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Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2011

This morning—[Interruption.] At least they do not have to do it in French.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This afternoon I shall travel to Brussels for further talks about the eurozone.

Yesterday it was reported that the Prime Minister had compared the families of those who had died at Hillsborough to

“a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there”,

and had complained that he was not being given enough credit for the release of all the Government documents relating to the tragedy. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to the relatives and friends of the 96 Hillsborough victims for those grossly offensive comments?

What I would say to all the victims and their families is that it is this Government who have done the right thing by opening up the Cabinet papers and trying to help those people to find the closure that they seek.

Given that Chancellor Merkel has called formally on the European Commission to produce treaty texts to amend the European treaties, does my right hon. Friend agree with the following statements

“that the accumulated burden of policies, competences, tasks and budgets in the European Union has become too great…that locating ill-justifed powers at EU level can undermine democratic accountability; that the time has therefore come to identify those areas in which EU action is neither logical, justifiable or workable”?

Does he share my surprise that those words were written by the Deputy Prime Minister more than 10 years ago?

I have read that pamphlet too, and what it says is good, sound common sense. We do not know exactly when treaty change will be proposed and how great that treaty change will be, but I am absolutely clear, and the coalition is clear, about the fact that there will be opportunities to advance our national interest, and it is on those opportunities that we should focus.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, at today’s European summit, we need not just the sorting out of their problems by Greece and Italy and the proper recapitalisation of Europe’s banks, but an agenda to help Europe, and indeed Britain, to grow?

What it will be absolutely necessary to do this evening is deal with the key elements of the eurozone crisis, which is acting as a drag anchor on recoveries in many other countries, including our own. That will require decisive action to deal with the Greek situation and a proper recapitalisation of the banks, which has not happened across Europe to date—and the stress tests that have been carried out have not had credibility—but, above all, it will require the construction of the firewall of the European fund to prevent contagion elsewhere. That is the most important thing. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that a wider growth strategy across Europe is required. That was debated on Sunday, and all the Commission’s proposals—on completing the services directive, completing the single market, liberalising energy policy and cutting regulation—could have been written right here in London.

The point I would emphasise to the Prime Minister is that those are long-term measures, but we also need immediate action for growth, and that needs to happen not just at European meetings, but at the G20 next week.

We know that the Prime Minister’s real focus has, unfortunately, not been on sorting out the eurozone crisis; it has been on sorting out the problems on his own side. He said on Monday that his priority is to repatriate powers from Europe: which powers, and when?

One serious question, then straight on to the politics; how absolutely typical!

Let me make this point to the right hon. Gentleman: the idea that we could go into the meeting this evening about the future of Europe arguing that Britain should add an extra £100 billion to its deficit is a complete and utter joke.

Let me answer the question about our relationship with Europe very directly. The coalition agreement talks about rebalancing power between Britain and Europe. This coalition has already achieved bringing back one power: the bail-out power that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government gave away.

The Prime Minister said in this House on Monday:

“I remain firmly committed to…bringing back more powers from Brussels”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 27.]

but yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about his plan and he said:

“It won’t work, it will be condemned to failure.”

So one day we have the Prime Minister saying yes to repatriation, and 24 hours later the Deputy Prime Minister says no. On this crucial question, who speaks for the Government?

Let me quote what the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday. He said that there is a perfectly good case for

“rebalancing the responsibilities between the EU and its member states.”

What a contrast with what the leader of the Labour party said. Jon Sopel asked:

“Let me ask this single question. Yes or no answer. Has Brussels got too much power? ”

The right hon. Gentleman replied:

“I don’t think it has too much power.”

So the situation is very plain: there is a group of people on this side of the House who want some rebalancing, a group of people who want a lot of rebalancing, and a complete mug who wants no rebalancing at all.

Why does the Prime Minister not come clean about the split between himself and the Deputy Prime Minister? This is what the Deputy Prime Minister was asked:

“Is David Cameron wrong to promise at some point the idea of another treaty that might bring powers back?”

He said this:

“This Government, of which I’m a Deputy Prime Minister, is not going to launch some sort of dawn raid, some smash and grab raid on Brussels. It won’t work, it will be condemned to failure.”

So which is it: who speaks for the Government? It is no wonder the Prime Minister’s Back Benchers are saying there is no clarity in the Government’s position, and the secretary of the 1922 committee said the Government’s “position is politically unsustainable.” Is it the Prime Minister’s position to get out of the social chapter: yes or no?

It is this coalition that has worked together to get us out of the bail-out fund—to get us out of the Greek bail-out—and to deliver this year a freeze in the European budget. That is what this coalition has achieved. The split that we have is between the right hon. Gentleman and reality, and we have the greatest proof of that. I talked to the House about this on Monday, but it is so good that I have got to do so again. When he was asked if he wanted to join the euro, he said:

“It depends how long I’m prime minister for.”

That is the split: it is between the Labour party and reality.

The Prime Minister will be going to the Council in December to negotiate on behalf of Britain, and treaty change may be on the agenda. I ask him the question again. His Education Secretary said on the radio yesterday morning:

“I think we should take back powers over employment law”,

but his Deputy Prime Minister disagrees. What is the Prime Minister’s position?

I tell you what would be on the agenda if the right hon. Gentleman was going to the meeting in Brussels tonight. We would not be discussing Italy. We would not be discussing Greece. It would be Britain handing out the begging bowl asking for a bail-out. We know that he now wants to join the euro. The other thing that Labour Members want to do is leave the International Monetary Fund. They had the opportunity in this Parliament to vote for an increase in IMF funds, which was agreed at the London Council by their own Government—they rejected that. So we now have the extraordinary situation where they want to join the euro and leave the IMF. It is not France they want to be like—it is Monaco.

It is no wonder the Prime Minister had a problem on Monday, because the truth is that he led his Back Benchers on, making a promise that he knows he cannot keep and that is ruled out by the coalition agreement. We have a Prime Minister who cannot speak for his Government. On the day of the eurozone crisis, we have a Prime Minister who has spent the last week pleading with his Back Benchers, not leading for Britain in Europe.

I might have had a problem on Monday, but I think the right hon. Gentleman has got a problem on Wednesday. The truth is that if he went to that meeting tonight, his message to Berlusconi would be, “Ignore the markets, just carry on spending” and his message to the rest of Europe would be that Labour thinks that you should spend another £100 billion adding to our deficit—after they had finished laughing there would be no time for the rest of the meeting. [Interruption.]

“Pas trop de zèle” was Talleyrand’s advice to Leaders of the Opposition, which meant that he thought that they should not exist in a permanent state of hysteria.

Q2. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether any more projects have been awarded investment by the regional growth fund? Does the tally still stand at just two businesses helped by his flagship policy? (76629)

I am afraid to say that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. There are about 40 projects that have been green-lit for funding, and this is completely on schedule. Fifty bids were successful in round one, receiving a conditional allocation of £450 million to deliver 27,000 new or safeguarded jobs, with up to 100,000 jobs in supply chains. Instead of carping she should be welcoming that.

Q3. My constituency was recently pleased to welcome Mary Portas as part of her review of Britain’s high streets. Does the Prime Minister agree that Rugby’s positive approach to new housing, which will create new customers for the high street, is an effective way of supporting town centres? (76630)

I am delighted that Mary Portas has made it to Rugby, and I agree with what my hon. Friend said. We do need to build more houses in our country and we do need to reform the planning system, but we want to do it in a way that gives more control to local people, so that we can actually make sure that we have thriving high streets in the future.

The whole town of Cumnock, in my constituency, is in a state of shock following the very brutal murder last weekend of a very popular local man, Stuart Walker. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending condolences to Stuart’s family and, amid much unhelpful speculation about the motivation for this murder, will he join me in calling on local people who have any information to come forward to the police to help them with their inquiries?

I certainly join the hon. Lady in sending condolences to her constituent’s family, and what she says is absolutely right. It was once said that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police cannot solve crimes without the help of the public and I hope that everyone will co-operate in the best way they can.

Q4. My 14-year-old constituent Lillian Groves was killed outside her home by a driver who was under the influence of drugs. He was sentenced to just eight months in jail and was released after four months. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet Lillian’s family to hear their case for “Lillian’s law”, a package of measures to ensure that in future we take the menace of drug-driving as seriously as we currently take drink-driving? (76631)

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House when he says that we really have to make sure that we start treating drug-driving as seriously as drink-driving. This issue has been raised repeatedly, but not enough has been done. One of the things that we are doing is making sure that the police are able to test for drug-driving and making that drug-testing equipment available. As we test that and make sure that it works properly, we can look at strengthening things still further, and I am very happy to do as he says.

It was reported over a week ago that the Bank of England had reprimanded one commercial bank, and there may be others, that tried to manipulate the gilts market to exploit quantitative easing. Could the Prime Minister ask for a report on this matter and, if it is true, will he explain to the bankers that we will use the full force of the law against them if they try to rip off the taxpayer?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is very important to send a message to all people in financial services that there is not something called white collar crime that is less serious than other crime. Crime is crime and it should be investigated and prosecuted with the full force of the law.

Q5. Proposals before the House next week will see cuts to legal aid funding for advice services, which in the case of Wiltshire citizens advice bureau amounts to £250,000 a year. I welcome the £20 million stop-gap the Government have found to replace this funding next year, but will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government put in place lasting funding arrangements to sustain these services on which so many people rely? [Interruption.] (76632)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is no good people shouting this down; every party in the House has accepted the need to reform legal aid. [Interruption.] You say you have not but you have accepted it. The figures are very clear: we spend £39 per head in this country on legal aid compared with £18 per head in New Zealand, which has a similar legal system, and in Spain and France the spending is as low as £5 per head. As my hon. Friend has said, we are putting in the £20 million additional funding for not-for-profit organisations and we have also rightly praised the local councils that have gone on funding citizens advice bureaux. I shall certainly look at what he says because that very important organisation does vital work for all our constituents.

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in congratulating Sheffield university’s advanced manufacturing research centre, which celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday and today with a series of events at Westminster, organised in partnership with Boeing and Rolls-Royce. Will he also join me and the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills in endorsing the aim of growing our manufacturing gross domestic product from its current 12.5% to nearer the 20% enjoyed by most of our competitors, and will he commit the Government to work with—

I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman says and I am pleased to note that the Deputy Prime Minister hosted Sheffield university at No. 10 Downing street to celebrate its success. I think we are seeing some positive signs of rebalancing in our economy. Recently I was at the big investment that BP is making in the North sea, as well as at the opening of the new Airbus factory in Broughton in Wales. If one looks across our auto industry, whether it is Nissan, Toyota or Jaguar Land Rover, one sees that all those companies are expanding and bringing more of their production and supply chains onshore. There is a huge amount more to do, but we have to accept that we start from a low base as, sadly, manufacturing production has declined so much in the past decade.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the nearly £1 million that has been received in Redditch for the pupil premium? Will he persuade the Secretary of State for Education to push for a national funding formula as soon as possible? (76633)

Discussions about a national funding formula are ongoing. It is a difficult issue to resolve because of the historical patterns of differences of funding around the country. I think the pupil premium is a major step forward; it will be up to £2.6 billion by the end of this Parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies report says that we have made spending on education much more progressive by the action we have taken. We have taken difficult decisions but at the heart of that was a decision to protect the schools budget and per-pupil funding and, on top of that, to add the pupil premium to make sure that we are looking after the less well-off in our country.

Q7. Last month, a leaked Downing street report said, “We know from a range of polls that women are significantly more negative about the Government than men.”Why does the Prime Minister think that is? (76634)

When you are making difficult spending decisions and have a difficult economic situation, and household budgets are under huge pressure from things like petrol prices, food prices and inflation, clearly, that impacts women. The Government want to do everything they can to help women and that is why we have lifted 1 million people out of tax, the majority of whom are women, and that is why we are putting much more money and time into free nursery education for two, three and four-year-olds. That is also why, for the first time, we have agreed that women working fewer than 16 hours a week will get child care. And we do not just care about this issue at home: because of what we are doing through international aid, we will be saving more than 50,000 women in childbirth around the world.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission has made one decision—to grant planning permission for the giant American waste company Covanta to build a 600,000 tonne incinerator in Mid Bedfordshire. Thousands of people in Bedfordshire responded to the consultation, saying that they do not want this. The small print of the decision says that the decision is subject to special parliamentary procedure. Will the Prime Minister please let the people of Bedfordshire know that this Government are not like the previous Government, that we listen to local concerns and that we will ensure that that monstrous rubbish-guzzling atmosphere-polluting incinerator will not be imposed upon the people of Bedfordshire?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are difficult planning decisions that have to be made, but what the Government have done is made sure that the planning system is more democratic and reports to Parliament, and that Ministers have to take decisions and be accountable. I cannot speak for how those Ministers have to make those decisions. They have to make them in their own way, but we have ended the idea of the vast quango with absolutely no accountability, as my hon. Friend rightly says.

Q8. The Prime Minister has warned African countries that unless they improve gay rights, he will cut their aid, yet in many African countries where we pour in millions of pounds of aid, Christians face great persecution and destruction of churches, lives and property. Here in the UK, anyone who displays a Bible verse on the wall of a café faces prosecution. Was Ann Widdecombe right when she said that in the 21st century hedgehogs have more rights than Christians? (76635)

Ann Widdecombe is often right—not always right, but often right. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The way we judge our aid decisions is to look at human rights across the piece. That means how people are treating Christians and also the appalling behaviour of some African countries towards people who are gay.

Q14. In Eastbourne we recently recruited 181 apprentices in 100 days. My local training provider, Sussex Downs, tells me that 91% of its hospitality apprentices go into full-time jobs. Does the Prime Minister agree that apprenticeships work and in Eastbourne they work particularly well? (76641)

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend about that. We found funding for an extra 50,000 apprenticeships last year and achieved almost double that because of the enthusiasm that there is among the business community and among young people. We are now running at about 360,000 a year and hope to achieve about 250,000 more apprentices than were planned under the previous Government. It is an important development in our country. We want to make sure that apprenticeship schemes are aimed at young people who need work and also aimed at the higher level—people going on to get degree-equivalent qualifications, so it is not seen as a second best. For many people it is the right career path, and there are companies in Britain such as Rolls-Royce where many of the people on the board started with an apprenticeship.

Q9. On reflection, is now the right time for the Prime Minister to scrap Labour’s indeterminate sentences for public protection, as the Justice Secretary wants to do? They were introduced to save dangerous violent criminals from harming the British public. Will the Prime Minister accept from me that the decision should not be about prison places, but about the protection of the British public? (76636)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary will make an announcement about this shortly. What the right hon. Gentleman will find is that we will be replacing a failed system that does not work and which the public do not understand with tough determinate sentences. People have always wanted to know that when someone is sent to prison for a serious offence, they do not, as currently, get let out halfway through. We will be putting an end to that scandal and I expect it to have widespread support.

Q10. If women were to start businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 more businesses per year in this country. I have some exceptional female entrepreneurs in my constituency, such as Cath Kidston. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage more female entrepreneurs to create growth and jobs for the country? (76637)

There are many things that Government can do. In the last Budget there were a series of steps such as the enterprise finance schemes that we have established and the changes to capital gains tax. The biggest change is a change in culture, encouraging people to take that first step and supporting them along the way as they go.

Last week the House, to its great credit, supported unanimously full transparency from Government in respect of all documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on South Yorkshire police, following the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), to commit to the same openness and ensure that the Hillsborough independent panel has unredacted access to all papers?

I will certainly look at the issue the hon. Lady raises. I am not fully aware of the situation regarding the police papers and do not want to give her a flip answer across the Dispatch Box. The Government have done what we should have done with regard to the Cabinet papers, but I am very happy to look at the point she raises and get back to her.

Q11. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising all the adopters and foster carers in Crewe and Nantwich and elsewhere for the fantastic work they do and encourage others to come forward to foster and adopt and to recognise during national care leavers week that we can do much more to provide care leavers with the sustained and enduring support that they often need and always deserve? (76638)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He speaks from great experience, as his parents have helped to foster around 90 children over the past few decades, which I think is a magnificent example. As I said in my party conference speech, we really need to attack every aspect of this issue. It is a national scandal that there are 3,660 children under the age of one in the care system, but last year only 60 were adopted. We have got to do a lot better. Part of it is about bureaucracy and part of it is about culture, but a lot of it is about encouraging good foster parents and adoptive parents to come forward and giving them security in the knowledge that the process will not be as bad as it is now. Thorough-going reform is required. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for children is leading this work and I am confident that we can make some real breakthroughs in this area.

Q12. On 11 August the Prime Minister told the House that there would be a report to Parliament on cross-Government activity relating to gangs. Where is that report and when will we see it? (76639)

We are working intensively right across Whitehall on the gang issue, because I think that in the past, frankly, this was something that was dealt with in the Home Office and there was not the same input from other Departments, so we are doing exactly that, and when we are ready to make a report to Parliament we will do so.

Q13. When I worked in the private sector—[Interruption.] When I worked in the private sector I benefited from statutory maternity leave. Will the Prime Minister remind the House how this Government are making work more flexible and family-friendly? (76640)

How typical of the Opposition. If someone talks about the private sector or job creation, all they have is a lack of respect and sneering. It is absolutely typical. My hon. Friend speaks from great experience. We want to be a family-friendly Government, which is why we are putting the extra hours and help into nursery education, increasing child tax credit, by £290 for the least well-off families, and why we will also be introducing proper help for flexible parenting.

Q15. Westminster police command is now being required to lose 240 police community support officers, slashing by two thirds the number of PCSOs doing security and counter-terrorism work, and every single PCSO in the borough must now reapply for their own job. What message does the Prime Minister think this sends to the public, who want to see visible, patrol-based policing on their streets? (76642)

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is this: we are asking the Metropolitan Police Authority to find a cash reduction over the next four years of 6.2%. We face an enormous deficit in this country because of what we inherited from the Labour party. We have to make difficult decisions. Frankly, I do not think it is impossible to find a 6.2% cash reduction while keeping good front-line policing at the same time, and I am very confident that my good friend Boris Johnson will do exactly that.

Is the Prime Minister as enthusiastic as I am about the Localism Bill and the prospect that it will deliver real growth and empower local communities? Does he agree that the best way to tackle political disengagement is through local accountability?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We all know that we are not building enough in this country to provide houses for our young people, to end the scandal of overcrowding and to reduce the number of people on housing waiting lists. The best way to get that to happen is to ensure that local people really feel they have a say in and control over development in their own area. That is the way to square the circle. The top-down targets under the previous Government did not work, but the localist approach will.

The Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, pledged to fight bare-knuckled against hospital closures. Will he give the House a guarantee today that for as long as he is Prime Minister there will be no hospital closures on his watch?

The pledge I can make to the hon. Gentleman is the one I made when I visited his constituency, which is that we are funding the expansion of his hospital.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and thank him for all the work that the Department for Education is doing on free schools. Can he please give encouragement to the two sets of parents’ groups that are looking to build two free schools—a junior and a secondary school—in South Derbyshire?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that encouragement. I think the free schools policy is a great success, as we see a number of really high-quality schools coming in across our country, and it is depressing to see the attitude of the Opposition towards this policy. What we had was a new shadow Education Secretary, who in the first flushes of the job, said that he would support free schools, but as soon as Unite picked up the phone to him he had to drop that altogether. Do you want to know what their policy is now, Mr Speaker? He said:

“What I said…is we oppose the policy…but…some of them are going to be really good”—


“run by really good people and we’re not going to put ourselves in a position as a Labour Party of opposing those schools”.

So, they oppose the policy but they support the schools. What a complete bunch of hypocrites.

Can the Prime Minister explain why his Secretary of State for Health was able to make concessions to the Liberal Democrats on the Health and Social Care Bill in the other place last night, but was unable to recognise the need for those changes when it was debated here? Is that not more about doing political deals rather that doing what is right for our NHS?

We are doing what is right for our NHS, and that is why average waiting times for in-patients are down, average waiting times for out-patients are down, hospital infections are at their lowest level ever, the number of mixed-sex wards is down by 91% under this Government, the number of managers is down and the number of doctors is up. If the hon. Lady wants to see further improvements to the Health and Social Care Bill, she will have plenty of opportunities.

Two thirds of young people involved in the riots had a special educational need. Does the Prime Minister agree that that underlines the need for complex solutions which tackle educational underachievement and rehabilitation as well as punishment?

Of course, as I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, we have to look behind the statistics and what happened and ask ourselves how we have allowed so much to go wrong in our society. Clearly, education and special educational needs play a role in that, but I do think it is important, and the public want, to see swift justice and punishment handed out when people break the law. We did see that at the time of the riots, and I think we should see it all the time.