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Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 29 February 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.

According to Revenue and Customs, some families earning just £13,000 a year will lose £1,000 a year in tax credits from April. Before the election, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), now the Work and Pensions Secretary, described our warning that low-income families would lose tax credits as a lie and as irresponsible “scaremongering”. Did he mislead the public?

What we have done is increase tax credits for the lowest-paid people in our country, and we have actually lifted over 1 million low-paid people out of income tax altogether by raising the personal allowance. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about taxation issues, he should have a word with his candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and ask whether he is going to pay his taxes.

Many Irish people were moved by what the Prime Minister said about Bloody Sunday. Given that it is becoming increasingly clear that eurozone support for Ireland is conditional on its saying yes in the referendum, will the Prime Minister confirm that this country will support Ireland, whatever it decides?

We are certainly very good friends of the Republic of Ireland and the people of the Republic of Ireland. It is their choice whether to sign the treaty of fiscal union, and their choice whether to have a referendum on that treaty. As in all things, people’s views in a referendum should be respected.

Before turning to other matters, does the Prime Minister agree with me that the allegations made by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers in the Leveson inquiry about widespread corrupt behaviour at the heart of the press and the police are devastating, and that such behaviour can have no place in the national institutions of our country? Does he further agree with me that this underlines the importance of the police inquiry, which must get to the bottom of these allegations without fear or favour, and of the Leveson inquiry itself?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about this issue. There is all-party support for the Leveson inquiry, which needs to get on with its work—which it is conducting in a very reasonable and thorough way—and also proper support for the police inquiry. It is important to make the point that there is always a debate about what is right for newspapers to do to get stories that are in the public interest, but it is hard to think of any circumstances in which it is right for police officers to take money.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. On the Leveson inquiry, may I ask him to ensure that, in the weeks and months ahead, none of his senior Ministers does anything to undermine its work? Would he accept that it was ill-judged of the Education Secretary to say last week that the inquiry was having a “chilling” effect on freedom of expression? Does the Prime Minister now dissociate himself from those comments, and urge his colleagues, whatever their closeness to particular newspaper proprietors, not to undermine the Leveson inquiry?

I answered this question last week. The Education Secretary, like the rest of the Cabinet, fully supports the Leveson inquiry and wants it to proceed with the very important work that it does. That is the position of the Education Secretary and the position of the entire Government.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, but I have to remind him that the Education Secretary said:

“The big picture is that there is a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson.”

I hope that the Education Secretary, who is sitting further down the Bench, will have heard the Prime Minister’s words.

Now, let me move on from one area where I hope there can be cross-party agreement, to an area where there is not. On Sunday, Lord Crisp, the man who ran the NHS for six years, said about the Prime Minister’s Bill:

“it’s a mess…it’s unnecessary…it misses the point…it’s confused and confusing and…it’s…setting the NHS back.”

Why does the Prime Minister think that, with every week that goes by, there are yet more damning indictments of his NHS Bill?

Let me just make one further point about the Leveson inquiry, because I think it is important. What my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary was saying—and I think it is important for all of us in this House to say—is that while these inquiries are going on, it is important for politicians who, let us be frank, benefit sometimes when the press are a little bit less hard hitting than they have been in recent years, to say that we support a free, vibrant, robust press. I do think that that is an important point, which is what my right hon. Friend was saying.

Turning to the health reforms, the right hon. Gentleman actually said something last week that I agreed with. He said:

“The NHS will have to change.

…because of the rise in the age of the population”,

because of the rise in

“the number of long-term conditions”,

and because of the rise in “expectations and costs.” It sounds a bit familiar. He is right that it has to reform. The problem for the Labour party is that it is against the money that needs to go into the NHS, which it says is irresponsible, and that although it supported competition and choice in the past, it does not support them any more.

The Prime Minister seems to have forgotten the question I asked him; it was about Nigel Crisp who ran the health service for six years. He was the chief executive of the national health service and he says that the Prime Minister’s Bill is “a mess…and confusing”—but the right hon. Gentleman will obviously not want to listen to him.

Let me ask the Prime Minister about somebody else, who appeared on the Conservative party’s platform at the spring conference in 2010. He hosted the first speech of the Health Secretary—he is not here, I do not think—and he advised the Labour Government, that is true. He is the GP at the head of the clinical commissioning group in Tower Hamlets. He wrote to the Prime Minister on Monday and said this:

“We care deeply about the patients that we see every day and we believe the improvements we all want to see in the NHS can be achieved without the bureaucracy generated by the bill.”

[Interruption.] Government Members say no, but this is a man who is in charge of a clinical commissioning group. Is it not time that the Prime Minister recognised that he has lost the confidence even of the GPs whom he says he wants to be at the heart of his reforms?

There are 8,200 GP practices covering 95% of the country implementing the health reforms, which is what they want to see happen. The right hon. Gentleman asks me if I will listen to those people who ran the NHS over the last decade, so let me give him a selection of people who ran the NHS in the last decade and see what they think of competition. This is what Lord Darzi said:

“The right competition for the right reasons can drive us to achieve more”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 October 2011; Vol. 730, c. 1492.]

This is what John Hutton said. He was a Health Minister under the last Government—[Interruption.] Opposition Members do not want to listen to Labour Ministers from when they used to win elections. Anyway, this is what he said:

“Competition can make the NHS more equitable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 October 2011; Vol. 730, c. 1569.]

That is the view of a former Labour Secretary of State. What about an adviser to the last Labour Government, Julian Le Grand, who specifically looked at competition? This is what he said:

“the measured effects of competition have not been trivial…evidence shows that the introduction of competition in the NHS could be credited with saving hundreds of lives.”

The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to past Labour Ministers because he is taking a totally opportunistic position in opposition to this Bill.

The reason that 95% of GPs are now having to implement part of these changes is that the Prime Minister has imposed them. Dr Everington addresses this in the last line of his letter, where he says:

“Your government—

I believe that this is a letter to the Prime Minister—

“has interpreted our commitment to our patients as support for the bill. It is not”.

And 98% of those in the Royal College of General Practitioners oppose the Bill. I have to say that it is hard to keep track of opposition to this Bill, because in the past seven days alone the Royal College of Physicians has called the first emergency general meeting in its history about the Bill, and the Prime Minister has lost the support of the British Geriatrics Society and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. So every week that goes by more and more health care organisations come out against this Bill. I have a simple question for the Prime Minister: can he now give the House a list of significant health organisations that are still wholehearted supporters of the Bill?

The right hon. Gentleman specifically said—[Interruption.] This is very important—[Interruption.]

He said that 98% of GPs oppose the reforms—that was the figure. Let me give him the actual figures. There are 44,000 members of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Out of a total of 44,000, just 7% responded opposing the Bill. What about the royal college of physiotherapists? Of the 50,000 in the royal college of physiotherapists, 2%—[Interruption.] I know that that is enough for the unions to elect him leader of the Labour party, but that is about as far as it will go.

Government Members are obviously well trained today, but let me tell them that their support for the health Bill is digging their own burial at the next general election. I asked the Prime Minister a specific question. I know, by now, that he does not like to answer the questions, but I just simply asked him who supports his Bill, and answer came there none from this Prime Minister. Let me refresh his memory as to who opposes his Bill. By the way, it is no good the Deputy Prime Minister smirking—I do not know whether he supports the Bill or opposes it.

Oh, he supports it! Well there is firm leadership for you.

Let me refresh the Prime Minister’s memory as to those who want the Bill withdrawn: the Royal College of General Practitioners; the Royal College of Nursing; the Royal College of Midwives; the Royal College of Radiologists; the Faculty of Public Health; the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy; the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association; and the Patients Association. Does it not ever occur to him that, just maybe, they are right and he is wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman did not mention: the National Association of Primary Care—supporting the Bill; the NHS Alliance—supporting the Bill; the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations—supporting the Bill; the Foundation Trust Network—supporting the Bill; Lord Darzi, a former Labour Minister—[Interruption.] Who was Lord Darzi? He was the surgeon Labour hired to run the health service. Here we are having had four weeks in a row of NHS questions but not a single question of substance—not one. It is all about process, all about politics, never about the substance. We all know that it is leap year, so maybe just this once I get to ask the question. We all know what the right hon. Gentleman is against, but is it not time he told us what on earth he is for?

Q14. In my area, there are plans for 120 metre-high wind turbines between the beautiful villages of New Marske and Upleatham, which are less than a mile apart. Does the Prime Minister agree that such giant turbines should not be built so close to residential areas without local people having a say? (97144)

We want to see a balanced energy policy and there is a place for renewable technologies in such a policy. We are making two changes that I think will be welcome to the hon. Gentleman. First, we are cutting the subsidy to onshore wind, because I think that it has been over-subsidised and wasteful of public money. Secondly, when the Localism Act 2011 fully comes in, that will give local communities a greater say about issues such as wind turbines. Of course, we tried to do that earlier by abolishing the regional spatial strategies that the previous Government put in place, but we lost that case in the courts so we need the Localism Act to come into force in full.

Q2. Earlier, the Prime Minister answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) with a little more abuse than he would have wanted. Does the Prime Minister recognise that 200 couples in his constituency with 400 children and 600 couples in my constituency with more than 1,500 children will lose working tax credit, possibly up to the level of £3,800 or more, which can be 25% of their income? Without sounding complacent, can he say how he will answer those couples and their children? (97131)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had to take difficult decisions because of the enormous debt and deficit that we inherited. In taking those decisions, we have protected the poorest families by increasing the child tax credit. That is what we have done. We have also helped the poorest who are in work by lifting 1 million people out of income tax. The question must come back to Labour: “You left us with this mess, what would you do about it?”

This summer, in my constituency of Gloucester, and everywhere around the country, people will be looking forward with huge excitement to the start of the Olympic games. It is a great opportunity to celebrate how well the UK manages these great global events, but not everybody sees it as that sort of an opportunity. The general secretary of Unite sees it instead as an opportunity for a general strike. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that nothing could be further from the spirit of the Olympics and nothing could do more damage to the reputation of our country?

I think my hon. Friend speaks for the whole country about what the general secretary of Unite said. Let me quote it directly:

“I’m calling upon the general public to engage in civil disobedience.”

That is what he said. Let us remember that Unite is the biggest single donor to the Opposition, providing around a third of their money, and had more of a role than anybody else in putting the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in his place. It is not good enough for the Opposition just to put out a tweet; they need to condemn this utterly and start turning back the money.

Q3. No top-down reorganisation of the NHS, no reduction in front-line police officers and no cuts to tax credits for low-income families: why does the Prime Minister find it so hard to keep his promises to the British public? (97132)

We promised to increase spending on the NHS and we are boosting spending on the NHS. We promised the cancer drugs fund, and 10,000 people have got extra drugs through that fund. We promised that the number of doctors would grow faster than the number of bureaucrats and, since the election, the number of doctors has gone up by 4,000 and the number of bureaucrats has gone down by 5,000. That is what coalition policy is doing for our health service.

When will the Prime Minister close the loophole for multinational companies that allows the migrant cap to be flouted using intra-company transfers, or is that another tough immigration policy that will fall victim to the “curse of Clegg”?

On this one, my hon. Friend is being unfair. We have a tough migrant cap for migrant workers, and business said how important it was to have intra-company transfers, but only at relatively high salary levels. That is what we put in place and it demonstrates that over time we will be able both to control immigration and to do so in a way that does not damage business.

Q4. We now know that the Government were made aware of fraud allegations at A4e before the Prime Minister appointed that company’s chairman as his family tsar. As the Prime Minister is in danger of acquiring a reputation for ill-judged personal appointments, will he tell the House what independent checks he believes should be carried out before such appointments are made and whether any such checks were carried out in respect of Emma Harrison? (97133)

First, let me be absolutely clear that I was not aware of any allegations of irregularities when Emma Harrison became an adviser to the Government on troubled families. At the time she was appointed, there were no formal investigations into A4e; there was just the company’s own probe into irregularities. I think that this issue needs to be properly dealt with and I am concerned that subsequent to Emma Harrison’s appointment, information needed to be passed up the line to Ministers more rapidly. I have asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to review the guidelines across Government and this particular case. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the horse having bolted, he might want to put into his question the fact that Emma Harrison was given a CBE by the previous Government and that all the allegations that are being made are into contracts that his Government handed out. A little more transparency about that might be a good thing.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the courage of the war photographer Paul Conroy from Totnes, who was injured showing the world the horrors of the Syrian regime? Will he join me in thanking all those who helped to secure Mr Conroy’s safe passage to Lebanon?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. The role that the media play by being in incredibly difficult places such as Homs in Syria to bring the truth and the news to the world is very important. That is what Paul Conroy was doing and that is what Marie Colvin was doing when she tragically lost her life. I certainly pay tribute to Paul Conroy and above all, as my hon. Friend says, to the very brave people who helped to get him out of Syria, many of whom have paid an incredibly high price. I can tell the House that Paul Conroy is now safe; he has been in our embassy in Beirut in Lebanon. He is being properly looked after and I am sure that soon he will want to come home.

Q5. Last October, the Chancellor announced a new policy called credit easing. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many businesses have been helped? (97134)

The Chancellor said at the time of the autumn statement that the policy would be in place in time for the Budget, and that is exactly what is going to happen. [Interruption.]

Q6. High streets across the country, including those in Lowestoft, Beccles and Bungay in my constituency are facing tough trading conditions at present, including the prospect of a 5.6% increase in business rates. Can the Prime Minister outline what the Government are doing to support traders to enable them to grow their businesses and create jobs? (97135)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. There are real concerns about the hollowing out of some of our high streets and the number of empty properties. What we have done is double the small business rate relief scheme, and that has helped an estimated 330,000 small firms. We are also removing legal red tape that requires ratepayers to fill in paperwork to claim that relief, which is something that Labour refused to do when in office. From working with Mary Portas, we have a whole plan for how we can try to help reinvigorate our high streets, which is absolutely vital for our towns and cities across the country.

The Prime Minister might have seen the headlines in the newspapers today that the happiest people live in Northern Ireland. As the Democratic Unionist party has been the major party of government for the past five years in Northern Ireland, we on the DUP Benches are not surprised by that. Of course, one thing that overshadows that happiness is the high and escalating price of petrol and diesel, which is the highest not only in the United Kingdom but in the European Union. Can the Prime Minister bring happiness to all parts of the UK by agreeing to do away with the August fuel tax increase and address fuel allowances as soon as possible?

I am delighted to hear that the people of Northern Ireland are the happiest in the United Kingdom, although I have to say that their representatives in the House do not always give that impression. Perhaps I have been missing something. We recognise that families and businesses are continuing to feel the pressure from very high prices. We have cut the fuel duty and scrapped the automatic fuel duty stabiliser. That has meant that average pump prices are 6p lower than they would have been under the previous Government’s plans, but clearly we are also being impacted by a higher oil price.

Q7. This week, the Government took action on unacceptable tax avoidance. Does the Prime Minister agree that the principles of paying a fair share of tax should apply both to banks and to former Mayors of London? (97136)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Whether it is Barclays bank or, frankly, Ken Livingstone, people should pay the proper amount of tax, and I hope that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will look carefully at all these sorts of cases. Londoners, many of whom live in Labour-controlled areas with high Labour council taxes, will be pretty angry about what they have seen and will probably conclude that red Ken has been caught red-handed.

Q8. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that the Government’s tax and benefit changes will hit families with children five times harder than those without children. Is that what the Prime Minister means by “the most family-friendly Government…ever”?Is it fair, or is it just another broken promise? (97137)

What this Government have done is increase tax credits for the least well-paid; lift people out of tax; and introduce free nursery care for two, three and four-year-olds, and expand it for families. All those things have made a difference.

Incidentally, the hon. Lady did not mention that she is sponsored by the Unite union. She could have taken this opportunity to condemn Len McCluskey. [Interruption.]

Q9. Since the furore about work experience broke out, has my right hon. Friend had any businesses and/or organisations come forward to support this vitally important and publicly popular initiative, which will help young people to get the skills that they need to get into work? (97138)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: the whole country wants to see more young people given the opportunity that work experience provides. The good news is that since this row in the pages of our newspapers, we have had expressions of interest from 200 small and medium-sized employers who want to get involved in the programme. It is time for businesses in Britain, and everyone in Britain who wants to see people have work experience, to stand up against the Trotskyites of the Right to Work campaign, and perhaps recognise the deafening silence there has been from the Labour party.

Q10. Happily, Mr Speaker, I am able to welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to the reform of the European convention on human rights and the powers of the European Court of Human Rights. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to allowing this House a proper debate on the subject when the Brighton declaration is published, and will he ensure that, once again, the principle of subsidiarity is respected, and that the British courts have a proper say in what goes on in this country? (97139)

I do want to see the principle of subsidiarity get a fairer hearing at Strasbourg—that was in the speech I made at the Council of Europe about reform of the Court—so that it does not become a court of the fourth instance, whereby someone who has already been in front of a local court, a court of appeal and a supreme court in their country then comes to the ECHR. We do have proposals for reform. On what is debated in this House, we now have the Backbench Business Committee, which has an enormous number of days in this House—

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the best ways to deliver on our commitment to the fairness agenda is to go ahead as quickly as possible with implementing the coalition’s agreement to raise the tax threshold to £10,000?

The coalition agreement commits us to real increases in that threshold. We have achieved that in Budgets over the past two years in spite of the difficult conditions that we face in the economy. I think it is a good idea to lift people out of tax. It particularly helps low-paid people, and it particularly helps low-paid women.

Q11. The Ministry of Defence is buying tankers from South Korea when the work could be done here. The MOD says it will “not consider wider employment, industrial, or economic factors”in procurement. Why will this arrogant and complacent Prime Minister not stand up for world-class British industry? (97140)

I do stand up for world-class British industry, and as I said, when I travel the globe, I am very happy to have British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce on an aeroplane with me, promoting Great British companies. It is just a pity that when I do that, I get attacked by the Labour party.

Q13. Is the Prime Minister aware of the tragic death of my constituent, Penny Hegarty from Over Kellet? Penny’s husband, Dr Phil Hegarty, believes that his wife’s death is just one example of systemic management failures at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust. Will the Prime Minister assure Dr Hegarty and all my constituents that recent work to improve the management will continue, and that this trust will be turned around? (97142)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, but first I am sure that the whole House will want to send the deepest condolences to the husband and family of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Penny Hegarty. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), has met local MPs on a number of occasions to keep them updated. Clearly, patients have the right to expect far better standards of care. I know that the Care Quality Commission and Monitor have both raised concerns about standards at the trust. As my hon. Friend says, it is being turned around, but that work needs to be undertaken with all speed.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware that Graeme Brown, who is the director of Shelter Scotland, described the proposal for a bedroom tax as“grossly unfair and shows the UK Government is simply failing to listen to the voice of reason being put forward by housing professionals, social landlords, MSPs and individuals”?Does the Prime Minister accept that widows and widowers left in their family home when their children leave and on a low income can lose up to 25% of their housing benefit support if he continues with this? Is he unfeeling, or is he just determined to get his way? (97141)

The issue is this: we desperately need to reform housing benefit. If we had not done anything about housing benefit, it was expected to cost over £24 billion a year. As the hon. Gentleman’s own welfare spokesman, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) said, Beveridge

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

I am getting slightly frustrated with these statements in principle about reform. The Opposition say they are in favour of a benefit cap, but they vote against it. They say they are in favour of welfare reform; they oppose it. They recognise that housing benefit is out of control, but they frustrate every attempt to deal with it.

On this leap day, when shy men throughout the country will be nervously hoping that their girlfriends might make a commitment to them, may I ask the Prime Minister to give romance a nudge and to remind us and confirm that the reforms made through the welfare system will always, always support hard-working families?

I was wondering where my hon. Friend was going with that for a minute or two, but she is right. It is a leap year, a very special day, when all sorts of things can happen—all sorts of possibilities. The key thing is that through both our tax system and our welfare system we should be encouraging families to come together and stay together, and celebrating commitment.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the entry clearance office in Abu Dhabi has rejected an application by Mrs Maqsood Jan to come from Pakistan to attend her granddaughter’s wedding in Manchester? Would the right hon. Gentleman specify what kind of employment a 72-year-old woman who does not speak English and has never left Pakistan is liable to obtain in my constituency, where unemployment is 10.6%? Will he overrule this barmy decision and allow Mrs Jan the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend her granddaughter’s wedding? If the Home Secretary has said—[Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has been lucidity itself. I am sure he is bringing the question to an end.

I am; I am bringing it to an end. If the Home Secretary has whispered to the Prime Minister that Mrs Jan can appeal, I should add that the wedding is on 2 April and the appeal procedure is too slow to make that possible.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman very directly, I was not aware of the individual case. There are hundreds of thousands of people who travel between Pakistan and Britain every year. We must have tough controls to prevent the abuse of our immigration system, but I suggest that he takes up the case individually with my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, who has a superb grip on these issues and I am sure will be able to give him some satisfaction.

Under Tony Blair’s regime, we could sleep safely at night because we knew that Lord Prescott would take over if Tony Blair was incapacitated. What would happen if the Prime Minister were incapacitated?

I have been waiting for this question for some time, because I know that my hon. Friend has asked almost every Cabinet Minister, including the Deputy Prime Minister who, I think, replied that my hon. Friend seemed to have a morbid fascination with the end of the leader of the Conservative party. All I can say is that I have no plans to be incapacitated.

Further to the Prime Minister’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) on the Leveson inquiry, he is of course absolutely right that we need a free press, but the nation will not thank him if he goes along with the suggestion made by Tory peer Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, that the Defamation Bill, which is coming forward in September, should be used to legislate for a new system. That would pre-empt the Leveson inquiry. Will the Prime Minister make it clear that he will not do that?

I am glad that the hon. Lady asked that question, because I have absolutely no intention of pre-empting the Leveson inquiry in any way at all. I think that if we look back to the debate we had in this House, we will see that both the leader of the Labour party and I said how important it was to trust Leveson to get on with the job and to give every signal that we want to be able to adopt what is proposed without there being regulatory arbitrage between the parties. I think that there is an understanding on that basis but, given that there is that understanding, I repeat again that it is important that hon. Members on both sides stress the importance of a free press to the health of our democracy.

Hard-working families in my constituency are absolutely astonished that a benefit cap of some £26,000 is being opposed by the Labour party. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we will always make work pay and provide benefits for those who are unable to work?

I am delighted, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend caught your eye, because today is the day that the Welfare Reform Bill becomes an Act, and for the first time we will have a proper cap on welfare. That is supported by this side of the House, opposed by that side, but backed by the overwhelming majority of people in our country.