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Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 15 June 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.

Thousands of people in my constituency work hard for less than £26,000 a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone who believes in the necessity of capping benefits must vote for the Welfare Reform Bill tonight?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are right to reform welfare. Welfare costs have got out of control in our country. We want to ensure that work always pays, and that if people do the right thing we will be on their side. It cannot be right for some families to get more than £26,000 a year in benefits that are paid for by people who are working hard and paying their taxes. I would say that everyone in the House should support the Welfare Reform Bill tonight, and it is a disappointment that Labour talks about welfare reform but will not vote for it.

When the Prime Minister signed off his welfare Bill, did he know that it would make 7,000 cancer patients worse off by as much as £94 a week?

That is simply not the case. We are using exactly the same definition of people who are suffering and who are terminally ill as the last Government. We want to ensure that those people are helped and protected. The point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that if you are in favour of welfare reform, and if you want to encourage people to do the right thing, it is no good talking about it: you have got to vote for it.

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman does not know what is in his own Bill. Listen to Macmillan Cancer Support, which announced on 13 June: “Cancer patients to lose up to £94 a week”. Those are people who have worked hard all their lives and who have done the right thing and paid their taxes, yet when they are in need, the Prime Minister is taking money away from them. I ask him again: how can it be right that 7,000 people with cancer are losing £94 a week?

We are using precisely the same test as the last Government supported. All we see here is a Labour party desperate not to support welfare reform, and trying to find an excuse to get off supporting welfare reform. Anyone who is terminally ill gets immediate access to the higher level of support, and we will provide that to all people who are unable to work. That is the guarantee we make, but the right hon. Gentleman has to stop wriggling off his responsibilities and back the welfare reform he talks about.

The Prime Minister does not know the detail of his own Bill. Let me explain it to him. Because the Government are stopping contributory employment and support allowance after one year for those in work-related activity, cancer patients—7,000 of them—are losing £94 a week. I ask him again: how can that be right?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the specific point. First of all, as I have said, our definition of “terminally ill” is exactly the same as the one used by the last Government. Crucially, anyone out of work who has longer to live will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. Irrespective of a person’s income or assets, that will last for 12 months. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and he should admit that he is wrong. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. That is the truth; he should check his facts before he comes to the House and chickens out of welfare reform.

So let us be clear about this: in his first answer the Prime Minister said that his policy was the same as the last Government’s; now he has admitted that the Government are ending contributory-based employment and support allowance after one year. Let me tell him what Macmillan Cancer Support says—[Interruption.] I think that Conservative Members should listen to what Macmillan Cancer Support has to say. Let me tell them; this is what it says—[Interruption.] I think it is a disgrace that Conservative Members are shouting when we are talking about issues affecting people with cancer. This is what Macmillan Cancer Support says—that many people

“will lose this…benefit simply because they have not recovered quickly enough.”

I ask the Prime Minister the question again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?

Let me try to explain it to the right hon. Gentleman again, as I do not think he has got the point—[Interruption.]

Order. I think it is a disgrace that Members on both sides of the House are shouting their heads off when matters of the most serious concern are being debated. I repeat what I have said before: the public despise this sort of behaviour. Let us have a bit of order.

I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker. This is important, and I want to try to explain to the right hon. Gentleman why I think he has got it wrong, and why I think what we are proposing is right. Let me explain the definition of who is terminally ill; these are horrible things to have to discuss, but let me explain. It is—[Interruption.] Hold on a second. The definition is the same one—as I say, it is six months. Anyone out of work who lives longer than that will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. That is irrespective of a person’s income or their assets and it will last for 12 months, not the six months that the Leader of the Opposition claimed. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. So as I say, it is the same test as under the last Government. It has been put in place fairly, we have listened very carefully to Macmillan Cancer Support, and we have also made sure that someone is reviewing all the medical tests that take place under this system. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to try to create a distraction from the fact that he will not support welfare reform, but I have answered his question, so he should now answer mine: why won’t you back the Bill?

In case the Prime Minister has forgotten, I ask the questions and he fails to answer them.

Let me try to explain it to him. He should listen to Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, who said:

“In my experience one year is simply not long enough for many people to recover from cancer. The serious physical and psychological side-effects can last for many months, even years, after treatment has finished. It is crucial that patients are not forced to return to work before they are ready.”

Macmillan Cancer Support and Britain’s cancer charities have been making this argument for months. I am amazed that the Prime Minister does not know about these arguments. Why does he not know about them? The House of Commons is voting on this Bill tonight. He should know about these arguments. I ask him again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?

I have answered the question three times with a full explanation. The whole point of our benefit reforms is that there are proper medical tests so that we support those who cannot work, as a generous, tolerant and compassionate country should, but we will make sure that those who can work have to go out to work, so that we do not reward bad behaviour. That is what the Bill is about. The Leader of the Opposition is attempting to put up a smokescreen because he has been found out. He made a speech this week about the importance of welfare reform, but he cannot take his divided party with him. That is what this is about: weak leadership of a divided party.

What an absolute disgrace, to describe talking about cancer patients in this country as a smokescreen! This is about people out in the country and cancer charities that are concerned on their behalf—and the Prime Minister does not know his own policy. It is not about people who are terminally ill; it is about people recovering from cancer who are losing support as a result of this Government. We know he does not think his policies through, but is this not one occasion on which we could say that if ever there was a case to “pause, listen and reflect”, this is it? Why does he not do so?

What we have seen this week is the right hon. Gentleman getting on the wrong side of every issue. On cutting the deficit, we now have the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the International Monetary Fund, his brother, and Tony Blair, on our side, and he is on his own. On welfare reform, we have everyone recognising that welfare needs to be reformed, apart from the right hon. Gentleman. On the health service—yes—we now have the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the former Labour Health Minister and Tony Blair all on the side of reform and, on his own, the right hon. Gentleman: a weak leader of a divided party. That is what we have learned this week.

On a recent visit to India, my constituent Baljinder Singh’s mother, Surjit Kaur, a British national, was kidnapped and then beheaded in a horrendous murder. May I ask the British Government to urge the Indian authorities to carry out a full, transparent and thorough investigation and bring to account those responsible for that horrendous murder so that my constituent and his family can get some justice for their mother?

I understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise this case, and on behalf of the whole House let me send our condolences to Mrs Kaur’s family. I fully understand and support their wish for justice to be brought to bear on the perpetrators. The Foreign Office has been providing the family with consular support, as my hon. Friend knows, and they will arrange to meet him and the family to see what further assistance we can give. However, responsibility for investigating crime committed overseas must rest with the police and judicial authorities in that country. We cannot interfere in the processes, but I take his point to heart.

Q2. We know that the deficit was the price paid to avoid a depression caused by the bankers, but in March the forecast for the budget deficit was increased by £46 billion—£1,000 per person. Will the Prime Minister now at last accept that cuts are choking growth, that VAT is stoking inflation and that both are increasing the deficit? He is going too far, too fast, and he is hindering, not helping, the recovery. Yes or no? (59595)

The deficit is the price paid for Labour’s profligacy in office. In his memoirs, Tony Blair said—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear about Tony Blair any more, and that is funny, really. He was a Labour leader who used to win elections, so they might want to listen to him. He said that by 2007, spending was out of control. That is the point. We need to get on top of spending, on top of debt and on top of the deficit. I understand that the Labour leader is trying to persuade the shadow Chancellor of that—well, good luck to him!

The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands by the forces of the Crown. Will he remind President Obama when he next sees the United States President that negotiations over the Falkland Islands with Argentina will never be acceptable to Her Majesty’s Government, and that if the special relationship means anything, it means that they defend British sovereignty over our own territories?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I am sure that everyone right across the House will want to remember the anniversary of the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands and the superb bravery, skill and courage of all our armed forces who took part in that action. We should also remember those who fell in taking back the Falklands. I would say this: as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory—full stop, end of story.

Q3. This week we have seen the Government change their mind on the NHS, on sentencing, on student visas and on bin collections, so will the Prime Minister tell us now whether he will change his mind over Government plans to force more than 300,000 women to wait up to two years longer before they qualify for their state pension? (59596)

All parties supported the equalisation of the pension age between men and women. That needed to happen. We also need to raise pension ages to make sure that our pension system is affordable. The point I would make is that because we have done that, we have been able to re-link the pension back to earnings, and as a result pensioners are £15,000 better off in their retirement than they would have been under Labour. I think that is a good deal and the right thing to do. If anyone in the Labour party wants to be serious about pension reform and dealing with the deficit, they should back these changes.

Q14. I agree with the Government’s timetable for increasing the men’s state pension age to 66, because it happens gradually. However, I ask the Prime Minister to think again about the women’s state pension age, because the planned timetable has it going up far too quickly and leaves women of my age—those born in 1954—without enough time to plan for what could be two years’ extra work. Will the Government please look at this again? (59607)

I understand the concern, but the point I would make is that, as I said in the House last week, more than 80% of those affected will see their pension age come in only a year later, so a relatively small number are affected. The key thing is making sure that our pension system is sustainable so that we can pay out higher pensions. The House had a similar argument in Cabinet Office questions, about the sustainability of public sector pensions. We have to take these difficult decisions; they are right for the long term and they actually mean a better pension system for those who are retiring.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies that with inflation at 4.5%—more than twice his Government’s target—it is hitting pensioners and low-income families the hardest? (59597)

The point about pensions is that there is the triple guarantee that they will go up by earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is higher, so it is not going to affect them in that way. Clearly, we want to see inflation come down. I think there is a shared agreement across the House, and it is right for the Bank of England to have that responsibility. I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not raise today the very welcome news that we have seen the biggest fall in unemployment in one month’s figures than we have seen at any time in a decade. I think it is time the Labour party started welcoming good news.

Q5. There is increasing concern within the House and across the country about the hidden suffering of trafficked children—and, indeed, retrafficked children. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential for a co-ordinated multi-agency approach right across the country—from borders to local authorities and local police forces, and including the excellent charitable organisations involved in this work—to be promoted urgently? (59598)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know how hard the all-party group works on this issue and I listen very carefully to what it has to say. One thing that is changing, which I hope will make a difference, is the formation of the National Crime Agency, which I think will bring greater co-ordination to such vital issues.

The Scottish National party won a landslide in the recent elections and a mandate to improve the powers of the Scottish Parliament, so will the Prime Minister respect the Scottish electorate and accept the Scottish Government’s six proposals for improvement in the Scotland Bill?

We listen very carefully to what people have to say, and of course we respect the fact that the SNP won a mandate in Scotland; we are responding extremely positively. The first point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the Scotland Bill, currently before the House, is a massive extension of devolution. He shakes his head, but it is an extra £12 billion of spending power. We will be going ahead with that and we will look at all the proposals that First Minister Salmond has made. I take the Respect agenda very seriously, but it is a two-way street: I respect the views and wishes of the Scottish people, but they have to respect that we are still part, and I believe will always remain part, of a United Kingdom.

Q6. Last Friday was the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion, next Monday is armed forces day, and on Tuesday 120 soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade will march through the Carriage Gates into Parliament to welcome them back from Afghanistan. Can we tell them, or will the Prime Minister repeat his assurance, that the armed forces covenant will now be written into law, for the first time in history? (59599)

Yes, I can give that assurance, and I am delighted that the Government and the Royal British Legion have agreed the approach we will take in the Armed Forces Bill, which is passing through the House. I am very glad that the House of Commons will be welcoming those soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade. Like the rest of our armed forces, they are the bravest of the brave and the best of the best. We cannot do too much for those people; that is why the armed forces covenant matters, and that is also why we kept our promise to double the operational allowance to soldiers serving in Afghanistan and other theatres.

Q7. Millions of our constituents are once more facing big increases in their gas and electricity bills. Many will find it very difficult to make ends meet. What action will the Government take to help them? (59600)

We are taking a range of actions. Obviously, the fact that oil now costs $115 a barrel and gas prices have gone up by 50% over the last year has an impact, but we are putting £250 million into the warm home discount. We are funding a more targeted Warm Front scheme that will help 47,000 families this year. We are legislating so that social tariffs have to offer the best prices available. We are keeping a promise we made that Post Office card account holders should get a discount. We are keeping the winter fuel payment, and of course we permanently increased the cold weather payments. We did not just allow them to be increased in an election year; we are keeping those higher payments, which are very valuable to many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Q8. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and I visited Walton Hall special school near Stafford. In our meetings, parents expressed their gratitude for the excellent teaching, but also their anxiety over provision for their children after the age of 19. I know of my right hon. Friend’s deep concern about this subject, so what encouragement can he give them? (59601)

First of all, we must support special schools. The pendulum swung too far against special education and in favour of inclusion. It is important that we give parents and carers proper choices between mainstream and special education. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is that when disabled children become young adults, many parents want them to go on studying in further education colleges and elsewhere, yet currently the rules seem to suggest that once they have finished a course, that is it. Parents say to me, “What are we going to do now?” We have to find a better answer for parents whose much-loved children are living for much longer; they want them to have a purposeful and full life.

Q9. In the face of crippling energy price rises that are driving pensioners and vulnerable families into fuel poverty by the thousand every day under this coalition, is the Prime Minister struggling with his energy bill—or are any of the 21 other millionaires in his Cabinet struggling with their energy bills? When will he personally take a grip of the situation? (59602)

From reading the papers this week, the people who seem to be coining it are the ones who worked for the previous Government—but there we are. Clearly, fuel prices have gone up because of what has happened to world oil and gas prices, but this Government take seriously their responsibilities to try to help families. That is why we have frozen council tax, that is why we are lifting 1 million people out of tax, and that is why we have introduced the set of measures that I have described to try to help with energy bills. We have also managed to cut petrol tax this year, paid for by the additional tax on the North sea oil industry. I notice that although the Opposition want to support the petrol price tax, they do not support the increase in North sea oil tax. That is absolutely typical of a totally opportunistic Opposition.

The Prime Minister will be aware that this is national diabetes week. This year’s theme is “Let’s talk diabetes”, to encourage people with the condition to speak out and not to feel stigmatised or worried about being discriminated against or joked about in school or in the workplace. Will the Prime Minister please support this campaign?

I will certainly support the campaign. My hon. Friend makes the extremely good point that many people with diabetes find the illness embarrassing and something that they do not want to talk about, yet it affects more and more people. We have to find a way to encourage people to come forward and say that there is nothing abnormal or wrong about it. We need to help people to manage their diabetes, especially because we want them to have control over their health care and to spend less time in hospital, if at all possible. I fully support the campaign, and I think that we need to look at the long-term costs of people getting diabetes and recognise that there is a big public health agenda, particularly around things such as exercise, that we need to get hold of.

Q10. The Prime Minister will know that this is my first opportunity to ask him a question. I stand here fresh and full of hope, so I shall give him one more chance to answer this question. People in my constituency and throughout the country face the enormous increases in their energy bills announced by Scottish Power. They need help now. When will the Prime Minister keep the promise that he made in opposition to take tough action on excessive energy prices? (59603)

As I said some moments ago, we are taking action. There is only a certain amount that can be done when fuel prices have gone up by as much as they have over the past year—a 50% increase in oil and gas. We do have the warm home discount and the Warm Front scheme. We are making sure that when there are special tariffs, companies must offer them to users; that makes a difference. There is also the point about Post Office card account holders. At present they do not get all the discounts available to people who pay by direct debit, but we are ensuring that they will get those discounts. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is a lot more done in one year than the previous Government did in 13.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Cluny Lace in Ilkeston, which made part of the lace on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress? It is the last traditional lace factory in Erewash, and our town centres have declined in recent years as a result of the loss of such factories. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the review by Mary Portas aimed at revitalising our town centres has come at a perfect time? May I invite the Prime Minister and Ms Portas to visit Erewash as part of the review?

I shall be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I did not know that her constituents were responsible for the lace on the Duchess’s incredible dress, so I shall leave today’s session enriched by that knowledge. We want a growth in manufacturing and production in Britain. What we are seeing in our economy—difficult as the months ahead inevitably will be—is a growth of things made in Britain, whether that means cars, vans, or indeed lace for people’s dresses.

Q11. The United States Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, has said that the NATO operation in Libya has exposed serious capability gaps. The First Sea Lord, Admiral—[Interruption.] The First Sea Lord, Admiral Mark Stanhope, has said that the operations in Libya cannot be sustained for longer than three months without serious cuts elsewhere. Given those problems—[Interruption.] (59604)

Order. No help from Government Back Benchers is required. A quick sentence from the hon. Gentleman.

Is it not time that the Prime Minister reopened the defence review and did yet another U-turn on his failed policies?

He is called Mark Stanhope, if that helps.

I had a meeting with the First Sea Lord yesterday at which he agreed that we can sustain the mission for as long as we need to, and those were exactly the words that the Chief of the Defence Staff used yesterday, because we are doing the right thing. I want one simple message to go out from every part of the Government, and indeed from every part of the House of Commons: time is on our side. We have NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League. We have right on our side. The pressure is building militarily, diplomatically and politically, and time is running out for Gaddafi.

On the defence review, I would simply say that for 10 years the Labour party did not have a defence review, but now it wants two in a row. At the end of the review we have the fourth highest defence budget of any country in the world. We have superb armed forces who are superbly equipped, and they are doing a great job in the skies above Libya.

By the time Prime Minister’s questions finishes, 450 children will have died from preventable disease and famine. Is it not the case that increasing Britain’s aid budget is very much the right thing to do, and will save millions of lives across the world?

I very much welcome the support from my hon. Friend for the policy of increasing our aid budget and meeting the target of 0.7% of gross national income. There are good reasons for doing this. First, we are keeping a promise to the poorest people of the poorest countries of the world, and we are saving lives. Yes, of course things are difficult at home, but we should keep that promise even in the midst of difficulties. Secondly, we are making sure that our aid budget is spent very specifically on things like vaccinations for children that will save lives, so the money that we announced this week will mean a child vaccinated every two seconds and a life saved every two minutes. The last point that I would make to anyone who has doubts about this issue is that as well as saving lives, it is also about Britain standing for something in the world and standing up for something in the world—the importance of having a strong aid budget, saving lives and mending broken countries, as well as having—

Q12. In this carers week, when we celebrate the contribution of Birmingham’s care assistants and the loving families who look after their loved ones, will the Prime Minister join me in condemning Birmingham city council for cutting care for 4,100 of the most vulnerable in our city, branded unlawful by the High Court? What does he intend to do to ensure that never again will Birmingham city council fail the elderly and the disabled? (59605)

Everyone in the House should welcome the fact that it is carers week. I will be having a reception in No. 10 tonight to celebrate carers week with many people who take part and who are carers. This Government are putting in £400 million to give carers more breaks and £800 million specifically to make sure that those looking after disabled children get regular breaks. What we have in Birmingham is an excellent Conservative and Liberal Democrat alliance doing a very good job recovering from the complete mess that Labour made of that city for decade after decade.

Last night on Channel 4 there was a documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, showing the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people, which resulted in about 40,000 people being killed. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for justice for the Tamil people, and for the people who lost their lives?

I did not see the documentary, but I understand it was an extremely powerful programme. It refers to some very worrying events that are alleged to have taken place towards the end of that campaign. The Government, along with other Governments, have said that the Sri Lankan Government needs that to be investigated, and the UN needs it to be investigated. We need to make sure that we get to the bottom of what happened, and that lessons are learned.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of the shambles of corporate governance that is the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. I would not expect him to comment specifically on that, but does he agree, on behalf of millions of pensionholders and small shareholders across the country, that high standards of corporate governance in the City of London are critical, as is the role of the Financial Reporting Council? (59606)

I am aware of the problem. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that of course we want companies to come to London to access capital and float on the main market or the AIM market. It is one of the attractions of Britain that we are an open global economy, but when those companies come, they must understand that we have rules of corporate governance that are there for a reason, and they need to obey those rules. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will address that not only in his speech tonight, but in the papers that we will be publishing in subsequent days.

Does the Prime Minister agree that if the coalition Government had not adopted the economic policy that they did, but listened to the advice of the shadow Chancellor instead, mortgage interest rates could be 5% higher than they are now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is that in this country today, tragically, we still have Greek levels of Government debt but German levels of interest rates. That is an enormous monetary boost to our economy, and we should all welcome the cut in unemployment today. If we had not taken action on the deficit and proved to the markets that we had a way of paying back the debt and the deficit, we would be straight back in the mess that that lot left us in.