Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ministry of Defence Police

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence about Ministry of Defence police numbers in Scotland. (88251)

We have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on defence matters relating to Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), last spoke about the issue to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) —who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans—earlier this week.

As recently as November last year, the Prime Minister said that

“there are no current plans to reduce the number of Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane or Coulport naval bases.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 295.]

Since then, however, the Government have confirmed plans to cut the MOD police budget by 50%. I am curious to know whether the Prime Minister’s assurances hold water. May I ask the Secretary of State what proportion of that cut will fall in Scotland, and whether he believes that the threats to our national security have diminished sufficiently in recent months to justify a 50% cut?

What the Prime Minister said stands. There are no current plans for the MOD to reduce the core police role relating to the security of our national institutions, such as nuclear safety at Coulport or Faslane. National security, including the security of our defence installations, is our highest priority. The reason we have so many MOD police in Scotland in the first place is our huge defence imprint, which would be put at risk immediately if the country were to become independent.

I am delighted by what the Secretary of State says about the importance of security at Faslane and Coulport, and by his assurance that there are no current plans to reduce the number of MOD police. I hope he will also be able to assure the House that the Government will never adopt any plans to reduce security at Faslane and Coulport, given the importance of the nuclear installations there.

As I have said, national security and the defence of our security installations are our highest priority, and we will do nothing that would compromise that security.

Child Tax Credits

2. What assessment he has made of the effect of the autumn statement on child tax credit payments in Scotland. (88252)

The welfare system must remain fair and affordable, while protecting the most vulnerable. Most working-age benefits, benefits for disabled people and the basic state pension will increase by 5.2% in April. In order to remain on course with the debt consolidation plan and meet their fiscal mandate, the Government will increase the child element of child tax credit by the rate of inflation.

According to the House of Commons Library, the Government’s decision not to proceed with the £110 increase in the child element of child tax credit will take £41 million away from nearly 400,000 children in Scotland alone. Worst hit in Scotland will be Glasgow city, where 44,000 children are set to miss out on £4.8 million. When will the Secretary of State stand up for the children of Scotland?

The Government are standing up for the children of Scotland. That is why our priority is sorting out the mess that the Labour Government made of our economy. The hon. Gentleman would do well to heed the words of the former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy):

“The truth is the Labour party would have to make cuts if we were in power.”

We all accept that these are difficult economic times, but does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of helping the lowest-paid families is raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 and beyond?

I entirely agree. The measure has had a significant impact in Scotland, and more than 2 million basic-rate taxpayers will benefit from it during the current Parliament.

After another week that has been dominated by political debate and headlines relating to Scotland’s constitution, we must not ignore a report by End Child Poverty showing that 50% of local authority areas in Scotland contain wards in which 30% of children are living in poverty, and that in some wards in my constituency the figure is 50%. What action is the Secretary of State taking, along with the Scottish Government, to ensure that every child in Scotland is given the best start and opportunities in life?

The hon. Gentleman raises important issues, such as the fact that many of the levers relating to child poverty rest with the Scottish Government. As a result of the autumn statement, the Scottish Government received more than £500 million in additional revenue. I should have thought it would be better if they focused on how to deploy that revenue to deal with such problems as child poverty than to obsess about the constitution.

Inward Investment

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I firmly believe that Scotland is the ideal destination for international inward investment, and we have taken a range of actions to promote such investment. My right hon. Friend recently led the largest ever Scottish trade delegation to Brazil to promote closer business links with a key emerging market for the Scottish economy.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, in an ever more competitive world, uncertainty about independence has not helped the cause of Scotland or any other part of the United Kingdom that is seeking to attract much-needed inward investment?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I believe it is better that a referendum on Scottish independence be held sooner rather than later.

In contrast to the previous intervention, will the Minister acknowledge that international companies investing in Scotland since the re-election of the Scottish National party Scottish Government include INEOS, PetroChina, Dell, Gamesa, Amazon, Hewlett Packard and Mitsubishi Power Systems? Does he acknowledge that and welcome the investment?

I acknowledge that those companies have invested in spite of the uncertainty. We should consider the level of investment that Scotland could achieve if there was not that uncertainty.

That is the usual mantra that we hear from Government Members. Will the Minister respond to Scotland’s leading entrepreneur, Jim McColl, who said on this very subject that business is “not concerned” about the

“independence referendum…What many of us in business are convinced about is that a productive and prosperous future for this country depends on securing real economic powers for the Parliament through constitutional change”?

Will the UK Government drop their foolish conditions, so that we can secure that change in the autumn of 2014?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that Mr McColl is entitled to his opinion, as is any other citizen of Scotland. I am sure you will encourage them, as your own party’s Scottish Government already have, to contribute to our consultation on the independence referendum.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that were Scotland to become separate from the United Kingdom, and were it to be forced to join the eurozone as a condition of re-entry into the European Union, that would hinder or help inward investment into Scotland?

Uncertainty over Scotland’s position in the EU, and uncertainty over which currency Scotland would use if it were ever to become independent, would certainly hinder inward investment into Scotland.

NEETs

The annual population survey of 2010 estimates that 36,000 18 to 19-year-olds in Scotland were not in education, employment or training between 2009 and 2010.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but it does not really answer the question of what is happening between the ages of 16 and 18, which is as important, if not more important. What is he doing to encourage youngsters to enter industry and to enable them to take up apprenticeships as joiners, electricians and plumbers, because this Government have failed to attract people into those industries? Does he agree that the idea, which I suggested to him at a meeting, of setting up schools-industry liaison committees is worth supporting?

The hon. Gentleman rightly continues to focus on this issue. We are all deeply concerned about youth unemployment. I have visited his constituency, and I have also had other meetings in Ayrshire and elsewhere, and it is right that we should join the Scottish Government, employers and all the agencies to help young people—aged between 16 and 18 and of any age—to find work or support. The youth contract that we announced before Christmas will bring £1 billion of extra investment into supporting the young unemployed, whether through wage incentives, additional work experience and opportunities or money to the Scottish Government. That money could also be used to create the school-industry liaison groups the hon. Gentleman wants.

As the Secretary of State says, youth unemployment is a huge concern for Members of all parties and for people across Scotland. The youth contract will help by providing 40,000 opportunities for young people in Scotland, but this problem will not be solved easily, so what will my right hon. Friend do to bring together people from the UK Government, the jobcentres and the Scottish Government, as well as business employers and education representatives, to offer the opportunities that young people in Scotland need?

Over many months now, I have been bringing together exactly those groups in different parts of Scotland—including Ayrshire, Falkirk and the borders. At the end of March, I, along with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Scottish Finance Secretary, will bring everybody together so we can focus as two Governments and as all the interested parties on tackling this scourge that we must get rid of.

The problem with the Secretary of State’s complacent answers is that he simply does not grasp the scale of the crisis of slumping demand, employment and confidence that grips Scotland’s economy due to the crushing austerity being imposed by this Government. Does he not share the real fears of young people that, with youth unemployment at over 21% and seven people chasing every vacancy in Scotland, there simply are not enough jobs to go around, and is it not time to change course by boosting demand through a cut in VAT now, before this Government’s failing economic plan plunges Scotland into the misery of another downturn?

I think it is wrong for the Labour party to be complacent about its record on the economy, which landed us in this mess in the first place. The shadow Defence Secretary, one of my predecessors as Scottish Secretary, said this week that Labour has to face up to the realities of the economy and the deficit, and the hon. Gentleman should do that, too. We want to work with everybody so that we can reduce youth unemployment, and I invite him to look at the youth contract in more detail.

Poverty

The Government took action at the autumn statement to build a stronger and more balanced economy. As a result, more than £500 million has been added to the existing Scottish budget by the UK Government, which provides the Scottish Government with additional resources in these uncertain times.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one of the most important ways of tackling poverty is ensuring full employment? Does he therefore share my concern that Mahle Engine Systems in my constituency seems set to remove jobs from an area hit by high unemployment, taking those jobs out of Scotland and out of the UK?

I would be very disappointed if that were the case. I know that the hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner for employment in her constituency. We must continue to stress the benefits of employers remaining in Scotland, which is why the current constitutional uncertainty is so damaging.

On Monday, when 700 of my constituents employed by WJ Harte Construction returned to work, they were told that the company had gone into administration, without any consultation whatsoever. I am told that Scottish Enterprise and the trade unions were not even aware of this. The MSP was not aware of it, and the MP certainly was not. The company was taken over by a venture capitalist more than two years ago, when it had a turnover of £100 million. It has now been run into the ground and the executives have run away with the money. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what we can do to save as many of these 700 jobs as possible? This is a disgraceful situation.

Obviously, as a fellow south Lanarkshire MP I am very disappointed to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to relate, and I should be very pleased to meet him to ensure that employment continues to be secured in south Lanarkshire.

Work Capability Assessment

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the work capability assessment in Scotland. (88257)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions on a range of issues concerning welfare reform. We also recently met Professor Malcolm Harrington to discuss his second review of the work capability assessment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure he will be aware of a report published today by Citizens Advice entitled “Right First Time?”, which examines the high level of incorrect and inaccurate decisions made in the work capability assessment. Given the amount of money that Atos Healthcare receives from the public purse for undertaking these assessments, is it not now time for the Government to consider the report’s recommendation that financial penalties be imposed on Atos for a number of those incorrect assessments? [Interruption.]

This was one of the issues that the Secretary of State and I discussed with Professor Harrington, and as he prepares his further report, this is inevitably one of the issues he will address. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I would like to hear Dame Anne Begg.

Now that the move from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is well under way, anecdotally, it would appear that Atos is finding it very difficult to carry out the necessary work capability assessments, so there could be extra delays. Will the Minister please engage with his fellow Ministers in the DWP to make sure that Atos can deliver on the contract?

Independence Referendum

7. What representations he has received from the Scottish Government on the holding of a referendum in Scotland on independence from the UK. (88258)

8. What representations he has received from the Scottish Government on the holding of a referendum in Scotland on independence from the UK. (88259)

10. What representations he has received from the Scottish Government on the holding of a referendum in Scotland on independence from the UK. (88261)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister for Scotland on the referendum proposed by the Scottish Government on Scotland’s independence from the UK. (88262)

Yesterday, I made a statement announcing a consultation to seek views on how any referendum can be made legal, fair and decisive. I discussed this yesterday with the First Minister, and I hope to have further discussions with the Scottish Government, along with other politicians and people from across Scottish civic society, during the consultation.

The House of Commons Library has given me strong evidence to show that the economies of Quebec and Canada as a whole suffered in the 1990s due to constitutional uncertainty. For the sake of jobs in Scotland and England, does my right hon. Friend agree that the last thing we need is a prolonged period of constitutional uncertainty, and that the First Minister should stop playing politics and get on with it?

My hon. Friend is correct to point to that independent analysis and the experience of Quebec and the rest of Canada. It is vital that the economic uncertainty we now face because of the referendum is resolved, which is why we have brought forward proposals to make the referendum legal, fair and decisive. I want it to happen as soon as possible.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that if the UK Government do not facilitate an independence referendum, one cannot take place?

The central issue arising from the consultation that I launched yesterday is that, as things stand, the Scottish Parliament does not have the legal power to hold a referendum, regardless of how that is described, and we need to provide that power by working with it. I am committed to working with the Scottish Government, and with people from across the country, so that we can get the power devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Government can then develop the question and we can get on with the referendum, which will be made in Scotland, for the people of Scotland.

Has my right hon. Friend had any conversations to establish what impact an independent Scotland would have on our relationship with the European Union and the euro?

My hon. Friend is focusing on some of the central issues that we need to be able to get on to debate in the decision about whether Scotland should go its own way or continue to be part of the most successful multi-nation state in the history of the world, as I think it is vital it does. So let us get on and devolve the power to make it a legal referendum. Let us have a fair referendum and let us make sure it is decisive.

The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has already embarked on an inquiry to identify those issues, such as defence, which need to be resolved before a referendum is held. Does the Secretary of State plan to contribute to that debate with the Select Committee?

I certainly do. What is really important is not just our debate now about the future of Scotland, but ensuring that everybody in the country gets the opportunity to participate in the consultation on the shape of the referendum, and I hope that people will respond to that. I hope that everybody across the country—not just politicians—will get involved in debating defence, welfare and the state of our economy, all of which, I believe, are much safer within the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Order. We are discussing extremely important matters and we should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

We now know that there will be an independence referendum in the autumn of 1914—[Laughter.] That, of course, was the year that the great war started. There will be an independence referendum in 2014, designed and decided by the people of Scotland. If the Secretary of State is so concerned about the legal powers for the referendum, why does he not just devolve the powers, through section 30, without condition? I see that the Prime Minister has walked into this debate. I really hope that the Secretary of State can encourage the Prime Minister to come to Scotland as much as possible in the next two weeks, because the Prime Minister is the best recruiting sergeant for a “yes” to independence vote that we have.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be a full participant in the debate, as will all people across the United Kingdom. For us, it is important that we have a referendum that is made in Scotland for the people of Scotland about our future in Scotland. The First Minister and now the hon. Gentleman —who gave a slightly different date—have put forward their preference for when that referendum should be, but before we can get anywhere near it we must ensure that it is legal. I hope that the Scottish Government will work with us to ensure that that is the case.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that following this week’s important developments, the referendum campaign on Scotland’s future is now effectively under way and it is time to get on to the substance of the issue? What is more, given that the Scottish Government have said that they have been involved for some time in considering the details of the prospects for Scotland, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether any UK Government officials have been involved in any discussions on the future of the Scottish economy and, in particular, on whether a separate Scotland will keep the pound, join the euro or have a separate currency?

The hon. Lady is right to focus on those key issues about the future of Scotland. I believe that Scotland is best served by continuing to be part of the United Kingdom, where our economy is stronger and our defence more secure, where we have much greater clout internationally and where our welfare system will be more generous and better. I hope that the Scottish Government will publish their plans about what they think should happen in an independent Scotland and in the meantime, as the hon. Lady says, let the debate commence.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that one of Britain’s greatest achievements was the creation of the welfare state? Have any discussions taken place about the implications of separation for welfare spend in Scotland, particularly as recent figures reveal that it was three times greater than oil revenues in 2010?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the contrast between the level of spending to support some of the most vulnerable in our society in Scotland and, indeed, the rest of the country and the volatility of oil revenues. I believe that we can have a more secure and generous welfare system by sharing the risks and resources across the whole of the United Kingdom, which has helped Scotland through difficult times in the past and at present.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that all Scots should be entitled to vote in any referendum on independence, whether or not they live in Scotland, including my dad, who is a proud Scotsman who happens to live in England and thinks of himself first and foremost as British?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s dad’s sense of patriotism and I am sure that he, like many other Scots around the country and around the world, will wish to contribute to our consultation. Like me, they will want to see this referendum on the most historic decision we will ever take in Scotland carried out legally and fairly, on a straightforward and decisive basis. Let us get that sorted and let us get on with the debate.

Youth Unemployment

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State, but we are discussing youth unemployment in Scotland, a very important matter, and I want to hear his answer.

The Government have committed £1 billion over the next three years to implement the youth contract. Our package of support includes wage incentives for employers to recruit 18 to 24-year-olds from the Work programme and increased work experience opportunities for that age group. Other support is also available.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He is well aware of the rising levels of youth unemployment in North Ayrshire and I know that he has received strong representations about it from all the Ayrshire MPs. What more does he think that this Government can do at Westminster to increase public and private investment in North Ayrshire?

I acknowledge the work that the hon. Lady has done and the fact that we recently met to discuss this very serious issue. It is important that the youth contract, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister visited Scotland to discuss on Friday, is taken advantage of by people across the country. I look forward to coming to the hon. Lady’s constituency in the near future to meet those very people so that we can discuss how to implement it most effectively.

Public Subsidies

12. What comparative assessment he has made of the level of subsidy from the public purse for postal, transport and health services in Scotland and the north of England. (88263)

Health and large aspects of transport are devolved areas, and it is for the Parliament in Scotland to decide how to allocate its budget. The Government have provided an annual subsidy to Post Office Ltd of £150 million for the last financial year and £180 million for this financial year. The subsidy is not distributed by country or region.

Does the Minister think it would help the forthcoming debate if all the figures were made public so that my constituents and others can fully participate?

I absolutely agree that the debate on the independence of Scotland should be based on facts and on the issues. That is why we need to move on from the process and get on with the referendum.

The question of the referendum on Scotland is not a matter just for the Scottish Government or for the Scottish people. How and when will my constituents in England be consulted on this important matter?

I remind the Minister that the question is with reference to postal, transport and health services.

My hon. Friend’s constituents have the opportunity to be represented on these issues through him in this House.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have fallen in the service of our country since we last met for Prime Minister’s Question Time—Captain Tom Jennings from the Royal Marines, Squadron Leader Anthony Downing from the Royal Air Force, Private John King from 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, and Rifleman Sachin Limbu from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died after a long period in hospital where he was much loved by the staff who looked after him in Birmingham. Their outstanding courage and selflessness will never be forgotten. They have given their lives serving our country and making our world more secure, and our thoughts should be with their families and friends.

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.

The whole House will wish to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to the fallen.

May I ask the Prime Minister to join me in congratulating Cranswick Country Foods on its £15 million investment creating a state-of-the-art facility in my constituency, which is licensed for exporting to the US Department of Agriculture, exports throughout the EU and employs more than 1,200 people? Unfortunately, the Food Standards Agency is blocking exports from that excellent plant to the far east. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that job-destroying and unnecessary regulation will not be tolerated by his Government?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the company in his constituency on its expansion and on the welcome new jobs it is bringing. It is vital that we rebalance our economy, with greater emphasis on business investment and on exports. Exports to China went up by 20% last year. I shall certainly do everything I can to help to resolve the situation, and I shall be happy to ask a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Tom Jennings from the Royal Marines, Squadron Leader Anthony Downing from the Royal Air Force, Private John King from 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, and Rifleman Sachin Limbu from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles? All of them showed enormous courage and bravery. They have made sacrifices on our behalf, and our deepest condolences go to their families and friends.

In the autumn statement the Chancellor said that train fares would rise by only 1% above inflation. Can the Prime Minister therefore explain why rail companies this month on some of the busiest commuter routes have increased their fares by up to 11%?

No, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister is wrong. The last Labour Government stopped them doing that, and this Prime Minister, when he came to office, reversed that policy, which we introduced. That is why the companies are able to rig the fares. That is why someone travelling from Northampton to London will see a rise on the season ticket of more than £300. Will he now stand up to the train companies, get a better deal for commuters and change his policy?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has had a difficult start to the year, but I am afraid he has made it worse by getting the facts wrong. Labour, in 2009, allowed fare increases of up to 11%, because they introduced the idea of flexibility of 5% over and above the RPI plus 1% that was the case. What was the case in 2009 is the case today, but the key issue is this: there are only two places that money for railways can come from. It can come from the taxpayer or it can come from the traveller. What really matters is whether we are going to put money into rail investment, and this Government are putting that money in. We are building Crossrail, we are electrifying the Great Western main line, we are electrifying the line between Manchester and Liverpool, we are putting £308 billion into Crossrail, and of course, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced yesterday, we are building High Speed 2 as well.

I am afraid the Prime Minister is just wrong about the facts. The Labour Government saw that train companies were taking advantage of consumers, ripping them off by increasing fares more on the busiest routes, and we stopped it. We took that power away from them. He came to office and brought the power back. He made the wrong decision. And as for his idea that this is all to help the passenger, only last month the National Audit Office warned that the problem was that the money would probably result in increased train operating company profits. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he now go back and reverse his policy?

We originally set out an RPI plus 3% policy for train fares. We found money in the autumn statement to reduce that to RPI plus 1%, but if the right hon. Gentleman wants to see more money go into our railways—presumably he supports the electrification of the Great Western main line and the railway lines in the north-west—he will be touring the country telling us that he supports these things, but he is never prepared to take difficult decisions in order to support them. It is time—[Interruption.]

It is time for the Leader of the Opposition to listen to his shadow Defence Secretary, who wrote very candidly over Christmas:

“There is a difference between populism and popularity”—

and that difference is called credibility. Time to have some, I think.

Instead of his pre-prepared lines, the right hon. Gentleman should get his facts right about his own policy. He is just wrong. He says that he is continuing the policy of the Labour Government, and he is simply wrong on the facts. The Labour Government saw what the train companies were doing and said that we would put an end to it. The Prime Minister said at the weekend that he wanted to take action against crony capitalism. He has failed at the first hurdle. I ask him for the last time: will he now reverse the policy?

We are now on to the issue of higher pay. On the issue of the rail fares, let me be absolutely clear. Labour introduced the policy of 5% flexibility. They changed it for one year only—for an election year—but with no intention of making that permanent. If the right hon. Gentleman does not know that, he should. [Interruption.] If he wants to get on to the issue of executive pay, he is entirely right to raise it. Unlike a Government who did nothing—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the answer, and however long it takes—[Interruption.] Order. However long it takes, I will.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the Opposition is right to raise the issue of executive pay—and unlike the previous Government, who did nothing for 13 years, this Government will act.

I understand that my right hon. Friend recommended me for one new present, and I am about to ask him for another. The Leader of the Opposition is talking drivel, I am afraid. My constituents on the Kent coast line had been paying up to 10% increases under the previous Government for the last four years, until they lost office. I congratulate this Government on their courageous decision to pursue High Speed 2. May I ask my right hon. Friend to turn his attention now to a piece of unfinished business left by the previous Government? High Speed 1 at present runs, in effect, only from St. Pancras to Ashford. Could he see it driven through to Thanet, so that we can enjoy the sort of benefits that in the future will be enjoyed by Birmingham?

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved honour for his many years of service to his constituents. He is entirely right about what happened under the previous Government, when regulated fares went up by over 18% and unregulated fares went up by over 23%. I will certainly look into what he says about High Speed 1, but I think that it is an advertisement for what we can get by linking up our country with high-speed rail, shortening commuter distances and helping to change the economic geography of our country so that we can build a stronger economy.

Q2. Over 80,000 pensioners in Liverpool will lose up to £100 this winter following the Government’s cut in winter fuel allowance. Will the Prime Minister adopt Labour’s policy of ensuring that energy companies automatically put elderly customers on the cheapest tariff for gas and electricity? (88198)

I am afraid that, as with the hon. Lady’s party leader, there seems to have been an outbreak of collective amnesia on the Labour Benches, because we have kept the previous Government’s policy on the winter fuel allowance and are meeting in full all the promises that she and her party made on the winter fuel allowance. We have gone one further, because they introduced higher cold weather payments only for election year, but we have made them permanent.

The Prime Minister will have experienced at first hand the quality of nursing at Treliske. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that patients across the country receive the highest possible standards of nursing care from the NHS?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I well remember—indeed, I will never forget—the time I spent at the Royal Cornwall hospital and the happy days I had there, and it was a great privilege to go back again last year. We have very high standards of nursing care in our country and the overwhelming majority of nurses do a fantastic job, but I do not think that we would be serving our constituents properly if we did not highlight those few cases where it goes wrong, and we have seen in the Care Quality Commission reports that there are areas where it has gone wrong. I think that it is incumbent on the Government to try to remove the bureaucracy that can get in nurses’ way, but it is also important for us to highlight best practice in the best hospitals in our country—I visited an excellent hospital in Salford last week—and say, “Let’s copy that right across the country,” so that we have high standards of care and look after the nutritional needs, indeed all the needs, of vulnerable people in our hospitals.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about Scotland. We on this side of the House believe that the United Kingdom benefits the people of Scotland and the people of the rest of the United Kingdom in equal measure. We are stronger together and weaker apart. Does he agree that we must make the case for the Union—not simply a case against separatism, but the positive case about the shared benefits to us all of Scotland’s part in the United Kingdom: the shared economic interests, the shared institutions such as the NHS, the defence forces and the BBC, and above all the shared values we hold together?

I am happy to say that this is an area where the right hon. Gentleman and I will be in 100% agreement. I passionately believe in the future of our United Kingdom, and passionately believe that we are stronger together than we would be by breaking apart. Frankly, I am sad that we are even having this debate, because I support the United Kingdom so strongly, but we have to respect the fact that Scotland voted for a separatist party in the Scottish parliamentary elections, so the first thing that it is right to do is make clear the legal position about a referendum, which is what my right hon. Friend the Scottish Secretary has been doing. We have made the offer to devolve the power to hold that referendum so that it can be made in Scotland and held in Scotland. Frankly, I look forward to having the debate, because I think that too many in the Scottish National party have been happy to talk about the process but do not want to talk about the substance. I sometimes feel when I listen to them that it is not a referendum they want, but a “neverendum”. Let us have the debate, and let us keep our country together.

May I agree with the Prime Minister? This is not a fight about process between the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government, or between the British Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister. The way to tackle this issue is to have immediate cross-party talks in Scotland about the timing of the referendum, the nature of the single-question referendum and the vital involvement of the Electoral Commission. Does the Prime Minister also agree with me that we need as soon as possible, as he said, to get beyond process and have that discussion about the substantive issues? This is a momentous decision that our children and grandchildren will have to live with if we get it wrong, so we need a serious, thoughtful and inclusive debate about the choices and the benefits to Scotland of staying in the United Kingdom. On this important issue, the people of our country deserve nothing less than that serious debate about the benefits of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman is right on those three points. On the process of negotiation, which is very important now, particularly given that the SNP has come out and made more clear what it wants to do, I am very happy for the UK Government and the Westminster Parliament to speak directly to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, and let us come to a conclusion about the best time and the best way to hold the referendum. But it must be clear, it must be legal, it must be decisive and it must be fair. Those are the absolute keys. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman: as soon as those process questions are settled, we need to get on to the substance. [Interruption.] The only point I would make about the timing—[Interruption.] As SNP Members, who cannot seem to keep quiet, are so keen to leave the United Kingdom, I do not quite understand why they want to put off putting the question for so long.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have taken some steps, as the previous Government did, to try to crack down on the practice of forced marriage, which, tragically, does take place in too many communities and too many places in our country. We are looking specifically at whether we should take further legal powers and make it a criminal offence, and I am taking a personal interest in the issue, as I think we should be taking every available step to say that it is simply unacceptable, in 2012 in a civilised country such as ours, to have such a barbaric practice.

Q3. Nottinghamshire police serve areas of deep deprivation, face some of the highest crime levels in the country and, rightly, have ambitious crime reduction targets, but Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says that Nottinghamshire is one of five forces facing the most significant challenge to protect their front lines, and senior officers tell me that Government cuts will impact on front-line policing. Is it not time to implement the police funding formula in order to give my local police the resources that they need? (88199)

I shall look carefully at what the hon. Lady says, but all police forces are having to make efficiencies, and I praise chief constables for the steps that they have taken to deliver those efficiencies without affecting front-line policing, while at the same time still delivering a reduction in crime levels.

In Nottinghamshire police there are still 47 officers working in back-office jobs, there are still trained police officers working in human resources, finance and corporate development, and there is still further work to be done to civilianise those parts of the police force and make sure we get all our police officers out on the front line.

Q4. Following the murder of my constituent Jane Clough by her former partner, a rapist, Jonathan Vass, I presented the Bail (Amendment) Bill to the House, and in October the Ministry of Justice team agreed to change the law. Can the Prime Minister confirm to the House, and to Jane’s parents, who are in the Public Gallery today, when that will happen? (88200)

First, on behalf of the House, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the issue and, indeed, on that case? Our sympathies go out to the family, who have suffered so appallingly. I accept, and the Government accept in principle, that there should be a right of appeal against Crown court decisions allowing bail. There is of course that right in magistrates court cases, so there is a strong case for changing the law, and we will table an amendment in the Lords to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, creating a right of appeal to a High Court judge against the granting of bail by a Crown court. I hope that that will improve the law, be more helpful to victims and give some satisfaction to the family whom my hon. Friend is representing so well.

The Scottish Government were elected with an overwhelming mandate to deliver an independence referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term—[Interruption.] They were. It is a fact. In contrast, the Conservative party has fewer Members of Parliament in Scotland than there are giant pandas in Edinburgh zoo. Why is the Prime Minister trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher by dictating to Scotland?

Quite the opposite: we want to give Scotland the power to hold a legal referendum. Right across this House there is a uniform belief that that needs to happen. Discussions can now be entered into about the timing of the referendum and its precise nature, so that we can ensure that it is fair and decisive. The people of Scotland deserve nothing less.

Q5. Care of our older people is one of the most pressing issues facing this country today. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming Age UK’s Care in Crisis campaign, which was launched on Monday? Will he commit to ensuring that the White Paper due in the spring will present a way forward on this vital issue? (88201)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue, and to the Age Concern campaign. We have a huge challenge to rise to this agenda and we want to do so through the White Paper. There are three elements: we must do something about the rising costs of domiciliary care, improve the quality of the care that people receive, and address the issue of people having to sell their homes and all their assets to pay for care. We are looking hard at all those issues to work out a way forward that is right for our system, and that the country can afford.

Q6. The Sunday Times showed that in the past two years the 1,000 richest persons in Britain got richer by £137 billion—enough to pay off the entire deficit. Will the Prime Minister therefore tax them to fund the creation of 1 million jobs, which would be a far better way of cutting the deficit than prolonged austerity? (88202)

For a minute, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was talking about the Prime Minister he served under. It is essential that as we reduce the deficit and take difficult decisions we are fair, and are seen to be fair. What we have done so far has seen the top 10% of the country paying 10 times more than the bottom 10%. Crucially, the top 10% in terms of earnings are paying more not only in cash terms, but as a percentage of their income. As we go ahead with this agenda, I want to ensure that people behave responsibly, and that the Government do too.

Q7. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister will want to congratulate Mr Tony Whatling, who has served as postmaster in Westhall for more than 60 years and has still not retired. However, residents in Wangford and Walberswick are being let down because there is no post office outreach provision. Will the Prime Minister encourage the Post Office to use its generous subsidy to ensure that rural villages are served, not left stranded? (88203)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Mr Whatling. To run a village store and post office for 60 years is a huge achievement. It is people like him who keep our country going. The Government have committed £1.3 billion to improve the network. As a condition of that funding, the Post Office must maintain at least 11,500 branches, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about mobile post offices is a good one. That is a way to serve many communities and to ensure that elderly and vulnerable people in particular get the services that they need.

Q8. The Deputy Prime Minister is reported to have said in the past few days that in due course the UK will sign up to the EU treaty that the Prime Minister rejected a short time ago. Was the Deputy Prime Minister correct? (88204)

The position is very straightforward. We did not sign the treaty because we did not get the safeguards that we wanted to receive. That situation is not going to change. What coalition partners want to put in their manifestos at the next election is entirely up to them.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that people should pay their taxes, keep their businesses onshore and not live as tax exiles in Switzerland, leaving pensioners high and dry? What is he doing to stamp out such predatory business practices? (88205)

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. For all the lectures about predatory capitalism and taxing different businesses in different ways, the one person the Leader of the Opposition has chosen to advise him on this issue has based all his companies in the British Virgin Islands.

Q10. The funding for the United Kingdom Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology has been cut. Given that 1 million women are unemployed and that women make up only 12.3% of people in science, engineering and technology, will the Prime Minister look again at funding for the UKRC, and at thereby restoring Britain’s leading role in science, which nurtured the talents of Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin? (88206)

I will certainly look at the case that the hon. Lady sets out. As she knows, despite having to make difficult decisions across a range of public spending areas we did not cut the science budget. Indeed, in the autumn statement the Chancellor provided a series of enhancements for specific science-based projects. I will look at the specific one that the hon. Lady mentions and get back to her.

Today, unfortunately, is the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay, a despicable institution that to this day still holds one UK national. Will the Prime Minister commit to doing all he can to see that 2012 is the last year in which that institution operates?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is working very hard with the United States to try to secure the issue and bring this chapter to a close. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have also taken steps as a Government and as a country to try to achieve some closure to what happened in the past, through a settlement with the people who were in Guantanamo Bay and through setting up a proper inquiry to ensure that the British Government were not complicit in any way in the torture of people in Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere.

Q11. A moment ago, the Prime Minister was clear that it is crucial that Government economic policy be fair and be seen to be fair. Can he therefore confirm that the 50% tax rate on incomes above £150,000 will remain in place for the duration of this Parliament? (88207)

We take pretty much the same point of view as the former shadow Chancellor who, when he introduced that rate, said that it should be a temporary measure. I think we should also make a judgment about how much money the tax is actually raising. The purpose of the tax system is to raise money for the funds that we need to put into our public services, and it is very important that we look at how it works in practice.

Will the Prime Minister congratulate the Secretary of State for Transport and the good workers of Bombardier on securing a £188 million contract on 28 December, and on the announcement on the Toronto stock exchange, which was so important to the workers in Derbyshire?

I congratulate everyone at Bombardier on winning that contract. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, I want the Government to be a good customer of British firms and work with their supply chain, and not to make the mistakes that the last Government made. They drew up the contract for the railway service that Bombardier did not win.

Q12. The Prime Minister will probably be aware that a chief executive of a stock exchange top 100 company is paid 35 times as much as a hospital consultant who keeps people healthy and saves lives. If the Prime Minister is going to act tough on high pay, and if he really does get it, will he give a date—a year from now, or within the lifetime of this Parliament—when we will see that obscene 35 times multiple come tumbling down? (88208)

I do think that we should make progress on the issue of pay ratios, and we can start with the Government setting out their own pay ratios as an act of leadership. I think this Government have shown some leadership, not least by cutting and freezing Ministers’ pay and having total transparency on pay across Government. On the specific case that the hon. Gentleman raises, this year we have seen a 49% increase in pay yet only a 4% increase in the FTSE. I am not against people running great companies being paid lots of money if they are growing and expanding them and succeeding, but we should not have rewards for failure. Frankly, the last Government had 13 years to deal with this, and did sweet nothing.

Does the Prime Minister think that it can ever be fair for a single family to receive £100,000 a year in housing benefit alone?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of top people’s pay and this issue are, in many ways, linked. We need to get rid of a something-for-nothing culture in this country. We inherited an out-of-control benefit system in which there were families on many tens of thousands of pounds of housing benefit. We had an out-of-control immigration system in which it paid to cheat, and we also had an out-of-control banking system in which reward was not linked to success. Unlike the last Government, we are going to deal with all those things.

Q13. The Cumbrian health economy is in crisis—real crisis. How does the Prime Minister propose to deal with it? (88209)

The first and most important thing is that we are committed to year on year increases in NHS spending. I am afraid that that position is not backed by the hon. Gentleman’s party. Alongside the extra money, we also need to make sure that there is reform so that we give clinicians a leading role in the health service. We also have to do more on the public health and health promotion agenda, because that is the best way to reduce demands on our NHS. There is also one extra thing that we need to try to achieve: looking at the links between alcohol and crime, and alcohol and hospital admissions, which put massive pressure on our NHS. That is an issue that I want this Government to deal with.

Ethnic cleansing and apartheid are evil. Sadly, successive Governments have supported a country where those vile actions are inflicted on indigenous people. We welcomed the Arab spring, but the long Arab winter continues for Palestinians. Last Tuesday the Israeli Government said that they would proceed with the forced eviction of 30,000 Bedouin Arabs from their historic lands. Is it not time we treated Israel as we did apartheid South Africa?

What I would say to my hon. Friend is that first, we should respect the fact that Israel is a democracy. It is a country that has a right to exist and that has frequently been threatened by its neighbours—but also, we are a country that should stand up for clear human rights and clear rights and wrongs in international relations. This Government have been very clear that we do not agree with the Israeli Government’s practice on settlements. I raised the issue myself with the Israeli Prime Minister in a new year telephone call, and this Government will continue to act and vote on illegal settlements.

Q14. Bethany Mickleburgh, a 14-year-old girl in my constituency, has leukaemia and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. Despite an incredible campaign by her family to get more people to join the blood stem cell register, Bethany still does not have a match and is having to look overseas. What plans do the Government have to improve public awareness of that vital issue and increase the number of potential bone marrow donors in the UK? (88210)

The hon. Lady is right to speak up for Bethany specifically, but also for all bone marrow cancer sufferers. The need to get more people on to the register, because of the importance of trying to get a match, is not widely enough understood. The Government will spend about £4 million this year to help promote that and make it happen. However, all of us, in our constituencies and in our own ways, can promote the idea and encourage people to do as the hon. Lady says.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the excellent paper that ResPublica published this morning, which seeks to build on the Government’s initiatives both to build up cadet forces and to get more former military personnel into schools as teachers? It proposes that we set up in some of most deprived communities military academies and free schools administered by the reserve forces and cadets associations.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who does so much to speak up for our reserve forces and our cadet forces, which are incredibly valuable assets to our country. It is worth noting that this year the cadet forces will do a huge amount to try to save and preserve our war memorials from the appalling crime of metal theft that they have been suffering. I will look very carefully at the ResPublica report that my hon. Friend mentions. We should empower our cadet forces to expand and perhaps to go into parts of the country where they have not always been present. The link that my hon. Friend makes between them and schools is a very good idea, which we should promote and support.

My constituent Miss S, who is 32, has lived alone for eight years and was forced on to housing benefit because of redundancy. That benefit has just been cut by nearly 50%, to the shared accommodation rate. Which does the Prime Minister think is most likely: that her landlord will reduce the rent by 50% or that she will be made homeless?

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her preferment in the new year’s honours list. Although I profoundly disagree with many of the things that she has tried to do over her political career—mostly to disarm Britain one-sidedly—I praise her for her persistent efforts. No one can accuse—[Interruption.] I am sorry; let me answer the question very directly. As I understand it, all parties are committed to reform housing benefit. That was Labour’s commitment before the election. The housing benefit bill is completely out of control. Labour’s own welfare spokesman said last week that, at £20 billion, it was unacceptable and had to change. What we have seen so far, as housing benefit has been reformed and reduced, is that rent levels have come down, so we have stopped ripping off the taxpayer.

We now come to a statement by the Secretary of State for Health. Will Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quickly and quietly so that we may hear this very important statement?