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Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2012

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.

The Prime Minister frequently claims that he is not complacent about the tragedy of youth unemployment, so can he tell the House why his youth contract scheme still has not started?

The youth contract scheme is going to make a big difference to young people because it will, over the coming years, have 160,000 places for people in private sector firms. That will be far better than the failed future jobs fund, which in some cases had more than 97% of its jobs placed in the public sector. It will be up and running this year and it will make a big difference to young people.

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Does the Prime Minister agree with Burns’s impassioned plea for the unity of our nation in his poem, “The Dumfries Volunteers”,

“Be Britain still to Britain true,

Amang oursels united;

For never but by British hands

Maun British wrangs be righted!”?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and the point she makes is a good one. Burns night will be celebrated not just across Scotland but across the whole of the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. When I hear the Scottish nationalists, who are so keen to leave the UK yet so anxious about having a referendum, I think that perhaps they should remember Burns’s words when he referred to the

“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,

O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”

We are 18 months into the Prime Minister’s Government, and today’s figures show that our economy is not growing but is shrinking. What has gone wrong with his economic plan?

These are extremely difficult economic times and these are disappointing figures—although they are not unexpected, because the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a small decline in gross domestic product at the end of last year. I will be frank with the right hon. Gentleman: they reflect three things. They reflect the overhang of the debt and the deficit that we have to deal with; they reflect the higher food and fuel prices that put a squeeze on household income towards the end of last year; and they also reflect the crisis in the eurozone that has frozen Europe’s economies. The forecasts for France, Germany, Spain and Italy for the end of last year forecast as great a decline, or in many cases a greater decline. This is the year when we have to take further action to get our economy moving, but the most important thing is to have a credible plan to get on top of the deficit, which has given us the lowest interest rates for more than 100 years.

People are fed up with the right hon. Gentleman’s excuses about what is happening in our economy. He blames the eurozone. Growth has been flatlining in our economy since well before the eurozone crisis—in fact, since his spending review in autumn 2010. And what has characterised the Government’s approach throughout this period? Total arrogance. In his first Budget the Chancellor painted a glowing picture of what his policies would deliver for our economy. He said that his policies would deliver

“a steady and sustained economic recovery, with…falling unemployment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]

We have a shrinking economy and the highest unemployment in 18 years. How bad do things have to get in our economy to shake the Prime Minister out of his complacency?

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman writes the question before he listens to the answer. I did not just say, “This is an issue of the eurozone.” It is an issue of debt and deficit; it is an issue of squeezed household incomes—issues that are affecting many other economies. He talks about what our policy is. We remember what his policy was: “No more boom and bust”. And yet he gave us the biggest boom and the biggest bust, which we are having to recover from. There is not one ounce of complacency; that is why we are cutting corporation tax, we scrapped Labour’s job tax, we have introduced the enterprise zones, we are investing record sums in apprenticeships—[Interruption.]

We are doing all of these things, but the Labour party has only one answer, and that is to deal with a debt crisis by borrowing more and adding to debt. That is his answer. That would wreck our interest rates, wreck our economy and make things much worse.

The Prime Minister says that there is not one ounce of complacency, but he and his Chancellor are the byword for self-satisfied smug complacency, and that is the reality. He talks about borrowing; he is failing not just on unemployment, not just on growth, but on borrowing as well. Because of his failure on growth and unemployment, he is borrowing £158 billion more than he forecast. And now we know—he said unemployment would fall; it isn’t. He said our economy would grow; it hasn’t. He said, “We’re all in this together”; we’re not. When will this Prime Minister face up to the fact that it is his policies that are failing our country?

Our economy grew last year, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot find it in himself—[Interruption.] There are more people in work today than there were at the time of the last election. But we were given—[Interruption.]

We were given a very clear instruction yesterday. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon the shadow Chancellor said that the Government should listen to the IMF and change course. At 7 o’clock in the evening the IMF told us what we should do. It said that it does not think that fiscal consolidation adds to the problem, and that

“The fiscal consolidation is part of resolving problems facing the UK economy.”

That is the truth. There are two parties in this country taking responsibility for clearing up the mess; there is one party refusing to take responsibility for causing the mess.

Sir Fred Goodwin has recently been censured by the Financial Services Authority in its report on the RBS shambles. Can the Prime Minister tell the House when the Honours Forfeiture Committee will be sitting, to consider stripping this man of his ill-deserved knighthood?

The forfeiture Committee will, as I understand it, be meeting this week, and it will be considering all the evidence—including, as I have said before, the Financial Services Authority report on RBS and what went wrong, and who was responsible for what went wrong.

Q2. It seems, Mr Speaker, that the SNP gets more reaction from Labour than their own Leader does. Does the Prime Minister agree that in Scotland the people are sovereign, and therefore for improvement they have the right to determine their own constitutional future as they see fit? (91460)

Of course this is an issue for the people of Scotland, and I think we should bring forward the date when we put to the Scottish people the question of whether they want to stay in the United Kingdom—which I dearly hope that they do—or to leave the United Kingdom. But the point that everyone needs to understand is that options for further devolution—options for changes across the United Kingdom—are matters for all of the United Kingdom, and matters that all of the United Kingdom should rightly discuss.

May I put it to the Prime Minister that for Britain to commit still more funds to the IMF would, in effect, be providing a subsidy to Germany, because it is still not fully supporting its own currency, while benefiting from its depreciation?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde, is in London today, and our message has been clear: there should be no question of committing further IMF funds until the eurozone itself has shown that it is comprehensively going to stand behind its own currency. In her speech in Germany last night Christine Lagarde made it absolutely clear that the IMF’s role is to support countries, not currency zones, and the Government support that position.

Last September the Prime Minister said about his flagship health Bill:

“we have the Royal College of GPs, the physicians, the nurses and people working in the health service supporting the changes we are making”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 352.]

Will he give the House an update on the support for his Bill from the medical profession?

I have certainly learned that when it comes to the NHS you should always expect a second opinion—or conceivably even a third opinion.

The point is this: there are thousands of GPs throughout the country who are not just supporting our reforms, but actually implementing our reforms. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman just one example of a supportive GP, who happens—[Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Members should not be yelling out. The question was asked, the answer will be given, and the answer will be heard.

I think they want to hear from this one particular GP, who hails from Doncaster. When he was the acting chairman of the Doncaster GP commissioning group, he said:

“Becoming one of the first national pathfinder areas is a real boost for Doncaster.”

I think that what is good for Doncaster is good for the rest of the country, too.

How out of touch is the Prime Minister with what is happening in the NHS? Let me tell him what the medical profession is saying. The latest survey of the Royal College of General Practitioners says that 98% of GPs want the Bill withdrawn. The Royal College of Nursing has said:

“the turmoil of proceeding with these reforms is now greater than the turmoil of stopping them”.

In his famous listening exercise, the Prime Minister said:

“change—if it is to endure, to really work—should have the support of people who work in our NHS. We have to take our nurses and doctors with us.”

If he wants to hear the voice of doctors and nurses across our NHS, why does he not listen?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be out of touch with what is happening in Doncaster. He asks what is happening in the NHS. Let me tell him what is happening in the NHS: 4,000 extra doctors since the election; 100,000 more patients treated since the election; in-patient and out-patient waiting times lower than they were at the election; and £7 billion of the £20 billion already saved. At the same time, we have got hospital-acquired infections at their lowest ever level. That is what is happening in the NHS, but if we listened to him, we would be cutting spending in the NHS and scrapping reforms of the NHS, and the NHS would be getting worse, not better.

I shall tell the Prime Minister what is happening in the NHS: waiting lists up, morale down. What does the majority-Conservative Select Committee on Health say about his reorganisation? It says that it will be a

“disruption and distraction that hinders the ability of organisations to”

release savings.

Let us be frank: this is a Bill that nobody wants. It is opposed by doctors, nurses and patients. Before the election the Prime Minister said, “No more top-down reorganisation.” Is it not time he kept at least one promise, put aside his pride and arrogance, and dropped this unnecessary and unwanted Bill?

I know that the Leader of the Opposition panics and backs down the first time a trade union says no, but this Government do not. Of course if you introduce choice, transparency and competition and say that the private and voluntary sectors should play a greater role you face a challenge, but that is what doing the right thing is sometimes all about. Let him remember what his party’s Health Secretary said about GP commissioning:

“That change will put power in the hands of local GPs to drive improvements in their area, so it should give more power to their elbow than they have at present. That is what I would like to see”.—[Official Report, 16 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 861-62.]

What a shame they talk about it in government, but do not have the guts to face down opposition when they are in opposition.

Following the death of 167 workers in the Piper Alpha disaster in the North sea, this country developed a world-leading safety case regime for offshore oil and gas, which is now threatened by regulations from the European Union. Will the Prime Minister use his best endeavours to back his Department of Energy and Climate Change in persuading the rest of the EU that what we need is not more regulation, but a— [Hon. Members: “Derogation?”] No—I am sorry Mr Speaker. What we need is not regulation, but a directive, which can be implemented flexibly.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I well remember the Piper Alpha disaster and the huge suffering and loss of life it caused. Since that day, we have put in place what I agree is a world-leading system of regulation, and I shall do all I can to support the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in making sure that we get a result in Europe that means we can go on with the right regulations for the North Sea.

Q3. On 2 May 2010 the Prime Minister said that“The test of a good society”was how it cares for the frail and the vulnerable, adding that that was“even more important in difficult times.”Will he not be offending the basic sense of decency of the British people if he persists next week with proposals to take away up to £94 per week in employment and support allowance from up to 7,000 recovering cancer patients across the country? (91461)

What our plans envisage is more people with cancer receiving the higher level of benefit and fewer people having to have the face-to-face interview. That is the case. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are two types of employment and support allowance. Those in the support group get that money for ever—for as long as they need it and as long as they are unable to work. Many people with cancer go straight into that group, and quite right too.

Q4. I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Coryton oil refinery in my constituency went into protective administration yesterday. Although the future is uncertain, it is by no means bleak. Does he agree with me that what is needed now to protect the 1,000 jobs the refinery provides is the full support of the customers and the suppliers, and accurate reporting of the situation? Will he agree to ensure that I meet all the relevant Ministers to discuss what further action the Government can take to secure the future of that important business? (91462)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that case and to mention the importance of the role played by the customers and the suppliers. I shall certainly make sure that he meets Ministers as appropriate. The key is the role of the administrator, which has made it clear that its immediate priority is to continue to operate the refinery operations at Coryton and the other Petroplus sites in the UK while the financial position is clarified and all the restructuring options are explored. We are confident that the administrator is doing all it can, but we will keep on the case.

Q5. The existing UK controls on the movement of terrorist suspects lapse today, including in the case of suspect CD, of whom Mr Justice Owen said at his appeal last year that relocation was a “necessary and proportionate measure to protect the public from…an immediate and real risk of a terrorist-related attack.” Will the Prime Minister tell the House why his Government supported the relocation power at the court hearing last year, but have since legislated to remove it and to give suspect CD and others like him the freedom to come to London in the run-up to the Olympic games? (91463)

I think that most people across the House realise that the control order regime needed to be reformed, as it did not have public confidence, nor did it have the confidence of many people in the police and security services. We have reformed it, and we have worked with the police and security services. We have put in all the resources that they believe are necessary to make sure that our country is kept safe.

Q6. Following the renewable energy subsidy review, will the Prime Minister assure taxpayers that the Government will focus their support on technologies that are cost-effective and reliable, such as biomass, rather than inefficient, costly, large-scale onshore wind farms? (91464)

My hon. Friend will know that the consultation on the renewable obligation banding review has just closed. It proposed targeting only the most cost-effective onshore wind farms, recognising that that is now one of the mature and cheaper technologies. We should, as he says, increase support for an expansion in sustainable biomass generation, which is reliable and cost-effective, and will help us to meet our renewables target.

On Friday, Holocaust memorial day commemorates the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. What can the Prime Minister do to ensure that all of our society understands the depravity of the era of Nazi evil and learns the lessons of it for the present?

The hon. Lady, who has a long record of supporting this cause, speaks for the whole House and the whole nation in raising it and stressing its importance. I met representatives of the Holocaust Educational Trust yesterday and I met a holocaust survivor, whose story was truly inspiring about what he had seen and gone through as a young boy—and then his coming to Britain and becoming an Olympic and Commonwealth contender. It was a fantastic story. We need to make sure that these stories are told in all our schools, right across the country. That is the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and it is work that I strongly support.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that for the whole of Lancashire, average household income after tax is a little above £26,000? Yes, my constituents want a fair deal for those who deserve benefits, but they also want a fair deal for those who work and pay for benefits. (91465)

My hon. Friend speaks for many people. We say that the proposal for a cap on benefits of £26,000 is fair. It allows people to receive £500 a day—[Interruption]—a week. His constituents, and many other constituents, ask themselves, “Is it right that my hard-earned taxes, when I am earning less than that, are going to support people on benefits?” I have to say how disappointing it was that, after the Labour party said that it would support a cap—the announcement was made on the BBC—it voted against it in the other place. What a complete act of hypocrisy!

Following today’s media reports, will the Prime Minister explain why ministerial advisers and senior civil servants continued to attend networking events with lobbyists who paid several thousand pounds to attend, despite the fact that the Cabinet Office deemed that to be a breach of the civil service code, and had previously issued a ban on attendance?

The point that I would make to the hon. Lady is that, unlike the position under the previous Government, there is now a proper system for declaring the interests of special advisers and Ministers. That used not to be the case: it is now the case.

Q8. My right hon. Friend will have noted that the Government’s proposed benefits cut excludes war widows, the disabled and those claiming working tax credits. Does he not agree that my constituents on the Lancashire wage to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) referred deserve to know that they have a Government who are on the side of families who do the right thing and support their local communities? (91466)

My hon. Friend speaks very powerfully about this issue, which is why a benefit cap is fair. It is also very important to recognise that we are excluding from that benefit cap those entitled to working tax credit, as well as households with someone receiving disability living allowance. As we have always said, there will be a hardship fund, a grace period and a way of helping those families to cope with the cap, and to make sure, where possible, that we actually get people into work. The real shame is that there are so many millions of children who live in households where nobody works—and indeed, that number doubled under the previous Government.

Q9. The Prime Minister has said that it would be “a personal betrayal if banks failed to increase lending to businesses”.Yet last week the Bank of England stated that businesses are still not getting the investment that they need from the banks. Have the banks betrayed the Prime Minister, or has the Prime Minister betrayed businesses? (91467)

What I have done is put in place the Merlin agreement, which actually led to an increase in bank lending last year. What we now have in place is a massive credit easing programme, which the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, that will kick in this year and make sure that banks are doing what banks ought to do in a free enterprise economy, and lending to businesses large and small.

I am sure there will be families with children who may have difficulties with the new benefit regime. However, would the Prime Minister care to comment on the feelings of elderly couples who have spent their entire lives working for this country, paid into the state pension system, and are now existing on about £7,000 a year, rather than £26,000?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The fact is that if one looks at the figures today, there are still families in London receiving housing benefit worth more than £50,000 a year. Each one of those families is taking up the hard-earned taxes of many working people earning far less, who could not dream of living in such houses. The point that he makes about pensioners is right, and I am proud of the fact that the Government will be increasing the basic state pension by £5 a week, starting in April, because we believe in dignity and security for our pensioners in old age.

Q10. What does the Prime Minister make of the National Audit Office’s slating of his flagship Work programme? It says that the Government have totally overestimated the number of people that it will put back to work. It is not so much a Work programme as a “doesn’t work” programme. (91468)

Instead of just reading the press release, the hon. Gentleman should read the NAO report, which praises the Government for introducing a scheme in such a short time. The basic point that the NAO is making is that the Work programme is not putting taxpayers’ money at risk but putting the providers at risk, and that is a different way of doing things. It is about payment by results, getting better performance and value for money—things that his Government never provided.

Q11. As my hon. Friends have said earlier, many of my constituents, like theirs, work extremely hard for modest salaries. Given that many people think that the benefit cap should be set lower than £26,000, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are completely out of touch by voting to make it higher? (91469)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me remind the Leader of the Opposition what he said at the beginning of this year. On the “Today” programme, he said:

“I’m not against the cap.”

If he is not against the cap, why could he not get his Labour peers to vote for the cap in the House of Lords? What is he—weak, incompetent, or both?

Q12. On 14 December I asked the Prime Minister about cutting benefits for disabled children, and he replied:“First of all, we are not cutting benefits for disabled children.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 793.]I wonder whether since that time he has checked his facts and discovered that on 12 December, two days before I asked my question, his coalition Members in the Lords voted against the protection of benefits for disabled children under the new universal credit, resulting in a loss of £1,300. I will give the Prime Minister another go. How does this fit in with “We’re all in this together”? (91471)

The right hon. Lady is wrong. The money going into universal credit for the most disabled children is not being cut. She is just plain wrong about that. But is it not interesting that all the questions that we get from all Opposition Members are always about calling for more spending? They have learned absolutely nothing about the mess they landed this country in.

British Airways has announced that it has reached an agreement to take over British Midland International. Although this is being challenged under competition rules, what assurances can the Prime Minister give that the landing slots at Heathrow from regional airports such as Aberdeen will be protected if it is allowed to go ahead?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I am sure that it is important to his constituents as well. I will look into the issue of landing slots—I know how important it is for regional airports—and get back to him.

Q13. Why does the Prime Minister want NHS hospitals to hand over up to half their beds to private patients? (91472)

That is not what the reforms do at all. The reforms ensure that there can be some private and voluntary sector activity going on within the NHS. Before they all—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should quieten down for a second and listen to what his own shadow Health Secretary said. He said:

“the private sector puts its capacity into the NHS for the benefit of NHS patients, which I think most people in this country would celebrate”—[Official Report, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 250WH.]

Again, that is what he said in government, but since going into opposition Labour Members have taken up a position of just supporting the producer interest, total irresponsibility and total short-termism. I stand by what you said in 2007; it is a pity you could not stick by it.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the brutal murder last year in Germany of my constituent, Lee Heath. The murder trial is set to start in March and will last for a good couple of months. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government do everything possible to support Lee’s mother, Marie Heath, in dealing with the ever increasing financial costs that she faces in seeking justice for her son?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case. First, may I offer my sincere condolences to Marie Heath and her family following the tragic death of her son Lee last year? I know what a distressing time this will be for them as they travel for the trial in Germany. The Foreign Office will do everything it can to support Marie and her family. I have to say that I have been quite impressed by what the Foreign Office does in cases like this. I think that it shows sympathy and understanding, and I will make sure that that is carried through in this case as well.

Q14. Twenty-five per cent. of our constituents suffer from musculoskeletal diseases. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee believe that we could get better outcomes for those people at lower cost if a clinical director was appointed to co-ordinate things in the NHS. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet charities representing those people, with me, in the near future? (91473)

I will certainly look carefully at the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. One of the points of the NHS reforms that is perhaps not yet fully understood is the idea of having public health budgets properly ring-fenced, properly funded and with properly employed directors of public health in each area, which will help in many of these areas.

My constituents in Kingswood entirely agree with the Government’s proposed benefits cap. They believe that no one should earn more in benefits than hard-working families earn. Does the Prime Minister not agree that it is a damned disgrace—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]—that the Labour party is opposing and trying to wreck this important measure?

Order. Moderation in the use of parliamentary language—and, indeed, the use of parliamentary language— is much to be preferred.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is an important decision that the House of Commons has to make. We were told that the Labour party would support a cap on benefits—Labour Members have said that repeatedly—yet when the challenge comes they duck it and refuse to support the cap. [Interruption.] They will have another chance when the legislation comes back to this House—[Interruption.] It is no good the Leader of the Opposition shaking his head. His own peers voted against the cap in the Lords. People in this country will not understand why they are taking that position.