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Prime Minister

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

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.]

Even for this Prime Minister, to be playing politics with youth unemployment is a complete outrage. He is the one—[Interruption.]

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.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister favour the establishment of local authorities that meet only to give out contracts to others and that provide no direct services to the local population? (81740)

What I support is local authorities that provide good services and keep their council taxes down. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world has had the advantage of a bit of change and some common-sense conservatism.

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.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. If the hon. Lady wants celebrate something in the NHS, mixed-sex wards are down 90% since this Government came to office.

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?

I am very glad my hon. Friend managed to get in, and I apologise, Mr Speaker, for almost squeezing him out. It would be a tragedy if we did not have this opportunity to pay tribute to Pudsey and all that Pudsey has achieved over many years.

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.

We now come to the statement from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that those who remain can hear the statement.