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Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2011

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in remembering Rifleman Vijay Rai, from 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles. He was a talented and dedicated soldier, and our deepest sympathies should be with his family and his friends. He was proud to be a Gurkha and it is at times such as these that we especially remember the deep debt of gratitude that we owe all those brave soldiers.

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

I commend and share the views of the Prime Minister concerning our brave military personnel.

Is the Prime Minister aware that this year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Jarrow march? Is it not wrong that even today people in this country live in fear of the dole and unemployment? The Government have been in for one year and already we are back to the 1980s. I ask him a simple question: will he support workers or sacrifice them?

I believe that we need to be supporting people and helping them back into work. As the hon. Gentleman says, we should commemorate the Jarrow march, and I notice that it has been commemorated this year. We have a challenge right across the country as we see the numbers of those employed in the public sector inevitably go down, which would be happening whoever was standing at this Dispatch Box. We have got to make sure that there are more jobs in the private sector.

It is worth while that in the north-east Nissan is creating 200 new jobs, Hitachi is creating up to 500 new jobs, the Lear Corporation is creating an extra 300 jobs, and BT is creating an extra 280 jobs, in South Shields. There are 500,000 more private sector jobs—new jobs—compared with the time of the last election, but I recognise that we need to do more. That is what the Work programme is all about.

Q15. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his joint declaration with the Canadian Prime Minister on ocean renewable energy? We need to ensure that we have growth in our economy. What does he think universities such as Plymouth, which has a very good reputation for marine science research, can do to help to ensure that we have that? (75304)

I commend my hon. Friend for his question, because a number of universities in our country—including Edinburgh, which I have visited—are leaders in marine renewable energy. My right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary yesterday announced that we will go ahead with renewables obligation certificates, ensuring that we boost that vital industry and attract jobs to this country for offshore wind and other renewable technologies.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Rifleman Vijay Rai from 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles? In joining the Army, he was following in a proud family tradition. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and our deepest condolences are with his family and friends.

The revelations over the past week about what has been going on in the most sensitive Department at the heart of the Prime Minister’s Government are deeply worrying. The former Defence Secretary had an unofficial adviser with access to top officials in the military and, indeed, in foreign Governments, who was funded by undeclared private donations solicited by him, yet the Prime Minister says that he and No. 10 knew nothing about these goings-on for 18 months. How did he allow this to happen?

First, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is an important and serious issue, which is why I set up a full and proper inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary. He has produced his report, and it has been published in full. It is worth noting, however, that in this case the Secretary of State for Defence recognised that he had made a mistake, acknowledged that had broken the ministerial code and resigned. That was not something that always happened in the previous 13 years.

I have a piece of advice for the Prime Minister: this week of all weeks, show a bit of humility, eh? The truth is that we still do not know the full facts about this case, about the money trail and about who exactly in the Government met Mr Werritty. It is becoming clear that there is a network of individuals, some with close links to the Conservative party and other Cabinet members, who funded Mr Werritty. Given that the Prime Minister says that he knew nothing about the former Defence Secretary’s arrangements, can he give the House a categorical guarantee that over the past 18 months no other Minister has been engaging in similar activities?

I think that we should have a little humility from the people who gave us cabs for hire, passports for favours, mortgages for mates, dodgy dossiers, the smearing of opponents and good days to bury bad news. I note that these were the questions that the right hon. Gentleman was meant to ask last week. I have some advice for him: if he is going to jump on a bandwagon, make sure it is still moving.

The Prime Minister has no answer to the question that people want answered. We have seen a pattern of activity from him: he does not ask the tough questions of those around him, and when anything goes wrong, it is nothing to do with him. What did he say in the ministerial code that he published? He said:

“It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”

In the past three months, we have seen his Defence Secretary resign in disgrace and his spin doctor arrested. Is that what he meant by being different?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have failed to notice that the Minister in question has resigned—you’re just a bit late.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that at a time when the Governor of the Bank of England has said that we are facing a possibly unprecedented economic crisis, it is a good thing that the country is still committed to getting our debts under control and to retaining credibility in the financial markets?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. People should listen to what the Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday:

“With a lower level of sterling and a credible plan to reduce the fiscal deficit over the medium term, we were on track. But the problems in the euro area and the marked slowing of the world economy have lengthened the period over which a return to normality is likely.”

That is what we face in this country, but it means that we should stick to the plan of dealing with our debts and our deficit. If we listened to the Labour party and added £23 billion to the deficit this year, it would not be “Greek-onomics”; it would be “freakonomics”.

Q2. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that there was collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane. Does he accept that in order to get to the bottom of that we have to get to the top of that? Does he recognise that many of us lack confidence that a desk review by even an eminent lawyer will be able to do that? Will he reflect further on the grave misgivings expressed by the Finucane family and the Irish Government? (75291)

Of course I understand the scepticism of the hon. Gentleman; and of course, there was great scepticism by many at the time of the Saville inquiry about whether it would get to the truth. What matters most is the intent of the British Government in uncovering what happened, being frank about it, acknowledging it and apologising for it. That is what we are going to do, and we do not need an open-ended inquiry to achieve that. To those who are sceptical, I know that they will go on being sceptical; I would just ask them to have an open mind. I believe that we can deal with this issue properly.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Cheltenham borough council on building the first new council housing in 20 years and planning more and more affordable housing on brownfield sites, but also recognise the council’s anxiety that the first draft of the new national planning policy framework could render it powerless to defend vital and treasured green spaces on the urban fringe, which are being deliberately targeted by developers?

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman on the planning policy. We are not making changes to green belt or other protections, and I am sure he can discuss that with the planning Minister. Of course I congratulate all local councils that get on and build the houses that we badly need to house the homeless and deal with overcrowding. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the announcements that have been made—the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been working closely on this—to ensure that we use money from the right to buy to build more social housing so that we end the scandal of overcrowded housing.

Q3. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and your staff, and would like to put on record my gratitude to the Home Secretary and those in all parts of the House for their support for the Hillsborough families during Monday’s debate. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that Governments have made mistakes, that 22 years is 22 years too long to fight for the truth and that if it is proven that there was an orchestrated cover-up, justice should prevail, despite two decades passing, and those really responsible for the Hillsborough disaster should be brought to book? (75292)

Last week I promised the hon. Gentleman that the time for his debate would be properly protected and that the House would have proper time to debate it, which it did. This week I can tell him that we are going to open up those papers and publish them as we promised so that people can see what was happening. However, it is important to remember that the Taylor inquiry was a proper and thorough investigation. It was not just an inquiry into what happened; it also led to huge changes in the way we manage and arrange football in this country. Hillsborough was a national tragedy. I am hugely sympathetic to the families of the victims, and I am sure that there are regrets for all the institutions involved at the time, including the Government.

The Prime Minister has already given his backing to national heroes day this Friday, 21 October. Will he join me in commending the hundreds of schools taking part, celebrating inspirational role models and raising money for Help for Heroes?

I am very pleased to do that. I am a huge fan of Help for Heroes. The way the charity has grown has been a remarkable story. I have seen for myself the extraordinary efforts that it has made at Headley Court, where it has built an extraordinary swimming pool that is used by so many people who are recovering from their injuries in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I would certainly be pleased to support what my hon. Friend says.

Last week we heard that unemployment was at its highest level since the last Conservative Government. This week we heard that retail price inflation was at its highest level since the last Conservative Government. Does the Prime Minister still think that his plan is working?

To put the right hon. Gentleman right, the last time that CPI—which is the measure of inflation that we all now recognise—was as high as this was in 2008, when he was in government. That is quite an important point to note. Of course inflation is too high. The principal reasons for it being so high are world food prices, world fuel prices, the depreciation of sterling—[Hon. Members: “VAT.”] Yes, there was an effect from the increase in VAT, just as there was an effect when he increased VAT at the beginning of 2010, but the reason for increasing VAT is to get on top of the record deficit that the last Government left.

As always, the Prime Minister says that it is just like that in the rest of the world, but we have the highest inflation of any EU country apart from Estonia. That is because of decisions that he made, including the decision on VAT. Week in, week out, the evidence mounts that his plan is not working, but he refuses to change course. Last week, we heard that his flagship national insurance scheme had not worked. Now let me ask him about his flagship regional growth fund, which he launched 16 months ago. Can he tell us how many businesses have had cash paid out to them under the scheme?

First, let me just put the right hon. Gentleman right on this issue—[Interruption.] It is important. One of the reasons Britain has such a difficult situation with inflation is that we were the country with the biggest boom and the biggest bust of any major European country. He cannot hide from that. The regional growth fund is going to be distributing billions of pounds right across the country, and it is a thoroughly worthwhile scheme that he should be supporting.

I do not think that the Prime Minister knows the answer. The Government have certainly issued lots of press releases about the regional growth fund—22 of them—but how many businesses have been helped during the past 16 months? Two businesses have been helped. And how many businesses have gone bankrupt in that time? Sixteen thousand. What greater example could there be that this Government’s plan is not working? We have had 18 months of his economic experiment, and what have we got to show for it? More and more people losing their jobs, more and more businesses going bust and inflation going through the roof—and all we have is a Prime Minister who is hopelessly out of touch.

All the right hon. Gentleman wants to do is talk down the economy, so he will not mention the fact that 300,000 new businesses have started and that 500,000 people have jobs who did not have one at the time of the election. The big question for the right hon. Gentleman is: if he does not like our plan, where is his plan? We now know that his plan to deal with our debts is—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Gentleman’s plan is to add £23 billion to Britain’s deficit this year, and almost £100 billion to our deficit by the end of the Parliament. There is not a single country in Europe that would have such a crazy plan—[Interruption.]

Order. We are most grateful to the shadow Chancellor for his advice, but I would like to apply it to the House as a whole. The whole House must calm down; otherwise, it will be in need of medical treatment.

The problem is that it was the advice of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) that got us into this mess in the first place. When is he going to learn that there is not a single country in Europe that thinks that you deal with your debts by adding to your debts? That is why no one listens to him here or in Europe.

Yesterday, a report was published into the serious failure of Nottinghamshire police to protect a young woman who went on to be murdered by her violent partner. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is imperative that all police forces have the practices, policies and training necessary to protect women from violent men?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; she makes an important point. Some police forces have taken huge steps forward in dealing with domestic violence, but not all of them have done so. We need to spread that best practice right across the country.

Q4. The Association of Colleges has just announced the largest fall in college enrolments since 1999, and it cites the abolition of EMA as a major factor. This is a tragedy of the Government’s own making, and it lies directly at the door of the Secretary of State for Education. What is the Prime Minister going to do to put this right? (75293)

I think that the hon. Lady will find that the figures show that some enrolments in some colleges have actually gone up. Our replacement for EMA is a well-funded scheme that will be much better targeted at those people in need. The people who really need the extra money will get more than they did under EMA.

Families in the country are facing very high fuel bills, and there is a vested interest among the big six fuel companies not to allow competition into the market. What exactly is the Prime Minister doing to encourage more competition and to bring prices down?

One of the things we are doing is insisting that the big six have to make more of their energy available in a pooling arrangement so that new businesses can come into the industry. The reason we have to do this is that the last Government abolished the pooling arrangements, creating the situation with the big six—and we do not need to ask who the Energy Secretary was during that Government as we are looking at him.

Q5. Given the importance of carbon capture and storage both as a way of helping to reduce our carbon emissions and as an exportable technology to help rebalance the economy, will the Prime Minister put his words into action and step in to ensure that the Longannet demonstration project goes ahead? (75294)

What I can say is that the funding we set aside for carbon capture and storage is still there and will be made available. Clearly, the Longannet scheme is not working in the way that was intended, but the money and support from the Government for this vital technology is there.

Q6. Given the huge savings for the nation made by the Cabinet Office across government without legislation and the huge financial risks provoked by constant structural reorganisation, as in the NHS, would it not be better if politicians learned to manage more and meddle less—even if Governments find the latter easier and more interesting? (75295)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Let me pay tribute to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who does this patient work at the heart of government and does not always get recognised for it. We have reduced management consultants by 70%, saving £870 million; we have spent £490 million less on temporary labour; we have spent £400 million less on marketing and advertising: that is an 80% reduction. These are serious changes to cut the cost of central Government and make sure we provide good value for money. None of those things was done under the last Government.

Q7. Before the election the Prime Minister claimed that anyone caught carrying a knife should expect to go to prison. Has he read Brooke Kinsella’s article in today’s The Sun, revealing that 40% of all knife crime is carried out by under-18s? Why will he not deliver on his promise and put them in jail? (75296)

We are doing something that the last Government failed to do, which is to create a mandatory sentence for adults who are caught with knives to make sure that happens.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the British people are simply crying out for a referendum on the future of Europe. Will he please make history, follow the example of great Prime Ministers like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and give the British people the chance to vote on our future with the European Union?

I completely understand and share the frustration that many have about the way in which the European Union goes about its business, particularly the costs and the bureaucracy, but I have to say that the key focus is to get on top of the EU budget, keep Britain out of the bail-out schemes and ensure that the single market is working. Of course we are committed as the Conservative party to the return of powers from Brussels to Westminster. We are also committed as a Government to ensuring that if power passes from Westminster to Brussels, there will have to be referendum. That promise is good for the whole of this Parliament and beyond, but I do not support holding a referendum come what may. That is not our policy and I will not support such a motion.

Q8. We are all aware of the bravery and courage of our armed forces as they serve in Afghanistan. Last November Ranger Aaron McCormick from just outside Coleraine in my constituency died in Helmand province; he was one of many who paid the highest price to defend freedom. His commanding officer said: “Today, there is a gap in our ranks which no ordinary man could fill. He was the best of his country and we mourn his loss.”Will the Prime Minister ensure that a review is carried out into the way the Ministry of Defence prepares its honours list so that families can see that the entire nation recognises the sacrifice and selflessness of these brave men and women? (75297)

I will certainly look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says and perhaps arrange a meeting between him and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) who is responsible for veterans and these issues. That would be a good thing to do. Let me say again that I have the highest possible regard for the professionalism, the courage and the dedication of our forces. We have paid a very high price in Afghanistan and in Iraq for what we have had to do there. I think the whole country, perhaps in a little bit of a contrast to what the hon. Gentleman says, recognises that and feels that very strongly and is looking for new ways to recognise what our armed forces do. That is why there is such strong support for Help for Heroes, for homecoming parades, for lists of honours, for the military covenant and for all such things. I think we should go on looking at what more we can do to recognise the service and sacrifice of our armed forces.

Q9. As a result of inaccurate reporting and statements about a European directive applying to insulin-dependent diabetics, up to a million such people fear for their driving licences. Is it not the case that the way in which the Department of Transport interprets that directive will determine whether or not people lose their licences? Will the Prime Minister make the position clear? (75298)

I will certainly try to do that.

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which is shared by many insulin-treated diabetics throughout the country who want to continue to drive freely as they have in the past, but I can reassure him that relatively few of them will lose their licences as a result of the directive to which he has referred. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is going back to the European commission to check its understanding of the interpretation of the minimum standards in the directive. As Members in all parts of the House probably know, Departments gold-plate directives on too many occasions, and it cannot be said too often that they should stop it.

We learnt today that the British Airports Authority is to sell Edinburgh airport. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is important for the Scottish economy that we have as many direct international routes and services as possible? If so, why does he not listen to the views of the four major airports and Transport Scotland, which want air passenger duty to be devolved?

I think the most important thing is that investment goes into the infrastructure of our airports, and I know from first hand that Edinburgh airport has superb facilities which continue to be improved. As for air passenger duty, we will continue to listen carefully to those arguments.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to tear down the apartheid in the education system, for which he argued a few weeks ago, not only should well-performing private schools support under-performing state schools on an ad hoc basis, but we should go further and encourage them to federate? (75299)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. I believe that that should be a cross-party initiative, and I pay tribute to Lord Adonis, who has made some extremely important speeches about the issue. I see a real opportunity for independent schools to do what Wellington college, Dulwich college and Brighton college have done, and sponsor academies in the state sector. I think that we can see the breaking down of the barriers between independent and state education, I think that this is a great way forward, and I hope that it will be given all-party support.

Q11. A change in the national targets regime and cuts have led to disarray in the Greater Manchester emergency services. A stroke victim has had to wait for an hour for an ambulance, the response time of the fire service has doubled in parts of Greater Manchester, and the police switchboard is in meltdown. What reassurances can the Prime Minister give that the failure of those services will not lead to a tragic death? (75300)

I will give careful consideration to what the hon. Gentleman has said. What I can say about health funding specifically is that we are implementing the £20 billion efficiency savings suggested by the now shadow Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). However, the difference between the policy supported by his party and our policy is that we are putting all those savings back into the NHS, whereas the official Labour position is that increasing spending on the health service in real terms is “irresponsible”. We think it irresponsible not to increase spending.

Q14. David Brown Engineering in Lockwood, in my constituency, has received a regional growth fund investment that will help to create 80 new jobs. Does the Prime Minister agree that, notwithstanding the moithering and doom-mongering of Opposition Members, there are success stories out there? With that in mind, will he consider coming to open the new innovation and enterprise centre at Huddersfield university in the spring? (75303)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I look forward to making those travel plans.

I think that my hon. Friend has managed to show that the Leader of the Opposition’s first lot of questions were irrelevant and the second lot were probably wrong.

Q12. The answer the Prime Minister just gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) is simply not good enough. The fact is that, despite all the Prime Minister’s promises, fewer people caught carrying knives are going to prison under this Government than under the last, so will he apologise to Brooke Kinsella and all the bereaved families of victims of knife crime for breaking the promise he made that he would take a tougher approach? (75301)

I am full of admiration for the campaign Brooke Kinsella has run. When someone has suffered such a loss in their own family, it is incredibly brave of them to get out there and campaign for change—and not just change in the law, but also change in the way the police behave and in the way young people behave. I think she is a thoroughly good individual, with a very great campaign. What this Government are doing—which the last Government did not do—is have a mandatory sentence for knife crime, which we will introduce in our forthcoming Bill.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists “giving voice” campaign, which rightly emphasises the central importance of speech, language and communication in tackling a wide range of social issues?

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that, and I know that you, Mr Speaker, take a close personal interest in this issue as well. Anyone who has brought up disabled children knows the vital importance of speech and language therapists. They also know that there are often not enough of them to provide all the help and services we need, and that getting their services through the statementing process can be extremely tough. I therefore certainly agree with what my hon. Friend says.

Q13. We know that officials from other Governments were given the impression that the former Defence Secretary’s unofficial adviser represented the UK Government. How many people in total were misled, and will the Prime Minister provide a list? (75302)

The hon. Gentleman should read the Cabinet Secretary’s report, as he will find there all the details he might need about what Mr Werritty was doing, but I have to say that for the hon. Gentleman’s party to lecture us on lobbying comes slightly ill given that we now know that the former Labour Defence Secretary is working for a helicopter company, the former Home Secretary is working for a security firm, Lord Mandelson is at Lazard, and even the former leader and Prime Minister has in the last few months got £120,000 for speeches to Credit Suisse, Visa and Citibank. He told us he had put the money into the banks; we did not know he would get it out so quickly.

Returning to the topic of Europe, does the Prime Minister accept that moves towards fiscal union in the eurozone will ultimately undermine the single market and the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. While we believe that the logic of a single currency drives the eurozone towards greater fiscal integration, that poses particular threats and risks to those of us who want the single market to work properly. At the European Council this weekend it is important to argue for safeguards to make sure that the single market remains robust and properly protected. That is what we must do in the short term. Of course in the longer term there may be further moves towards further treaties and so forth, and at that stage there may be opportunities to bring further powers back to Britain—and there may, indeed, be opportunities to hold a referendum, but I do not believe the right answer is to hold a referendum willy-nilly in this Parliament when we have so much to do to get Europe to sort out its problems.

On a statutory register of lobbyists, will the Prime Minister also ensure that so-called think-tanks—whose propaganda is clearly aimed at manipulating both Ministers and the public for their own ends—are required to reveal who ultimately funds them, so that we all know whose interests they really represent?

We are committed to having a statutory register of lobbyists. That does need to be put in place and, as the right hon. Gentleman says, it needs to include think-tanks and other such organisations. It also needs to include one of the biggest lobbies of all—the lobby that owns the Labour party lock, stock and trade union barrel: the trade unions.

Order. We now come to the statement by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. If Members leaving the Chamber can do so quickly and quietly, we can all look forward to hearing from Mr Secretary Clarke.