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Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

I hope you will permit me, Mr Speaker, before I answer any questions, to make the following announcement. Yesterday, a Warrior armoured fighting vehicle on patrol near the eastern border of Helmand province was struck by an explosion. It is with very great sadness that I must tell the House that six soldiers are missing, believed killed. Five of them are from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one is from the 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of those brave servicemen. This will be the largest loss of life in a single incident in Afghanistan since 2006. It takes the overall number of casualties that we have suffered in Afghanistan to more than 400. Every death and every injury reminds us of the human cost paid by our armed forces to keep our country safe. I have spoken this morning to the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They each stressed the commitment of our troops to the mission and to getting the job done. I know that everyone will want a message of support and backing for our troops and their families to go out from this House today.

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.

I echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to the fallen. Their service and their sacrifice humbles us all. With this terrible news in mind, will my right hon. Friend use his meetings next week with President Obama to co-ordinate a prudent draw-down of allied forces in Afghanistan and to ensure that Afghan forces get the training and equipment they need to take over?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Next week is an opportunity to make sure that Britain and America, as the two largest contributors to the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan, are absolutely in lock-step about the importance of training up the Afghan army, training up the Afghan police and making sure that all NATO partners have a properly co-ordinated process for transition in that country, so that the Afghans can take responsibility for the security of their own country, and we can bring our forces home.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing profound sadness at the terrible news of our six soldiers who are missing, feared dead. Today, we are reminded of the ongoing commitment and sacrifice that our service personnel make on our behalf. By putting themselves in harm’s way for our benefit, they demonstrate the utmost service and courage. We owe them and all those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan an immense debt of gratitude, and our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues at this terrible time.

At moments like these, does the Prime Minister agree that we must restate clearly the reasons for our mission in Afghanistan? A more stable, self-governing Afghanistan will produce more stable outcomes in that region and ensure greater safety for our citizens here at home.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words. He is absolutely right. Our mission in Afghanistan remains vital to our national security. We are there to prevent that country from being a safe haven for al-Qaeda, from where they might plan attacks on the UK or our allies. Our task is simple: to equip the Afghan Government and the forces of Afghanistan with the capability and capacity to take care of their own national security without the need for foreign troops on their soil. That is our aim. We are making progress. The Afghan national army stands at 184,000, on target for 195,000 by the end of this year. The Afghan national police, standing at 145,000, are on target for 157,000 at the end of this year. We are making progress. It is absolutely essential for bringing our troops home, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: we need to restate clearly why we are there and why it is in our national interest. The commander of the battalion told me today that his men have high morale, they know they are doing an important mission for the future of this country and the future of the world, and they want our support as they go about it.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. He and I also agree that it is essential that we build now for a political settlement in Afghanistan for when our troops are gone. Can he take this moment to update the House on what diplomatic progress is being made on securing the broader and more inclusive political settlement needed for a stable Afghanistan? Does he further agree that the whole international community must up the pace of progress towards that political settlement, to ensure that we do all we can to make concrete progress between now and the departure of our combat troops at the end of 2014?

We are clearly planning the increase in the army and the police—the physical forces that will take over—but the greatest difference we could make is a stronger political settlement that will ensure that Afghanistan has the chance for real peace, stability, prosperity and security in the future. There are some good signs, in that there are now proper discussions between the Afghan and Pakistan Governments. A clear message is coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to all those who are engaged in violence to give up that violence and join a political process. There is strong support for that across the Arab world, particularly in the middle east. We need to give that process every possible support and send a clear message to the Taliban: whether it is our troops or Afghan troops who are there, the Taliban will not win on the battlefield. They never win on the battlefield, and now it is time for a political settlement to give the country a chance for peaceful progress.

I, too, echo the Prime Minister’s tribute—as do other Members across the House—to our brave men and women who are asked to make sacrifices on a daily basis to keep our country safe and ensure a peaceful Afghanistan. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, despite those tragic events, ISAF will remain in Afghanistan in one form or another for as long as it takes to complete the mission for a safe, secure and stable Afghanistan, with the Afghan people taking responsibility for their own security?

We have a clear timetable, which is all about transitioning parts of Afghanistan to Afghan security control, to allow our troops to move into the background and eventually out of the country. In Helmand itself, where we have been for all these years—one of the toughest parts of Afghanistan—Lashkar Gah, the effective capital, is now controlled by Afghan forces. The process is ongoing. I believe it can be properly completed by the end of 2014, so that we leave in a proper and orderly fashion, handing over to Afghan troops. Let us be clear: the relationship between Britain and other countries and Afghanistan will go on. It will be a relationship of military training, of diplomacy, of support, of aid and help for that country. We must learn the lesson of the past, which is what a mistake it was to turn away from Afghanistan.

Q2. The Prime Minister’s Business Secretary says of the Government’s action on economic growth:“Our actions are, frankly, rather piecemeal.”Does the Prime Minister agree? (98315)

Obviously, I do not agree with that. What this Government are doing is cutting corporation tax, investing in apprenticeships, building enterprise zones, making sure that right across our economy the rebalancing is taking place that is necessary for sustained economic growth.

Q3. My constituents have to wait longer to get a hospital appointment than they would in England, they are five times less likely to get certain cancer drugs than they are in England, and if they get to hospital, they are twice as likely to get an infection as they are in England. Does this prove to the Prime Minister that we cannot trust Labour with the NHS? (98316)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that, if you look at the NHS in Wales, it shows what happens if we do not put in the resources—the money—because the resources are being cut in Wales, and also if we do not reform the NHS to make sure that there is a proper chance for people to get the treatments they need. There is not the cancer drugs fund in Wales, there are much longer waiting times, and there are much longer waiting lists, and that is an example of what happens without the money and without the reform.

Q4. The Prime Minister is proud of his welfare reforms. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Can he look me in the eye and tell me he is proud of the decision to remove all disability benefits from a 10-year-old child who can hardly walk and who cannot toilet herself because she has cerebral palsy? Is he truly proud? (98317)

This Government are not cutting the money that is going into disability benefits. We are replacing disability living allowance with the personal independence payment. As someone who has actually filled out the form for disability allowance and had a child with cerebral palsy, I know how long it takes to fill in that form. We are going to have a proper medical test so that people who are disabled and need that help get it more quickly.

Order. I say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) that he will stay silent. That sort of noise is not acceptable in this forum.

On Friday, PC Trevor Hall and PCSO Claire Miller, two of the best from Warwickshire police, came to see me about the life-threatening effects of a new legal high called black mamba on the life of a 13-year-old in my constituency. I am informed that black mamba is the latest legal high being sold on our streets in the UK. Now that we have regulations that allow us to act swiftly to ban potentially dangerous legal highs, will my right hon. Friend act on this substance immediately and—

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who should resume his seat. The question is too long.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We are determined to stamp out these so-called legal highs. The Home Office is aware of this particular drug. We now have the drugs early warning system which brings these things to our attention, but as he says, a decision needs swiftly to be made and I will make sure that happens.

Tim Howes is a delivery driver from Dartford. He is a married father of three and the sole earner in his family. He currently works 20 hours a week. From next month, under the Prime Minister’s proposals, unless he works 24 hours a week he will lose all his working tax credit, some £60 a week. He says:

“I have approached my employer to possibly increase my hours but I have been told there simply aren’t the hours there. I would love to work full-time.”

What is the Prime Minister’s advice to Tim Howes?

First, let me set the context for this—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I will answer the question very directly, but we need to reform the tax credits system because we have a massive budget deficit. When we came to office, tax credits were going to nine out of 10 families, including people right up the income scale, including Members of Parliament. What our changes do, in terms of this specific case, is deal with the basic unfairness that we ask a single parent to work 16 hours before getting access to the tax credit system, so it is only right to say to couples that between them they should work 24 hours—that is, 12 hours each. If that is the case, and they do that, they will be better off.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that that answer is no use to Mr Howes and his family. He cannot find the extra hours and so will lose his—[Interruption.] The Defence Secretary shouts from a sedentary position, “What about his wife?” Let me tell him that his wife is looking after their three school-age children and cannot find hours that are consistent with that. Tim Howes and 200,000 couples will lose as a result of this. Before the election, the Prime Minister said in the TV debates that for Labour

“to say that actually the changes we’re making would hit low income families is simply not true.”

Why has he broken that promise?

We have increased the child tax credit that goes to the poorest families in our country. To answer the right hon. Gentleman very directly, when we say to a single parent that they have to work 16 hours to get access to the tax credits system, I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask a couple to work an average of 12 hours each. That is what we are asking. In a way, this relates to a bigger picture. We have a massive budget deficit. If he is not going to support the welfare cap, the housing benefit cap, cuts to legal aid or cuts to tax credits, how on earth would he deal with the deficit?

In case the Prime Minister did not realise this, in Dartford, where the Howes family live, five people are chasing every vacancy. It is just not good enough for him to say, “Well, they should go out to work.” If they cannot find the work, they will find that they are better off on benefits than in work because of the Prime Minister’s changes, which is something he said he wanted to avoid. It is also about this matter of trust. He made a clear promise, just like he made a clear promise on child benefit. Before the election, he said:

“I’m not going to flannel you. I’m going to give it to you straight. I like the child benefit. I wouldn’t change child benefit. I wouldn’t means-test it. I don’t think that is a good idea.”

We have already established that he has broken his promise to low-income families. Why has he broken his promise to middle-income families, too?

Here we go: another change the right hon. Gentleman does not support. He seems to think that people on—[Interruption.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that people earning £25,000 should pay for his child benefit? I do not agree with that. We have to make savings, so not giving child benefit to the wealthiest 15% of families in our country—of course it is a difficult decision. Life is about difficult decisions. Government is about difficult decisions. It is a pity that he is just not capable of taking one.

First of all, we are talking about families on £43,000 a year. Secondly, it is no good the Prime Minister saying that he now supports the principle that people on high incomes should not get child benefit, because before the election he supported the opposite principle and said quite clearly to families up and down this country, “I’m not going to take away your child benefit.” In my book there is a very simple word for that: a broken promise—it is a broken promise by this Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “That’s two.”] They are right: there are two broken promises. The reality is that lower-income families are losing their tax credits and middle-income families are losing their child benefit. Does the Prime Minister understand why people just do not believe him when he says, “We’re all in this together”?

I think that it is time the right hon. Gentleman listened to his own shadow Chief Secretary, who said that

“we must ensure we pass the test of fiscal credibility. If we don’t get this right, it doesn’t matter what we say about anything else.”

She is absolutely right. Reducing our deficit takes tough decisions. He has opposed every single cut. He has opposed the welfare cap, the housing benefit cap and legal aid cuts. It is no wonder that when people dial up a radio phone-in and eventually work out who he is, they all say the same thing: he is not remotely up to the job.

Following last week’s statement on the use of wild animals in circuses, can the Prime Minister inform the House whether a ban will be introduced in this Parliament and before the next general election?

I do want to see a ban introduced. It is the overwhelming opinion of Members in this House. We are putting in place a regulatory scheme in the short term, but my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary made it absolutely clear that it is our intention to introduce a ban in full as well.

Q6. Today, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee published a major report on consumer debt. Last November R3 reported that 60% of people were worried about debt and 3.5 million were considering payday loans. In the year since the Government concluded their consultation, no action has been announced. Will the Prime Minister commit to act now to protect vulnerable families, or will he accept that he is simply out of touch with the financial reality facing them as a result of his policies? (98320)

I think, as the last exchange just proved, we are worried about debt. The whole country needs to be worried about debt, and the problem is that the Labour party does not seem to understand that there is a debt problem. There has been a debt problem in our economy, there is also a debt problem for many households, and we do need to make sure that they get help. That is why we are making sure that citizens advice bureaux continue to get help, as they are one of the most important services for helping families in that way.

Q7. The coalition agreement contains many bold and brilliant proposals to give Britain the change that we need: open primaries, a bonfire of the quangos, and radical localism. Sometimes, however, progress has been a little slower than some of us on the Government Benches would have hoped: sometimes the radicalism has been ever so slightly blunted. Is that because of the constraints of coalition, or because of the Whitehall machine? (98321)

It was good to have such a helpful start from my hon. Friend. I think that this Government have done a number of radical things, right across the board, whether it is welfare reform to make sure that it always pays to work, education reform to give greater independence to our schools, or tax reform to give us competitive tax rates. Of course I always want us to go further and faster. I do not blame the Whitehall machine; in the end the politicians must always take responsibility.

My constituent James Toner was arrested in Goa almost three years ago on drugs charges. He was subsequently released when it turned out that the police officers who arrested him were themselves under investigation for corruption. He has spent the past 22 months in legal limbo, his passport has been confiscated, he cannot travel, he cannot work and he does not even know when his case is going to go to court. Does the Prime Minister agree that justice delayed is justice denied, and will he make sure that a Foreign Office Minister meets me urgently to discuss the case of my constituent?

I will certainly do that. It is very important that the hon. Gentleman and others feel that they can stand up for their constituents on the other side of the world who are being treated in this way, and that we can take up these cases. The work of Fair Trials International and other organisations is very important in that respect, and I shall make sure that the Foreign Office meets him soon.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the project that is starting a pilot in my constituency in September, funded by the private sector, the London borough of Redbridge, and various charities, and in congratulating also the co-chairs, Richard and Philippa Mintz, and the inter-faith group on their work to get young people with special needs into employment? (98322)

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in supporting that project. It is important that we help children with special needs through not only their schooling time but that transition after school and into college, and then try to help them to find work. It sounds like this is an excellent project that deserves his support.

Is it true:

“The problem is that policy is being run by two public school boys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care either”?

Those are not my words, but the words of a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries).

I would have thought that, coming from the north-east, the hon. Lady should be celebrating the fact that Nissan is going to build its new car in Britain—instead of whatever nonsense it was that she read out.

Q9. May I add my personal tributes to our fallen? On Monday, Clare’s law came into being. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to meet me and Sergeant Carney-Haworth to learn at first hand how his team’s groundbreaking initiative in Devonport, Operation Encompass, is helping to make sure that children in my Sutton and Devonport constituency grow up in an area where there is no longer any domestic violence? (98323)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this constituency issue and to do so this week, when tomorrow we have international women’s day. The move that has been made on Clare’s law is important; it is a breakthrough to give women this information if they seek it. I want us to follow that by looking into a specific offence of stalking. I want us to continue to support the rape crisis centres, as we are under this Government, and to make sure that we act on domestic violence right across the board.