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Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

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?