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Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have fallen in Afghanistan since we last met for Prime Minister’s questions: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers; Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; and Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines. We should also remember Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering, who died in a road traffic accident in Italy on 20 July while supporting operations in Libya. I pay tribute to their outstanding courage and selflessness. They have each given their lives serving our country and making our world more safe and secure. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies should be with their families, their friends and their colleagues.

This week, we also reach the 10th anniversary of the terrible atrocities of 11 September 2001, so we should remember all those who lost their lives that day, and all those who have died in pursuit of a safer future throughout the last decade.

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 whole House will agree with the tributes that the Prime Minister has just made to members of the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country.

Earlier this week, the Government pushed through legislation that says that terror suspects must be given access to mobile phones and the internet and that ends relocation orders, so that such suspects cannot be kept out of London in the run-up to the Olympics or the Queen’s jubilee without emergency legislation. Will not decent, law-abiding people out there be shocked to discover that the Prime Minister is weakening protection for them while pushing through what many people will think is a charter of rights for would-be terrorists?

I do not agree with that. We consulted very carefully with the police and the security services in order to try to get to a better position, because frankly, control orders did not have the confidence of the public and did not work in far too many cases. The arrangements that we have put in place will keep this country safe and have greater public confidence.

May I thank the House and all my Hexham constituents for their messages of support while I was temporarily in hospital? I am now fully recovered, thanks to the outstanding care of the NHS and its hard-working doctors and nurses. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, as many doctors and nurses did, that it must be our mission to improve and reform the NHS, so that the service that we so cherish will improve with the challenges ahead?

May I say how good it is to see my hon. Friend back in his place and fully recovered? He is right: the point of our health reforms is to put doctors in charge, give patients greater choice, and heal the divide between health and social care. I believe that they will lead to a stronger NHS and better outcomes for patients.

May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave servicemen who have given their lives over the summer: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s); Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering. All of them demonstrated tremendous bravery and courage in the line of duty, and we send our deepest condolences to their families and friends.

Let me also join the Prime Minister in remembering all those who died in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. We all said at the time that we would never forget, and it is right that we pay particular attention on this the 10th anniversary of 11 September, so that for the victims and their families we show that we are true to the words that we spoke in the aftermath of those terrible attacks.

As the House returns from the recess, I also thank all our policemen and policewomen who did such a tremendous job in the riots over the summer, and it is on the subject of policing that I want to start my questions to the Prime Minister. We learned last night that the Prime Minister now wants to hold his elections for police commissioners not alongside local elections, as originally intended, but in November next year. How much extra money does he expect that to cost?

So the Prime Minister is making a bad policy worse by wasting money. If he wanted to postpone the elections, he could easily have decided to hold them in May 2013; and, indeed, subsequent elections will be held in May 2016. Will he tell us why he has decided to waste his money in this way?

It is important to get the policy right, and to make sure that it works. Let us be clear. First of all, why are the Opposition so frightened of an election? What have they to fear?

The right hon. Gentleman called this bad policy. Let me tell him what was said by his own shadow Policing Minister. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said that

“only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical”.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of an election and proper police accountability?

We know what the public up and down this country know: this is the wrong priority for the country. What did we see during the riots? We saw visible, effective policing. Now the Prime Minister tells us that the country cannot afford the current police budgets, and that we must cut the number of police officers by 16,000. However, he tells the country that it can afford £100 million and more as a result of his decision to waste money on 42 elected politicians earning more than £120,000 a year. That could pay for 2,000 extra police officers. Is not the truth that this is the wrong priority at the wrong time for the country?

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman has got his figures completely wrong. The police authorities of whom only 6% of the country have actually heard will be abolished, and that will save money.

Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. Why is he frightened of direct elections that will make the police accountable? He was responsible for the last Labour manifesto, and this is what the last Labour Prime Minister said:

“the Home Secretary will bring forward proposals for directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing”.—[Official Report, 14 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1388.]

Why the U-turn?

We know that the Prime Minister has got the wrong priorities on the police and that he is refusing to back down. However, he has got the wrong priorities not just on the police, but on the health service as well. Can he tell us why the number of people who have had to wait longer than six months for an operation has gone up by more than 60% since he came to office?

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to change the subject, because on policing he was having his collar felt as he has done a complete U-turn on the policy he used to be committed to.

As I said some moments ago, in our health service we are seeing more cancer patients get treatment, more doctors in our NHS, fewer bureaucrats, a reduction in mixed-sex—[Interruption.] I know Labour Members do not like hearing—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in what is beginning to sound like orchestrated heckling. [Interruption.] Order. It is profoundly discourteous and it should stop.

The trouble is that the Opposition do not like hearing good news about what is happening in the national health service. The fact is that waiting times for outpatients have actually fallen since the last election.

That was a complete non-answer; the Prime Minister cannot even answer the questions. We are talking about people up and down this country who have been waiting longer for their operations. [Interruption.] The Government Chief Whip shouts from a sedentary position; he should care about these people who have been waiting longer for their operations. Let me tell the Government Chief Whip and the whole Government Front Bench what we are talking about. Between June 2010 and June 2011, the number of people waiting more than six months for an operation was up by 42% for those waiting for a heart operation, up by 62% for those waiting for orthopaedic operations, and up by 72% for those waiting for eye surgery. The country and I are just asking for a simple explanation from the Prime Minister: why has it happened?

The explanation is that the amount of time that people are waiting for an outpatient operation has actually gone down; that is what has happened. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have targets for 90% of people to get their treatment within 18 weeks, and those targets are being met. He may not like the truth, but that is the truth, and I have to say to him that that is why we now see the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing all supporting our health reforms. We even see Lord Darzi, the former Health Minister, supporting our health reforms. Labour has got itself into a position of opposing all reform to the NHS and opposing the extra money into the NHS; that is its position.

I think the Prime Minister has convinced the country that he is on another planet from them. He had his holidays interrupted—fair play to him—but he took time off from his holiday to tell the Western Morning News what he has just repeated: that the

“whole health profession is on board for what is now being done.”

I have to ask: does he read the newspapers, because only on Tuesday of this week the British Medical Association, the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Midwives all rejected his Bill? And that was only this week. The truth is that under this Government we are seeing two reckless and needless reorganisations of our public services: police numbers down and waiting lists up. Under Labour, we saw police officers up and waiting lists down. Why does he not do the right thing for the future of our public services, and scrap both of these disruptive and dangerous plans?

Is it not interesting that he does not dare in six questions to mention the economy? On our health reforms, let me quote what the man his Government plucked from the NHS to run the Department of Health, Lord Darzi, says:

“The proposals from the NHS Future Forum, and supported by the Government, have recast the reforms in”

the right

“direction and are to be welcomed.”

So now we have the Royal College of GPs, the physicians, the nurses and people working in the health service supporting the changes we are making, and Labour wanting to cut the money and also cut the reform. Isn’t it no surprise that the shadow Health Secretary—it is traditional to quote the shadow Health Secretary on these occasions—said this:

“It’s a tough fact of life…that what Labour says matters less than what almost anyone else says”?

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Does the Prime Minister agree that building stronger families and communities is absolutely essential and key to dealing with antisocial and delinquent behaviour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is important and I am sure that there will be all-party agreement on it. As well as having a tough response from the criminal justice system to the riots—we have seen that tough response, with some exemplary sentences handed out very rapidly by the courts system; I praise all those who have been involved in speeding up the justice system—at the same time we need to do more to strengthen communities, to strengthen families, to increase discipline in schools and to make sure that our welfare system supports responsible behaviour rather than irresponsible behaviour. We will be bringing forward proposals along those lines and I hope that they will have support from everyone in this House.

Q2. Before the summer, the Prime Minister took part in a TV documentary that highlighted fears of crime and antisocial behaviour on the Saffron Lane estate in my constituency. Does he expect crime and antisocial behaviour on that estate, and across Leicester, to increase or decrease when he cuts 200 police officers from the Leicestershire force? (69965)

I want to see crime and antisocial behaviour go down. Let me just remind the hon. Gentleman that today only 12% of police officers——only one in 10—are on the beat at any one time. There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs, not on the front line. We all have a responsibility to try to get our budget deficit under control. His party is committed to a £1 billion cut in the police. What we have to do is recognise that this is about getting officers on to the front line—that is the debate we should be engaged in.

Q3. In the wake of the riots, may I commend the Government’s and Mayor of London’s support for high streets, such as those in Enfield, which were badly hit? Is this not a good time to support the forthcoming global day of prayer, which in London will be taking place at Wembley? (69966)

I certainly pay tribute to what the Mayor has done and what the Department for Communities and Local Government has done to make sure that there is money available for rebuilding our communities. The good thing about the £20 million high street support scheme, which my hon. Friend mentions, is that 29 local authorities have already registered for it. I hope that we will see the money being spent quickly to help rebuild our high streets.

It is up to chief constables to work out how best to police their areas, but what I am finding from talking to police constables up and down the country is that they want to put their resources into visible policing on the streets. They have got the support of a Government who are cutting the paperwork, reforming the pay and reforming the pensions—taking the difficult decisions that will make sure that we have more police on our streets than we ever would under Labour.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a very clear message to the Travellers at the illegal Dale Farm site: we all hope that they move off peacefully in order to avoid a forced eviction but if they do not do so, they should be in no doubt that the Government fully support Basildon council and Essex police in reclaiming this green belt land on behalf of the law-abiding majority? (69967)

I certainly give my support to Essex police and to all the county and district councils that have been involved, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the very hard work he has put in on this issue. What I would say is that it is a basic issue of fairness: everyone in this country has to obey the law, including the law about planning permission and about building on green belt land. Where this has been done without permission it is an illegal development and so those people should move away. I completely agree with the way in which he put his question.

Q5. The Prime Minister opposed Labour’s anti-gang laws, but then the riots occurred and he decided to strengthen them. Now he wants to weaken anti-terror laws by scrapping relocation powers. What will have to happen before he is prepared to admit that the mess he is replacing them with is putting national security at risk? (69968)

I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In our review of control orders, we listened extremely carefully to MI5, the security services, the Metropolitan police and all those involved. There was a full review process to make sure that we could have a system that is legal—that is vital because the courts unpicked so many of the last Government’s changes—that the public can have confidence in and that will keep us safe.

On the day when 200 people from Bombardier in Derby are here to hear whether we can change the arrangements for the Thameslink contract, can the Prime Minister give us some hope about future contracts and about changing the tender arrangements—the mess that we were left in by the previous Government?

I certainly want to do everything I can to help Bombardier, which is an excellent company that employs people in Derbyshire and has done a brilliant job as an engineering business in this country for so many years. Before people from the Labour party start shouting, let me remind them that this procurement process was designed and initiated by the previous Government. It is no good their trying to shuffle off their responsibility—it is their responsibility.

Q6. Why do the Government not agree with the police that children as young as seven should be banned from having shotgun licences? (69969)

I think we should enforce proper rules on gun licences, including shotgun licences. We always keep these rules under review and if they need toughening, I will happily look at that.

The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss? [Interruption.]

I know that the hon. Lady is extremely frustrated about the—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should start all over again—[Interruption.] I am going to give up on this one.

Q7. With the Future Jobs Fund and education maintenance allowance having been scrapped, the number of young people not in education, unemployment and training is at a record high of 18.4% on the Prime Minister’s watch. When will things get better for our young people? (69970)

Clearly, we face a difficult situation in terms of youth unemployment. Let us be clear that the situation was getting worse during the economic good times, and there was a 40% increase in youth unemployment over the time of the previous Government. What we are seeing today is a disturbing increase in the number of those not in employment, education and training over the age of 18, but under the age of 18 that number is coming down. The steps that we are taking are to improve schooling, to raise the participation age to 18 and massively to increase the level of apprenticeships to 360,000 starts this year. We are also introducing the Work programme, which is the biggest back-to-work programme that has taken place in this country since the 1930s and it will also be made available to young people who are in danger of being left out of employment, education and training.

Q8. I have been working with local businesses, my councils and other organisations to help promote, expand and grow the Carlisle economy. Clearly, given the economic background, it is imperative that we grow both the local and national economy. Will the Prime Minister tell us what new measures the Government will introduce to help promote such growth? (69971)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I enjoyed seeing at first hand what is happening in Cumbria to try get the local economy moving. The action we are taking obviously includes the cuts in corporation tax, and the regional growth fund and the enterprise zones. Specifically for Cumbria, the money we are investing for superfast broadband will really help that county, particularly the most rural and far-flung parts, and will ensure that small businesses can benefit throughout the county.

Q15. DNA and CCTV played a vital role in the arrest of many of the looters. Why is the Prime Minister undermining that in the Protection of Freedoms Bill? (69978)

Q9. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes to consider next week’s Vickers report on the banks, which have been rescued with fantastic amounts of taxpayers’ money, will he have no truck with the banks’ argument that they cannot be reformed to prevent another crisis because they are having such a struggle coping with the crisis they have already created? Surely never again should British taxpayers have to bail out banks that are too big to fail. (69972)

My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the Government must take action to reform the banks, and that is what we are doing. We have already set out how we are getting rid of the tripartite structure that failed so badly under the previous Government, how we are putting the Bank of England back in charge, and how we are making sure that, as he put it, we cannot have in the future these catastrophic bank failures that cost the taxpayer so dear. We are looking forward to receiving Professor Vickers’ report. It seems to me there are two vital things we have to secure—a safe and secure banking system for the future, but also proper bank lending, including to small businesses, right now in our economy. That is what Government policy will be aiming for.

Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that his Government are consulting on their changes to housing benefit claims under the criteria of under-occupancy. This will adversely affect 450,000 disabled people, including 33,000 in the north-east alone, who stand to lose on average £676 a year. A substantial number will be affected in my constituency. How does this policy meet his Government’s fairness test? (69973)

We are making a specific exclusion to deal with people who have carers living in the home, but we do have to reform housing benefit. I think the whole House knows, frankly, that housing benefit was one of those budget items that was completely out of control. In some parts of London, we had families claiming £60,000, £70,000 and £80,000 in housing benefit just for one family, so this does need to be reformed. It is no good for the Labour party—

Frankly, too many. And it is no good for the Labour party to complain about every single reduction to public spending when it left us with the biggest budget deficit in Europe.

The Prime Minister has listened to Liberal Democrat colleagues by delaying police elections until November next year. Will he now listen to Conservative colleagues and take the opportunity to hold a referendum on Europe?

That is an ingenious way of putting the question. As I explained yesterday, I want us to be influential in Europe about the things that matter to our national interest—promoting the single market, pushing forward for growth and making sure that we get lower energy prices. Those are the things that we will be fighting for, but I do not see the case for an in/out referendum on Europe. We are in Europe and we have got to make it work for us.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Housing Minister that due to the economic policies of the Government, we now have a growth crisis? When he does a U-turn, will he choose to cut VAT, which is Labour’s policy, or to give tax cuts to the rich? (69974)

The hon. Gentleman obviously has not had time to read this great tome, which points out that increasing VAT was Labour’s policy at the last election. What he should focus on is the fact that the person responsible for Labour’s economic policy at the last election has said it had no credible policy whatever. The problem for Labour is that absolutely nothing has changed.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Members from both sides of the House and in both Houses on their generosity in responding to the letter from Mr Speaker and the Lords’ Speaker in supporting a gift for Her Majesty the Queen for her forthcoming diamond jubilee from this Parliament?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone who contributed to this very imaginative and sensible gift for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. Perhaps I could pay particular tribute to him because he has worked so hard to make this work. I think it will be a fitting tribute and it is something that the country should focus on. To have a diamond jubilee is an extraordinary thing for us to be able to celebrate in our lifetimes.

Q12. With electricity and gas bills going up by 20%, and with 6 million families in this country now facing fuel poverty, does the Prime Minister still think it was right to cut the winter fuel payment to pensioners by £100? (69975)

Let us be clear: we are going ahead with the winter fuel payment set out by the previous Labour Government in their Budget. At the same time, we are increasing the cold weather payments on a permanent basis, so this Government are being more generous than the previous Government.

In seeking to address the economic recovery, is it better to help those who are taxed on incomes as little as £150 a week, or those who, after tax, take home around 10 times that amount?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Let me just point out two things that we have done that are totally in line with that, one of which is to lift 1 million people out of income tax altogether—that is a coalition commitment that we have been delivering on. The second thing, when it comes to tax credits, is that we have increased, over two years, by £290 the tax credits that go to the poorest families in our country. That is why we have managed to take difficult decisions—everyone knows we have had to take difficult decisions—without an increase in child poverty. In better economic times, under the previous Government, child poverty actually went up.

Q13. Bringing Siemens, manufacturing wind turbines, to the Humber is vital for jobs and a breakthrough on renewables, which will hopefully increase the UK industry in this area. Local councils and businesses are doing everything they can to attract Siemens to the area, but we face very strong foreign competition. Will this Government do what the last Government did and back this bid? Will the Prime Minister do everything he can to secure Siemens coming to Hull? (69976)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I think it is vital for the future of our economy and the future of the area that she represents. I met Members of Parliament from Humberside to discuss the issue. I have myself spoken to the head of Siemens about the importance of this investment going ahead. We are continuing the extra money going into ports to help the development of this industry and we back it all the way.

At a meeting this morning with organisations working in the horn of Africa, representatives expressed their gratitude for the fact that the British public have been so generous and the Department for International Development has provided such leadership. That famine is continuing to become more severe. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to provide international leadership to help the people in east Africa?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The response of the British public has been remarkable. These are difficult economic times, but they have shown an incredible generosity and led the world in the contributions that they have made. And because this Government, again in difficult economic times, have made the decision to fulfil our pledge of reaching the level of 0.7% of national income going into aid, we are also leading the world in the amount of money that we are putting into the horn of Africa to vaccinate children, to save lives and to recognise that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Q14. Does the Prime Minister agree that his Housing Minister is an absolute star? In the face of declining planning permissions for new build homes, in the face of fewer new homes being built in the previous 12 months than in any year of Labour’s programme of administration for house building, his Minister’s great idea is to urge councils to build more moorings for houseboats. Fantastic. (69977)

I thought the hon. Gentleman was doing so well till he got all political. I think there should be agreement across the House that house building is too low in this country, and it is a shocking statistic that the typical first-time buyer is now in their mid-30s. So we do need change, we do need more houses to be built, and I think my Housing Minister is doing a first-class job.

While much attention is being paid to the military activities occurring in Libya over the summer, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Captain Steve Norris and the crew of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Wave Ruler in the work they are doing combating drugs in the Caribbean? Not only did they intercept £50 million of cocaine over the summer, but they have also been helping humanitarian efforts in the Overseas Territories following Hurricane Irene.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. While we obviously should focus on and praise the incredible work that our services have done in Libya and Afghanistan, there are the ongoing tasks. He talks about drug interdiction in the West Indies. There is also the task of protecting the Falkland Islands. There is the work that we are doing to prevent piracy off the horn of Africa. In all these tasks people are giving a huge amount of time and effort, and we should praise and thank them for what they do.