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Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011

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

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.