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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effects on Scotland of the rate of inflation. (60308)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a wide range of issues, including the state of the economy. Inflation is being pushed higher by rising global commodity prices. This is a global problem that requires global solutions.

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is now clear that the Government’s VAT hike in January helped to drive up inflation, which is squeezing family incomes, hitting consumer spending and holding back strong growth. Will the Minister now speak up for families and businesses in Scotland and urge the Chancellor to reverse the VAT rise to help to boost consumer confidence and bring down inflation?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said that he would have done exactly the same in relation to VAT, and a cut in VAT would do nothing to reverse global commodity price rises. It would, however, do a lot to reverse the Government’s hard-won credibility for getting the deficit down. Of course, credibility on economic matters does not seem to be important to the Opposition.

In answer to my written parliamentary question, the Office for National Statistics confirms that, in four of the past five years, the rise in domestic gas prices far outstripped the rate of inflation—this is before the latest rise—while family incomes are at best static. What steps can the Government take to protect already hard-pressed families from these escalating costs in the coming winter?

The Government are concerned about the rise in fuel prices, especially gas prices. One of the measures we have taken is to ensure that the poorest families have protection in relation to their fuel costs.

I am sure that the Minister will welcome the inquiry Ofgem announced today into Scottish Power’s price rise and the way in which it announced the change to consumers. Does he agree that it is completely inappropriate for energy companies to add to the increased cost of living in Scotland by deciding to hike domestic bills? What personally is he doing about this?

There is widespread concern in Scotland about these actions, especially about the recent fuel cost rises announced by Scottish Power. As the hon. Lady knows from previous questions, the Secretary of State and I have raised these issues with the energy companies.

Although it is very nice to meet up, I think that Scottish consumers are looking for action as they face a rise of an average of £198 a year in their bills while wages are being frozen, prices are rising at well above the target inflation rate and borrowing is now £46 billion higher than expected because of the decrease in economic activity. Does the Minister agree that it is now time for a plan B, and for the temporary cut in VAT that Labour has called for?

It will not surprise the hon. Lady when I say most certainly not. In setting out those woes, she has not acknowledged her part as a Minister, and that of her party, in bringing this country to the verge of bankruptcy, or the need to take the tough action that this Government have taken. She also knows that the shadow Chancellor is in a majority of one in setting out his proposals—

The Union

2. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Scotland of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (60309)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Scotland of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (60318)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Scotland of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (60320)

The Government firmly believe that Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom, and that the United Kingdom benefits from having Scotland within it.

I agree wholeheartedly that Scotland benefits from being part of the Union. I represent a seat that is just over the border in England. Does the Minister agree that England benefits from being part of the Union, and that it is in the interests of all of us that Scotland and England remain part of the United Kingdom?

The Union is of great benefit to all the United Kingdom, but my constituents still want fairness between Scotland and England. Bearing that in mind, what plans does the Secretary of State have to review the Barnett formula?

My hon. Friend will recall from last night’s debate on the Scotland Bill that we recognise that this is an issue across the United Kingdom. However, we are committed to reviewing it when we have resolved the current financial problems that we inherited from the Labour party.

Would not a separate Scotland simply not have been able to survive the global banking crisis on its own, and if it had been separate would it not now be heading the way of Ireland and Greece?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point because the scale of the financial disaster that befell the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland would have placed a crippling burden on Scotland. By being part of the United Kingdom we shared the risks; we are now sharing the recovery, which is the right way forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that while the future of the constitution is hotly debated, there is no place for leading Unionists to describe the supporters of Scottish independence as neo-fascists?

I think it is incumbent on us all to ensure that we use moderate and appropriate language in this debate.

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said, is it of benefit to the Union and Scotland that the Scottish Affairs Committee is chaired by someone who last night described Scotland’s majority party of government as neo-fascist?

The hon. Gentleman should take up the issue with the hon. Gentleman himself. In this House, we do not challenge one another’s honour or otherwise. It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to raise as he will. [Interruption.] I have made my position clear—it is important to be careful about our language and to debate the substance of the issues.

West Lothian Question

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (60310)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on a range of issues. The Government remain committed to establishing a commission later this year to consider the West Lothian question. Does the Minister agree that timing is of the essence here? This is a difficult question and the commission will need to consider its recommendations, after which this House will need time to consider the outcome. It would be much better if this were done at a time of constitutional peace rather than at a time of constitutional crisis. I respect my hon. Friend’s passion on this subject. She, of course, has a Bill before the House that touches on these issues. I understand that it will be heard on the first Friday of the September sitting, which will give the whole House an opportunity to debate the issues. I will convey my hon. Friend’s call for urgency to the Deputy Prime Minister. (60312)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the last thing we want, having passed the Scotland Bill and with new powers devolved to Wales, is another expensive parliamentary assembly or talking shop in England, as the British Parliament here can cope with English matters, but decided by English MPs?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have always expressed the view that there is no desire for an English Parliament—and the same two people have always written to me afterwards to say that I am wrong.

Does the Minister agree that this issue is much more complex than Conservative Members sometimes allow? A good example arose in the debates on university tuition fees before Christmas. That might have been regarded as a purely English issue, but it had tremendous consequences for Scotland.

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point. This is a complex issue, which is why the coalition Government are committed to establishing a commission to look at it. I hope that it will be able to take evidence from people such as the hon. Lady.

I am sure the Minister is right when he says that there is no great demand for an English Parliament. Does he not accept that the proposal to have two classes of MPs in this House, which is coming from many supporters of the proposals of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), effectively amounts to setting up an English Parliament in this building? Is that not inevitably the road that his Government will go down if they accept having two classes of MPs in this House?

I do not acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point because the devolution settlement means that different MPs in this House already have different responsibilities, depending on whether they are from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales. The Government are committed to look at the West Lothian question, which is a substantive issue that the previous Government ignored, and will set up a commission later this year.

Economic Environment

4. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure a stable economic environment for businesses in Scotland. (60311)

12. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure a stable economic environment for businesses in Scotland. (60319)

“The Plan for Growth” published in the March Budget set out a programme of reforms to create the right conditions for private sector-led growth. This month the Government launched the next stage of the growth review with the central purpose of creating the right conditions for businesses to be established, to invest, to grow and to create jobs.

At a time when the Treasury is bringing about stability to the banking sector and banking regulation, does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP’s drive for further independence in Scotland could destabilise Scotland’s financial markets?

There is no question but that uncertainty over the nature, number and timing of the questions that will be asked about independence will be no good for the Scottish economy.

In Scotland and across the United Kingdom, small and medium-sized companies are vital engines of growth and job creation, for which improving access to funding is a vital priority. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to address the challenge and whether those steps include working with organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the critical issue of access to finance. Unless we get enough lending to small and medium-sized businesses, among others, we will not get the economy growing again. That is why creating the conditions in which businesses start, grow and invest appropriately is central to “The Plan for Growth”, and it is why Project Merlin sets out very tough targets for lending to businesses across the UK.

Does the Secretary of State agree that businesses’ access to fast broadband is also essential for business growth? Does he share my concern that many constituencies in Scotland, such as mine, do not have such access? What discussions has he had with the Scottish Government regarding that?

That was one of the key issues that the hon. Lady wanted to raise when I met her a week or so ago to discuss the economy in Ayrshire. As a Government, we are committed to the implementation of superfast broadband across the United Kingdom, and we are in discussions with the Scottish Government on how they should go about that in Scotland. Such provision is vital in Ayrshire, the borders and all parts of the country. I am happy to work with her and others, including the Scottish Government, to ensure that we achieve it.

Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to read the Government expenditure and revenue study published this morning, which shows that the Scottish economy is outperforming that of the UK and carrying a lower deficit? Will he take the opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Government on their efforts to promote stability through economic growth and recovery?

That is a typically interesting interpretation of the figures in this morning’s report, which show that, on pretty well every measure, Scotland is running at a deficit. That highlights the volatility and difficulties associated with the different measures. It is vital that we get Scotland’s economy back on the right footing. That is why, as a Government, we are cutting corporation tax, keeping interest rates low and reducing the burden on national insurance. I am happy to work with the Scottish Government, who have fantastic powers at their disposal to ensure that the economy grows. We need to work in partnership.

Clyde Coastguard Station

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the Clyde coastguard station in Greenock. (60313)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on a range of issues of mutual interest, including the future of Scottish coastguard stations.

May I pay tribute to David Cairns, who had been campaigning to save the Clyde coastguard station before his tragic early death? The waters around Argyll and Bute, with all its islands, peninsulas and sea lochs, present a unique challenge to seafarers. If the Clyde coastguard station is closed, however, all the valuable local knowledge of the area held by the people who work there will be lost. Will the Minister draw that to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport and urge him to keep Clyde coastguard station open?

It is appropriate that there is mention of David Cairns, who gave distinguished service as a Scotland Office Minister, at this first Scottish questions since his tragic death. I assure my hon. Friend that his points will have been heard, as they were in the recent Westminster Hall debate in which he took part. The Department for Transport will make no announcement on the future of coastguard stations until the Transport Committee has reported.

I associate myself with the comments that have been made about David Cairns.

As the Minister will know, concern is sometimes expressed in Scotland about what he actually does. In a spirit of co-operation, may I offer him an opportunity to allay that concern by expressing, in clear and unambiguous terms, his opposition to the disastrous plans of the Department for Transport to close the coastguard centre in Greenock? Will he stand up for Scotland in that regard?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Scotland Office always makes the case for Scotland, and for facilities and resources in Scotland. I welcome the approach of my colleagues in the Department for Transport, who say that they will listen to all representations following their consultation and await the report of the Select Committee on Transport.

Clyde coastguard is important to the west coast of Scotland. As one who represents a west coast constituency, I believe that we have already suffered from the loss of Oban coastguard a decade or so ago. Does the Minister agree that—as the doughty fighter Anne McLaughlin is always reminding me—we need Stornoway, Shetland and Clyde coastguards on the west coast as a maritime insurance policy?

I would characterise the hon. Gentleman himself as a doughty fighter for the station in Stornoway. He has made significant representations, and they have been heard. My colleagues in the Department for Transport will announce their conclusion after the Select Committee has delivered its report.

Corporation Tax

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about the transfer to the Scottish Parliament of the power to set rates of corporation tax. (60314)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of issues. The Scottish Government included the devolution of corporation tax among its requests for amendments to the Scotland Bill. To date, the Government have not received any detailed proposals from the Scottish Government.

On the same day the Business Secretary said that the logic of devolving corporation tax was irresistible, he subsequently said that he fully supported the Government’s position in opposing it. Is not the Business Secretary a bit of an embarrassment both to Scottish business and to the Government, and is it not about time he started speaking to the Secretary of State for Scotland about important matters such as corporation tax?

Agriculture Industry

8. What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of the Scottish agriculture industry. (60315)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly discuss a range of devolution issues with the Advocate-General. We regularly discuss devolution issues in relation to the Scotland Bill, which is delivering the Government’s commitment to strengthening the devolution settlement.

No doubt the Minister is acutely aware of the importance of reform of the common agricultural policy to farmers both in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Given the importance of agriculture to the economy, does he agree that it is essential that we secure a deal for our farmers that is fairer and more transparent?

Order. The Minister’s mellifluous tones diverted me from the fact that the content of his answer did not relate to the question that had been asked. I am sure that he will now talk about agriculture and not about devolution.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I can inform the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was in Brussels last week, where he made the very points that she has just made.


As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Has the Advocate-General yet received an update on the progress made by the expert group set up by the Scottish Government, which is examining the role of the United Kingdom Supreme Court?

The Advocate-General wrote to the chair of the Scottish Government expert group, Lord McCluskey, offering a meeting, but has now received a response from the group’s secretariat saying that, owing to their timetable, members of the group have not had time in the first instance to receive submissions or hear evidence. What appears to have happened is that an expert group is set up by the First Minister one week, meets the following week—with no evidence taken in any week—and reports the week after.

That was a most disappointing response. Will the Government start supporting the integrity and independence of Scots law, work constructively with the Scots group chaired by the eminent Lord McCluskey and promise to do nothing to reform the Supreme Court until the group has reported?

I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman, like his colleague, Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the Scottish National party, would have sought to disassociate himself from the appalling comments that the First Minister has made about Lord Hope, which Jim Sillars described as “foolish” and “juvenile”. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very discourteous to the Member asking the question and to the Minister answering it. I want to hear Sir Menzies Campbell.

What possible confidence can we have in the findings of a group that is unwilling to meet the Advocate-General, who last year established an inquiry for precisely the same purpose as this group has been established?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an extremely good point. As I said in my initial response, it seems incredible that a group set up to consider this very complicated issue is not going to take evidence or receive submissions. I am pleased that the Advocate-General has in any event made his information available to the group, so that might give us some confidence in the report it produces.

International Inward Investment

10. What steps he is taking to promote Scotland as a destination for international inward investment. (60317)

The trade White Paper sets out a strategy for creating opportunities and providing the conditions for private sector growth through trade and international inward investment. My hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment will visit Scotland in July.

Does the Secretary of State share my fear that the Scottish Government’s plans for a referendum on separation will undermine this Government’s efforts to create jobs in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight what we are focusing on as a Government. “The Plan for Growth” seeks to give us the most competitive tax system in the G20, to ensure we are the best place in Europe to start, grow and finance a business and to bring about further investment and a flexible work force. None of that can be done if we have the uncertainty that the independence referendum casts over the Scottish economy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Olympics offer a splendid opportunity for promoting inward investment to Scotland? In that regard, is it not tragic that the torch, having visited Land’s End, will fly over John O’Groats?

My hon. Friend makes his point as eloquently as I would expect him to and I am sure that those who are organising the trip will have heard his points.

Central Ayrshire

The seminar I hosted in Irvine last month discussed how to tackle the high level of youth unemployment in Ayrshire. The Scotland Office is working with key partners such as Jobcentre Plus to focus resources on the most challenging areas identified at the seminar. We look forward to working with the Scottish Government on this complex issue.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. One of the areas of major concern identified at the seminar was the high unemployment among those aged between 16 and 18, which seemed to have slipped off the radar. It was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was present at the meeting, who made that very important point. What is the situation, what assessment has been made by the Secretary of State for Scotland and what is going to be done about that issue?

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his full participation in the seminar? It was the first in a series that we will hold across Scotland to tackle a deep-rooted problem, not just in Ayrshire but elsewhere, that has defied Governments through the ages. He rightly points out that my right hon. Friend was at that seminar; we continue to discuss the serious challenges in relation to youth employment and I will be happy to discuss those further with the hon. Gentleman in due course.

As the Secretary of State knows, Ayrshire has some of the worst rates of unemployment and youth unemployment in Scotland. In 2007, Scotland had the highest levels of employment in Britain, but it now has the lowest levels of employment and the highest levels of unemployment. What more can the Westminster Government do to work with the Scottish Government to take concrete steps to address the problem?

I make two observations to the hon. Lady. First, we need to get the economy into a place from which we can see sustained, strong and balanced growth, which would be a complete contrast to the situation we inherited from her Government. On her second point about working with the Scottish Government, she is right to highlight the serious economic powers that they already have and it is vital, as I said to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) earlier, that we work together to ensure that we do the best for people across Scotland.

Forth Road Bridge Replacement

15. What discussions he has had with members of the Scottish Executive on the funding of the Forth road bridge replacement. (60322)

This issue was raised in discussions between my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland and the First Minister on 9 June. As announced by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State on 13 June, the Government are bringing forward to 2011 the power for Scottish Ministers to make prepayments, which will allow work on the Forth replacement crossing to begin.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that two major bridge schemes are about to take place in the UK: the Forth road bridge, to be funded by the Treasury and by the means that he has just given us, and the Mersey gateway in Cheshire, to be funded substantially by tolls. How can the Government justify that difference in the same country?

The justification is devolution; it is a decision of the Scottish Government to proceed with the Forth replacement crossing on the basis that there will be no tolls on it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I was unaware of that event, Mr Speaker, but I join the hon. Lady in wishing you a very happy anniversary.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Craftsman Andrew Found from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Corporal Lloyd Newell from the Parachute Regiment and Private Gareth Bellingham from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment. They were talented, brave and dedicated soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice overseas for the safety of British people at home. We send out our deepest condolences to their families, their friends and their colleagues.

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

I thank the Prime Minister for that response, and may I associate myself and my constituents with the moving tributes that he has just paid.

A year ago today, the Chancellor stood up in the House to deliver his first Budget. Given that on the Government’s own assessment, their efforts will have a statistically insignificant impact on child poverty, may I recommend that the Prime Minister watch the BBC documentary, “Poor Kids” to find out how the other half lives? Does he regret allowing his Chancellor to take money away from families with children, rather than from the bankers who caused the financial crisis in the first place?

I will certainly look at the programme that the hon. Lady mentions; but even in a difficult time, this Government put more money into child tax credits for the poorest families. We have frozen the council tax, and we have actually taken steps to help working families. Neither that Budget nor the subsequent Budget actually raised child poverty, because of the steps that we took. We inherited a complete mess from the Labour party, but we are dealing with it in a way that protects families.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that this country will not contribute a penny towards the Greek bail-out, other than what we contribute to the International Monetary Fund?

My hon. Friend is right. We are senior members of the IMF. We sit on the IMF board. We obviously have responsibilities as members of the IMF, but what I am clear about is that we were not involved in the first Greek bail-out; we are not members of the eurozone; and we are not going to become members of the eurozone as long as I am standing here. I do not believe that the European financial mechanism should be used for Greece. We have made it very clear within Europe that we do not think that that is appropriate, and I do not think that that should happen.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Craftsman Andrew Found from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Corporal Lloyd Newell from the Parachute Regiment and Private Gareth Bellingham from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment? They all served their country with dedication and bravery, and our hearts go out to their families and friends.

Armed Forces day is coming up this Saturday, and that is an opportunity to remind us all of the service that is provided by our armed forces in Afghanistan, Libya and all around the world. It is a moment to recognise the service that they provide with honour and courage for our country.

We support the mission in Libya, but in the past week, both the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, Air Command have raised concerns over the prospect of an extended campaign. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to assure the House that sufficient resources are in place to maintain Britain’s part in the mission at the current rate of engagement?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to our armed forces and particularly in looking forward to Armed Forces day on Saturday, when we will be celebrating the contribution they make to our national life and the enormous amount they do to keep us safe.

The mission in Libya, similar to the mission in Afghanistan, is funded out of the reserve, so it does not put additional pressures on the defence budget. I have sought and received assurances from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, that we are capable of keeping up this operation for as long as it takes. That is vital. I would argue that the pressure is building on Gaddafi. Time is on our side, not on Gaddafi’s side. When we look at what is happening in Libya, where we see a strengthening of the revolt in the west of Libya, more people deserting Gaddafi’s regime, the growing unpopularity of his regime and our coalition holding strong, I think time is on our side, the pressure is growing, and I believe we will take it to a satisfactory conclusion.

I am absolutely with the Prime Minister that we should keep up the pressure on the Libyan regime. As he knows, we provide our full support for the mission, but do not the concerns that have been expressed by members of our armed forces point to something very important—the need to look again at the strategic defence and security review, precisely to make sure that we have the right capability and the right focus? The Foreign Secretary described the Arab spring as a more important event than 9/11, but the national security strategy published last year does not mention Libya, Egypt or Tunisia. Is it not right, in the light of the changes we have seen, to look again at the strategic defence and security review to make sure that we can sustain the conflict in Libya?

I am grateful for the question, because that is an important point. One of the reasons for having a National Security Council that sits weekly is all the time to ask whether we have the right resources and the right strategy. We have had a review of the national security and defence review over the past year, but that strategic defence review put in place mechanisms to take account of the fact that we may well be fighting two conflicts at the same time. It also established the necessity of having very flexible armed forces for exactly the sort of operations that we are fighting and dealing with in Libya. Having not had one for 10 years, it seems strange to want to have two strategic defence reviews within one year. We have the right flexibilities in our armed forces and they are performing magnificently in Libya. If anything, I would like to speed up the implementation of the strategic defence review because so much of the new equipment that we are looking to have—drones and so on—would be more helpful if we had it right now. So, far from being the wrong strategic posture, it is right and it is good that we are putting it in place.

I think it will come as news to the wider defence and security community that there has been a review of the original strategic defence and security review. If indeed there has been a review since the Arab spring took place, why does not the Prime Minister publish the results of that review? Let us have a consultation with the experts who know about these issues. As he will see, there is clear concern across our military about some of the issues. Finally, let me say to the Prime Minister in all sincerity that when our military chiefs raise legitimate concerns about the conduct of our operations, surely, “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking” is not the right thing to say. In retrospect, was that not very crass and high-handed?

I have huge respect for the people who run our armed services. They do an incredibly good job. They are highly professional people and they are involved in the National Security Council. They were involved in drawing up the strategic defence review. The only point that I have tried to make in recent days is that when we are at war, as we are in both Afghanistan and Libya, it is extremely important, whether one is a political leader or a military leader, to think very carefully about what one is about to say.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the decision, abruptly made, to close the passport office in Wick, which has obliged a six-year-old boy to make a 300 mile round trip for an interview and another constituent to travel to Newcastle? Is that acceptable?

Obviously, I will look closely at the point my hon. Friend raises, but in the modern age we have all sorts of ways of carrying out interviews that do not necessarily involve people having to travel to a passport office. What matters is having an efficient service so that people can get the documentation they need so they can go on the holiday they want.

Q2. Given the number of U-turns the Prime Minister has made, including on sentencing, NHS reform, the forestry sell-off and school sports, it is a wonder that he knows which way he is facing, but will he now have the front to ensure that relief measures are put in place for those women who are hardest hit—[Interruption.] (61069)

Order. It is a reminder of the importance of Government Back Benchers keeping calm and quiet, not least so that the Prime Minister can hear what is being said. How helpful that would be!

It would probably also help if Members did not read out the Whips’ bit at the beginning of their question, so that we could hear the second part of the question, which in this case was, I think, about the important issue of women and pensions. I do think it is right to equalise the pension ages of men and women at 65, and that is going ahead, and I also think it is important to raise the pension age to 66, because the fact is that people in our country are living longer. That is a good thing, but we have to make sure we can pay for good and decent pensions for the future. The alternative is that we stick our head in the sand and end up either cutting pensions or building up debts for our children, which, frankly, would be irresponsible. This Government are taking difficult decisions, but they are the right ones.

Does the Prime Minister agree that there is still too much homophobia in sport, especially football, and that the event he is hosting today in Downing street will go some way towards tackling that prejudice?

I completely agree, and I am delighted to be hosting a party for Britain’s lesbian, gay and transgender community at No. 10 Downing street today. That there are so few out players in all sports is an issue. I applaud those who have come out and will be attending my party tonight, and I hope that that will encourage schoolchildren to recognise that homophobic bullying is completely unacceptable in our society today.

Q3. If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the issue of runaway fathers, as he said last week, why is he making it harder for single mothers to get maintenance payments, by charging them to use the Child Support Agency? (61070)

We are going to carry on funding a child support agency mechanism—it is right that we do—but it is not wrong to ask people to make a contribution to that. Taxpayers are currently putting in a huge amount of money, and they will carry on doing so, but to ask the people concerned to pay towards the costs does not reduce the impact of what I said last week at all. People walking away from their responsibilities and not funding their children should not be allowed to happen in Britain today.

Q4. Next year will be the centenary of the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this brave historic son of Plymouth left a significant scientific legacy that is still helping to shape the world’s environmental agenda today? (61071)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. That centenary is important, and I am very pleased that so much is going on across the country to celebrate it, especially in his home city of Plymouth. It is not just the scientific discoveries that are important; so too is the inspirational figure—the adventurer, the explorer—and Captain Scott’s incredible sense of duty and adventure. That is what inspires young people today.

The Prime Minister has been forced to abandon his original sentencing plans. Will he now change his mind on the proposal to prevent police from holding the DNA of those arrested for, but not charged with, rape?

We inherited an unacceptable situation, with a DNA database that had grown out of control, and without proper rights for people. We put in place a better system. There is always room to see whether it can be further improved, but we have taken a big step forward from the mess we were left by the last Government.

It is a bit late to be looking at the proposal; it is in the House of Commons and about to have its Report stage. Let me explain to the Prime Minister his own policy. Around 5,000 people each year are arrested on suspicion of rape but not charged—[Interruption.] I know he wants some help from the Home Secretary. In certain cases those individuals have gone on to commit further offences and been convicted as a result of their DNA being held on the national database, but his proposal is that the DNA of those arrested but not charged will be disposed of straight away. I ask him again, why is it right to discard the DNA of those arrested but not charged with rape?

Order. The answer of the Prime Minister will be heard. I remind the House that the more noise there is, the greater the difficulty in getting down the Order Paper.

I understand that there is some worry that in this Government we actually talk to each other. That is clearly not the case—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor has raised this issue, but it is perfectly clear that he and the leader of the Labour party do not speak to each other at all. I have the proof, because this week the shadow Chancellor made a huge announcement on a massive VAT cut, and yet it was only—[Interruption.]

Let us focus on an answer to the question, or we will move on to the next question. I call Mr Ed Miliband.

Let me give this lesson to the Prime Minister: it would be better to talk to his colleagues before they put forward a policy, not after. Instead of listening to the Home Secretary, why does he not listen to Angie Conroy from Rape Crisis? She says:

“with the reporting of rapes on the increase and conviction rates still shockingly low, the evidence this database provides is vital. The more of this data we hold, the more chance we have of catching rapists.”

She goes on to say:

“This really is a no brainer.”

Is this not another policy on crime that is careless, not thought through and out of touch? Why does he not think again?

First, if the right hon. Gentleman actually understood the policy, he would know that the police are allowed to apply to keep DNA on the computer, which is not something he mentioned. What we tend to find with his questions is that he comes up with some idea, gets it completely wrong in the House of Commons and we all find out afterwards that he has given us a partial picture. That is what his questions are all about. It is not surprising that he does not want to talk—[Interruption.]

I am not surprised that he does not want to talk about the issues his party has put forward this week, because I do not suppose he knew about them.

As a parent, I am appalled that the Labour party advocates burdening our children with ever more unsolicited debts, which it is putting forward with its reckless raft of unfunded tax cuts and spending commitments, of which the VAT cut is the latest—[Interruption.]

Q5. There are 400 avoidable deaths from epilepsy and related conditions each year. My ten-minute rule Bill asks for two things: an immediate referral to a tertiary specialist and; in education, support for children, with an assessment and additional support so that they can fulfil their potential. Will the Prime Minister meet me, the Joint Epilepsy Council and Professor Helen Cross to see how we can progress those provisions, which will save not only costs, but more importantly, lives? (61072)

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and Helen Cross, whom I know well. She works at Great Ormond Street hospital and is an absolutely brilliant clinician. I am keen to improve the support that we give to people with epilepsy. Obviously, one of the steps that we are taking is to put in place more personal budgets and more single assessments, which I think will help with epilepsy. My understanding is that, although there are many good things in the hon. Lady’s Bill, there is some concern that it could have too much of a medical approach to special educational needs, something that I actually have some sympathy with, but which I know many professionals have concerns about, so perhaps we could talk about that when we meet.

Could my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Government have made an assessment, and if so the results, of what a proposed cut in VAT would do to the British economy at this stage of the cycle?

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, which is that to make an unfunded cut in VAT right now, when the concerns are about debt and deficit, would actually be the height of insanity. What is now clear is that Labour’s plan B stands for bankruptcy.

Q6. The Prime Minister frequently tells us that we are all in this together, so can he explain why banks have been rewarded with a £2 billion tax cut on their obscene bonus pools while parents of disabled children are being penalised with a benefit cut of £1,400 a year? How is that fair? (61073)

I will tell you what this Government have done, and that is to put in place a £2.5 billion bank levy, raising more than Labour’s bonus tax every single year, but I have to say that, if Opposition Members want to see irresponsible people who are earning a lot of money pay proper taxes, perhaps they will explain this: why did they vote against the measures on disguised earnings in the Finance Bill which will raise £800 million from people who are giving loans to themselves to dodge taxes? [Interruption.] Well, I think that that is probably a detail that the leader of the Labour party was not really aware of.

Although of course we should not make a unilateral contribution to the Greek bail-out, does the Prime Minister not agree that we have something which would help regenerate the Greek economy and put right a 200-year wrong—the marbles, which we should give back?

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that 670,000 people, two thirds of whom, according to his Government’s equality impact assessment, have a disability, will lose up to £13 a week because of his changes in housing benefit under-occupancy rules? Is not that a complete betrayal of his Chancellor’s promise not to balance the Budget on the backs of the poor? (61074)

I have looked carefully at that issue, and I know there are concerns, but the point I would make is this: I think it is right that we reform housing benefit, because the costs had got completely out of control under the previous Government, rising to £22 billion; and I think it right that housing benefit reflects the size of a family rather than the size of a house. But, we have actually made an exception for people with carers so that allowance is made for that in housing benefit. So, I think that that is fair, but I have to say to Opposition Members, it is no good saying that you are in favour of welfare reform and cutting the costs of welfare while never being able to find a single part of the Bill to agree with.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the new report by the all-party paediatric mobility reform group, “My Wheelchair is My Shoes”, showing how, through partnership working, we can deliver the wheelchairs that transform young people’s lives? Will he meet me and Whizz-Kidz ambassadors to discuss how the Government might take that forward? (61075)

Certainly. I know Whizz-Kidz well. It is an excellent charity that does a brilliant job, and I will certainly arrange a meeting for the hon. Gentleman. The point I would make on wheelchairs is that that is exactly where the health reforms, with greater choice and with greater opportunities for GPs and patients to choose, should come in, so that people can get the wheelchair of their choice when they need it, rather than as it is at the moment where you have to take what you are given.

In four of the last five years, there have been no mistakes made in setting school examination papers. Since 16 May this year, there have been 10 such mistakes made. What does the Prime Minister intend to do for those among the 250,000 young people affected who will lose out either on their university of choice or on university completely because of this staggering incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman is right; this is not an acceptable situation. I have discussed it this morning with the Education Secretary, who in turn has discussed it with Ofqual, which is taking the toughest possible action to root out this failure and to make sure that it does not happen again.

Q9. The Prime Minister will be aware that the former Labour Secretary of State, Lord Hutton, has described current proposals on pension reform as the best chance we have to deliver a sustainable system that is fair both to scheme payers and to the taxpayer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when it comes to these major, long-term issues, we should build the broadest possible consensus; and will he seek the support of Members on both sides of the House for his proposals? (61076)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the way he puts it. The Hutton report is a good report. This is not about attacking or downgrading public sector pensions; it is about a way of making really good public sector pensions affordable into the long term and respecting all the accrued rights that people have. We need to win this argument on the basis of fairness. It is right for the taxpayer to put money into public sector pensions, but we need to know that they are affordable for the long term. The steps that Lord Hutton puts forward are therefore absolutely right. I hope that the Labour party will take a responsible view and recognise that we need to make this change for the long-term good of our country.

Q15. Eighteen months ago, one of my constituents required knee surgery and was pleased to hear that he had to wait only six weeks. He now needs another operation and has been told that he has to wait 10 months. He is in agony and unable to walk. He is understandably angry and wants to know if this is what the Prime Minister meant when he said that the NHS was safe in his hands. (61082)

If the hon. Lady gives me the details of the individual case, I will certainly take it up and look at it. The fact is that we have not changed the waiting list targets that have been in place in the NHS for a long time—in particular, the 18-week target that is part of the NHS constitution. Average waiting times have actually come down in recent months. The clear lesson is this: were it not for this Government putting in an extra £11.5 billion—money that Labour does not support—we would see all waiting times going up.

Q10. On 18 July last year, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury stated, with regard to the decision to sign Britain up to the eurozone bail-out mechanism:“While these decisions were taken by the previous Government, this Government judges them to be an appropriate response to the crisis.”Does this remain the Government’s position? (61077)

I know that my hon. Friend is pursuing this issue with his normal dogged tenacity. The facts of the case are very clear. The last Government—at the death, as it were, after the election but before the new Government were formed—signed us up to the European financial mechanism that we are still having to pay out under. This Government have got us out of that by tough negotiation in Brussels so that we will not have to contribute after 2013.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s and the Leader of the Opposition’s expressions of condolence for the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan? Those who serve are the lions of our country, and we must always do everything we can to repay the debt of gratitude we owe them.

The October 2010 strategic defence and security review has been overtaken by events, and the world is now a fundamentally different place. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister again: will he do the right thing for the armed forces and for the country and order a new chapter to this now outdated review?

I very much respect what the hon. Gentleman says, particularly his fitting tribute to the armed forces, but the idea of totally reopening the defence review at a time when our armed forces are engaged and are doing such a fantastic job is the wrong one. The defence review was all about making sure that we have flexible armed forces so that they can be committed to different parts of the world and have the backing they need. It was about getting rid of the main battle tanks in Germany and putting money into the enablers and the forces of the future. Libya shows that it is working, and I think we should stick with it.

Q11. Will my right hon. Friend welcome those campaigning outside Parliament today for high-speed rail in order to bring thousands of much-needed jobs to the midlands and help to address the north-south divide, and will he confirm that it will come to Yorkshire? (61078)

I happily confirm all those things. I believe that if we are really serious about rebalancing our economy and ensuring that we get growth across the country, and not just in the south-east, the time for high-speed rail has come. That is why it has my strong support.

Q12. The Secretary of State for Wales has said that she is prepared to be sacked because of her opposition to Government policy on high-speed rail. Will the Prime Minister take her up on that very kind offer? (61079)

I prefer to focus on the fact that in one year as Welsh Secretary, she has secured something that 13 years of Labour Welsh Secretaries never achieved, which is the electrification of the line between Paddington and Cardiff.

An agoraphobic man from Middlesbrough received so much money from state benefits that he set up his own illegal loans company. At the trial, the judge described him as receiving a staggering amount of money on benefits. Does that not show that our welfare system is broken, and will the Prime Minister pledge to redouble his efforts to reform it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the people who send us here want us to sort out the welfare system. They want it to be there for people who genuinely need help, but they want us to ensure that anyone who can work and is offered a job cannot live a life on welfare. Government Members have put forward the legislation and voted for it. What a pity that the Labour party talks about it, but did not have the guts to back it when the crunch came.

Q13. Most people know that Rochdale is the home of co-operation. Next year is the United Nations international year of co-operatives. Will the Prime Minister consider visiting Rochdale to show support for mutualism in the 21st century? (61080)

I note the excellent record of Prime Ministers visiting Rochdale, and what can happen to them when they get there. I will certainly put it in the diary. I am a strong supporter of co-operatives and mutuals. I think that they have a huge role to play not just in our economy, but in the provision of public services. We will make some announcements about that, perhaps in Rochdale, in the months to come.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister demonstrated his strength of character in talking about multiculturalism. In view of the fact that I have a Christian first name and a Sikh surname, I try to combine the best of my traditional Indian values with my core British values. Does he agree that we can learn a lot from our Indian partners in this respect, many of whom define themselves by their nationality first and foremost, regardless of their ethnic or religious background?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his work on this issue. It is vital that, as a country, we build a stronger national identity. Of course people can have all sorts of religious and cultural identities, but it is very important that we build a strong British identity. He is living proof of that.

Q14. Tomorrow, the European Parliament will decide whether to increase the EU’s carbon reduction target to 30% by 2020. That was a commitment in the coalition agreement. According to reports, the vote will be very close, but it will not pass because just one Conservative MEP out of 25 will vote for the 30% target. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that all his MEPs will honour the coalition agreement and vote for the 30% target tomorrow? (61081)

Let me be absolutely clear that we are committed to the 30% target and nothing is going to change that. I will do a deal with the hon. Lady. I will work on my MEPs if she promises to work on hers, who in recent months have voted for a higher EU budget and new EU taxes, and against an opt-out on the working-time directive. They even voted against scrapping first-class air travel for MEPs. Perhaps she would like to fly over and give them a talking to.

With the National Audit Office estimating the cost to the economy of criminal reoffending at £10 billion a year, does my right hon. Friend agree that the need to reduce reoffending from the unacceptably high rates that we inherited from the previous Government must be the priority of any penal policy?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has considerable experience in this matter from his career before coming to this place. We have inherited a system in which each prison place costs £45,000, half of prisoners reoffend within a year of getting out, half of prisoners are on drugs, and more than 10% of prisoners are foreigners who should not be in this country in any event. The key thing we have to do is reduce costs in the criminal justice system by making prison work and reforming prison, rather than by cutting sentences.