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Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2011

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jonathan McKinlay from 1st Battalion the Rifles and Marine David Fairbrother from Kilo Company 42 Commando Royal Marines. They were both extremely committed and courageous servicemen who have given their lives in the service of our country. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies should be with their families, friends and colleagues.

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

The whole House will want to endorse the Prime Minister’s words about our heroic service personnel and their families, and I think that most of us also want to see the earliest possible withdrawal of our combat troops from Afghanistan.

What will the Prime Minister do about that group of women already in their late 50s who have seen their state pension age rise from 60 to 64 and now face a further two-year increase from 64 to 66? The coalition had to reform the pension system and will be fairer to women, but this anomaly needs addressing.

My right hon. Friend is right to identify that it is of course right to equalise men and women’s state pension ages. That has been a long-term goal shared across the House of Commons. I also think that it is right to raise the retirement age to 66, as we have done. We know that a large group of people are affected by this transition and that some people will potentially have to work for an extra two years. We are looking at what transitional help we can give to this group of people and will make an announcement shortly.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jonathan McKinlay from 1st Battalion the Rifles and Marine David Fairbrother from Kilo Company 42 Commando Royal Marines. They were exceptionally courageous men who died serving their country and our deepest condolences go to their family and friends.

A year ago, during our exchanges, the Prime Minister justified his economic policy by saying that unemployment would fall this year, next year and the year after. Given that unemployment has risen by 114,000, is it not time he admitted that his plan is not working?

First of all, these are very disappointing figures that have been announced today and every job that is lost is a tragedy for the person concerned and their family. That is why this Government will do everything we possibly can to help get people into work. That is why we have the Work programme, the biggest back-to-work programme since the 1930s, which will help 2.5 million people. That is why we have welfare reform to make sure that it always pays for people to be in work. That is why we are reforming our schools, including raising the participation age to 18 so that we end the scandal of 16 and 17-year-olds left on the dole, and that is why we have a record number of apprenticeships—360,000 this year. I accept that we have to do more to get our economy moving and get jobs for our people, but we must not abandon the plan that has given us record low interest rates.

We hear the same script month after month. It is not working. Does the Prime Minister not realise that today’s figures show that it is not working? It is his failure that means today in Britain we have nearly 1 million young people out of work. Why does he not accept some responsibility for doing something about it?

I accept responsibility for everything that happens in our economy, but I just sometimes wish that people who were in government for 13 years accepted some responsibility for the mess they made. This Government have pledged to do everything we can to get our economy moving. That is why we have cut petrol tax and corporation tax, why we are reforming the planning system, why we introduced the regional growth fund, why we are forcing the banks to lend money and why we have created 22 enterprise zones. I know what the right hon. Gentleman wants: he wants us to change course on reducing our deficit. If we changed course on reducing our deficit, we would end up with interest rates like those in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece and we would send our economy into a tailspin.

I want the Prime Minister to change course so that he has a credible plan to get people back to work in this country. What he does not seem to understand is that month after month, as unemployment goes up and the number of people claiming benefit goes up, the costs go up and fewer people are in work and paying taxes. To have a credible plan on the deficit, you need a credible plan for growth, and he does not have one. It is not just young people who are suffering. Can the Prime Minister tell us when was the last time that unemployment among women reached the levels it has today?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on his figures. There are 50,000 more women in work than there were at the time of the election, there are 239,000 more people in work than at the time of the election, and there are 500,000 more private sector jobs. He specifically asks about a credible growth plan. I would ask, where is his credible growth plan? Why is it that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer said this:

“If you don’t have a credible economic policy, you are simply not at the races”?

Why is it—[Interruption.]

Order. Whatever people think of what is being said on either side of the House, they must not shout their heads off. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will be heard, and that is the end of it.

The fact is that our plan is supported by the CBI, by the Institute of Directors, by the business organisations, by the IMF, and by the OECD. The right hon. Gentleman cannot even get support from his own former Cabinet Ministers. The former Home Secretary says this:

“I think the economic proposition that Labour puts at the moment is unconvincing.”

If the right hon. Gentleman cannot convince his own party, how can he convince the country?

The Conservative Chair of the Prime Minister’s Select Committee says that his policies on growth are “inconsistent” and “incoherent”. He obviously cannot convince him, can he?

Of course, typically, the Prime Minister did not answer the question on women’s unemployment, so let me tell him: women’s unemployment is at its highest since 1988—the last time there was a Conservative Government in power. I have to say that instead of apologising four months late to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) for saying, “Calm down, dear”, he should be apologising to the women of this country for what he is doing to our economy.

Let me ask the Prime Minister another question that maybe this time he will answer. Last year, in his Budget, the Chancellor announced a flagship policy on growth. He said that the national insurance holiday for start-up firms would help 400,000 businesses. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many businesses have actually taken part?

Seven thousand.

On the issue of women in work, of course I want to see more women in work, and there are 50,000 more women in work than at the time of the last election. It is this Government who have introduced free child care for all vulnerable two-year-olds, who have extended child care for three and four-year-olds, who have increased the child tax credit by £290, and who, for the first time, have announced that we will be giving child care to all people working fewer than 16 hours, helping hundreds of thousands of women and families out of poverty into work and into a better life. That is what we are doing.

The question the right hon. Gentleman must address is the big picture, which is this: he cannot convince the former Home Secretary, the former Trade Minister or the former Chancellor that he has got any idea of what to do with the economy. The reason is that if we adopted his plan, we would not be working with the IMF to sort out the eurozone—we would be going to the IMF to ask for a loan.

In case the Prime Minister has not realised, when the Chancellor says that 400,000 firms will benefit and only 7,000 are, that should tell him something: it should tell him that his policies are not working. That policy is not working; his plan is not working. Why does he not, just for once, agree with us: cut VAT and put more money into people’s pockets, help the construction industry to get moving, and invest in getting young people back to work by having a bankers’ bonus tax?

When is the Labour party going to learn that one cannot borrow one’s way out of a debt crisis? It left us the biggest deficit, the most leveraged banks and the most indebted households, and what is its answer? It is to borrow more money. Is it any wonder that the former Trade and Investment Minister, Digby Jones, described the Labour leader’s conference speech as

“divisive and a kick in the teeth for the only sector that generates wealth that pays the tax and creates the jobs this country needs.”?

That is what a former Labour Minister said about a Labour policy. That is why the Labour leader has no credibility whatsoever.

What a terrible answer. I will take on the companies in this country that are not doing the right thing, such as the energy companies. We are seeing change in the energy sector today because of what I said.

On the day of the worst unemployment figures in 17 years, the Prime Minister is fighting to save the job of the Defence Secretary, but doing nothing to save the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people up and down this country. There is one rule for the Cabinet and another rule for everyone else.

The previous Labour leader thought that he had saved the world; after that answer, I think that this Labour leader is Walter Mitty. The Labour party has to accept some responsibility for the mess it made of the economy. It is the party that borrowed too much, spent too much, left us with unregulated banks and left us with the mess that we have to clear up. When one sees those two sitting on the Front Bench who worked for so long in the Treasury, one has to ask, one would not bring back Fred Goodwin to sort out the banks, so why would one bring them back to sort out the economy?

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that since I put the point to him last month, the head of our Serious Fraud Office, Mr Richard Alderman, has publicly deplored the fact that no senior British bankers have been prosecuted for their irresponsibility, and has urged that legislation be introduced as soon as possible to empower his office to prosecute such offenders?

It is important that inquiries are conducted into what went wrong at RBS and HBOS, because we are left clearing up a mess made by the irresponsibility of others. If there is room for criminal prosecutions, of course those should happen. Our responsibility is to ensure that we regulate the banks and the financial industry properly in future. That is why we have put the Bank of England back at the heart of the job.

Q2. Will the Prime Minister publish a full list of all the Ministers and Downing street staff who, since May 2010, have met Mr Adam Werritty in an official or social capacity, including whether he as Prime Minister has met him? (72830)

Does the Prime Minister agree that in the light of the difficult times encountered by some of my constituents in South Ribble who work for BAE, it is even more important that this Government continue their excellent support for exports and their continued investment in the development of the Typhoon and new unmanned aerial vehicle systems?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Obviously, the position at BAE has been of concern. That is why we immediately put in place plans for an enterprise zone on each side of the Pennines to help with that important business. BAE is a great British company. It has a huge forward order book, not least because of our defence budget, through which we are investing in Typhoons, aircraft carriers and unmanned aerial drones. I will do everything I can to support that company, including promoting its exports abroad. I have had conversations with the Japanese and will soon be talking to the Saudi Arabians and others to do all that we can do to make sure that this great British company goes on being a great British success.

Q3. Imperial Healthcare Trust, which offers outstanding clinical care and research in three major hospitals in west London, is being forced to make 5% per annum cuts for five years, so that is 25% of its £900 million a year budget. How does that fulfil the Prime Minister’s promise not to cut health services to my constituents? (72831)

We are increasing NHS spending throughout this Parliament, and, I have to say, that is a complete contrast with the Opposition’s policy. They now have a new health spokesman. I was worried that I would not have the same quantity of quotes from the new health spokesman, but he has not disappointed. He said this—very clear, very plain:

“It is irresponsible to increase NHS spending in real terms”.

That is Labour’s position—that it is irresponsible to increase health spending. We disagree.

Q4. Too many children in Britain today live in families that do not provide them with the loving and stable environment that they deserve, and that has led to many of our most pressing social problems. Would the Prime Minister agree that this Government need to do all they can to help some of Britain’s most problem families? (72832)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If we look at the evidence, we see that some of the most troubled families in our country get a huge number of interventions from the police, social services, education and the rest of it, but no one is really getting in there to help turn those families around, change what they do and give them a better chance. So we are establishing a new unit under the leadership of Louise Casey, who I think has been a superb official over the past decade, and we are going to be putting huge resources into turning around the 120,000 most troubled families in our country. I think we can make a huge difference for those families, and we can reduce the burden that they place on the taxpayer at the same time.

Will the Prime Minister instruct our ambassador in Kiev to make representations on behalf of the Government and Parliament about the appalling show trial and prison sentence handed down to Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister? Prime Ministers do make mistakes and lose elections, as she did, but she has been put on trial for policy decisions that she took. Will the Prime Minister make it clear—I am glad the Foreign Secretary is briefing him—that Ukraine will not be able to open membership talks with the EU, and that any hopes of liberalising visa access will go out of the window because of this disgraceful Stalinist show trial and sentence?

We completely agree that the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko, whom I have met on previous occasions, is absolutely disgraceful. The Foreign Secretary has made a very strong statement about this. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK but with the European Union and NATO.

Q5. Small business, not more Government debt, is key to job creation, and entrepreneurship is a noble endeavour, so will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the support of Bedfordshire university, Cranfield university, Colworth science park, Bedfordshire on Sunday and 100 business leaders in my constituency for setting up an investment fund and mentoring scheme to support early-stage businesses in Bedford? Will he ask his Ministers to work with me to see whether that can be replicated in other towns across the country? (72834)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for what he is doing in Bedford. This Government recognise that it is going to be small businesses that will provide the growth, jobs and wealth that this country needs. That is why we have an agreement with the banks to increase lending to small businesses, why we are providing extra rate relief to small businesses, why we are giving the smallest businesses a holiday from new regulation and why we have got the one-in, one-out rule for new regulation. I applaud all efforts at a local level to give small businesses the mentoring, help and support that they need to grow.

Q6. Responding to the Science and Technology Committee’s report on forensic science, a Home Office Minister has said:“We don’t agree with the committee’s report. It mis-states a number of very significant points.”Given that the Home Office’s financial case was 50% adrift, and that it has now agreed with our argument that the national archive should be protected, will the Prime Minister urgently intervene and review the decision to close the Forensic Science Service? The country and the profession are now losing key scientific staff. (72835)

I will certainly look at what the hon. Gentleman says, but I looked at that decision in some detail at the time, having known well the Forensic Science Service from when I worked at the Home Office many years ago. The evidence was pretty overwhelming that the model was not working and that change was needed. That is what has happened. Sometimes it is better to make that change rather than endlessly review it.

The Prime Minister inherited a welfare system in which families were able to claim £2,000 a week in housing benefit, and in which some working families were worse off than those who were on benefits. What can he do to help those hard-working families in Sherwood who get out of bed and work hard because of their self-pride and responsibility?

My hon. Friend speaks for millions in the country when he says that what people want is a welfare system that helps people who want to put in, work hard and do the right thing. What we are doing, first, is putting in place a cap so that we do not have those absurd amounts of money in housing benefit going to individual families—as he says, sometimes, it is £2,000 a week. Secondly, universal credit will ensure that it is always worth while people working and always worth while working a little harder. Let us see whether the Labour party, after a decade of giving people something for nothing, are prepared to back that by voting for the tough caps in the Welfare Reform Bill.

The ministerial code is very clear that, in the end, it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether someone keeps their job or not. In the case of the Defence Secretary, when the Leader of the Opposition has called for an inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary, and when I have established such an inquiry, it is very important that we allow him to do his work to establish facts, and then a decision can be made. However, let me be clear: I think that the Defence Secretary has done an excellent job clearing up the complete mess that he was left by Labour.

Retirement ages must go up, but the timetable in the Pensions Bill is too fast for many women. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister say earlier that he was looking at transitional arrangements, and I would hope that those will result in a significant slowing down of the increase in retirement age for many women.

As I have said, we have looked at this issue very carefully and we will be making an announcement shortly. We have to look at the most difficult cases of people who will have to do quite an extra amount of working time, but clearly it is right—one must look at the big picture—to equalise men’s and women’s pension arrangements, and to move to 66, given the extra longevity that we enjoy as a country. Given that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased when the announcement is made.

Q8. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are on record as supporting gender equality for future royal successions. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the consultation that he and the Deputy Prime Minister are having with other Commonwealth leaders on this issue? Does he agree that it is better that we resolve this matter before rather than after any future royal children are born? (72838)

I certainly believe that this issue should be sorted out—I am on the record as believing that, and I am sure that across the House there will be widespread support for it. In the consultation, I have written to the Heads of State and Prime Ministers of the other realms concerned, and we will have a meeting on the matter at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. This is not an easy issue to sort out. Many may have worries about starting a parliamentary or other legal process, but I am very clear that it is an issue that we ought to get sorted, and I would be delighted to play a part in doing that.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the recent advice from the shadow Treasury Minister, who said that we must not and cannot pick good winners and losers? To conceive of such a simplistic “sinners and winners” model shows a distinct misunderstanding of business?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The greatest need in our economy right now is to generate wealth, jobs and investment. What did Labour do at its conference? It just launched a big attack on British business, when that is what will help us out of these difficulties.

Q9. Was the Prime Minister aware before today that his chief spokeswoman was a former colleague of Mr Adam Werritty? (72839)

As I have said, this whole issue is being looked at by the Cabinet Secretary, and he will produce his report. I would ask people to have a little patience—let the facts be established and the questions answered, and then we can move ahead.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that nearly 40 Government Members have signed an amendment in my name requiring that all offenders convicted of using a knife in a threatening or endangering fashion will receive a custodial sentence, not only those over 18? Will he consider supporting this amendment?

I shall certainly look closely at what my hon. Friend says. I know that the Justice Secretary is doing this too. We want to move ahead with a mandatory sentence for adults, and we shall look very closely at the arguments that my hon. Friend makes.

Q10. Sir John Major said four days ago that the Government should use the euro crisis as an opportunity to loosen EU powers over Britain. His first priority was the common fisheries policy. When will the Prime Minister take Sir John’s advice and tell the EU that Britain intends to withdraw from the CFP? (72840)

I always listen carefully to Sir John’s advice, and he gives me some excellent advice. In the short term, Britain desperately needs to get behind the solution to the eurozone crisis, because it is having a chilling effect on the whole of the European economy, and the American economy as well. That is the first priority. I accept, however, that at the same time as doing that it will be important to get some safeguards for Britain. As eurozone countries go ahead and sort out their problems, we need safeguards to ensure that the single market goes on working for the United Kingdom.

Last weekend, B&Q opened a new store in Pembroke Dock creating 25 jobs and Ledwood engineering advertised 25 new jobs in the town. Jobcentre Plus in Pembroke Dock has 249 jobs on offer. Does the Prime Minister agree that there would be further good news if the banks honoured their pledge to commit to credit flow, and will he keep the pressure on and encourage businesses in Wales to advertise even more jobs?

We shall certainly keep the pressure on the banks. It is worth making the point that in spite of the difficulties, there are 500,000 new private sector jobs in our economy compared with the time of the election. However, we need to have in place all the things that help businesses to expand and grow. Bank finance is just one of those things. We have the Merlin agreement, which is increasing lending to small businesses, and we also have what the Chancellor has said about credit easing to ensure that we consider other ways of expanding credit in our economy.

Q11. This week, I had the privilege of meeting Hafsah Ali and Joseph Hayat from the Ready for Work campaign. They are impressive young people campaigning against rising youth unemployment. Will the Prime Minister tell us what has happened to his vow earlier this year to reverse the trend of rising youth unemployment? Will he also tell the House when he last met a young unemployed person? (72841)

Youth unemployment has been rising since 2004—it went up during the growth years as well as in the difficult years. We need a comprehensive strategy that deals with all the problems of youth unemployment, including the fact that there are too many people leaving school aged 16 who spent 13 years under a Labour Education Secretary—so the Labour party needs to take some responsibility—and who left school without qualifications to help them get a job. This is about ensuring that we have better education, a welfare system that helps people into work and a Work programme that provides not phoney jobs, as the future jobs fund did, but real work for real young people.

A recent TaxPayers Alliance report revealed—[Hon. Members: “Ahh!”]—that 38 union leaders were remunerated at more than £100,000 each, including Derek Simpson of Unite, who received more than £500,000. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time for union boss pay restraint?

It is interesting that Labour Members always listen to the trade unions, but never to the TaxPayers Alliance. One reason is that they do not want to hear about excessive pay in the public sector, local government or among their paymasters, the trade unions.

Here is another question that the Prime Minister will not want to answer. Will he get a grip of his Back Benchers following last night’s debacle in the Chamber relating to the business of the House on 17 October? Does he understand that the perception out there in the real world is that some MPs would rather talk about their own pensions than discuss a 22-year-old injustice and the deaths of 96 men, women and children?

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman directly. We are going to protect the time for that absolutely vital debate. On the issue of MPs’ pensions, it is very clear that we have to show restraint at a time when the rest of the public sector is being asked to show restraint. So because of what happened last night, there will have to be a debate, but it will not eat into the time for the very important debate that he mentioned and which I know many Members care deeply about.

What action is my right hon. Friend taking to reintroduce rigour into the education system and end the ridiculous situation under the previous Government of 22% of students doing proper academic studies?

The Education Secretary is doing a superb job of focusing schools on results, including in English and maths, ensuring that we look at the English baccalaureate, which includes the core subjects that employers and colleges really value, and doing some simple and straightforward things that were not done for 13 years, such as ensuring that punctuation and grammar actually count when someone does an exam.

The Prime Minister met the Finucane family yesterday, so will he now reflect on the comments made by an Taoiseach in relation to that meeting and the outcomes, and the agreement made by both Governments at the Weston Park talks in 2001 that there should be an independent public inquiry?

Of course I have reflected incredibly carefully on what was said yesterday, and I have reflected on this whole issue for many months since becoming Prime Minister. I profoundly believe that the right thing for the Finucane family, for Northern Ireland and for everyone in the United Kingdom is not to have another costly and open-ended public inquiry, which may not find the answer, but instead for the British Government to do the really important thing, which is to open up and tell the truth about what happened 22 years ago. We do not need an inquiry to do that; that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be making a statement explaining exactly how we are going to do it and who will be involved. In the end, the greatest healer is the truth. Frank acknowledgement of what went wrong, an apology for what happened—that is what is required. Let us not have another Saville process to get there; let us get there more quickly and do the right thing.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that it seems that Gilad Shalit will be released in the next few days, which could well go a long way towards peace in the area?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this case. What that young soldier has been through for those weeks, months and years is something that anyone in this House would find difficult to contemplate. If it is the case that he will be coming home soon, I wish him, his family and everyone in Israel well.

Order. The following statement is on an extremely important matter. May I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that I and those remaining can hear the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?