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Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Her Majesty the Queen—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—in this historic week marking the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. Her Majesty’s 60 years of remarkable leadership and dedicated public service are an inspiration to us all and something that the whole country and the whole Commonwealth can be immensely proud of. Members will have the opportunity to pay individual tributes during debate on the humble address on 7 March.

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.

I am sure the whole House, and not least myself, will wish to join the Prime Minister in his warm tribute to Her Majesty. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

In March last year the Prime Minister said:

“There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line police officers.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 335.]

Will he confirm that front-line officer numbers have been cut in 40 out of 43 police forces?

The proportion of officers on the front line is up, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating Mayor Boris Johnson on his excellent record on crime in our capital. Total crime is down, violent crime is down on buses and tubes, 11,000 knives and guns have been taken off our streets, and there are 1,000 more officers on the streets of London at the end of his term than at the beginning. That, together with his reminder of the rule on the dangers of tweeting, is a good start to the day.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at the overthrow yesterday of the first democratically elected President of the Maldives in a coup d’état? Given our historical links with the islands, will the Government, by way of a message, do all they can to ensure that no violence results and that the democratic institutions remain?

My hon. Friend is right. This country does have strong links with the Maldives and a good relationship with President Nasheed, but we have to be clear. President Nasheed has resigned, and we have a strong interest in the well-being of several thousand British tourists and in a stable and democratic Government in the Maldives. Our high commissioner is in the capital now and meeting all the political leaders. We call on the new Government to demonstrate their respect for the rights of all political parties and their members, and to ensure that the constitution is upheld. We advise British tourists to avoid non-essential travel to Malé island, and those using Malé airport and the tourist resorts should exercise caution.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Her Majesty the Queen as we celebrate her diamond jubilee. Her dedication to the country and to public service is an inspiration and an example to us all, and we all look forward to the official celebrations later this year, which will enable us to celebrate both Her Majesty and our country.

On the day the Prime Minister completed his NHS listening exercise, he said:

“some of the people who worked in our NHS were sceptical of our changes. Today, we are taking people with us. It’s in this spirit of unity that we want to continue.”

Why does he think he has failed?

Today, 95% of the country is covered by general practitioners who are not actually supporting our reforms; they are implementing them. Just today—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. There is a long way to go, so let us hear the answers. There will be plenty of time. Calm.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Just today, 50 foundation trusts have written to the newspapers in support of our reforms and objecting to what Labour is proposing, and the signature at the top of the list, which the right hon. Gentleman might not have noticed, is that of one Anne Campbell, the former Labour MP for Cambridge. She, running her local foundation trust, supports the reforms. That is what happens: Labour MPs leave this House and start implementing coalition policy.

Even the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that nonsense he just came out with. Last Friday the Royal College of General Practitioners said that his health Bill would

“cause irreparable damage to patient care and jeopardise the NHS.”

[Interruption.] The Health Secretary is shouting from a sedentary position—from some distance away, I notice. It is nice to see him here. The Prime Minister says that he wants the voice of doctors to be heard in the NHS. Why does he not listen to them?

It is always good to get a lecture on happy families from the right hon. Gentleman. I care passionately about our NHS, not least because of what it has done for my family and because of the amazing service I have received. I want to see that excellent service implemented for everyone, and that means two things: we have to put more money into the NHS, which we are doing, but we also have to reform the NHS. He used to be in favour of reform. Let me read him something. Who said:

“to safeguard the NHS in tougher fiscal times, we need sustained reform.”?

That was in the Labour manifesto at the last election. Because the NHS is important, we are committed to £12.5 billion in this Parliament, yet his health spokesman, who is sitting right there, said that it would be “irresponsible” to spend more money on the NHS. The Opposition are not in favour of the money. They are not in favour of the reform. They are just a bunch of opportunists.

Isn’t this interesting? The Prime Minister says that this is all about reform, but the Tory Reform Group has come out against these proposals. It comes to something when even the Tories do not trust the Tories on the NHS. Let us hear what Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] So when the people Government Members want to put at the heart of the NHS say things about their Bill, they just groan. That says it all about those on the Government Benches. Clare Gerada said:

“This bill is a burden. It makes no sense, it is incoherent… It won’t deal with the big issues… and it will also result in a health service that certainly will never match the health service that we… had 12 months ago.”

Which part of that does the right hon. Gentleman not understand?

Let us look at what has happened to the NHS over the past 18 months—[Interruption.] Yes, let us look at the figures: 100,000 more patients treated every month; 4,000 extra doctors since the election; the number of clinical staff up; the level of hospital-acquired infections down; the number of people who are in mixed-sex wards down by 94%. That is what is happening, because there is a combination of money going in and reform.

Now, we know what happens if we do not put in the money and do not undertake the reform, because there is one part of the NHS which is run by Labour, and that is in Wales. Let us have a look at what is happening to the NHS in Wales. Labour has cut the money, and one third of people are waiting longer than 18 weeks. That is what is happening in Labour’s NHS, and if we did not put the money in and did not have the reform, it would happen right here, too.

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is getting so agitated, because he thought that the NHS was his way to modernise the Conservative party, and I am afraid that it is coming apart. I will tell him why: it is because the promises he made before the election are coming back to haunt him. We all remember the promise of no more top-down reorganisation. Now he says that he knows better than the doctors, better than the nurses, better than the midwives and better than the patients associations—people who day in, day out rely on and devote their lives to the health service. This is a matter of trust in the Prime Minister. Can he honestly look people in the health service in the eye and say that he has kept his promise of no more top-down reorganisation?

What we are doing is cutting the bureaucracy in the NHS. We are taking out £4.5 billion of bureaucracy which will be ploughed into patient care. If you don’t support the reform, you won’t see that money go into operations, doctors, nurses, hospitals, health care assistants. That is what is actually happening in the NHS, but there is one group of people I will not listen to, and that is the people who ran the NHS under Labour. This is what they did: £6 billion wasted on the NHS computer; £250 million spent on private sector operations that were never carried out. We still have private finance initiative agreements whereby we pay £300 every time someone changes a light bulb. That is what we got from Labour. We are putting the money in, we are putting the reform in, the number of operations is up, the waiting times are down, the NHS is improving, and that is the way it is going to stay.

I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman about our record on the NHS: the shortest waiting times in NHS history; more doctors and nurses than ever before; the highest level of patient satisfaction ever in the health service.

But everyone will have heard a Prime Minister unable to defend the promise that he made: the promise of no more top-down reorganisation—a Prime Minister who has broken his word. The reality is this: all his attention is on this pointless, top-down reorganisation, and the front line is suffering: the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks—up, under him; A and E targets being missed; cancelled operations. Why will he not just give up, stop wasting billions and drop his Bill?

If the Opposition’s record was so good, why were they thrown out at the last election?

Now, let me just—[Interruption.] Let me— [Interruption.]

Order. I am worried about Opposition Members. They must calm themselves and do so straight away.

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of the clear test that he set for the reforms and for the Government. He said that the test was whether waiting times and waiting lists would come down. Let me now give him the figures: in-patient waiting times, down; out-patient waiting times, down; the number of people waiting more than a year, down to its lowest ever level; the number of people waiting for six months, down to its lowest ever level; and, indeed, the number of people on the waiting list—what he said was the clear test—is down. This is what it proves about the Labour leader: even when he moves the goalposts, he can’t put it in the back of the net.

The person who is moving the goalposts is the Prime Minister. The reality is that the key test that was set for the health service was the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks, and that number is up 43% since the general election. However much he twists and turns, that is the reality.

In his heart of hearts, the Prime Minister knows that the Bill is a complete disaster. That is why his aides are saying that the Health Secretary should be taken out and shot, because they know it is a disaster. The reality about the Bill is this: the doctors know that it is bad for the NHS; the nurses know that it is bad for the NHS; and patients know that it is bad for the NHS. Every day the Prime Minister fights for the Bill, every day trust in him on the NHS ebbs away and every day it becomes clearer that the health service is not safe in his hands.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that the career prospects of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary are a lot better than his. That is what this is about. This is not a campaign to save the NHS; this is a campaign to try to save the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership. I make this prediction: the NHS will go on getting better and his prospects will go on getting worse.

When the Work programme was introduced in Burnley in October 2010, 66% of people there were economically active; since then, the figure has climbed to 75%. Would the Prime Minister like to congratulate the people of Burnley—and in particular, Vedas Recruitment—for that success?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating not only the people in Burnley but the people conducting the Work programme and our welfare reforms. What we are seeing is more people becoming able to work and therefore able to enter the work force and raise not only the country’s living standards but their own, too.

Q2. The people of Preston are furious that the Indian Government have selected a French company as their preferred bidder for the Indian air force jet contract. The Prime Minister repeatedly talks about rebalancing the British economy, but this is a major blow to manufacturing in this country. Other European leaders go to help their companies get major contracts. Why is this weak Prime Minister not doing that and why have we not got the contract with the Indian Government? (93968)

The hon. Gentleman ought to think about the fact that all European leaders are backing the Eurofighter project—it is a German project, an Italian project, a Spanish project and a British project, and that is how it should be. I am very disappointed by what has happened in India, but Eurofighter is not out of the contest and we need to re-engage as hard as we can to make sure that we get the best deal for all those workers in Britain who make Eurofighters. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is shouting from a sedentary position, but this is something that ought to unite parties in this House—getting behind our great defence producers.

In order that a constituent of mine could access the drugs and treatment that she was entitled to under the NHS constitution, her GP, her consultant, her specialist oncologist, the Secretary of State for Health and I had to write a total of 70 appeal letters. When will health care professionals be able to decide what treatments their patients get?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Since the introduction of the cancer drugs fund under this Government, 10,000 more people have been able to get cancer drugs, which are so essential. Let me tell the House one thing that would really damage cancer treatment in this country—it is the proposal from the Labour party to cap at 5% any private sector involvement in our hospitals. The Royal Marsden, one of the best cancer hospitals in the country, would have to cut by a quarter the services that it delivers. What a crazy, left-wing plan, which only the Leader of the Opposition could come up with.

Q3. In three months’ time, just before the Olympics, Abu Qatada, a truly dangerous man, will be roaming the streets of London with his mobile phone and internet access, thanks to the Prime Minister’s having abolished control orders and house arrest provisions. How can the Prime Minister justify putting the public’s right to life at risk to give over to the Liberal Democrats on their demands to abolish control orders? It is disgusting. (93969)

The situation with Abu Qatada is completely unacceptable. As I said when I went to Strasbourg to make a speech to the Council of Europe about this issue, it is not acceptable that we end up with a situation where we cannot try, detain or deport someone in our country who threatens to do us harm. That is why the Government will do everything they can, working with our Jordanian friends and allies, to make sure that he can be deported. Again, instead of the hon. Gentleman sniping about this, the whole House ought to unite to help sort this out.

As recently as last September, only a tiny handful of the 165 acute mental health adult in-patient beds in Hampshire were vacant, yet the trust concerned proposes to cut those 165 beds to 107, replacing them with something called a hospital at home, or a virtual ward. Given my belief that the statistics on which that decision is based are inconsistent and unreliable, will the Prime Minister support my call for independent experts from the Audit Commission to look at those figures before those beds are closed?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we are putting extra resources into the NHS, but there needs to be a clear series of tests—as there is now under our plans—before any facilities are changed or closed. That is about ensuring that there is GP backing for what is proposed, and ensuring that any such changes will improve the health of the area. I will happily look at the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and ensure that the Department of Health engages on it with him.

Q4. Four police authorities, including one that I share with the Chancellor, have just started buying Hyundai cars imported from Korea. Add to that the Thameslink fiasco and that of the Olympic tickets—when will we see some leadership from the Prime Minister on public procurement in this country? (93970)

The most important thing in police procurement is that police forces get together and procure together to cut their costs. We have all lost count of the times spent wandering through police stations and seeing countless different types of vehicle, all costing a large amount of money. What the public want is police on the streets, not money spent on unnecessary procurement.

Q5. The Prime Minister will have seen this morning’s Defence Committee report on Libya. What steps is he taking to ensure that the UK will be fully able to evacuate all UK nationals from conflict zones, and reduce our reliance on civil charter aircraft? (93971)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I think that the Libya evacuation, and other potential evacuations in a dangerous and unstable world, have brought home to us the importance of having transport aircraft in the Ministry of Defence and the RAF. I can announce today that because the MOD’s finances are now better run and better managed, and because we have found savings, we will be able to purchase an additional C-17 for the RAF. This aircraft is becoming an absolutely brilliant workhorse for the RAF, bringing men and material into a war zone such as Afghanistan, and evacuating civilians in times of need. It is an important investment for the country, and I am glad to announce that we can make it today.

May I first associate myself with the tributes to Her Majesty the Queen?

Yesterday, the all-party independent group on stalking published its report. The Prime Minister knows of my interest in that subject, and the Government consultation concluded yesterday. Will he please meet me and a small group of members of that all-party group to discuss the urgent need for a stalking law?

We take this issue seriously, and I would be happy to meet with the right hon. Gentleman and discuss it. I know that he has had conversations with the Home Office. We all want to get the issue right, and if there is a need for legislative changes, there may well be opportunities in the next Session for that sort of criminal justice legislation. I will happily meet the right hon. Gentleman and talk with him about it.

Q6. During apprenticeship week I am proud to highlight the fact that Macclesfield college has increased its number of apprenticeships from nine to 160 over the past three years, and that the Government have increased the number of apprenticeships by 177,000 in the past year alone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that achievements such as those illustrate the importance of apprenticeships, and the commitment that is required to give them the focus, attention and recognition that they deserve? (93972)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the most important investments that we can make in the future industrial base of this country and in helping young people is in apprenticeships. The number of apprenticeships has increased by a staggering 60% over the past year, and 457,000 people are starting apprenticeships. In apprenticeship week, it is important to stress what we are doing to get over the objections that people have had in the past, and to ensure that apprenticeships are more easily taken up by small businesses through the payment of a simple fee. We must ensure that we have more higher-level apprenticeships to show that apprenticeships are every bit as good as having a university degree, and often involve a university degree. We must also cut bureaucracy by allowing big businesses to run apprenticeship schemes themselves, rather than doing it via a training provider. All those things will make a big difference.

Q7. Why have the Government not lodged an appeal against the Abu Qatada judgment? Aren’t you being dangerously complacent, Prime Minister? (93973)

We are doing everything we can to get this man out of the country. The absolutely key thing is to get an agreement with Jordan about the way he will be treated, because the European Court of Human Rights has made a very clear judgment. I happen to think it is the wrong judgment, and I regret that judgment. This guy should have been deported years ago. Nevertheless, if we can get that agreement with Jordan, he can be on his way.

Q8. Complex employment law makes small businesses nervous about hiring new staff. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a simpler alternative for our smallest firms on dismissal rules? (93974)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. If every small business in the country hired an additional worker, that would go a long way to curing both long-term youth unemployment and total unemployment at one stroke. We have got to make it easier for businesses to take people on. One of the key considerations for businesses is how difficult it is to let someone go if it does not work out. That is why extending to two years the amount of time that someone has to work before they get access to a tribunal will make a real difference in small business employment.

We have heard from the Prime Minister how the Italian and German Governments are out there fighting for British jobs. Will he tell us exactly how many phone conversations he had directly with the Indian Prime Minister about the Typhoon bid, and when the last conversation took place?

I raised this issue with the Indian Prime Minister repeatedly on my visit to India, and indeed at the G20 in Cannes, but let me remind the hon. Lady of one important fact. When I loaded up an aeroplane with British business people, including from businesses like Rolls-Royce, and took them around the Gulf to sell our defence equipment, who was it that attacked me? Who was it that put out press releases? Who is it that does not stand up for British industry, British defence companies and British jobs? It is Labour.

Q9. On Monday I visited the offices of the Bucks Free Press to hear what my constituents have been saying about proposed changes to health services at Wycombe hospital. I can tell the Prime Minister that Labour’s tragic legacy in my constituency is distrust and despair. Does he agree with me that the right way to deliver local accountability in health care in our constituencies is clinical commissioning and foundation trust status? (93975)

I think my hon. Friend is entirely right. The whole point of the reforms is to put the power in the hands of local doctors, so that they make decisions on behalf of patients and based on what is good for health care in their local area. We may well find that the community hospitals that were repeatedly undermined by Labour will actually get a great boost, because local people and local doctors want to see them succeed. That is what our reforms are all about.

The PIP implant saga has left 40,000 women sick with anxiety because of faulty medical products, and now they are being failed by private clinics and by an NHS that is dithering about what to do with them. In this saga we can see the future of a privatised NHS, so will the Prime Minister pledge to support those women in the NHS now and claim against the clinics later, and will he drop the Health and Social Care Bill so that we do not have this happening again across the NHS?

Let me take the hon. Lady’s question in two halves. She is entirely right about the scandal of the PIP implants. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will offer every one of those women a free consultation and ensure that we do everything we can on the NHS to help them. It is an absolute scandal, and the private clinics that carried out those operations should feel the maximum pressure to undo the harm that they have done.

On the issue of greater competition and choice within the NHS, I think the hon. Lady should listen to past Labour politicians who have themselves said that actually, greater choice, greater competition and the involvement of the private sector can help to raise standards in our NHS system. That is why we should support it.

Q10. The threat to shipbuilding jobs at Portsmouth dockyard places a question mark over not only 1,500 livelihoods at BAE Systems but 32,000 jobs in the wider regional supply chain. I know that the Prime Minister shares my concerns about that, but will he commit to do all he can to protect that site, where they have been building warships for more than 500 years? (93976)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for Portsmouth, for her constituents and for shipbuilding. BAE Systems has not approached the Government with any proposal to rationalise shipbuilding in the UK. As far as I am aware, no decisions have yet been taken by the company. On this Government’s commitment to the Royal Navy, we are building the new frigates, the global combat ship and the hunter-killer submarines. We have plans for replacing Trident, and plans for aircraft carriers are well under way. That is a major punch for the Royal Navy, which I strongly support.

Q11. Treasury tax raids on North sea oil and gas are putting 1,500 jobs at Offshore Group Newcastle in North Tyneside at risk. I ask the Prime Minister not to be complacent about north-east jobs, but to incentivise offshore development and guarantee tax relief on platform decommissioning in the Budget, and to meet me and others about the job situation in the north-east. (93978)

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. I saw for myself when I went to Aberdeen how vital this industry is and how much investment is taking place in the North sea. Let me remind her, however, that the reason we put up the tax on the North sea was to cut petrol duty for families up and down the country, but we will make sure—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not know why Members are falling about unable to contain themselves. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

We will make sure there is a good tax regime for the North sea, whether that is servicing jobs in England or, indeed, in Scotland.

Q12. Last Wednesday, the Commons rejected the Lords attempt to wreck the Welfare Reform Bill. On seven occasions, the Commons voted. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister voted, but the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who has responsibility for children, refused to support the Government and has spoken against the policy. On occasion, I have spoken against the Government and not supported them, but I am not a Government Minister. Why is she still a Government Minister? [Interruption.] (93979)

Order. We want to hear the Prime Minister’s verdict on the hon. Member for Brent Central, and we will not if there is too much noise.

I thought my hon. Friend was going to say that he was not a Government Minister “yet”. The hon. Lady is a Government Minister and supports Government policy, as all Ministers do.

Q13. Fifteen thousand young disabled people will be affected by the changes to contributory employment support allowance. The worst 10%—1,500 new claimants —will lose £4,900 a year. Is this the Government of values that the Prime Minister spoke about in May 2010? (93980)

The important value with respect to employment support allowance is that we are saying that there are two groups. The first group—the support group—is for people who are not able to work, who deserve to get that support over and above jobseeker’s allowance, for as long as they need it, without any element of means-testing. The second group—the work-related activity group—is for people who need help to get work but who will be able to work. That is why they are in that group. They will get tailored help and support under the Work programme to get them into work. I know the Labour party has set its face against all welfare reform, but it is making a massive mistake in doing so.

What confidence can we have that unilateral intervention by Russia will put an end to the terrible violence in Syria?

I think we can have very little confidence in that. Frankly, Russia and China set themselves against Arab opinion and world opinion when they set themselves against passing what would have been a strong and good UN resolution. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to push for that resolution.

What we now need—Britain will play a big part in this—is real engagement with the opposition groups both inside and outside Syria, bringing together the strongest possible international alliance through a contact group, so that we can co-ordinate our efforts with respect to getting rid of that dreadful regime. We should make sure, through the EU and other bodies, that we continue the sanctions and pressure.

The bloodshed in Syria is absolutely appalling. The Russians have to look at their consciences and realise what they have done, but the rest of the world will keep fighting as hard as we can to give the Syrian people a chance to choose their own future.

Q14. Yesterday, I heard a health expert who is visiting the UK say that the NHS remains a beacon for care and effectiveness in the world, and that it needs to be improved and perfected, not changed. Will the Prime Minister accept that advice and abandon the health Bill? (93981)

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I will tell him what Labour is doing in Wales. It has cut health spending in Wales by £400 million, which is a 6.5% cut; and 27% of people in Wales wait more than six weeks for diagnostic services, whereas the figure for England is just 1%. As I said earlier, one third of people wait more than 18 weeks for an operation in Wales. That is what we get from Labour: no money, no reform, no good health service.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many of my constituents are among the 337 redundancies announced by Kerry Foods, based at Europarc industrial estate, which straddles the Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby constituencies. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and I have approached various Departments for support, which I am sure will be forthcoming. One possibility is the extension of the recently announced enterprise zone. Will the Prime Minister give some comfort to my constituents by considering the proposal sympathetically?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right to speak up for his constituents in this way. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is happy to consider expanding the enterprise zone and see what else we can do to help my hon. Friend’s constituents and ensure that they can get into work.

We now come to the ten-minute rule motion. As always, I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) can be respectfully heard by all who remain in the Chamber.