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Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2012

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones from 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron 200, and Lance Corporal Gajbahadur Gurung, attached to 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. These were dedicated soldiers who were highly respected by their colleagues. Their courageous, selfless service will never be forgotten by our country.

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

May I associate myself and the whole House with the Prime Minister’s remarks and his condolences to the families and friends of the two brave soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country?

In the past week, chief constables in England and Wales have warned that policing is on a “cliff edge” and is facing a “watershed moment”, as numbers fall to their lowest in a decade. My force in Staffordshire is cutting hundreds of officers and staff, yet during the TV debates before the general election, the Prime Minister said:

“there’s no doubt about it. We’re not seeing enough police on the streets, we’re not catching enough burglars, we’re not convicting enough.”

How does the Prime Minister’s rhetoric then square with the reality of what is happening to front-line policing now?

The fact is that the percentage of officers on the front line has actually increased. We inherited a situation where there were 6,000 uniformed officers performing back-office roles in the police. We have had to make difficult spending reductions, but I think that if the hon. Gentleman listens to his Front Benchers, he will now find out that they support the cuts, and they support the pay freeze. They even support our police commissioners so strongly that droves of Labour MPs are going to quit to try to become them.

Q2. Tonight, the House will have a historic vote on whether households on benefits should be able to receive more than households in work. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the introduction of a benefits cap should have the support of the whole House? (92712)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The cap is right, and the cap is fair. It is right to say that you should not get more than £26,000 a year in benefits—that is £500 a week—and it is fair because we are introducing a new principle into our welfare system: an able-bodied family who can work should not get more in benefits than the average family gets from work. The leader of the Labour party has said that he is not against a cap in principle; tonight we will find out whether he is in favour of a cap in practice.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones from 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron 200 and Lance Corporal Gajbahadur Gurung, attached to 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment? Both men showed exceptional courage and bravery and our thoughts are with their family and friends.

Before the election, legislation was passed by Parliament with cross-party support to make all banks disclose how many people earn more than £1 million, but it needs the Government to trigger the change. Will the Prime Minister now go ahead and do it?

We now have the toughest and most transparent regime of any major financial centre in the world. For the first time ever, banks will publish the pay of the top eight executives. That never happened in 13 years of a Labour Government. On the specific Walker reforms, Walker himself said that they should be done at the same time in all countries across the European Union.

Exactly what we would expect: no leadership on top pay from this Prime Minister. In case he has not heard the news, more than eight people are earning more than £1 million at our banks. What did the Chancellor say in opposition? He said this—[Interruption.] Government Members should listen to what the Chancellor said in opposition. He said:

“We…support…proposals to make those banks disclose the number of their employees who are on high salaries.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 706.]

He even called for the banks to publish their names. It is another broken promise from this Government. I ask the Prime Minister the question again: the legislation is on the books, it is ready to go and it had all-party support, so why does he not make it happen?

We are listening to the advice of the man who produced the report for the last Labour Government. The right hon. Gentleman asks about the number of people getting £1 million bonuses, but let me remind him that it was the last Labour Government—when he was in the Cabinet—who agreed an RBS bonus pool of £1.3 billion. Literally hundreds of people were getting £1 million bonuses and he signed it off. The issue for the right hon. Gentleman is why he is in favour in opposition of things he never did in government. Some might call it opposition; some people might call it hypocrisy.

I will tell the Prime Minister what hypocrisy is: it is saying that he will stop a £1 million bonus to Stephen Hester and then nodding it through. I have to say to him that I think we have now heard it all, because he says that the class war against the bankers is going to be led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires. I do not think it is going to wash, frankly.

Let me ask the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Let me ask him about another simple proposal. He had no answer on transparency. Does he agree with me that to bring a dose of realism to the decisions about top pay there should be an ordinary employee on every pay committee, so that people on a huge salary have to look at least one of their employees in the eye and justify it?

Order. The Prime Minister will know that the use of the word hypocrisy in relation to an individual Member is not parliamentary. Before he begins his reply, I ask him to withdraw that term straight away.

I am very happy to do that, Mr Speaker. It is just that we are expected to listen to the people who presided over the biggest banking and financial disaster in our history and it is not as if they had nothing to do with it. One of them was the City Minister and the other was sitting in the Treasury. I have to ask: who failed to regulate the banks? Labour. Who gave us the boom and bust? Labour. Who failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining? Labour. Who presided over these multi-million pound bonuses and did absolutely nothing? Labour.

I have looked very carefully at the right hon. Gentleman’s propositions and I do not think it is practical to do what he is suggesting. It breaks an important principle of not having people on a remuneration committee who will have their own pay determined, so I do not think that it is the right way forward. The House might be interested to know, as I have looked carefully at all his proposals, that he also proposed in Glasgow to ban performance-related pay in all but the most exceptional circumstances. That is completely wrong. There are people working in offices, factories and shops around the country who want performance-related pay and who, if they meet some targets, would like to have a bonus at the end of the year. That is pro-aspiration and pro-doing the right thing for your family. That shows that the right hon. Gentleman has not a clue about how to run an economy.

Now we know where the Prime Minister stands: no to transparency and no to an employee on the remuneration committee. And what was the Chancellor doing last week when they were supposedly cracking down on top pay? He was going to Davos to tell the business community to lobby for a reduction in the top rate of income tax. We know the truth. When it comes to top pay, this Government and this Prime Minister are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Mr Speaker, I do not know what the word is for criticising someone who went to Davos when you went to Davos yourself. I think the word Peter Mandelson used when he was in Davos was “struggling”.

The Prime Minister is exceptionally well educated and I am sure he has a very full vocabulary and can make proper use of it.

Yesterday, it was announced that the French company Dassault had won the first round in the contest for the $10 billion fighter aircraft contract with India. That is disastrous news for thousands of workers up and down the country, particularly in my constituency. Given the long relationship between India and Britain and given that we give many times more aid to India than France ever did, will the Prime Minister engage himself and the full force of the Government in attempting to reverse that decision?

Of course I will do everything I can, as I have already, to encourage the Indians to look at Typhoon, because it is such a good aircraft. The decision is obviously disappointing, but it is about who the Indians have assessed as making the lowest bid and have therefore asked to enter into further negotiations. They have not yet awarded the contract, and I would say to my right hon. Friend, who I know cares deeply, as I do, about the people employed in his constituency, that we do not expect any job losses to stem from this decision and that it does not rule out Typhoon for India. We must go on making the case that this is a superb aircraft with far better capabilities than Rafale, and we will try to encourage the Indians to take that view.

Q3. The Deputy Prime Minister recently said that means-testing might be brought in for pensioner bus passes. Was he speaking for the Government and does the Prime Minister really think that is fair? (92713)

I made a very clear commitment at the time of the last election about pensioner bus passes, pensioner winter fuel payments and pensioner free TV licences, and we are keeping all those promises. [Interruption.]

If a local supermarket closes down, another quickly takes its place. If Portsmouth football club closes down, Pompey fans will not be content with buying their season ticket from Southampton. Will the Prime Minister add his voice to mine in calling for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to meet the club so that it recoups the tax it is owed, our club survives and the fans have their chance to become its owners?

I will certainly do that, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Knowing one or two Pompey fans, I can completely understand that the idea they could go and support Southampton is completely incredible. We must do everything we can to keep the friendly rivalry going.

This week, the British Medical Journal, the Health Service Journal and the Nursing Times published a joint editorial that said the Prime Minister’s reorganisation

“has destabilised and damaged one of this country’s greatest achievements: a system that embodies social justice and has delivered widespread patient satisfaction, public support, and value for money. We must make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Why does the Prime Minister think he has so comprehensively lost the medical profession’s trust?

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to raise the welfare cap today. I think that people up and down the country will recognise that.

There are tens of thousands of general practitioners up and down the country who are implementing our reforms because they want decisions to be made by doctors, not bureaucrats, they want to see health and social care brought together and they want to put the patient in the driving seat. The right hon. Gentleman should look at what is actually happening in the health service. Waiting times are down, infection rates are down and the number of people in mixed-sex wards, which we put up with for 13 years under Labour, is down by 94%. He should be praising the good things that are happening in the health service rather than having his policy, which is to say that an increase in NHS resources is irresponsible. That is Labour’s position; it is this Government who are putting the money in and getting the reforms right.

Every time the Prime Minister talks about the NHS he just shows how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground. Let me now tell him who is lined up against the health Bill: 98% of GPs, against the Bill; the Royal College of Nursing, against the Bill; the Royal College of Midwives, against the Bill; the Royal College of Radiologists [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]; the British Medical Association [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]; the Patients Association [Hon. Members: “Against the Bill!”]. He knows in his heart of hearts that this Bill is a disaster. There were rumours last week that he was considering dropping the Bill. He has a choice: he can carry on regardless or he can listen to the public and the professions. Will he now do the right thing and drop this unwanted Bill?

If you are trying to bring into a public service choice, competition, transparency, proper results and publication of results, you will always find that there will be objections. The question is, is it going to improve patient care and the running of the health service? [Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s answer must be heard. There is—[Interruption.] Order. There is excessive noise on both sides; Members must calm down. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman something that Tony Blair once wrote about the process of reform. Now there is a man who knows a thing about bonuses and pay. He said this—[Interruption.] Listen, listen:

“It is an object lesson in the progress of reform: the change is proposed; it is denounced as a disaster; it proceeds with vast… opposition; it is unpopular; it comes about; within a short space of time, it is as if it has always been so. The lesson is instructive: if you think a change is right, go with it. The opposition is inevitable, but rarely is it unbeatable.”

That was someone who knew a thing or two about reform.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. A year ago, I asked the Prime Minister for help when the announcement was made of the Pfizer closure in Sandwich. Does he agree that the support and help from his Ministers, which delivered us an enterprise zone and £40 million for jobs in east Kent, have ensured that we are still a leading centre for life sciences?

I am delighted with what my hon. Friend says. It was a tough and difficult time when Pfizer made that decision, but I think this has shown that, by Government, industry, local people in Kent and organisations coming together, we have been able to keep a lot of jobs, and a lot of investment and research and development, in that area. I would say to all pharmaceutical companies that this Government have the patent box, so if people invent things in this country and develop them in this country, they pay only a 10% corporation tax rate. That enables us to say to pharmaceutical companies all over the world, “Come and invest in Britain.”

Q4. This week, temperatures across Britain have dropped drastically. Last winter, 200 people died every day from preventable cold weather-related illnesses, but in Barnsley, instead of being able to focus resources on promoting the dangers of cold weather, we have had to set aside £17 million for an undemocratic, top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituents whether that really is a responsible use of public money? (92714)

First, I would say to the hon. Gentleman and to everyone in Barnsley that this Government have been able to keep the higher level of cold weather payments, which was introduced before the election, and we have kept it for all years. I think that will be a real help, along with the winter fuel allowance. On the NHS, I say to him that he should simply look at the figures. Since the election, there are 4,000 more doctors working in our NHS. There are 620 more midwives working in our NHS. We are treating 100,000 more patients per month in our NHS. That is what is actually happening in the NHS, if he looks at what is happening in his hospital, rather than just repeating what the trade unions are telling him.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that talks between St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust on their possible merger have been abandoned. I seek reassurance from him that Epsom and St Helier will be able to engage with local partners, such as local authorities and clinical commissioning groups, in order to come forward with a proposal that meets local health needs, and that the £290 million allocated for the hospital is still available. (92715)

I totally understand my right hon. Friend’s concern about this issue. The priority for the trust remains securing the future of the Epsom, St Helier and Sutton hospitals. I understand that the trust board and those working on a possible merger had already started to look at other options in case the merger did not happen. I understand that they are now looking at the next steps and I am sure that the Department of Health will want to engage very closely with him as this unfolds.

Q6. The Prime Minister is keen to tell us that work should always pay, so what would he say to my constituents from low and middle-income families who have contacted me to convey their fears about the measures the Government are bringing forward, such as the removal of working and child tax credits? These are working people who are already facing severe financial difficulties, and the current proposals could cost hard-working families with disabled children and in receipt of the lower disability premium over £1,300 a year. (92716)

I would make two points. Of course we have had to reform the tax credits system. When we came to office, tax credits went all the way up the income scale so that even Members of this House were eligible for them, so we have taken them further down the income scale. In terms of what the hon. Lady says about disability, I would make two points. First, disability living allowance—the absolutely key benefit—is going up by 5.2% this April, which will be well ahead of inflation. The point I would make about universal credit is that the lower rate for disabled children is £53, as she will know. Anyone on that level will be completely protected through transitional payments. We have not yet set the higher rate, but I can tell the hon. Lady that it will be at least what it is now, and possibly higher.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister, as a matter of urgency, look at the recent shocking report by Anna Klonowski on allegations of overcharging of vulnerable adults on Wirral and cases of violence and intimidation under a Labour-led council, making sure that those responsible are brought to account and never work in adult social services again? (92717)

I will certainly look at the report my hon. Friend mentions. This is clearly a very serious matter. I will also ask the Minister responsible in the Department of Health to look into the matter further and then speak with her. The Care Quality Commission, which has had a difficult birth, clearly has a really important job to do in ensuring that its inspections are thorough and targeted in the areas where they are most needed. It sounds from what she says that there is clearly a very great need for this to happen on Merseyside.

Q8. Today the Prime Minister denied yet again that he is cutting benefits for disabled children, but the lower rate of disability living allowance for disabled children is being reduced from almost £54 to almost £27, a cut of practically 50% which will affect 100,000 children. Is that not correct? (92718)

What is correct is that no one on the lower rate of payment will receive less as a result of their move to universal credit. No one will be affected by that.

Does the Prime Minister agree that a meaningful cap on benefits is essential if we are to end the something-for-nothing culture that developed under the previous Government?

I think that that is absolutely right. It is right to bring in the cap. It introduces a new principle, which is that you should not be better off on benefits than the average family is in work. What we have had from the Labour party is complete silence. Will it support us tonight in the Lobby? Why does the Leader of the Opposition not just nod? Nod? Answer came there none. I thought that it was all about taking tough decisions—that they were in favour of a cap; they were going to tear up some of Labour’s history; it was time to make some bold decisions. Come on, one bold decision—just nod. Are you with us or are you against us? A great big vacuum.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister explain why a 65-year-old constituent of mine, who cannot get a council home, has to pay £100 of her £570 a month rent because of his housing benefit reforms? Why is this Prime Minister so much tougher on the vulnerable than he is on the powerful, with their excessive bonuses? (92719)

We know that the Opposition are not going to back us on the welfare cap, and now we can see that they are against the housing benefit reforms as well. Let me just remind the hon. Lady what her own shadow welfare Minister said. He said that it is completely unacceptable that housing benefit has rocketed to £20 billion. This is what he said. Where is “Baldemort”? He is not at home today. He said that Beveridge

“would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20 bn a year.”

This Government are reforming it; that Opposition are doing nothing.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that all Members who claim that they are on the side of hard-working families throughout the country should vote with the Government tonight to cap benefits at £26,000, which is, after all, the average income of hard-working families? (92725)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People up and down the country will be completely amazed that the party that is supposedly meant to stand up for working people thinks that it is okay to get more on benefits than a family gets from working. So let me give the Opposition one more go. Are you with us in the Lobby tonight? Absolutely hopeless.

Q10. It is now clear that the single biggest funder of the Prime Minister’s party got his peerage on false pretences. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that Lord Ashcroft has now told the whole truth about his connections with the building company Johnson International, or is it yet again one rule for the Prime Minister’s rich friends and another rule for everyone else? (92720)

I have answered that question many times, but I might point out to the hon. Gentleman that the largest funder of his party has been based offshore.

Q11. Eight million households have to make do with earning £26,000 or less before tax. What message does my right hon. Friend think that we will be sending to those people if we renege on our promise to cap benefits at £26,000 a year? (92721)

There will be many people in the country who criticise the benefit cap, saying, “Actually, £26,000, £500 a week, is too high.” I think it is fair, I think it is right, but I think that people expect their politicians to make it clear that you are better off in work than you are on benefits. Plenty of people are excluded from the cap because they are on disability living allowance, not able to work and the rest of it, but if you can work you should not be better off on benefits. That is a simple principle, and I find it amazing that the Labour party cannot agree. One more go? One little nod? Nothing.

Q12. In opposition the Prime Minister told millions on TV: “If you work hard, I’ll be behind you.” RBS, which is 82% state-owned, has not signed up to pay the living wage of £8.30 per hour in London and £7.20 elsewhere for all its staff and contractors. Why do his Government support low wages for workers but big bucks and bonuses for banksters? (92722)

I thought that by referring to standing up for people who work hard the hon. Gentleman was beginning to get the hang of it and that we might have had a supporter tonight. What this Government have done with RBS is radically cut the bonus pool, which was massive under Labour; say that there should be a £2,000 cash cap, unlike the massive cash increases under Labour; and begin to get that bank under control.

Q13. The Liberal Democrats’ plan to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 was on the front page of our manifesto. It will give many working people an extra £700 a year and lift millions of poorly paid people out of income tax altogether. At a time when many working people are struggling to make ends meet, will the Prime Minister agree to go further and faster on that much-needed tax cut? (92723)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I am proud of the fact that we have taken 1.1 million people out of tax. Those are some of the lowest paid people in our country, and the majority of them are women. We are committed to making further progress during this Parliament with this policy.

Q14. Before the general election, the Prime Minister told midwives that he would make their lives easier and that he would recruit 3,000 more of them. Since the general election, nurses and midwives have been down-banded, working harder for less, and midwives in training have been reduced by 3% a year. Were the British people wrong to take him at his word? (92724)

I am very sorry, but the hon. Lady’s figures are, in fact, wrong. Compared with the time of the election, there are over 620 more midwives working in the NHS and there are record numbers in training. We want to do more, but we will be able to do more only if we keep funding the NHS; the hon. Lady’s party is committed to cutting it, saying that NHS funding increases are irresponsible. We will be able to do that only if we keep cutting back on the bureaucracy, which we are doing very successfully with our reforms, and making sure that the money goes into the front end. But there are more midwives. There are more in training. I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s figures are wrong.

On new year’s eve 2010, my constituent Jamie Still was killed by a drink-driver who was more than twice over the limit, yet Jamie’s family had to face the fact that the person who had killed him continued to drive for a further eight months until sentencing. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet the family and consider their campaign, which is that people who are seriously over the limit in death by dangerous driving cases should have their driving licences withdrawn as part of their bail conditions?

My heart goes out to my hon. Friend’s constituents for the loss that they have suffered. He raises a very important point about what happens in cases such as these and what one can and cannot do with bail conditions. I will certainly go away and look at that. It may well be that this is something that we can consider alongside the recommendations that we are considering about drug-related driving. There is more work for the Government to do in this area, and I will certainly listen to my hon. Friend’s and his constituents’ concerns.

We believe on these Benches that the Government’s welfare cap is both fair and reasonable, and we will be supporting the Government in the Lobby tonight. But we also believe that the Lords amendments affecting vulnerable people—cancer patients and disabled people—are also fair and reasonable, not least because of the disproportionately detrimental effects, of which the Prime Minister will be aware, on Northern Ireland. Why, therefore, are we so limited in time for debating these crucial issues, which affect so many of our most vulnerable people?

First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support in the Lobby tonight and I look forward to seeing him there. On the issue of the cancer sufferers and the plans for the employment and support allowance, let me just explain that under our plans the number of cancer sufferers who will get extra long-term help through the ESA support group is actually going to increase. We are going to reduce the number of people who have to have face-to-face assessments. These proposals have been fully supported by Professor Harrington, whom we asked to look into the issue because we were not happy with the previous Government’s arrangements and the way in which these things were dealt with.

The point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that there are two types of employment and support allowance. There is the support group, who will always go on getting support, which is not means-tested; as long as they need that help they will get it. There is also the work-related activity group—people who, with help, are able to work. I think it is right to ask them, with support, to get into work, and that is what we are going to do.

Who does the Prime Minister think is on the side of hard-working low paid families in Nuneaton—the Conservative-led coalition, which is taking the lowest paid out of tax and capping benefits, or the Labour party, which took away the 10p tax rate and is flip-flopping over the benefit cap?

My hon. Friend is being a bit charitable. The Labour party is not flip-flopping over the benefit cap; it is just flopping.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) presents his ten-minute rule motion, I issue my usual appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber. They should do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can listen to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he can move into view. [Interruption.] We are exceptionally grateful.