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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Remploy’s operations in Scotland. (70960)

The Government are totally committed to supporting disabled people into employment, and the amount of money going into that is being protected. A consultation event on the future strategy of Remploy is taking place in Glasgow today, and Remploy staff have been invited to attend.

As job losses continue to increase in my constituency, can the Minister say whether he intends to engage with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Remploy jobs in Dundee are protected?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who is a doughty fighter for Remploy, that no decisions have been made. I understand that he attended a meeting in the Scottish Parliament organised by Helen Eadie MSP that undertook to submit a response to the consultation on Remploy, and that response will be welcome.

The Dundee Remploy factory is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), but many of my constituents work in it. The factory makes first-class chemical and biological suits, which are required by the emergency services and the military. I urge the Minister to speak not just to the Department for Work and Pensions, however important that might be, but to the Ministry of Defence and the Home Secretary to ensure that the emergency services and the military look carefully at what Remploy produces and, in particular, the quality of the suits that the Dundee factory makes.

The hon. Gentleman will know that his constituency neighbour has already met the MOD, which has confirmed the high standard and quality of the work Remploy does in its Dundee factory. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman and everyone in Scotland with an interest to take part in the consultation.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that as well as the Dundee factory there are seven other Remploy factories in Scotland. Does he accept that while his colleagues in the Government are talking about the importance of manufacturing it would be crass and foolhardy to embark on the closure of factories that provide goods and jobs, where public sector procurement could make the difference to ensure that they are viable in future? Will he make representations across Government to ensure that the jobs in those eight factories in Scotland are protected?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is not acceptable that around 50% of disabled people are out of work and that those who are in work often do jobs that are far below their potential. Closing the unemployment gap between disabled and non-disabled people could boost the overall economy by £13 billion, and the Government want to achieve that. We are undertaking a consultation; I urge him and everyone with an interest to take part in it.

Energy Prices

5. What recent representations he has received on increases in prices for electricity and gas by the main energy suppliers in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (70964)

Energy price increases continue to be a matter of concern to the public and the Government. I recently discussed the issue with the six largest energy providers in Scotland as well as with consumer groups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but he will no doubt be aware that the energy companies are now just a major cartel. I therefore suggest one of two options for him: either to give Ofgem the power to say no to the energy companies when they come forward with huge increases; or—even better—to return that power to this House.

We share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to be vigilant about everything that we see in the energy market, which is why the work of Ofgem and my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change is so important. The latest discussions with the energy companies took place in the last couple of weeks, building on those that I had earlier in the year. The energy companies are in no doubt that the Government expect them to look carefully at all their pricing policies, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to be vigilant in that respect.

One hundred thousand pensioners in Glasgow face cuts totalling £4 million to their winter fuel allowance this year. At the same time, energy companies are putting up their prices by up to 20%. Does the Secretary of State agree that no pensioner in the UK should have to choose between heating their home and putting food on the table? If so, what is he going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus attention on some of the most vulnerable people in society, both in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. I would point out to him that the winter fuel allowance will return to its previous level, as planned by the previous Government, and that the cold weather payments—on which we spent over £50 million last year—will continue at a higher level than before. I know that the hon. Gentleman studies these matters carefully, and he will be aware that, through our Warm Home discount scheme—a statutory scheme that is replacing the previous voluntary scheme run by the energy companies—we will ensure that we get more than double the amount of assistance to vulnerable households this winter and during the winters ahead.

I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to talk to renewable energy providers about the fact that the only way of getting the electricity generated in that way into the grid is via overhead pylons. Given that undergrounding takes place in alpine countries, will he insist that that happens in the highlands and the north of England as well?

I understand the sensitivity of the issue that my hon. Friend raises; indeed, it occurs across the country. This matter must be carefully considered, and the proposals for the transmission network must take full account of environmental and other planning considerations.

In his discussions with the energy companies, has the Secretary of State discussed the 1 million households that are not on the gas main? What are the energy companies going to do to extend the gas main and give those households the opportunity to use a cheaper fuel than oil?

We are keen to ensure that consumers have as much choice as possible, whether through extending the transmission networks for all different kinds of energy or through looking at ways of enhancing competitiveness in the market by increasing transparency and improving smart meters. All those measures need to be looked at, and I will certainly put the right hon. Gentleman’s point to the energy companies the next time we talk.

In those discussions about off-grid gas consumers, did the Secretary of State talk about the escalating price and the need to avoid a repeat of the difficulty in ensuring supplies during the severe weather last winter?

People are acutely aware of the problems caused by the weather last winter and the winter before that. That is why the measures to keep resilience in the network are particularly important. Equally, however, we need to recognise that that adds cost to consumers, which is why we are maintaining the cold weather payments. We will also have the winter fuel allowance and, through our new measures, we will enhance the support for vulnerable people across Scotland.

Many of my constituents, particularly those on low incomes, are struggling with the large increases in their gas and electricity bills. I very much welcome the recent news that Ofgem has brought in a firm of specialist auditors to help its investigation into whether the high energy prices are really justified, and I look forward to seeing its report at the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues ensure that Ofgem has all the necessary support to carry out a thorough investigation, and sufficient powers to sanction the big six, in particular, if, as I expect, it finds that they have been acting unfairly?

Certainly, a feature of the discussions that I have been having recently is that many of the energy companies recognise that they need to regain the trust of the consumer concerning price rises and the reasons that they have come about. In the next few weeks I will be bringing energy companies and consumer groups in Scotland together to look at these issues in detail. I will ensure that the companies focus on the appropriate responses and that we take away whatever work we need to do.

Given that surveys conducted by Consumer Focus Scotland show that nine out of 10 people who bought energy products on the doorstep would never do so again, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for all energy providers in Scotland—not just four—to end the practice of cold calling? If so, when will the Government introduce legislation to ensure that this foul practice ceases?

I join the hon. Lady in condemning the sharp practice that has been on display in many parts of the country, particularly in Scotland. That is one of the issues that we will discuss in the meeting that I mentioned in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). We are determined to get the companies to recognise that that is an unacceptable practice.

At a time when Scottish and Southern Energy will be adding an average of £171 a year to each of its customers’ electricity and gas bills, tipping thousands of people in Scotland into fuel poverty, and when other energy providers are following suit, does the Minister agree that it is unfair and morally inappropriate that its chief executive officer received a bonus of £2 million on top of his £840,000 salary when the wholesale prices of energy were actually going down?

Remuneration is a matter for the energy companies themselves, but all of us have to ensure that we are carefully focused on the performance and behaviour of all these companies, which is why I have been ensuring that their focus is on what their consumers, and particularly the most vulnerable, need. The hon. Lady is right to focus on fuel poverty: at the end of 2009, a third of Scottish households were measured to be in it. The measures I have already outlined will go a long way towards helping to tackle it.

Highlands and Islands (Economy)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for the economy of the highlands and islands; and if he will make a statement. (70963)

Despite challenging international circumstances, the UK and Scottish economies are growing, rebalancing and creating jobs. The Government are creating a new model of economic growth that is more evenly balanced across the UK.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He has welcomed, as have we all across Scotland, the formal confirmation of university status for the University of the Highlands and Islands. As he knows, the university has put in an application to the Scottish Government for an additional £3 million in view of the extra demands now being placed upon it. Is that something to which my right hon. Friend can give his discreet support?

I am always happy to look at these cases and provide support as necessary. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important step forward for the highlands and islands. I hope that the Scottish Government will reflect carefully on what he and others have been saying.

Yesterday I had an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on fuel duty. Is the Secretary of State aware that the duty is then subject to tax by VAT?

I think that everybody in the House is aware of the realities of fuel taxation. I am therefore sure that the hon. Gentleman was welcoming the fact that in our Budget earlier this year we reduced fuel duty rather than increasing it in the way the previous Government had planned. This question gives me the opportunity to remind the House that we have made further progress in the derogation for highlands and islands fuel prices, which is very welcome news indeed, so that we can get a reduction in fuel duty in the islands.

The highlands and islands economy is being held back by the high price of fuel. I warmly welcome the Government’s progress on the island fuel discount and on the cut in fuel duty in this year’s Budget. However, a further increase in fuel duty is planned for January; if the price of fuel remains high, I hope that that will not go ahead. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor?

I am very aware from my own travels around Scotland, particularly to my hon. Friend’s constituency, of the extremely challenging circumstances for users of cars and vehicles across rural areas and, indeed, all of Scotland. I therefore particularly welcome, to repeat my earlier point, the Budget reduction and the European Commission's announcement about its support for our derogation. We want to keep all these things in balance. My hon. Friend’s comments will have been heard by the Chancellor, but he alone is responsible for taxation matters.

It is to be welcomed that unemployment is down in Scotland and that employment is up, but challenges remain, not least in the north of Scotland where, because of defence cuts, £30 million will be lost every year due to the closure of RAF Kinloss as an airbase. Will the Secretary of State confirm that no specific financial support has been provided by the UK Government to help deal with that economic shock?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, in reaching some difficult and complex decisions over the future not only of RAF basing but of that of the Army and Navy, too, we will see an increased footprint in Scotland as a whole. In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, we will see additional Army resources going into Kinloss in particular. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that discussions on how to support the communities through the next few years are at an early stage, but I am looking forward to them continuing in the constructive manner in which they have started.

Everyone will have noted that the Secretary of State was not able to confirm that there has been any specific financial support—because there has not been. It has been nearly a year since the announcement of RAF Kinloss’s closure as an airbase and more than two months since confirmation about the Army deployment. Agencies supported by the Scottish Government have been active in support of economic diversification. In contrast, the UK Government have provided little or no details to these local agencies to assist in the transition. Why is that?

I have discussed the matter with the Scottish Finance Secretary on a couple of occasions. The Scotland Office continues to be engaged with the taskforces, both in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world and in Fife. We are working hard to ensure that the detail and all the other aspects of the plan are in place, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the announcements when they are made.

Order. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear Fiona Bruce.

Public Disorder (England)

6. What assistance police forces in Scotland provided during the public disorder in England in August 2011; and if he will make a statement. (70965)

7. What assistance police forces in Scotland provided during the public disorder in England in August 2011; and if he will make a statement. (70966)

Scottish forces gave assistance to forces in England through the provision of police support units. During the debate in the House on 11 August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

“I am aware of the excellent role that Scottish police officers played, particularly helping the West Midlands force. I saw for myself their impact when they arrived in Birmingham, and it is very good that our forces can co-operate in that way.”—[Official Report, 11 August 2011; Vol. 531, c. 1081.]

Does the Minister agree that the excellent cross-border support provided by Scottish police has exemplified to everyone in Britain the advantages of a flexible, devolved United Kingdom?

I entirely agree. There are many examples of Scottish forces’ playing an important role in incidents elsewhere in the United Kingdom, not least in dealing with the shootings that took place in Cumbria in 2010.

Londoners welcomed the robust standard of policing brought from Scotland during the recent riots. What plans are there for closer co-operation, joint operations and further training, so that we can learn the lessons of the past?

As the Prime Minister made clear on 11 August, Strathclyde police have achieved significant success—particularly in Glasgow—in pursuing gang-related initiatives, including a community initiative to reduce violence. They are committed to working with the Metropolitan police and other forces in England to share best practice in that regard.

During the recess, I spent six days with Lothian and Borders police as part of the parliamentary police scheme. The people with whom I worked were concerned about the possibility that the call on Scottish forces would deny them, for example, any holidays in August next year during the Olympics, and also about the possible impact on the budget of Scottish forces. Is the Secretary of State lobbying to secure adequate recompense for the Scottish forces for the contribution that they have made, and will make in the future, to English policing?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are arrangements with the Home Office for occasions when police forces are deployed from other parts of the United Kingdom. However, I am sure that the Home Secretary has heard the specific points made by the hon. Gentleman, and I will raise them directly with the Scottish Government.

West Lothian Question

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70967)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70968)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70970)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a commission on the West Lothian question. (70971)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on a range of issues, and last week the Government announced the steps that we are taking to establish a commission on the West Lothian question.

Will the Secretary of State give the House what is the time scale for the commission, and will he reassure every one of us that the present unfair voting system will be resolved by the end of this Parliament?

The details of the commission’s remit and the time scale will be announced by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—the Minister responsible for constitutional reform—at the appropriate moment, as he indicated last week. As for all the issues to be considered by the commission, I am sure that its members have heard the hon. Gentleman’s opening bid.

Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that the issue of Barnett consequentials is taken into consideration as part of the commission’s terms of reference?

The commission will not give specific consideration to the Barnett formula, or to funding arrangements around the United Kingdom. We have made a separate commitment within the coalition agreement to look at all those matters when we have achieved our primary objective of sorting out the public finances.

Will the Minister confirm that the commission will consider the issue with regard not just to Scotland, but to the other devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland? [Interruption.]

That rather reinforces my point that there is far too much noise in the Chamber, which is very discourteous. The hon. Gentleman should repeat his question.

Will the Minister confirm that the commission will consider the issue with regard not just to Scotland, but to the other devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland?

I am happy to confirm that although it is called the West Lothian commission, it will look at all the relevant issues regarding all parts of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State share my view that resolving the West Lothian question would not, in fact, damage the Union?

We now have an opportunity to consider carefully the issues that were first so famously posed back in 1977. As devolution has developed over recent years, the need to address these issues has become more urgent. We are keen for that to be done, which is why we are the first Government to set up a commission to look at the issues, and we look forward to its getting on with its work.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is an elegant solution to the West Lothian question: Scotland having the normal powers of a normal nation, which is called independence?

Nobody could ever doubt the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in, and commitment to, this issue, but what he says only serves to raise the question of why the Scottish Government are delaying holding the referendum on independence.

May I invite the Secretary of State to ignore the little Englanders behind him and the little Scotlanders behind me, and tell us that we are going to allow Scottish MPs to discuss Scotland in a Scottish Grand Committee? Will he reconvene that Committee as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman frequently made that plea to the previous Government. We are, of course, keen to ensure that all Scottish matters continue to be debated in the appropriate way in this House, and we will ensure that.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is embarrassed by the four grouped questions, which were obviously planted by his Front-Bench colleagues. When he is looking into all the matters under discussion, will he remember London, and perhaps treat Scotland in the same way as London has been treated?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is saying about these questions, but perhaps he would like to look to the way in which the previous Government behaved; indeed, perhaps he is trying to give us an insight into that. All I will say to him is that, unlike the previous Government, we are determined to recognise that there is an issue that needs to be discussed and considered. It is complex, as there are lots of issues that we will have to consider, but then the House can get on with doing all the work it needs to do.

Does the Minister agree with me as a West Lothian Member of Parliament that it is deeply unsatisfactory that a commission on a constitutional issue affecting Scotland has been set up with no opportunity for any consultation on its terms of reference or any involvement by Parliament until the commission presents its findings?

I am sorry that that is the hon. Gentleman’s attitude. I thought he would welcome the fact that we are setting up the commission. I am sure that when it is set up, he will want to contribute to it. He raised some issues, including on the terms of reference, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office has made it absolutely clear that we will listen to all the points that are made to us. [Interruption.]

Order. The House is in a very excitable state, and it is not even lunchtime yet. Members must calm down and compose themselves.

Employer National Insurance Holiday

12. What assessment he has made of the effects on job creation in Scotland of the employer’s national insurance holiday scheme. (70972)

As of 7 September 2011, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has received 922 successful applications for the national insurance holiday scheme from new businesses located in Scotland. Of the 396 applications received for the 2010-11 financial year, 386 claimed the national insurance contributions holiday, supporting approximately 1,300 new jobs.

Should not the Minister be lobbying the Chancellor to create a proper strategy for growth for Scottish manufacturing and construction, instead of offering such complacent support for a scheme that has created less than 10% of the jobs that were forecast and that has been described by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland as badly designed and failing to deliver at a time when the country needs the creation of new jobs?

We will certainly not be taking any lectures on national insurance from Labour, a party that sought to introduce a jobs tax in 2009. [Interruption.] I had the benefit of visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last week, and I would have thought that he welcomed the fact that these jobs that did not exist before and that they have a better chance of becoming permanent with the NIC holiday—[Interruption.]

It seems you are not alone, Mr Speaker.

Job creation is majorly affected by fuel costs. In my constituency in Stornoway fuel is £1.50 a litre and in Uist it is £1.57. A huge component of those prices is the cost of distribution from the refineries. A few months ago, the Secretary of State gave me assurances that he would look into this. Can the Minister update me on any progress that has been made regarding fuel distribution from refineries?

I can update the hon. Gentleman on the progress on receiving the derogation from the EU to allow fuel prices in his constituency and other remote parts to be lower than they currently are. I should have thought that he welcomed this coalition Government’s delivering that commitment.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Grieving families on Teesside are waiting many months and sometimes many years to have inquests into the deaths of their loved ones concluded. Apparently that is much longer than the wait anywhere else in the country. They have suffered enough. Will the Prime Minister stop the messing about now and instruct the Justice Secretary to sack the incompetent Teesside coroner?

I will certainly look at the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raises. As he knows, we have been reforming coroner services and putting money and resources into them to try to make them more effective, but I shall certainly take up the individual case that he makes.

Will the Prime Minister give us an update on his recent visit to Russia, especially in relation to the tragic murder of Mr Litvinenko, whose widow lives in my constituency? That case also caused a risk to public safety. Will the Prime Minister meet her to give her an update?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Alexander Litvinenko’s widow before I travelled to Moscow. Let me be absolutely clear that the British Government have not changed their view one jot about how wrong it was for that murder to take place and about how we need a proper explanation about what happened and who was responsible. We want justice for that family. We have not changed our view, but I do think it is right, at the same time, to try to build a better relationship with Russia across a whole range of issues. We have common interests in trying to grow our economies and our trade and we have common interests in working together on issues such as the middle east peace process. I made sure when I went to Russia that I raised not just the Litvinenko case but many other human rights cases, including the Magnitsky case, with the Russian President and others. I think that is the right way to conduct our international relations.

Today’s figures show that unemployment is up by 80,000. Does the Prime Minister still think the British economy is out of the danger zone?

First, let me say that these unemployment figures are disappointing—I do not want to hide from that. Every lost job is a tragedy for that family and I want to do everything I can, and this Government will do everything they can, to help those people back into work. That is why we have 360,000 apprenticeships starting this year, that is why we have 10,000 extra university places, and that is why, in the Work programme, we have the biggest back-to-work, welfare-to-work programme this country has seen since the 1930s. But at the same time, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is right that we get on top of our debts and our deficits, and today of all days shows the danger of getting into the position that other European countries are in where their whole credibility is being questioned.

People are going to judge the Prime Minister on results. They do not want to hear his spin about the Work programme. Youth unemployment is up by 78,000, on today’s figures, even after his Work programme has started. What young people and their families are asking is, “Where are the jobs?”

The Work programme is the best way to help young people—indeed, all people—back into work. Of course, as I have said, the figures are disappointing, but we should not ignore the fact that since the election there are 500,000 more jobs in the private sector. There are more people—300,000 more people—in work than there were a year ago. Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is not one ounce of complacency in this Government about the need to do more to help people back to work. We have a growth plan that includes cuts in corporation tax, freezing the council tax, cuts in petrol duty, introducing the regional growth fund, and making sure we have enterprise zones in every part of our country, but in every week and in every month we will be adding to that growth programme so we help people get back to work.

The right hon. Gentleman and his Government are the byword for complacency in this country on the issue of unemployment. Youth unemployment was falling at the general election, and it has risen on his watch; it is his responsibility. Women’s unemployment, too, is at its highest level since 1988, and he is making the situation worse by cutting the child care tax credit. How does it make sense, when unemployment is rising for women, to cut the support that helps them back into work?

Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman that youth unemployment went up by 40% under the last Government—278,000 more young people were unemployed when he was sitting in the Treasury and breaking our banking system and bankrupting our economy. That is what the people remember.

Now, when it comes to child care, what this Government are doing—we are the first Government to do it—is making sure that there are 15 hours of free child care for every four-year-old and every three-year-old, and we have extended that to every two-year-old. We have focused the tax credit system on the poorest people in our country, so that child tax credits are going up by £290 this year and next for those who need it the most. But let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman that, on a day when France and Germany are meeting to stop Greece going bankrupt, he must be the only person in the world who thinks that you spend more to get out of a debt crisis.

It is no wonder that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the British economy and what is happening here, because of what is actually happening. And not for the first time, he is wrong in what he says at the Dispatch Box: youth unemployment was falling at the general election, and now it is rising. Why is it not working? The reason is that his claim and the Chancellor’s central claim that the public sector could be cut and the private sector would make up the difference is not happening. For every two jobs being cut in the public sector, less than one is being created in the private sector. Is that not the clearest sign yet that his policy just is not working?

So now we have it, Mr Speaker: the right hon. Gentleman wants to tell us about the golden inheritance left by the last Government—the fact that they completely bust our banking system, the fact that they doubled the national debt and the fact that they gave us the biggest budget deficit in Europe that we are still recovering from—and he cannot even be consistent inside one day. This is what he said yesterday to the TUC: “You cannot spend your way to a new economy.” Just 24 hours later, he has changed his tune all over again. No wonder the last Chancellor of the Exchequer said that they have no credibility whatsoever.

What an insult to the people up and down this country who have lost their jobs! The right hon. Gentleman does not even try to answer the question about his central economic strategy to cut the public sector and make the private sector make up the difference. It is not happening, and the truth is, look at what has happened over the past year: Britain has grown slower than any other EU country, apart from Portugal and Romania. Now can the Prime Minister tell the country and the people who have lost their jobs what he is going to do differently over the next year compared with what he did over the last year?

First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on his facts. The fact is that, this year, Britain is growing faster than America. That is something that he does not choose to tell us. [Interruption.] Let me answer directly—[Interruption.]

Let me answer directly this point about unemployment in the public sector. All Governments right now are having to take difficult decisions about cutting public spending. Anyone standing here would have to make those decisions. This Government are reducing the welfare bill and reforming public sector pensions. If we were not taking those steps, deeper cuts would have to be made in terms of the rest of the public sector. The right hon. Gentleman would be having even more unemployment in the public sector. That is the truth. When will he learn what I thought he said yesterday, “You cannot spend your way to a new economy”? Is that still his view 24 hours later?

So the message to all those people who have lost their jobs is that the Prime Minister is not going to change course. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has lashed himself to the mast. [Interruption.] Not for the first time perhaps. Youth unemployment is at its highest level for 19 years and women’s unemployment is at its highest level for 23 years—the highest levels since the last time there was a Tory Government. It turns out that he is just like all the others: for him, unemployment is a price worth paying.

It is this Government who are cutting corporation tax, who have frozen council tax, who have cut petrol duty, who introduced the regional growth fund, who ended Labour’s jobs tax, who have the biggest apprenticeship programme in decades, and who have increased capital spending compared with what Labour left behind. The truth is that it was the last Government who robbed young people of their future by piling up the debt. It is this Government who will deal with our debts and give them back their future.

Q2. The Prime Minister will be aware that the consultation on the draft national planning policy framework will end next month. Will he confirm that the Government’s proposals will ensure that local residents will be at the forefront of decision making, that important green spaces will retain their existing protection, and that this will not become a developers charter? (71524)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We need reform, as the current system is too slow and bureaucratic, and it does not give local people enough of a say. We are replacing a vast, 1,000-page bureaucratic guide with something that is much shorter. Local development plans will mean that local communities and local people have a far greater say in what is developed and where, and we are not changing the rules on national parks, on the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Let me just say this to everyone in the House, because I think there should be cross-party support on this issue. Today, the first-time buyer with no support from their family is aged 37. I think that is wrong. We need to build more houses, to help more young people to get on the housing ladder.

Q3. Last week, the Prime Minister told the House:“There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 353.]

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says that there are fewer than 8,000 police officers and police community support officers in back-office roles. Week after week, the House hears a litany of evasion, inaccurate answers and arrogant put-downs from the Prime Minister. We want a proper answer. Let us give the Prime Minister a chance today: is it the inspectorate or is it the Prime Minister? We won’t get an answer. (71525)

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two things: the number of police officers who are not on front-line duties, and the number of police officers who are in back-office roles such as IT or HR. Those are the figures that I gave, and those are the figures that are right. What makes the Opposition complacent is that they are not prepared to consider any reforms to try to get more police on to the front line and on to our streets.

I know that the Prime Minister is serious about tackling violent crime, antisocial behaviour and the fact that there are more than 1 million hospital admissions in England a year for alcohol-related conditions. Will he meet me to discuss the evidence that we need to go further on minimum pricing, availability and particularly the marketing of alcohol to young people?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, who has made a lot of speeches and written a lot of articles about the issue, about which she feels passionately. She is right in many ways that there is a problem with binge drinking in our country. Much of it is related to very low-cost alcohol, particularly in supermarkets. I want to see an end to that deep discounting, rather than perhaps the way forward that she suggests, but I am happy to meet her and discuss this vital issue.

Q4. A poll last week showed that 68% of Scots want oil revenues devolved to Scotland. Does the Prime Minister agree with 68% of Scots or not? (71526)

If you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. The fact is the whole of the United Kingdom rightly has invested in the North sea, and the whole of the United Kingdom should benefit from the North sea. We should do everything possible to keep the United Kingdom together because we are stronger—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—than we ever would be separate.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The current figures are simply not good enough. Only 14% of FTSE 100 company directors are women. We should do far better. We have some experience from the problems that we had in our own party and the need to take much more proactive action to make sure we have a better balance at the top of politics. We need a much better balance at the top of our boardrooms as well.

Q6. Are not the most vulnerable people in the care of the health service those silent voices who live in residential homes? Will the Prime Minister express his regret that under his watch there was, we hear today, a nearly three quarters reduction in the number of inspections—a 70% reduction—because money was moved from inspection to bureaucracy? Does not that again prove that the national health service is not safe in the hands of the nasty party? (71528)

The Health Committee report that is released today makes a very important point about the future and the work of the Care Quality Commission. It is important that it focuses on inspections and making sure that standards are high rather than simply on a process of registration and bureaucracy. I look forward to seeing the Government’s response to a very good report.

Was my right hon. Friend taught, at whatever school he happened to attend, that one of the key functions of Parliament over the centuries has been to diminish what the historians have called the overmighty subject. In the 18th century—[Interruption.]

In the 18th century, it was the Indian nabobs, denounced by Edmund Burke. In the 19th century, it was the ruthless industrialists, humanised by Shaftesbury. In the 20th century, it was the trade union leaders, tamed by Lady Thatcher. Today, the overmighty subject is the bankers. In the United States, the federal authorities are prosecuting a wide swathe of the top banks. When will that happen here?

My right hon. Friend obviously had a much better education than I did; that is apparent. Also, it was very good to hear him say something very positive about Margaret Thatcher. The serious point that my right hon. Friend makes is right: we do need to see responsibility from our bankers. I support what Vickers has said in terms of the reforms that we need, and to answer my right hon. Friend’s question directly, if people break the law, no matter where they come from or who they are, they should face the consequences and be punished.

Q7. What does the Prime Minister think of local authorities encouraging developers to put in planning applications not on green belt but on greenfield sites in order to use the new homes bonus to balance their budgets? (71529)

I have the completely original and shocking view that these matters should be for local people and local authorities. In the past, we have had far too much top-down, central direction. People in Derbyshire should make up their own mind, through their local council, about what planning should take place and where. That is the agenda that this Government will follow.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noted the recent sound advice that in order for a Government to operate effectively there should be complete unity at the top. With that in mind, will he assure the House and the country that he does not feel the need to re-write a Budget 48 hours before it is due?

I can confirm that these days those discussions take place in a proper way, between the two partners in the coalition, and that it is not a battle between Nos. 10 and 11. I should also say that when I have a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer it is nothing like going to the dentist and there is no need for an anaesthetic.

Q8. I am sure that all parties in this House have welcomed the news that convicted fraudster and former Lib Dem donor Michael Brown has been found living under an assumed name in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, we have no extradition treaty with that country. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to bring Mr Brown back to face justice? (71530)

We would like to extend these treaties to other countries, and I will certainly look into the case of the Dominican Republic and get back to the hon. Gentleman. While we are at it, perhaps we could have a search for the individual donor to the Labour party—I gather that there was only one and that he was called Alastair Campbell.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Burnley football club, which, in partnership with Buckinghamshire New university, has delivered the first university of football business in the UK, which has generated immense interest among young people in the UK and across Europe?

I happily join my hon. Friend in praising the work of Burnley football club. I have been very struck in this job by the privilege I have of seeing different football clubs working not only on their own football skills, but on inspiring young people, and not only here, but in other countries, as I saw with the work that Spurs football club is doing in South Africa. I think there is a huge role for football in helping to change people’s lives and I fully support what our clubs do.

Q9. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s answer at the Dispatch Box last week, will he confirm that the winter fuel allowance this year will be £50 less for the over-60s and £100 less for the over-80s? Age UK has called that a cut. Does he agree? (71531)

What I can confirm is that that payment will be exactly as set out by Labour in their March Budget, a Budget that the hon. Gentleman supported. At the same time, the increase in cold weather payments will actually be maintained throughout this Parliament.

Q10. Small and medium-sized enterprises are vital engines of economic growth in Macclesfield and across the country. Sadly, the cost of new regulations put on businesses under the previous Government amounts to a staggering £90 billion a year. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what this Government are doing to tackle that unacceptable burden on British businesses? (71532)

There is an unacceptable burden in terms of regulation, so the Government, specifically in relation to the retail sector, have already removed 257 regulations. We have the new one-in, one-out rule, so any Minister who comes to me wanting to introduce a regulation has to abolish one first. Also, the red tape challenge means that all regulations are being put up on a website for businesses and individuals to challenge to see what is still necessary and what we can get rid of.

Q11. The Prime Minister will be aware that right across the whole of the United Kingdom we have some excellent industries, businesses and trained staff within those companies, but surely the coalition’s decision to put off banking reform until after the next election will have a detrimental effect on those companies and cause major difficulty. (71533)

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that we asked Professor Vickers to look at this issue, and he recommended legislating in this Parliament but introducing the reforms at the same time as the Basel changes are finalised in 2019, and that is exactly what we will do. At the same time, it seems to me vital that we address the failure of banks to lend enough money, particularly to small businesses. That is why we put the Merlin agreement in place. [Interruption.] Actually, bank lending is not going down, as the shadow Chancellor suggests—he is wrong about everything, even when he is sitting down. Bank lending is actually going up.

With the closure of the Derbyshire Building Society headquarters in my constituency, which is perfectly situated to take the green investment bank, and with the move from Derby to Nottingham of the Post Office sorting centre and evaluation offices, the closure of Courtaulds, with the loss of all but 70 jobs, and the potential closure of Bombardier, will the Prime Minister encourage his Secretaries of State to look at sending more civil service jobs to Derbyshire so that we can have more employment in the area?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that there are real concerns because of what has happened at Bombardier.

On the green investment bank, I know that there are going to be many bids from many parts of the country to house that excellent institution. On Bombardier, it is encouraging to hear that the Department for Transport is looking into the possibility of upgrading an existing fleet of Bombardier-built diesel trains to enable them to run using electric power. That could be a good breakthrough, but, on the previous contract, as we have discussed in the House before, the fact is that it was established by the previous Government and we had to follow those instructions. That is why the contract had to be awarded elsewhere, but we are looking to the future of Bombardier and the future of Derby, and we want to make sure that it is a bright future.

Q12. Last week the Prime Minister told the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) that he would do everything he could to help Bombardier, but the British train building industry is now hanging in the balance as a result of the plan to build trains in Germany rather than in Derby. Will he meet me and a cross-party delegation from Derby to discuss how we can review the contract—and it is possible to review it—in order to secure the future of the British train building industry and keep Bombardier in Great Britain? (71534)

We want to keep Bombardier in Great Britain, and we want to keep Bombardier working, which is why, as I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), there is that new opportunity, but the issue should be put in the context of the fact that we are putting a lot of investment into our rail industry: £14 billion into a network grant for Network Rail; £3.8 billion for Crossrail; and £750 million for High Speed 2. This is a Government who want to do more for our railway industry, and who want to do more for Bombardier after it was so badly let down by the previous Government.

Q13. Campaigners on the right want to get rid of the 50p tax rate and those on the left want to juggle with VAT. Does the Prime Minister agree that the most fair and progressive way to maintain confidence in the economy is to stick to the Government’s policies but accelerate the process of raising the tax threshold to £10,000? (71535)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, but we have raised the personal allowance significantly in our Budgets and taken more than 1 million people out of tax altogether, and we are committed to going further. On the 50p tax, we should look at the evidence. We are going to find out soon just how much money the tax is raising; let us look to see whether it is a good way of raising money or not.

Q14. When the Croydon riots hit our borough on that terrible Monday night, there were at most 100 police officers on the streets, including some very young community support officers, facing mobs hundreds and hundreds strong, as a result of which my borough was undefended, burnt and looted. May I put it to the Prime Minister, not as a partisan point but as a sensible point, that when the criminal facts change in England, as they did following the riots, a sensible Government would pause for thought and change their mind—and that the last thing they would do is reduce police numbers? (71536)

I went to visit Croydon and met the right hon. Gentleman and a number of people who had seen some shocking things happen in that borough which must not be allowed to happen again, but let me say to him that, even after the changes that we are making in police funding, the police will be able to surge as they did in Croydon, in Tottenham, in Manchester and in Salford. The problem on the night of the riots was that the surge did not take place soon enough, and he confuses the response to the riots in the immediate circumstances with what is happening to police funding. The police have assured me that they will be able to deliver on to the streets of London as many police as they did when they got control of the riots.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), will the Prime Minister agree to meet organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Trust and so on to reassure them and their millions of members that the proposed changes to the planning system do not represent a blank cheque for developers?

I am very happy to meet anyone to discuss that, and I know that the National Trust has specifically already met the planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and has had many reassurances about what the planning changes mean. Let me just say this again: because we are going to have stronger local plans, that will give local people a greater ability to decide what is in the local plan and what is out of the local plan. At the same time, having a presumption in favour of sustainable development will cut a lot of bureaucracy in our system, but we are not changing the rules for greenbelt, for areas of outstanding natural beauty, for sites of special scientific interest or for all the rest of it. I do think that people need to focus on that, because we need sensible, sustainable development to go ahead without the bureaucracy and the top-down system of today, but with all the reassurances that people need.

Q15. Last week the Prime Minister told the House that the number of young people not in education, employment or training was coming down. In actual fact, the published figures show that over the past three quarters it has risen by 27,000. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to correct the record? (71537)

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that what I actually said was that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training has come down. Indeed, it has come down, and that is a step forward, but the overall number for youth unemployment has gone up, and that is unacceptable. That is why we need the Work programme, more apprenticeships, and more university places—and that is what the Government are putting their money into.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating all the winners in last night’s women in public life awards, including the excellent Mary Mears in Brighton and Hove?

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the winners. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), we need to do more to promote women in public life, whether in politics or in local government. This party took some steps, but I think, frankly, that we still have more to do, because there are many organisations in our country where we do not have equality of opportunity and where we need to have that equality of opportunity. It is not enough just to open the door and say that it is meritocratic and everyone is able to come in. There are occasions where you need to take positive action in order to get this done.

Now that the Prime Minister has committed himself fully to backing the boundary changes will reduce the number of MPs in this House, and to ensure that Prime Minister’s Questions reflects the subject that has been most debated in the corridors of Westminster over the past number of days, will he now also commit to delivering on the other pledge that he and his colleagues made before the election, which was to deal with the scandal of people who are elected to this House, do not take their seats, and yet continue to be paid millions of pounds in allowances, including the equivalent of Short money, which they can use for party political purposes while we have to use it for parliamentary purposes? Please give us a vote to deal with that scandal.

On the boundary review, we are trying to ensure a basic fairness, which is that every seat in the House of Commons should be the same size. Today, some seats have as many as 90,000 voters and some seats, including some in Wales, have as few as 40,000 voters. How can that possibly be fair? On Northern Ireland and the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I have not changed my view about that one bit, and I do think it is an issue that needs addressing.

In Kenya last week, the father of my constituent Mr Oliver Tebbutt was killed, and his mother was kidnapped and remains missing. What steps are the British Government taking to assist in the return of Mrs Tebbutt and the apprehension of the murderers?

We are doing everything we possibly can on this desperately tragic case. I chaired a meeting of Cobra about this issue yesterday to make sure we are co-ordinating everything the Government do. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the family today. I think that in some of these cases it is not right to air all the issues in public, but I can reassure my hon. Friend, the family and all who know the Tebbutt family that we will do everything possible to help.

We come to the 10-minute rule motion. I call Dr Thérèse Coffey. [Interruption.] Order. Perhaps I can make my usual appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the same courtesy to the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) that they would wish to be extended to them in comparable circumstances.