Many of my constituents in Wirral worry about the quality of care that older people, especially those with dementia, receive in hospital. How does the Prime Minister think that his now paused, top-down reorganisation of the NHS will help to make sure that older people are looked after with real dignity?

One of the aims of the changes that we are making to the NHS must be better to link the national health service, social service provision, local authorities and how we look after the elderly. All of us have seen too many cases in hospital where people who should be in residential or nursing care or being looked after at home are stuck in a large district general hospital or in a community hospital, when they should be getting alternative pathways of care. That is what the whole change should be about. What I am finding as I go round the country listening to doctors, nurses and clinicians is that we must make sure we take the opportunity to get this absolutely right. That is what the reforms should be all about.

In last year’s general election in Essex 49% of the votes cast went to the Conservatives, but 95% of the seats went to Conservative MPs. It was an outcome that would embarrass Robert Mugabe. Apart from the fact that Essex is now a Labour-free zone, does the Prime Minister think that that result was fair?

My hon. Friend tempts me into debate. In Colchester everyone had one vote, it was counted once and he won. I congratulate him. In other parts of Essex everyone had one vote, they were all counted once and many of my hon. Friends won. But for all that he brings to the House, what the Liberal Democrats lack in number, he makes up in stature as a Member of Parliament for Essex.