The Secretary of State was asked—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government on a range of issues, including the effects of fuel prices in Wales. The Government are addressing the rising cost of fuel through the abolition of the fuel tax escalator, the introduction of the fair fuel stabiliser and a cut in fuel duty announced at the Budget earlier this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he impress upon the Secretary of State the need to push the Government to introduce a true fuel duty stabiliser that would trigger an annual reduction in the pump price, as the so-called fair fuel stabiliser announced in the March Budget does not go anywhere near far enough? The volatility in petrol prices means businesses cannot budget, as was noted yesterday by the Federation of Small Businesses in its submission for the autumn statement.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I must point out to him that the tax measures we have taken have resulted in petrol prices being approximately 6p per litre lower than they would have been had that escalator not been scrapped. Even taking VAT into account, fuel prices are approximately 3p per litre lower than they would have been.
Further to that response, may I ask the Minister about a slightly different matter? What support are the UK Government providing for the use of electric cars? There are hardly any charging points all in Wales. There is not even one per constituency. What is being done to encourage that?
As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, this is the technology of the future. As he knows, provision is being rolled out in the urban areas, and I hope solutions will be found to ensure that rural users will also be able to have access to suitable charging points.
For commuters and businesses in my constituency, high fuel prices are painful enough without the exorbitant cost of the Severn bridge tolls. If price increases follow the normal pattern, tolls will hit almost £6 per car this year. What action is the Secretary of State taking to help my constituents?
The latest unemployment figures in Wales are disappointing and show that there is still much for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government to do. We have made it clear that while tackling the deficit remains our top priority, we are committed to creating the right conditions for the private sector to expand and grow in Wales, in order to create much-needed jobs.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Labour Welsh Government on the launch of Jobs Growth Wales, which I am told will create 4,000 jobs per year, and will she encourage her Cabinet colleagues to establish a similar scheme in this country, because our constituents are desperate for jobs?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I would congratulate any Government who tried to reduce unemployment, which blights so many families, particularly in Wales—and never more so than under the last Labour Government. However, I must say to him that the jury will be out until we see the results from that scheme.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, in my constituency hundreds of people cross the border both ways for employment. Constituents of mine work in Broughton, and people from Welsh constituencies travel the other way to Vauxhall, Essar and other major employers. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be some joined-up thinking with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in order to address the challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has just raised? There is a good scheme in Wales; why not replicate it in England?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong; this is a new scheme in Wales, being introduced by the Welsh Government. I agree that the £400 million investment in the Airbus factory will secure 6,000 Welsh jobs and many jobs in the supply chain to that factory. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently opened the new North factory, which will secure employment and development in that area for a long time to come.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of the fact that we started the enterprise zones in England at a much earlier stage than the Welsh Government, but I am pleased to welcome the fact that the Welsh Government have designated some areas in Wales as enterprise zones. I know, however, from my discussions with business and industry that they are keenly awaiting some more details on the enterprise zones, which have been very slow in coming forward.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the announcement by the BSW Timber sawmill in Newbridge-on-Wye in my constituency that it is about to create another 20 jobs, bringing Christmas cheer to those families who will benefit from that employment?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I know how hard he works in his constituency to secure jobs. I offer my congratulations and hope that the business goes from strength to strength. I think we forget in this day and age when unemployment figures are going in the wrong direction that plenty of companies are creating jobs and plenty of enterprising—
Does the Secretary of State not realise how out of touch she is? The unemployment figures in Wales are not “disappointing”, they are shocking. We have had a 20% rise in the number of women claiming jobseeker’s allowance since she came to power in May 2010, including an increase of a fifth in the number out of work for more than 12 months. Why, according to her parliamentary answers to me, has her Wales Office business advisory council not yet discussed the plight of jobless women in Wales?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to commiserate with those people who are looking for employment, but I am not going to take any lessons from him—he was part of a Labour Government under whom youth unemployment rose by more than 40% and female unemployment rose by more than 30%.
What world is she living in? We created a record number of jobs in Wales. There are 10 men on her business advisory council—why does she not appoint at least one woman to it? With the deficit rising and growth stalling, is it not also time that her Government adopted Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs in Wales, including a cut in VAT on home improvements to 5%, a tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers and a £2 billion tax on bankers’ bonuses to create 100,000 new jobs? Unless she acts now, she will condemn tens of thousands of men and women in Wales to misery.
In Wales, there is an acid test of Labour’s policies. The fact is that a Labour Government are in power in Wales and, as the First Minister in Scotland said the other day:
“If Labour has the answer to economic problems and unemployment, why are unemployment and youth unemployment in Wales higher than they are in Scotland? If Labour has the magic solutions, why is it not implementing them in the one place in these islands where it is still in government?”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 17 November 2011; c. 3582.]
Current levels of youth unemployment in Wales and across the UK are, of course, disappointing. We are determined to tackle that and will announce additional measures as part of phase 2 of the growth review.
That is two Ministers now who have used the word “disappointing” about unemployment. Frankly, it is a tragedy and one of the worst things about it is that a previous Conservative Government consigned constituencies such as mine and whole communities like the Rhondda to long-term mass unemployment. They are doing exactly the same now to a generation of young people. Will the Minister suggest one single thing that he personally is doing in his Department to tackle youth unemployment in Wales and in the Rhondda?
Of course youth unemployment is too high and of course, sadly, that is not a new phenomenon. In the last Parliament, youth unemployment in Wales increased by 73% and we have not heard a word of apology from the hon. Gentleman for that. We recognise the importance of the problem and that is why we have introduced the Work programme, which provides properly targeted support to young jobseekers.
Is not export-led growth one route to addressing youth unemployment? In that regard, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate private sector business in Wales, which since the last election has seen a 31% increase in Welsh exports—double the national average and the largest increase of any part of the United Kingdom?
Yes. My hon. Friend is entirely right. The export figures for Wales were extremely encouraging, led particularly as they were by the engineering sector. In that connection, we must commend Airbus for the wonderful work it is doing in the north-east of Wales.
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor and other ministerial colleagues on a range of issues affecting Wales. I welcome the latest fall in inflation, which was published by the Office for National Statistics last week.
On this Government’s watch, average food bills have increased by 5%, putting more pressure on hard-working families. I have listened to the Secretary of State’s responses, but can she give a guarantee that she is really fighting Wales’s corner and fighting for hard-working families in Cabinet?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what I think was a question. There can be absolutely no doubt about whether I always fight Wales’s corner in Cabinet. I thought he would at least be encouraged that the Bank of England has forecast that inflation should fall rapidly over 2012. In the mean time, the Government are taking very strong action to help consumers with high costs. We all want to help households and the Government go to the last degree to do so.
Feed-in Tariff Review
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting representatives from the Welsh solar industry next week along with the shadow Minister for Wales to discuss concerns that businesses have about the feed-in tariff review.
The Minister will know that confidence in the solar industry has been considerably damaged by the decision on feed-in tariffs. Will he and the Secretary of State now stand up for Wales and ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change to defer the decision date for implementation of 12 December so that the consultation, which finishes on 23 December, can at least have the views of the solar industry he is meeting next week?
Antur Nantlle community business group in my constituency has well developed plans for a hydroelectric scheme that will benefit the environment as well as provide an income stream for the venture, but it is concerned that any future change in the tariff will undermine the financial basis of the scheme. What can the Wales Office do to ensure that this example of the big society in action is not jeopardised by the Government’s actions?
The Government’s feed-in tariff fiasco risks shattering all investor confidence in manufacturing in Wales. What will the Minister do to influence ministerial colleagues to prevent imminent job losses in the Welsh solar industry and ensure that any change to the feed-in tariff is given a long lead-in time and is set at a rate that will encourage investment and not increase unemployment?
We fully understand the difficulties that companies involved in this sector of the economy face as a consequence, but if things had been left as they were, the feed-in tariff budget would have been eaten up. There is a consultation and I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will participate in it.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and with the First Minister on various issues, including enterprise zones in Wales. It is vital that businesses investing in Wales are given the same or even better competitive advantages as businesses in places just across the border such as Bristol and Merseyside.
Given that enterprise zones not only create jobs but have a wider geographical impact on the supply chain with regard to the economy, does the Minister share my surprise at the procrastination of the Welsh Government in locating enterprise zones in Wales?
This is becoming a common theme. Although the enterprise zones have been declared by the Welsh Government, we have only a recent letter from the Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science of 22 November to Assembly Members, which says that the Department is currently working hard with colleagues in transport, planning and elsewhere to ensure that its enterprise zone policy can be delivered. We can only hope that it gets a wiggle on and gets those details out to businesses as fast as possible.
Blaenau Gwent, with high unemployment but great potential, includes an enterprise zone. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting developers who propose to build a £200 million race track there. She offered to speak to Ministers from the Treasury and from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about that infrastructure plan and capital allowances. Following those representations, will she meet me to feed back on progress?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I was pleased to meet him and the business people who are thinking of investing in Blaenau Gwent. There is a lot of work to be done on the project, which is exceedingly ambitious, but as the area has been designated by the Welsh Government as an enterprise zone for the automotive industry, I hope that good progress will be made. If any help can be given, I am always happy to see what I can do, and I will certainly be pleased to feed back to the hon. Gentleman.
It is increasingly difficult when relying on another Government to implement a policy, but I remain optimistic because I want the message to go out that Wales is open for business. Enterprise zones will give an advantage to businesses going into these areas and create jobs, and there are good forecasts for the number of private sector jobs to be created by 2015, so I walk in hope. I encourage the Welsh Government to do everything that they can, and I stand ready to help them.
The funding available for the Bristol enterprise zone is nearly as much as the entire amount for enterprise zones for the whole of Wales. How can the Secretary of State justify supporting that alongside the tax on trade and investment in Wales that the Severn bridge toll represents? Will she resist this massive investment at the doorway of Wales that would stop inward investment into Wales?
The amount given to the Welsh Government as a consequence of what is being spent on enterprise zones in England is calculated in exactly the same way under our Government as under the previous Government. The Minister in Wales has received £10 million towards enterprise zones, but she also has a budget of nearly £15 billion at her disposal, and she can decide how she spends that. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to encourage her to look at what she can do in those enterprise zones to encourage businesses.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, UK Trade and Investment and others on promoting inward investment in Wales. I have met the new chief executive of UKTI in the last month and yesterday I met the senior investment adviser for Wales as part of continuing discussions better to promote Wales to potential investors.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs recently heard from the chief executive of UKTI, but he, like our Committee, is still waiting in hope for his first meeting with the Welsh Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science. Given that surprising fact, and the fact that the Secretary of State herself has met the Committee and UKTI many times, what advice can she give the Welsh Business Minister on pushing the respect agenda and the interests of Welsh business?
My hon. Friend knows that I try to give encouragement to the Welsh Labour Minister for Business, rather than giving her advice, but I am pleased that the Welsh Affairs Committee is investigating trade and investment, and I look forward to giving evidence to the Committee next month. I continue to hold a series of meetings to see how we can assist and work with the Welsh Government to improve those figures.
But is not inward investment always a second best? Brace’s bakery, an indigenous Welsh firm with its headquarters in Crumlin, took over an inward investment company in my constituency that was about to close down. On Monday, Brace’s increased its work force by a third, so will the Secretary of State give her congratulations and support to indigenous Welsh companies, and ensure that the rest of the country enjoys the great merits of Brace’s breads and Welsh cakes?
Now the hon. Gentleman is tempting me; I always like a good Welsh cake. He should know how much I encourage indigenous Welsh companies, not least by my continuous support of the Fast Growth 50, which celebrates indigenous companies and the way they grow the economy, but he must not do down inward investment. In 2010-2011, 38 inward investment projects led to the creation of 2,444 new jobs and safeguarded another 1,100 jobs in Wales. I think that is pretty important and certainly not second best.
My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, the Welsh Government and other organisations to discuss measures that would help to stimulate economic growth in Wales.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I agree with him, and so do the shadow Secretary of State and the Welsh First Minister. The Government’s plan for growth aims to create the most competitive tax system in the G20 and make the UK the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a business. That applies to Wales as much as to the rest of the country.
Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to incentivise good growth in difficult times is to invest in green jobs and the green economy? What would he say to my constituent Labour Councillor Phil White, ex-Tower colliery, who has put together proposals for investment in 1,500 homes in five of the most deprived areas of Wales using the feed-in tariff scheme by next March? This Government have cut the legs away from under that scheme, so what would the Minister say to my constituent?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government to support Welsh businesses.
My hon. Friend is correct. SMEs are the backbone of the Welsh economy and have long been so. Through our programme of reduction of regulation, we are easing the burden on SMEs and setting up new businesses. It is hoped that that will cause the sector to flourish in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that rises in interest rates would be catastrophic for the prospects of SMEs in Wales, and that maintaining our low interest rates could be at risk if we were to lose our triple A rating, making it more difficult for Wales to maintain its competitive edge when it comes to exports?
Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. This Government have had to take tough decisions on the economy. The fruit of that is that we have maintained our triple A rating and, as a consequence, this country is in a far better position than many of our competitors.
Small businesses in my constituency have written to me this month saying that they are going to lay people off or may face closure because of the Government’s policy on the feed-in tariff for solar. Will the Minister give a categoric assurance to the House that he will lobby the Treasury and Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that the scheme is maintained to help businesses that are doing the right thing in Wales?
It is estimated that the SME sector accounts for 90% of employment in Wales. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government about promoting this vital sector?
I have had recent discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a range of issues, including broadcasting in Wales. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have also had recent discussions with the BBC Trust, the S4C Authority and independent Welsh television producers on the issue.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the head of the BBC to reconsider his savage cuts to BBC local radio so that people in Wales can continue to enjoy Welsh language broadcasting alongside people in Cornwall enjoying Cornish language broadcasting?
I think I got my hon. Friend’s drift. I congratulate her on being a champion of the Cornish language. Like me, she will want to recognise and congratulate the BBC and S4C on reaching an agreement on the funding governance and accountability of S4C until 2017, thereby securing Welsh language broadcasting in Wales?
Anyone watching the BBC’s excellent sporting coverage this weekend might like to know that the odds on the right hon. Lady remaining Secretary of State have dropped from 8:1 to 2:1. Would she recommend that they have a flutter on that?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Matthew Thornton from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Lance Corporal Peter Eustace from 2nd Battalion The Rifles, Lieutenant David Boyce and Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon, both from The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and Private Thomas Lake from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. They were all courageous soldiers held in the highest regard by their comrades. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice and send our condolences to their families and friends.
I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to Alan Keen, who sadly died after a courageous battle with cancer. He was a popular constituency MP who served Feltham and Heston for nearly 20 years. Before entering politics, Alan was a scout for Middlesbrough football club and continued to be a great advocate for sport, not least through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary football group, which grew to be one of the largest in the House under his stewardship. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Ann, who is a friend to many here, and to his family and all his constituents. He will be missed by Members on both sides of the House.
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.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave soldiers who this week gave their lives in service to our country. All our thoughts should go out to them and their families at this very difficult time. Similarly, I join the tribute paid to the late hon. Member for Feltham and Heston.
The mass strike proposed by the unions for this time next week will cause great upheaval for many of my constituents in High Peak. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wholly irresponsible for the unions to bring their members out on strike based on such a small number of votes and when negotiations on pensions are still ongoing?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It really is irresponsible, when negotiations are ongoing, to cause strikes that will lead to the closure of most of the classrooms in our country. It is the height of irresponsibility. What is on offer is an extremely reasonable deal: low and middle-income earners getting a larger pension at retirement than they do now; all existing accrued rights being fully protected; and any worker within 10 years of retirement seeing no change in either the age they can retire or the amount they can receive. It is also a tragedy that it is not just the union leaders who do not understand this; the Labour party refuses to condemn these strikes.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Matthew Thornton from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Lance Corporal Peter Eustace from 2nd Battalion The Rifles, Lieutenant David Boyce and Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon, both of 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and Private Thomas Lake from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. All those men died serving our country with the utmost bravery and courage, and my deepest condolences, and those of the whole House, are with their families and friends.
I also want to pay tribute, as the Prime Minister rightly did, to Alan Keen, the former Member for Feltham and Heston. He was, as the Prime Minister said, somebody who had friends across the House. He was somebody who believed in young people, in opportunities for young people and, most of all, in the power of sport to change people’s lives—and, as I heard at his funeral yesterday, he certainly had an unusual idea for his first date. He took his future wife, Ann, to the Orient, which turned out not to be a Chinese restaurant but to be Leyton Orient, who were playing that day. He was a great and lovely man, and he will be missed by all of us, but most of all by Ann and by his family.
Can the Prime Minister tell us the increase in long-term youth unemployment since he scrapped the future jobs fund in March?
Youth unemployment is up since the last election, I accept that; and youth unemployment is unacceptably high in this country, as it is unacceptably high right across Europe. The problem is that youth unemployment in this country has been rising since 2004, and under the previous Labour Government it went up by 40%.
What we have to do to help young people back to work is to improve our school system so that they have proper qualifications; improve our welfare system so that it pays to work; and improve our employment system so that there are proper apprenticeships to help young people. We have 360,000 apprenticeships this year, helping young people to get work.
Under 13 years of a Labour Government, youth unemployment never reached 1 million; it has taken the Prime Minister 18 months to get to that tragic figure. Given that he did not answer the question, let me tell the House the reality: since he scrapped the future jobs fund in March, long-term youth unemployment has risen by 77%. Now, can he tell us what has happened to long-term youth unemployment since he introduced his Work programme in June?
First, let me just repeat: youth unemployment went up by 40% under a Labour Government. Let me also remind the right hon. Gentleman of something that his brother, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), said last week. He said very clearly that this Government did not
“invent the problem of youth unemployment”.
We should have that sort of candour from this brother.
The Leader of the Opposition asked me very specifically about the future jobs fund and the Work programme. Let me give him the answer. The Work programme is helping 50% more people than the future jobs fund: it will help 120,000 young people this year, where the future jobs fund helped only 80,000. The waiting time for the most needy young people will be half the waiting time under the future jobs fund; under the Work programme, those who are not in education, employment or training will get help—[Interruption.] I would have thought that Opposition Members would want to hear about what we are doing to help young people. They will get help within three months, rather than six, but the absolute key is that, because we are paying by results, the Work programme will actually help those who need the most help, whereas the future jobs fund put a lot of graduates into public sector jobs and was five times more expensive than the alternative. That is why we have scrapped it and replaced it with something better.
Classically, lots of bluster but no answer to the question I asked—[Interruption.] Government Members will be interested in the answer that the Prime Minister did not give, because in June, when the Work programme was introduced, 85,000 young people had been unemployed for more than six months; now, there are 133,000—a massive increase since he introduced the Work programme. If he is serious about tackling youth unemployment, he should get those on the highest incomes to help those with no income at all. Why does he not tax the bankers’ bonuses and use the money to create 100,000 jobs for our young people?
We have introduced the bank levy, which is going to raise more every year than the right hon. Gentleman’s bonus tax would raise in one year.
We have just heard a new use for the bonus tax—there have been nine already. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the list. He has used his bonus tax for higher tax credits; giving child benefit to those on the highest rates of tax; cutting the deficit; spending on public services; more money for the regional growth fund—that is when he is defending it rather than attacking it; turning empty shops into cultural community centres; and higher capital spending. This is the bank tax that likes to say yes. No wonder the shadow Chancellor has stopped saluting and started crying. [Laughter.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. Let me say it again: the Prime Minister will be heard, and the Leader of the Opposition will be heard. Laughing about the denial of a hearing is not to the credit of any hon. or right hon. Member.
The truth is, the Prime Minister is the one cutting taxes for the banks year on year in the course of this Parliament. That is the reality. He is creating a lost generation of young people, and he knows it. It is his responsibility; it is happening on his watch.
The Prime Minister said on Monday to the CBI that it was “harder than anyone envisaged” to get the deficit down, but he was warned that his strategy of cutting too far and too fast would not create jobs; he was warned that it would not create growth; and he was warned that he would find it harder to get the deficit down. Is that not exactly what has happened?
The right hon. Gentleman accuses us of cutting taxes. Let me tell him what we are cutting. We are cutting interest rates, which is giving the economy the best boost. We are cutting corporation tax, and we now have the lowest rates of corporation tax in the G7. We are cutting tax for the low-paid, because we have taken 1 million people out of income tax. We are freezing the council tax, cutting the petrol tax and scrapping Labour’s jobs tax. That is what this Government are doing.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman directly on the issues of growth and debt, because this is absolutely key. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is at it again, I am afraid. All over Europe there is an interest rate storm, with high interest rates in Spain, Italy and even some of the countries at the heart of the eurozone. We must ensure that we keep this country safe with low interest rates. Let me just remind the Leader of the Opposition of this: if interest rates went up by 1% in this country, that would add £1,000 to the typical family mortgage. That is the risk that we would have with Labour’s plans for more spending, more borrowing and more debt.
There he goes again; when it goes wrong, it is nothing to do with the Prime Minister. It is his ABC—Anyone But Cameron to blame when things go wrong.
What did the Chancellor say at the time of the Budget last year? He said that his approach would deliver
“a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]
Three promises made; three promises broken. The Government’s plan is failing, and that is the truth. Does that not show why at the autumn statement, the Prime Minister should change course?
Let me just give the right hon. Gentleman the latest growth figures in Europe. Britain grew at 0.5% in the last quarter, which is the same as the US and Germany, faster than France, faster than Spain, faster than the EU average and faster than the eurozone average. That is the fact. Of course it is a difficult economic environment that we are in, but is there a single other mainstream party anywhere in Europe that thinks the answer to the debt problem is more spending and more borrowing? If he is worried about the level of debt, why is he proposing to add another £100 billion to it? It is the height of irresponsibility, and the reason why people will never trust Labour with the economy again.
How out of touch does this Prime Minister sound? Some 1 million young people and their families are worried about finding a job and all he offers is complacency and more of the same. Now we know it: however high youth unemployment goes and however bad it gets, it is a price worth paying to protect his failed plan. I tell him this: unless he changes course next week, 1 million young people will become the symbol of his failed economic plan and an out-of-touch Prime Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman asks for a change of course. Let me just say to him what the leading economic organisations in our country and, indeed, across the world say about that issue. The IMF says this:
“'Is there a justification for a shift in the policy mix', we think the answer is no.”
Let us listen to the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King:
“There has to be a Plan A”—
[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition says that he would not listen to him; it was Labour who appointed him.
“There has to be a Plan A…this country needs a fiscal consolidation starting from its largest peacetime budget…ever”.
Who was it who gave us that peacetime budget? The Labour party. Let us listen to the CBI, the leading business organisation in this country:
“Priorities for the next 12 months: Stick closely to the existing credible plan”.
That is what the experts say; that is what business says; that is what the Bank of England says. Would you listen to them or would you listen to the people who got us into this mess in the first place?
Q2. Returning to next week’s public sector strikes— [Interruption.] They don’t like it up 'em, do they? Is the Prime Minister aware that, of the three largest unions, the turnouts in the strike ballot were 32%, 31% and 25% respectively? Does my right hon. Friend agree that any striker has the right to strike if he so wishes, but he should not engage in mass action unless he has the support of the majority of those unions’ membership? (81731)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As I said, it is wrong that these strikes are going ahead when negotiations are under way. It is wrong to strike and to close so many classrooms and essential services, but it is being done on the basis of those turnouts. Just one quarter of Unison members voted to strike, and just 23% of those balloted at Unite voted in favour. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that Labour Members want to shout me down. We know why they will not condemn the strikes, because we got the figures today on where they get their money from. In the right hon. Gentleman's first year as leader of the party, 86% of Labour’s donations have come from the trade unions—86%! Under the previous Labour leader, it was 56%. That is about the only thing the Leader of the Opposition has improved since the time of Gordon Brown.
Q3. I understand that the Prime Minister is having trouble connecting with women and is seeking advice. Given that female unemployment has increased this year by 20%, that women have been the hardest hit by public sector cuts and the VAT rise, and that they have benefited the least from his tax give-aways, does he not agree that it is time for a plan B which reverses the VAT increase and ensures that benefits increase in line with inflation? (81732)
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. Of course, every family in Britain is facing a difficult time, with rising inflation, tight household budgets and a public sector pay freeze. But let us look at what we are doing in terms of trying to help women. Of the 1 million people we have lifted out of tax at the lowest end, many are women. What we are doing in terms of additional child care is helping women. The extra hours we are giving for two, three and four-year-olds—that is helping women. So I do not accept what she says. This is a difficult economic environment, but the changes we are making to public sector pensions, for instance, mean that low-paid people in the public sector will actually get a better pension, including many women. Because she, like everyone else on the other side, is in the pocket of the unions, they cannot see that or say it.
Q4. Given the Government’s intention to freeze council tax, is the Prime Minister as astounded as I am that Green-run Brighton and Hove council is planning to decline £3 million of council tax grant and is planning instead to raise council tax by 3.5%, so costing local tax payers £4 million? (81733)
That is a very important point. At a time of difficult household budgets, it is this Government who have cut the petrol tax, and we are freezing the council tax and have made that money available to councils up and down the country. It is a decision for individual councils. If they want the money to go ahead with the council tax freeze, the money is there, but if they reject it, as they plan to in Brighton, that is a huge mistake, because the council will be asking families in Brighton to pay more at a time when it should be on their side.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister confirmed that he would meet members of the cross-party inquiry into stalking, which I chair. It is indeed welcome news that the Home Office will now be consulting with a view to legislating. Will he confirm that the inquiry’s evidence-based deliberations and conclusions will be fully taken into account in considering future legislation?
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is important that we take forward the work that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have done in looking at a proper, separate offence for stalking and recognising that there is a gap in the current law that we should fill, because there are people who are not getting the protection and help from the police that they need.
Q5. There is genuine concern in Crewe about over-development in respect of housing. How can my right hon. Friend ensure that my constituents get a greater say in planning decisions for new housing estates required for our housing shortage? (81734)
The great strength of the Localism Act is that we are giving local people a much greater say. In many parts of the country, that will be welcomed, because people can see the advantages of development going ahead, and recognise that if they build extra houses they will keep the council tax and that if they attract extra businesses they will keep the business taxes. That will help to end the problem that we have had for so long of communities not seeing any advantage in development taking place. But it should be a matter for them to decide, as in the case of Crewe.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the history of Northern Rock represents a kind of modern-day morality tale or play, in that here we have a decent, mutual and responsible building society, which is then privatised, then over-extends, then goes bust, is then bailed out by the taxpayer, and now, sadly, instead of returning to mutuality, is sold off dirt cheap to one of the brashest companies in England?
I was with the right hon. Gentleman for some of the way through his question, but let us look at the decision the Government have taken. First, we are selling a business that was costing the taxpayer money, and getting well over £700 million for that business. The second thing we are doing, which is in the interests of every single person in this House and everyone in this country, is to get another functioning bank and building society on our high street lending money. How many times do all of us go to our constituency surgeries and hear people say, “I can’t get a mortgage”, or small businesses say, “I can’t get a loan”? We need a good, new, healthy lending institution out there, and hon. Members should welcome the fact that it is going to be based in the north-east of England, as Northern Rock was.
Q6. At a time when the Government are taking steps to drive growth in the economy, will the Prime Minister update the House on what measures are being taken to attract high-quality inward investment to enterprise zones such as Warton in my constituency? (81735)
I do think the enterprise zones are going to be a success, because we are basing them, as in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in areas where there is already a successful cluster of businesses. Take, for instance, the enterprise zones at Daresbury science park or at Harwell in Oxfordshire, or the one in Wolverhampton, where Jaguar Land Rover has said that it is going to establish a new plant employing 1,000 people. Enterprise zones are being well applied, they are a good success story, and this Government are right behind them.
Q7. The personal damage caused by long-term unemployment can be phenomenal. On average, somebody who is unemployed for more than six months is six times more likely to contract a serious mental health problem. Does the Prime Minister not worry that we will have a generation of young people who will suffer many of the problems of lack of self-esteem and of never having a first job? Would it not make more sense to guarantee every under 24-year-old a job after six months' unemployment, thus paying them to work, not paying them benefits? (81736)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the scarring effect of long-term youth unemployment. We are doing two important things to try to help with that. First, we are helping those not in employment, education or training within three months through the Work programme, rather than the six months under the future jobs fund. Secondly, one of the most successful schemes that there has been in recent years is giving people work experience placements. We will produce evidence on that soon. In many cases, it is leading to direct employment opportunities for young people. The Deputy Prime Minister will say more about that later this week, but we are doing everything that we can to help young people into work and to prevent the scarring effects that the hon. Gentleman talks about.
Q8. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to Alan Keen? He was our dear friend and colleague on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Everybody who worked with him will miss him greatly. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that one of most disruptive impacts of next week’s strikes will be on mums and dads with children in school? Will he join me in encouraging employers to allow parents to bring their children to work when it is safe to do so? (81737)
I am sure that everyone in the House will agree with the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to her colleague from the Select Committee and to the very good work that he did on that Committee.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the strikes next week. Frankly, the strikes are going to go ahead and everybody should be very clear about where the responsibility lies: it lies with the union leaders and with the Labour party, which is taking their side and backing the strike. She makes the important point that when it is safe for people to take their children to work, organisations should allow them to do so.
Q9. The Prime Minister is probably aware that up to 20,000 individuals across the United Kingdom have lost considerable sums of money, often their pension savings, through the collapse of the Arch Cru investment fund. That fund was advertised and marketed as being cautious, and turned out to be anything but. Will he heed the calls from all parts of the House for the Government to use the powers of section 14 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to institute an immediate inquiry so that this never happens again? (81738)
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been contacted by constituents who have lost money because of that fund and who are very concerned about what is happening. There has been a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, where the Financial Secretary to the Treasury set out the position and the responsibility of the Financial Services Authority. I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says and see whether we can do more.
Q10. I fully understand that savings have to be made in the defence budget, but I am very concerned by the proposals for significant cuts to the Ministry of Defence police budget and the possible implications for security at the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister please look at those proposals carefully? (81739)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The defence budget overall is £35 billion and it will continue at pretty much that cash figure throughout this Parliament. It will still be the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world. I assure him that there are no current plans to reduce the number of Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane or Coulport naval bases. Those are vital sites, as he knows, but obviously we have to look at all the costs at the Ministry of Defence and ensure that we are getting the safety that we need.
Some 1,600 people are employed by Thomas Cook at its headquarters in Peterborough. They are rightly concerned about the media coverage over the last two days of the company’s difficulties. Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting this great British institution, which has been providing travel to British people for 170 years? People can support the company by booking their holidays through Thomas Cook, safe in the knowledge that it is part of the ATOL scheme, and they will have an excellent holiday to boot.
My hon. Friend speaks up for an iconic and important British business that has given people a lot of pleasure over the years. I have asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to give me a report on what is happening at Thomas Cook, because it is important to ensure that it is in a good, healthy state.
Q12. Recent research has shown that the NHS achieved the biggest drop in cancer deaths and the most efficient use of resources among 10 leading countries. Will the Prime Minister accept that he did not inherit an NHS in crisis, but one that was rapidly improving? Will he stop using dodgy 10-year-old statistics to justify his wasteful and destructive NHS privatisation? (81741)
I am a huge supporter and fan of the NHS. There are many things that are truly wonderful about our NHS. We should celebrate that, but under the last Government, the number of managers in the NHS doubled—the number of NHS managers was increasing six times faster than the number of nurses—and NHS productivity was falling. If a Government inherit a situation like that, it makes sense to make some changes. That is why we see, since we have come in, 14,000 fewer non-clinical staff, but more doctors and midwives, and more operations taking place. If the hon. Lady wants something to celebrate in the NHS—[Interruption.]
Q13. Is my right hon. Friend aware of research by the TaxPayers Alliance—[Interruption]—that shows that residents of the Maldon district are paying more in motoring taxes and receiving less in direct benefit than anyone else in the entire country? My constituents appreciate that they would be paying even more in motoring taxes under the plans of the previous Labour Government, but does my right hon. Friend accept that, for them and others in rural areas, such taxes are becoming an intolerable burden? (81742)
I do accept what my hon. Friend says. That is why in the Budget we took the decision not only to get rid of the tax increases on petrol that were coming down the track, but to make a cut in petrol duty. Effectively, that was 6p off a litre of diesel or petrol. It seems to me essential that, at a time of economic difficulty, we demonstrate that we are behind those people who want to work hard and do the right thing, by freezing their council tax, scrapping Labour’s jobs tax and helping them with their motoring expenses. This Government are absolutely committed to doing that. It is all very well Opposition Members shouting about the TaxPayers Alliance, but it does a good job of drawing attention to those things. Also, the difference is that the TaxPayers Alliance does not pay us to put down amendments.
Q14. The whole House will approve of the belated conversion of the Justice Secretary to the office of the chief coroner, but there are many concerns in the House about war memorials. The other week I brought a petition to the Prime Minister, which 3,000 people in Blackpool had signed. Will he now use his office and his weight to persuade the Justice Secretary and his Ministers to look urgently at new protections for war memorials and new penalties for those who attack them? (81743)
I think that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House and the whole country in saying that what has been happening to our war memorials is completely unacceptable. I do not think there is a single answer. It may lie, as he said, in some new punishments and rules, but it also lies in looking at how the scrap metal market is currently regulated.
I hear very clearly what the hon. Gentleman says about the office of the chief coroner. I am delighted that we have been able to put forward an amendment and to accept some of those points. The one thing that we should try to avoid—this is really important, because all of us want to do the right thing for those soldiers and their families who have given so much to our country—is having an endless right of appeal. I do not think that that would be a good idea. I think it would actually damage the interests of families—
Over the last 30 years, thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the UK have been supported through projects funded by Children in Need. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Children in Need on raising more than £600 million over the years, and will he pay tribute to my constituents, who came together as a town, raised thousands of pounds and welcomed Pudsey bear home for the first time?
Q15. Last week, I visited Afghanistan through the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had the opportunity to meet the commanding officer in Helmand province. He stated that he needs two things before any British withdrawal in 2014: political help and influence with countries neighbouring Afghanistan to enable it to develop, and sufficient training and adequate equipment for the Afghan army. Can the Prime Minister assure the House today that those requests will be delivered prior to any 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan? (81744)
The hon. Gentleman is right to speak up on this issue and to repeat what he heard in Afghanistan. He is absolutely right that we need to help the neighbouring countries—and, as we speak, my national security adviser and other members of my team are in Pakistan speaking with the Pakistani Government. On the equipment, assistance and training given to the Afghan national army, we now publish a monthly report to the House so that everyone can see the progress that we are making in equipping and training the Afghan national police and army. In spite of all the difficulties in Afghanistan, that is broadly on track.